What We Missed

Things got worse. The Syrian civil war, in its fifth year, got more complicated – as if a major global refugee crisis and the rise of the Islamic State weren’t enough. Now Russia has jumped in. Putin will go after ISIS – good for him – and go after the guys we’re supporting in their effort to get rid of Assad – which is a terrible thing. We have called for Assad to go for years. Putin wants to keep him there. Putin is helping with ISIS and is our enemy, bombing our guys, the locals trying to oust Assad. Putin is our ally and our enemy, both at the same time. But we should do something about him, right?

That’s what people seem to be saying, when they’re not talking about this week’s school massacre and guns, or the total collapse of the Republican Party, or Donald Trump. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman captured that:

Today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.

Our pride is hurt, and at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum sees that as nonsense:

Every time Putin does something, Republicans start wailing about how he’s taking charge, showing what a real leader does while Obama meekly sits back and does nothing. They assume that military action always shows strength, while avoiding military action always shows weakness. That’s just crazy. Let’s take a quick survey of the real situation here:

Syria is the last ally Russia has left in the Middle East. Putin didn’t suddenly increase his military support of Assad as a show of brilliant grand strategy. He did it because he was in danger of losing his very last client state in the Middle East. This is a desperate gamble to hold on to at least a few shreds of influence there.

The benefits of getting further entangled in Syria are…what? Russia may be concerned about Syria becoming a breeding ground for terrorists who then make their way up to Russia. But that’s about it. Putin isn’t going to win Syria’s civil war, and Assad will become a bottomless pit of demands for more military support. Aside from winning the admiration of American conservatives, it’s hard to see Putin getting anything of real worth out of this.

The same is true of the United States. There has never been a cohesive “moderate opposition” that would have ousted Assad if only we had supported them earlier…

We’ll just have to live with this:

The United States doesn’t have the power to fix the Middle East. We can nudge here and there, but that’s about all. … Obama may have caused some of his own problems by talking a bigger game than he’s willing to play, but he’s still right not to play. If Vladimir Putin is so afraid of losing his last foothold in the Middle East that he’s willing to make a reckless and expensive gamble in the Syrian quagmire, let him. It’s an act of peevishness and fear, not of brilliant geopolitical gamesmanship. For ourselves, the better part of wisdom is to stay out. Modest action would be useless, and our national interest simply isn’t strong enough to justify a major intervention.

Still, we should have seen this coming, and we didn’t:

Among the first clues that Russia was mobilizing for a military offensive in Syria were requests Moscow began making in mid-August for permission to cross other countries’ territory with more and larger aircraft.

“We were getting the word the Russians were asking for inordinate overflights,” a senior Obama administration official said, referring to reports from U.S. allies receiving the requests. Russia was seeking clearance for not only cargo planes but also “fighter aircraft and bombers” that Syrian pilots had never been trained to fly, the official said. “It was clear that something pretty big was up.”

But despite that early suspicion – which only intensified as Russia then deployed fighter jets and teams of military advisers – the United States seemed to be caught flat-footed by the barrage of airstrikes that Moscow launched last week.

The Obama administration blew it:

“It seems to me there’s some kind of gap or disconnect between the intelligence side and the policy and operational side” on Syria, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who tracks the Syria conflict at the Washington Institute. Amid Russia’s buildup “we actually saw quite well what was going on – equipment was tracked,” White said, “and then there was some kind of failure to read what the implications of that were.”

Oops. In the Christian Science Monitor, Anna Mulrine reports on what that led to:

When top United States officials on Friday announced the end – they preferred to call it an “operational pause” – to the unsuccessful effort to train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting against the Islamic State, there was the slightest bit of a wink and a nudge.

“We’re actually going after the Islamic State, which Russia is not doing,” a senior administration official told reporters. In propping up Syria’s Assad regime, he said, Russia risks getting itself “immersed in a quagmire.”

It is surely cathartic to use the word “quagmire” about someone else. US officials see Russia as getting itself involved in its own Iraq War – or more accurately, a reprise of its disastrous intervention into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yet that doesn’t necessarily make the situation on the ground any better for the US military.

“If we’re joking about Russians getting dragged into the quagmire, well, we’re in there, too,” notes Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

We’re in there too, and in second place:

Behind the scenes, US military intelligence and operations specialists are grappling with a training mission that “isn’t working,” ethnic divisions that are growing, and a government in Iraq that cannot exert a unifying force on the country, he adds. And now, Russia is essentially calling the shots in Syria. In many ways, the past few days have shown dramatically that Russia’s options to get what it wants in Syria are far better than the US options.

Will that be to Russia’s long-term gain? That is far from certain. But in the short term, it makes some former Defense officials uneasy.

“The terms are being dictated by the Russians.” says Christopher Harmer, former deputy director of operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “They have 30 aircraft flying in Syria. We have far more than that. They should not be dictating to us, we should be dictating to them.”

And that’s not happening:

The Russian military has established a forward operating base in Syria which consists of 2,000 to 3,000 Russian troops, as well as combat aircraft, helicopters, drones, and a battalion of troops, retired Gen. John Keane, now with the Institute for the Study of War, warned in congressional testimony Thursday.

While one Pentagon official told the Daily Beast this week that he greeted the announced intelligence cooperation between Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia “with pretty much a yawn,” Dr. Cordesman of CSIS argues that the cooperation “creates all kinds of complications for the US presence.”

While the Russians are consolidating their allies in the Mideast behind the Syria war, the US has not consolidated its anti-Assad allies, choosing instead to try to avoid a quagmire and focus on the Islamic State.

The Russians are consolidating their allies, and that just became obvious:

The death of a top Iranian military commander in Syria this week has dealt a “psychological blow” to elements backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The killing of a commander in the Revolutionary Guards Corps at the hands of ISIS also highlights the extent of Iranian involvement in Syria and the dire straits in which Assad finds himself, Washington-based analysts say.

Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani was killed outside Aleppo, Syria, where he was advising the Syrian army in its fight against extremists, Iranian state media reported Friday.

Iran’s top general is now dead, and we’re hanging back, but there is even more to this:

Iran has become increasingly public about its aid to Syria’s government, at first not disclosing flights to Syria in 2012 which Washington believed to be full of advisers and weapons. Now, however, Iranian officials praise their officers for assisting and advising Syrian regime forces.

“It’s harder for the Iranians to hide when it’s someone like that who has real visibility,” said Dennis Ross, former adviser on Iran to President Barack Obama.

But no one is hiding anything:

“The fact that you have a senior Iranian general shows both the desperation of the regime, as well as now the degree of Iranian involvement now in Syria,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tabler says he believes Iran was instrumental in bringing Russia into a coalition to come to the regime’s aid — and planning a two-tiered military comeback campaign to do it.

“Iran and their Shia militias, and Hezbollah, are the ground component to Russia’s air involvement,” he said.

“While most attention seems to have been focused on Russian intervention in the last week or so in Syria,” he continued, “actually it is combined with a giant Iranian offensive that was planned months ago with the Russians – and that is unfolding.”

How did we miss that? Why does Russia even care about Assad and Syria? Is Putin simply trying to make Obama look bad, and Syria was available for that, at this moment? John McCain and Donald Trump seem to say that all the time – Putin is out to show up Obama (and America) – that’s all there is to it.

That’s the easy analysis, and the lazy one. There’s history, and there are historians like Simon Sebag Montefiore – he does brilliant work – and he suggests taking the long view:

In June 1772, Russian forces bombarded, stormed and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria. The Russians were backing their ally, a ruthless Arab despot. When they returned the next year, they occupied Beirut for almost six months. Then as now, they found Syrian politics a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.

Today, President Vladimir V. Putin has many motives in Syria, but we should keep in mind Russia’s vision of its traditional mission in the Middle East, and how it informs the Kremlin’s thinking. And not just the Kremlin: Russia’s Orthodox Church spokesman said that Mr. Putin’s intervention was part of “the special role our country has always played in the Middle East.”

Russia’s ties to the region are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – hence “czars.” The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world, which, including the Holy Places of Jerusalem, were ruled by the Ottomans after 1517.

This has been going on a long time:

Russia’s first major intervention began in 1768, when Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottomans, and Count Alexei Orlov, the brother of her lover Grigory, sailed the Baltic fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar to rally rebellions in the Mediterranean. Recruiting Scottish admirals, Orlov annihilated the Ottoman fleet at Chesme, after which Russians temporarily dominated the eastern Mediterranean. …

They left in 1774, when Russia dropped its Syrian allies in return for Ottoman concessions over Ukraine and Crimea. Yet a Russian Mediterranean base was now a strategic aim: Catherine and her partner Prince Potemkin annexed Crimea, where they founded a Black Sea fleet, then tried to negotiate a base on Minorca.

Catherine’s successors saw themselves as crusaders, with Russia destined to rule Constantinople and Jerusalem. Ultimately it was this aspiration – and a brawl over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, between Russian-backed Orthodox and French-backed Catholic priests – that led to the Crimean War.

Russian defeat in 1856 persuaded Alexander II and the last czars to back off on using military force to dominate Jerusalem, preferring diplomacy and soft power. But during World War I Russian forces occupied northern Persia and invaded Ottoman Iraq, nearly taking Baghdad. In 1916, Nicholas II’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, negotiated the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Treaty, which promised Russia Istanbul, sections of Turkey and Kurdistan, and a share of Jerusalem – a Near Eastern empire foiled by the Bolshevik Revolution.

But there may be a straight line here:

At Potsdam in 1945, Stalin demanded a “trusteeship” over Tripolitania, Libya, and later recognized Israel, hoping in both cases to gain a Mediterranean base. He was rebuffed, but the Cold War made Russia a Middle Eastern power, backing Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt with 50,000 Soviet advisers.

Until the recent intervention, the closest Russia came to fighting was the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970, during which Soviet pilots dueled with Israelis. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, expelled the Russians, they cultivated a trio of dictators, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. All three, running merciless, dynastic-Mafia regimes behind the facade of socialistic parties, central planning and Stalinesque cults of personality, took quickly to their new benefactors: General Assad and Colonel Qaddafi were regularly photographed in moist fraternal hugs with the Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. And General Assad, trained as a pilot in Russia, granted Moscow access to its Tartus naval base, now its last asset in the region.

General Assad’s son now runs Syria, so Putin wants his Middle East back:

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian influence collapsed and Moscow came to bitterly resent the Western interventions that destroyed Mr. Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi. American retreat from the region grants Mr. Putin, who sees himself in an unbroken tradition of Russian personal leadership and imperial-national power from the czars to today, the opportunity to diminish American prestige and project Russia as indispensable world arbiter. The rescue of Mr. Assad’s son Bashar, while fighting the opposition and Islamic State, dovetails with Russia’s struggle against Chechen jihadis who flock to the black caliphal banners – and success will bring leverage in Iran and Turkey, where Russia once had muscle.

Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottomans. That was their empire, damn it!

There’s nothing new here. We shouldn’t have been surprised, and what the hell are we doing there anyway?

Maybe we’re trying to stop the next World War. Fred Kaplan – who wrote The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War and 1959: The Year Everything Changed (it wasn’t 1968 of course) – also turns to history:

Watching the events cascading in Syria makes it eerily easy to see how the political elites of 1914 stumbled into World War I while believing they were pursuing a sensible set of national interests. …

Like the Europe of 101 years ago, the Middle East today is a tinderbox, with plenty of kindling supplied by the combination of weak regimes, millenarian militias, and freelance rebels of various persuasion, each faction backed (or directly armed and aided) by larger powers, some engaged in proxy wars, others drawn in for converging motives while trying to resist the centripetal pull of deeper involvement (with diminishing success). It doesn’t require a wild imagination to envision the lighting of a match – some contemporary counterpart to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

After all, all the elements are falling into place:

President Obama stepped up airstrikes against ISIS one year ago, with the intent of focusing the effort in Iraq (which had a quasi-allied government and a familiar array of military commanders) while putting Syria (which had neither) on the back burner. When this plan proved infeasible (because ISIS was rooted in Syria), he started training and equipping some “moderate” rebels, if just so he could tell the region’s Sunni leaders that he was doing something about Syria. This approach backfired when these U.S.-trained rebels were pummeled on the battlefield, and it may have backfired further this week, when Russian cruise missiles destroyed a weapons depot of a CIA-funded rebel force in southern Syria. All of this puts Obama in a spot. Does he back away or go into wait-and-see mode to avoid the escalating the conflict, or does he rise to the challenge by pouring more resources into a mission that he’s never seen as particularly vital? The first choice risks alienating allies, who clamor for more tangible commitment from America (while, in some cases, shirking from seeing their own boys bloodied); the second risks inciting a war with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent planes, tanks, and possibly “volunteer” troops, in recent weeks, to help shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his only politico-military ally outside the former Soviet Union. In recent days, he has gone further and launched cruise missiles – 26 of them just on Wednesday – from ships 1,000 miles away, in the Caspian Sea, reportedly hitting not only a few ISIS targets but also some of the “moderate” rebel groups that the United States and other countries in the region have been supporting.

But Putin, who is often portrayed as a strategic wizard (by some American columnists and legislators, no less avidly than by his own PR teams), may be digging himself in a hole as well. On a merely technical level, the Russian military hasn’t conducted prolonged air-to-ground operations for many years, and there’s some evidence it doesn’t know how. CNN reported Thursday (and a senior administration official confirmed to me) that four Russian cruise missiles crashed in Iranian territory on their way to Syria. It is unknown as yet how many of the other 22 actually hit their targets inside Syria and how many veered a quarter-mile or so off course. (Some of their missiles have primitive guidance systems compared with the most advanced satellite-guided U.S. models.) Will some Russian missile, perhaps one launched tomorrow, crash into an American base in Iraq? Then what?

Don’t ask, but consider this:

Besides protecting Assad’s regime or strengthening Russia’s foothold in Syria so that it plays a role in picking a successor if Assad himself is somehow ousted, it’s unclear what Putin is up to. Given the state of Russia’s military technology (about a decade behind ours), its inexperience at high-tempo combat operations, and its inability to send many ground troops (conscripts are out of the question, and special-ops forces may be weary from, or still based in, eastern Ukraine), Putin probably can’t keep this up for very long. Some regional specialists predict his airstrikes will be counterproductive, rousing more jihadis to the battlefield – and possibly radicalizing the “moderate” rebels whose outposts they’ve damaged.

Then again, it’s not entirely clear what the United States is up to, either. … The Obama administration’s broad aim is to defeat ISIS while imposing diplomatic and military pressures that might lead to Assad’s ouster from power and a transition to a new Syrian government that doesn’t kill its own people. The problem is that it’s very hard to achieve one of these goals – and practically (perhaps logically) impossible to do both.

The best you can do is to keep someone from shooting Archduke Ferdinand:

Some of Obama’s critics decry his resistance to military entanglements that might escalate out of control. But in a region where so much is beyond anyone’s control, and where so many armed factions have converging and conflicting interests with one another, a resistant president is far preferable to one whose first instinct is to assert American power with unjustified bravado – or to view Russia’s recent steps through a Cold War lens. However imperial Putin’s swagger might seem, the Soviet empire is long kaput. Syria is the only country outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a solid military ally and something of a base – and Putin had to move in with force because it was on the verge of collapse.

At the same time, the West, including the United States, can’t afford to view the Syrian conflict as an obscure, intractable blood feud that it would be best to ignore. A case might have been made for this position several months ago, but can’t be made now given that four million Syrians have sought refuge – and sparked a humanitarian, economic, and political crisis—throughout Europe. Some of these millions are fleeing Assad, some are fleeing ISIS, but most are simply fleeing war.

And there’s a good chance someone will do something stupid, and then all parties will line up on one side or the other and have at it. It’s happened before. Lots of stuff has happened before.

What did we miss? We missed all that had actually happened in the past. Those who forget history aren’t doomed to repeat it. They’re going to get themselves killed.

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The Amazing Disappearing Republican Party

California has given us lots of things – the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee, the Beach Boys and then Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, and then Laurel Canyon mellow, and the Bakersfield Sound too – Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and those guys – and skateboards and Steve Jobs and all the Apple gizmos, and Google and Facebook and whatnot. California is where what’s new and next starts, and of course California gave us the Amazing Disappearing Republican Party.

That happened here first. Republicans simply disappeared in California, the state that gave America both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. It may be that electing Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor was the last straw, but probably not. Ronald Reagan had been a second-rate actor too, but Reagan had done his homework. He had ideas about government – rather bad ideas as it turned out, but ideas nonetheless. Schwarzenegger had attitude, and attitude is not policy – but the party had made a mess of things long before he came along. Prop 13 made it so no one’s property taxes ever went up until the pleasant little ranch house changed ownership. Never sell your house and you’ll be fine – and this decimated the tax base. State revenue then depended on state income taxes and the sales tax – highly volatile, as economic downturns meant no steady revenue and thus big cuts to everything. That happens when income disappears and no one’s buying anything. The schools and roads and social services fell apart.

That wasn’t a brilliant Republican idea, and then, in 1994, Pete Wilson managed to ram through a referendum that cut off even basic emergency services for immigrants, and the Hispanic vote was lost to the Republicans forever. What Pete Wilson did was intentionally mean-spirited, a way for angry and panicked white folks to register their contempt and spite. They did, and it went downhill from there. We voted the bums out. The voters had had enough. They voted in Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, so the Republicans could do no more than sputter and fume, and brought back Jerry Brown as governor again – a guy who actually knows a thing or two about policy. The state is finally in the black now, actually funding the schools and fixing the roads and repairing the Republican damage. The Republicans went into hiding.

Then things got nasty. In a long 2012 New York Times analysis of the situation, there was this paragraph:

“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”

The party turned inward. They were done in the state, and the question is whether this will happen nationally, and that question has been answered:

The infamously fractious House Republican Conference sank deeper into chaos Thursday after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew his bid to replace John A. Boehner as speaker, a stunning move that left the party scrambling to find a new leader and deeply uncertain about how to effectively manage the House.

McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his surprise decision at a meeting of House Republicans who gathered to select their candidate for speaker ahead of the official floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29. McCarthy was widely expected to win the support of his colleagues.

Instead he emerged to declare: “We need a fresh face.” McCarthy said at a news conference that he did not want to burden his members with a tough vote for speaker.

It seems the party turned inward, although McCarthy was prone to saying dumb things:

McCarthy’s candidacy to succeed the retiring Boehner (R-Ohio) was damaged in recent days by a public gaffe – a television interview in which he seemed to suggest that the Select Committee on Benghazi, the panel assembled by Republicans to investigate the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya, was intended to damage Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential poll numbers.

“Well, that wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better,” McCarthy acknowledged after dropping out of the race.

But that wasn’t it:

On the eve of Thursday’s planned vote, a group of 30 to 40 of the chamber’s most conser­vative members, known as the Freedom Caucus, significantly changed the dynamics of the race by promising to throw its weight behind low-profile Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) over McCarthy.

The move had jeopardized McCarthy’s chances to lock up the speakership on the floor, where he could not afford to lose more than 29 Republican votes if he wanted to win without Democratic support. In McCarthy’s place, they pledged to push for one of their own, a hard-liner on fiscal and social issues.

That would be someone who would shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding, and refuse to raise the debt limit, even if that would start a worldwide economic collapse as we slowly stopped paying our debts and all US Treasury Bonds because worthless. That would be someone who was tough, willing to cause misery and chaos unless the Freedom Caucus got what it wanted – repeal of Obamacare, or getting rid of the EPA or the Department of Education, or deporting eleven million workers who sneaked into America, or whatever it was this week. They wanted a speaker who would compromise on nothing. If you have the power to ruin everything, use that power, damn it!

That called for MSNBC to trot out Steve Schmidt:

Asked by breaking news anchor Brian Williams what he made of the story, Schmidt began with an analogy about there being “two types of political parties just like there’s two types of churches” as “there’s the type of church that hunts heretics and the type of church that seeks converts” with the GOP now firmly falling into the latter camp “of hunting heretics.”

And he worries about his party:

“We are focused on kicking out people who through some prism are deemed to be impure. So, it’s a big moment here. … I think also today, you have an astronomically greater likelihood now of government shut downs, of possible default on the full faith and credit of the United States. So, this will – this will have pretty profound implications for a party that is seeking the White House after having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections.”

He knows what happened in California. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is from California, from Bakersfield, one of the last of the Republican enclaves out here, the congressional district that also gave us Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, but not in office. As goes California, so goes America.

This is not good, and Chris Cillizza surveys the damage:

The tendency in the after-action reporting on McCarthy’s stunning collapse – and, make no mistake, it is stunning – will be to pinpoint a single reason for it. Among the popular ones: rumors of personal problems, an inability to win over the more conservative members of his conference, and his recent flub when talking about the Benghazi select committee.

But, those single-issue theories all miss the broader point here: There is a revolution happening within the Republican Party right now. The establishment’s hold on power is more tenuous than it has been at any time in recent memory. There is no one currently in office that can claim with any credibility that he or she speaks “for” the party as a whole.

That’s a remarkable development since, for decades, the GOP was known as the party that, eventually, got in line. As in: Republicans tended to nominate the guy for president who was perceived as the runner-up the last time around. And, they might grumble but they eventually acceded to the wishes of congressional leaders like Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert. The Democrats were always the rebellious party; the GOP was the follow-the-rules party.

No longer. McCarthy’s demise comes hard on the heels of Boehner bowing out of the speakership as a sort of human sacrifice to the tea party right. And it happens as Donald Trump is in the midst of his fourth consecutive month as the Republican front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination – and with Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, two other people who have never held elected office before, running in second and third place, respectively.

Given all of that, it never made any sense for McCarthy to move up to speaker… In a party whose base is sending a clear message that they are sick and tired of the status quo, the idea of simply moving each member of leadership up a slot was insane.

Instead, the party decided to purge the heretics:

The argument for McCarthy – when weighed against the anger and passion against the establishment coursing through the base – was feeble. The members like him! He texts them on their birthdays! He’s been to their districts! Dick Cheney endorsed him! None of that was a match for the fundamental belief – within the base and among Republican politicians trying to channel that base – that McCarthy was part of the problem, not the solution. He was doomed to have an ending like this – no matter the extenuating personal circumstances that might have also influenced the lack of support for him.

If you are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich, what happened on Thursday in Washington should put a lump in your throat. The Republican establishment has been operating for months – really since the rise of Trump – under a belief that, eventually, things will return to “normal” and that the party will put forward an establishment candidate for president. That was the same wrong-headed thinking I heard constantly in the run-up to today’s speaker vote: Yeah, sure, conservatives weren’t sold on McCarthy, but the alternatives weren’t any good or serious, and so he would win. Nope.

This threat to the establishment from the conservative activist base is real. … But, I also think that the possibility exists that the establishment doesn’t have the ability to put down this revolution. Which is an amazing thing to ponder as the country gets ready to elect a new president…

Karen Tumulty puts that this way:

Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party.

The most powerful and crippling force at work in the once-hierarchical GOP is anger, directed as much at its own leaders as anywhere else.

First, a contingent of several dozen conservative House members effectively forced Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) to resign rather than face a possibly losing battle to hold on to his job. Now they have claimed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who had been considered the favorite to replace Boehner until he announced Thursday that he is dropping out of the race.

With no obvious replacement for Boehner in sight, “it is total confusion, a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “Any plan, anything you anticipate – who knows what’ll happen? People are crying. They don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all.”

They’re crying for a reason:

Parallel currents of rage and chaos have been roiling the 2016 presidential race, diminishing hopes that an eventual nominee can bring order and direction to the increasingly dysfunctional party.

Initially, GOP elders believed that their primary would be a showcase for a cast of well-regarded senators and governors, current and former. They were confident it would be an appealing contrast to the quirky group of GOP candidates who had run in 2012, and to the Democratic contest, where Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to be cruising to the nomination.

But government experience has become a liability for Republicans, rather than a credential. Celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, the leader in every poll, has rallied the conservative base by mocking the entire GOP establishment as weak and feckless. Many of the other candidates have followed his lead.

“You know Kevin McCarthy is out, you know that, right?” Trump crowed to a crowd of about 1,500 in Las Vegas, “They’re giving me a lot of credit for that, because I said you really need somebody very, very tough – and very smart.”

The former Republican Party is over. This may be the day it disappeared:

For all their gains on the state and local level, Republicans are deepening the problems that have cost them the popular vote in all but one of the last six presidential elections. The divisive and exclusionary rhetoric of their 2016 contenders has hit a chord with primary voters – Trump, for instance, has made a series of insulting comments about women and immigrants – but threatens to further alienate key groups of voters in an increasingly diverse country.

Out here, in 1994, Pete Wilson championed a referendum that cut off even basic emergency services for immigrants, and the Hispanic vote was lost to the Republicans forever – something intentionally mean-spirited, a way for angry and panicked white folks to register their contempt and spite. They did. The Republican Party died out here. Trump’s call for a big wall and his immediate deportation of eleven million Hispanics is the same sort of thing, but it’s more than that:

There are institutional forces at work as well that make it more difficult for the party to bring itself into anything resembling a formation. Junior members of Congress no longer have to seek the favor of more senior ones to rise through the ranks. Modern media has given them the power to play to a national audience – as presidential contender and first-term senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has demonstrated in the Senate.

In July, Cruz went so far as to call Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a liar on the floor of the Senate. Such a breach of decorum would have been unthinkable in earlier times, but it has burnished Cruz’s image with the conservative base.

Changes in campaign finance laws have made the parties themselves less powerful and ideologically driven outside groups more so. In the presidential race, the Republican National Committee set up a process aimed at making the nomination more orderly than in 2012 by compressing the calendar of state primaries and caucuses and allowing fewer debates.

That strategy may have backfired. Given the size of the Republican field – 14 candidates at the latest count – the new party-imposed order may actually have made it more difficult for any of the more mainstream candidates to overtake outsiders Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

Now almost every candidate has a single billionaire sponsor, except for Trump, who is a billionaire. The party can’t do much about that. It seems the party can’t do much, period.

Slate’s Jim Newell sees the problem:

Who now? The most obvious name at first was Rep. Paul Ryan: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, 2012 vice presidential candidate, and author of the Obama-era conservative budget blueprints. So obvious was Ryan as a candidate for Great Unifier that he immediately had to put out a statement saying, Oh God, no, no, no, never, ever, ever. Boehner is reportedly still working desperately to get him to change his mind. But why would he want to leave his powerful committee chairmanship to take America’s Worst Job?

And he might not get the job:

Since Democrats have decided to let Republicans resolve this leadership dispute by themselves – and are enjoying what they see – it’s apparently going to take 218 out of 247 Republican votes to elect a speaker. That candidate, whoever he or she is, will need the support of the House Freedom Caucus and its few dozen members who vote as a bloc.

Heading into Thursday’s canceled vote, Freedom Caucus members had endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster – as a means of leverage. They claimed to be willing to vote for McCarthy on the floor if he would meet their demands, which included just about everything up to and including weekly foot rubs. Rep. Dave Brat, who defeated then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary and apparently feels it’s his place to rule the country as a freshman backbencher, said the Freedom Caucus wants changes in “rules, policy, process” and wants that “on paper ahead of time,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday night.

Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp “said he asked McCarthy to make a public statement opposing efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other establishment-oriented groups to oppose conservative Republican incumbents who have broken with GOP leadership,” according to the Post. It takes some chutzpah for Tea Partiers – who live to bring down “establishment” candidates in primaries – to demand that they be shielded from counter-challenges themselves. And, perhaps most frightening of all for the global economy and those who rely on its continued functioning to “live,” they insist that the next speaker demand concessions in exchange for a hike in the debt ceiling. Credit McCarthy, at least, for stepping aside instead of making promises he couldn’t keep.

Newell also suggests this:

One imagines Ryan, in solitude, sitting by the fire, thinking very statesmanlike thoughts. Such as: Ugh, do I really have to do this dumb job? So should he?


What Ryan certainly would want to avoid is another ambush from the few dozen conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, which effectively vetoed McCarthy’s bid. Sure, he’s supposedly respected by all now. But Tea Partiers are fickle. One day you’re the golden child; the next day you support some compromise bill that they don’t like, and suddenly you’re a left-liberal in cahoots with Obama’s “European-style socialist” agenda.

If Ryan is truly as strong as Boehner and others say he is, he should use that as leverage before giving an answer. House conservatives tried to bully McCarthy into accepting a wish list of unrealistic demands, and when he didn’t agree, he had to step aside. Ryan could – and if he’s shrewd, should – turn the tables. He could make the Freedom Caucus pledge (or better yet, sign a contract in blood) not to ever threaten a coup against him. He could demand that they vote with the leadership on critical budget, appropriations, and debt ceiling bills. They would be barred from going to Tortilla Coast to plot with Sen. Ted Cruz.

It comes down to this:

If conservatives don’t agree to his terms, then Ryan shouldn’t bother. But if they really want him, and agree, he would be doing an enormous favor for his party. And though it is America’s worst job, Speaker of the House Who Saved the Broken Republican Party wouldn’t be such a bad chapter to have in one’s legacy.

That’s better than Pete Wilson’s legacy out here, but Newell does add this:

The only silver lining of McCarthy’s collapse, and all the potential horror that goes with it, is that Boehner has proven himself to be literally irreplaceable as speaker. Boehner himself, who likely has dozens of tee times in the Bahamas reserved for November, can’t be too thrilled with that. But if his service in Washington is extended through the early November debt-ceiling deadline, then he should call up a “clean” debt ceiling increase that takes the country through the 2016 election. What can the House Freedom Caucus do about that? It’s not like they can replace him.

And after that… Everyone knows what comes after that. California is where what’s new and next starts, and of course California gave us the Amazing Disappearing Republican Party. There you go.

Posted in End of the Republican Party, Kevin McCarthy, Republican Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Death Wish

Hollywood is full of liberals because Hollywood is all about fantasy, and out here we know the difference between fantasy and reality. The studios are called dream factories, but they are, really, factories. They’re big and ugly. There’s a cluster of them in the dreary flats south of Hollywood and Vine and the tourists, miles and miles of light industry and warehouses. The old RKO studios are down there, with that sad pastel globe from the old days up on the roof. Joe Kennedy, the president’s father once owned RKO. Howard Hughes owned RKO for a time, but long ago it was folded into Paramount Pictures, the vast complex that surrounds it now. But Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers danced under that globe. That was Rio in Flying Down to Rio. That was London, when it was a lovely day to get caught in the rain. That was fantasy, something to sell to the rubes in existential despair out there in the thirties. Now, what’s left of RKO is surrounded by even larger soundstages – where the bridge of the Enterprise in every Star Trek movie really is, and the Las Vegas casinos in all the Oceans Whatever movies. It’s all fantasy. That’s what Hollywood sells. Your life is dreary? In the dead of the night do you stare at the ceiling and know your life is meaningless? Hollywood can fix that. That’s the business model.

That’s also a personal model. Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, is a tiny little town in the coal country near Johnstown, and on November 3, 1921, Charles Dennis Buchinsky was born there. He grew up there, dirt poor, the eleventh of fifteen children. He was the first in the family to graduate from high school and seems to have decided that he didn’t want a dreary life in the mines. He signed up to fight the Japs. He was a B-29 turret-gunner in the last years of the war, and after we won and there was no more to do, he decided he wanted to be an actor. That was something to do, and he paid his dues in Philadelphia and then New York, one small part after another, until he decided Hollywood was the place to be.

Maybe it was the place to be, but Buchinsky, as a name, just wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, down at Paramount, at Melrose and Bronson, there was that famous Bronson Gate – where the police never could hold back the hundreds of young women trying to catch a glimpse of Rudolph Valentino. That was long ago, but that was cool, so Charles Buchinsky changed his name to Charles Bronson – which was also necessary. In 1954, during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings, his agent told him he had to do something about his Russian-sounding name. There was that Bronson Gate down the street. Why not go with the Valentino fantasy? So he did. Forget Ehrenfeld. There would be no more existential despair.

Bronson’s career took off – he became the tough guy who would do what’s necessary to make things right in role after role. He was no more than a character actor, but an iconic type, always in demand, until he found the perfect lead role in 1974 in Death Wish – now a cult classic. There are those who love righteous-vigilante films, and there have been six sequels and a remake – there’s a large perpetual audience for this sort of thing – and this was the first iteration of the fantasy. It was a counter to despair.

The story is pretty simple. An architect who served in the Korean War in the medical corps, because he was a conscientious objector, living in New York City, finds that three street punks posing as grocery delivery boys broke into his apartment. They beat his wife and raped his married daughter, spray-painting both of them and the wall of their apartment “just for fun.” His wife dies, his daughter is left catatonic, and his boss decides that this guy needs to get out of New York for a while, so he sends him to Tucson – where he sees a Wild West show and gets to know the pleasant local gun enthusiasts, who talk about self-protection and whatnot. He also finds out he’s a damned good shot, and back in New York he soon finds himself watching the city fall apart. The crime wave of the seventies was notorious, so our hero helps out the overwhelmed police. He sees bad guys doing bad things, he shoots them dead. The police are upset, but kind of thankful, and don’t know what to do. They really don’t want to arrest him. They can’t give him a medal. They buy him a ticket to Chicago.

Half of America was appalled by this movie. Half of America loved the fantasy of one righteous man doing what needed to be done when the police and courts and politicians do nothing. Jazz fans loved the Herby Hancock score. Death Wish was a landmark film, even if it was cartoonish crap. It lingers. It set up what the National Rifle Association has been saying since the Newtown massacre of all those school kids – “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” – not cops, not courts, not politicians and policy, not gun laws. Look at Charles Bronson. You’ll understand. It also plays on what the Republicans have been saying since Ronald Reagan – government is kind of useless. Sometimes you just need to grab your gun. That’s the fantasy. This is something to sell to the rubes in existential despair out there.

Out here in Hollywood we know the difference between fantasy and reality. That may not be so in Michigan. Mike Martindale of the Detroit News has the story:

Police responding to a “shots fired” call at a Home Depot store said a customer apparently tried to stop a shoplifter by firing at a fleeing vehicle.

The incident occurred at 2 p.m. at the store on Joslyn, according to a police press release.

A 47- year-old Clarkston woman in the parking lot witnessed one of the store’s loss prevention officers trying to stop a shoplifting suspect getting into a dark colored SUV. The customer – identified as a concealed pistol license holder – reportedly fired shots at the dark-colored SUV as it sped out of the lot.

It’s unknown how many rounds were fired from her 9mm handgun, but police believe she hit and flattened one of the vehicle’s rear tires as it sped off in the direction of Brown Road.

That was odd, but the Supreme Court ruled long ago that the police cannot use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect, unless he (or she) is a danger to the cops’ lives or the lives of others. The police are constrained by laws and things. Civilians aren’t, so this woman was just helping them out, but Ed Kilgore notes the obvious problem here:

Now let’s say you’re another Home Depot customer with a concealed carry license and you didn’t notice the shoplifter but you did notice the other vigilante’s bullets whizzing by your head. Would you pull down on your fellow armed citizen? And if a widespread gun fight broke out in that parking lot, how would the police – you know, sort of auxiliaries to the real crime-fighters in their Fords and their Subaru’s – sort it all out?

That didn’t come up in the Bronson movie. There is fantasy and there is reality, or, as Heather Parton reports, perhaps we can’t tell anymore:

On the stump last week-end, Donald Trump entertained his followers in the wake of the massacre in Oregon with colorful fantasies of him walking down the street, pulling a gun on a would-be assailant and taking him out right there on the sidewalk. He said, “I have a license to carry in New York, can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” at which point he mimes a quick draw…

As the crowd applauds and cheers, he goes on to say “somebody attacks me, oh they’re gonna be shocked. Can you imagine? Somebody says, oh there’s Trump, he’s easy pickins…” And then he pantomimes the quick draw again…

Everybody laughs. And then Trump talks about an old Charles Bronson vigilante movie, and they all chanted the name “Death Wish” together.

This was two days after a troubled man barged into a college classroom and shot seventeen people, but Parton isn’t surprised:

Now Trump is a clown, we know that – a very wealthy celebrity clown who has captured the imagination of millions of people. And if there’s one thing he’s known for, it’s his macho swagger, so this isn’t exactly a shock coming from him. Indeed his entire rap is based on the idea that American leaders are all a bunch of “babies” (although one cannot help but think he has some other words in mind) while he is the manly leader who will take on all the “bad people” including world leaders, ISIS and anyone else who stands in the way of making America great again. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Trump literally packing heat at his next rally and shooting into the air like Yosemite Sam.

That’s unlikely, perhaps, but something is going on here, even with Ben Carson:

If he were president, Ben Carson would not visit Roseburg, Oregon, in the aftermath of last week’s deadly shooting, as President Barack Obama is scheduled to do on Friday. The Republican presidential candidate also slammed Obama for his call on the same day of the shooting to politicize the event that killed nine people at Umpqua Community College, in hopes of finally getting momentum for gun control legislation.

“Imagine a politician politicizing something,” Carson remarked during an interview with “Fox and Friends.” When do we get to the point where we have people who actually want to solve our problems rather than just politicize everything? I think that’s what the American people are so sick and tired of.”

And he knows how to solve problems:

Asked what he would have done had a gunman walked up to him and asked him to state his religion, Carson said he would have been more aggressive.

“Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me, I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all,'” he told the hosts.

His posts on Facebook and Twitter holding a sign proclaiming “#IAmAChristian” went viral over the weekend, in reference to some witness accounts that the gunman asked victims to stand up and identify themselves if they were Christian before they were shot, though police did not confirm or deny the accounts.

Is this heroic? Steve Benen notes that Carson is really into this:

Carson said yesterday that if he had a child in kindergarten, he’d feel better knowing there were loaded firearms in the classroom. “If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t,” the GOP candidate said.

Last night on Facebook, Carson added, “As a Doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies. There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking – but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away…”

He doesn’t get around much, but Benen notes that Carson is not alone:

After the massacre in Charleston, S.C., a Republican state senator complained he wasn’t satisfied with how the victims reacted to the gunman. After the massacre in Aurora, Colo., a Republican U.S. congressman complained that the victims should have been armed so they could shoot back. After the massacre at Virginia Tech, National Review published a piece admonishing the victims. “Where was the spirit of self-defense here?” John Derbyshire wrote, adding, “Why didn’t anyone rush the guy?

And now we see Ben Carson thinking along the same lines. He didn’t directly chastise the victims in Roseburg, Ore., but by explaining how brave he’d be towards the gunman, Carson was effectively complaining that the real-world victims should have displayed the kind of imagined courage the Republican candidate described.

What is wrong with these people? Didn’t they see that Charles Bronson movie? Benen editorializes:

Carson probably didn’t intend to insult the victims, indirectly blaming them for failing to meet his standards for bravery. But imagine being the parent of one of the young people killed in Oregon last week, and seeing a presidential candidate talking about how he graceful he’d be under fire – unlike those who actually faced the nightmare and were shot.

Carson’s callous arrogance is nothing short of staggering.

Who knows, maybe Carson’s rhetoric will resonate with Republican primary voters, who’ll cheer his latest comments. But to my mind, this represents a new low for the GOP candidate, one devoid of compassion and basic human decency.

Benen is not a Republican, but he has more:

On Fox News last night, Megyn Kelly asked Carson to elaborate further. According to the Fox transcript, the Republican said he’s “laughing at” his critics and “their silliness.”

CARSON: Of course, you know, if everybody attacks that gunman, he’s not going to kill everybody. But if you sit there and let him shoot you one by one, you’re all going to be dead. And you know, maybe these are things that people don’t think about; it’s certainly something that I would be thinking about.

KELLY: But don’t you allow for that notion that in a time of great stress like that, one might not know exactly what to do. And to judge them, to sound like you’re judging them –

CARSON: I’m not judging them at all, but, you know, these incidents continue to occur. I doubt that this will be the last one. I want to plant the seed in people’s minds so that if this happens again, you know, they don’t all get killed.

He was tap-dancing, and Benen adds this:

Look again at what Carson said on Fox News last night about running at the gunman: “Maybe these are things that people don’t think about, it’s certainly something that I would be thinking about.”

Right. Of course. Carson, who’s never confronted with such a terrifying nightmare, feels certain that he knows exactly how he’d respond when staring down the barrel of a gun held by a madman. He knows what he’d be thinking and how he’d respond – and Carson sees this imaginary hero within as a model for everyone.

For those who have the nerve to suggest such shallow bravado is callous, Carson is inclined to “laugh” at “their silliness.”…

But imagine being the parent of one of the young people killed in Oregon last week, and seeing a presidential candidate talking about how graceful he’d be under fire – unlike those who actually faced the nightmare and were shot.

That is a problem, or it’s not:

Donald Trump defended Republican rival Ben Carson Wednesday, saying the retired neurosurgeon was unjustly criticized for his comments after last week’s shooting in Oregon.

“I thought he was treated unfairly,” Trump told reporters after a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa. “No I think Ben Carson was treated – frankly, I think he was treated very unfairly.”

Trump backed his fellow candidate’s remarks on Twitter early Wednesday: “Ben Carson was speaking in general terms as to what he would do if confronted with a gunman, and was not criticizing the victims. Not fair!”

Heather Parton would disagree with that:

I’m sure Carson had a lot to teach the victims about how they should have behaved more bravely in the face of an armed madman bent on killing them. One of them, a veteran who tried to keep the shooter out of the room, did live, so perhaps Carson can tell him all about what he did wrong when he’s out of the hospital. As for defending his faith at any cost and committing suicide rather than cooperate, well let’s just say that makes him someone who has more in common with Islamic fundamentalists than he might be comfortable with.

But it’s more than that:

While Trump and Carson may have personalities that are polar opposites in terms of temperament, they do have a couple of important things in common (besides crackpot politics). They are both outrageously arrogant and they both see themselves as Hollywood-style heroes. This notion they are personally so tough that if anyone threatened them with a gun, they’d either out-draw them or inspire everyone to run straight into a hail of bullets, is ludicrous. Neither of these men are trained military veterans or have any professional experience with firearms – except in their own Walter Mitty fantasies. These comments are embarrassing for both of them.

But it does speak to a larger issue about how the right proposes to deal with gun violence, personal danger and the fear that permeates our society due to the flood of deadly weapons landing in the hands of people with an ax to grind who want to go out in a blaze of glory and take a bunch of people with them.

Isn’t that the dark side of Trump and Carson’s inane self-serving illusions about their own theoretical heroism? Doesn’t Wayne LaPierre’s formulation that “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” sound like old fashioned cowboy serial dialog that ignores the indiscriminate carnage that inevitably results when bullets start flying from guns that don’t know what kind of “guys” are firing them? …

In fact, the High Noon scenario is not confined to vacuous right wing “solutions” to mass shootings. It defines the right’s philosophy on gun rights in other ways that are changing the way we think about the law and our moral responsibilities.

Just one example:

The most obvious example is the recent legal concept of “stand your ground” – the legal doctrine which replaced the self-defense element of “duty to retreat” that had been part of common law definitions of self-defense for centuries. Civilized societies had long required that if a person had the ability to elude a deadly confrontation rather than engage in one, he had to take that option. Using deadly force must always be a last resort. The basic idea was based upon the common sense observation that if more people backed down, retreated or stepped aside, fewer people would be killed.

With stand your ground, there is no obligation to try to spare lives in a potentially deadly situation and a person is considered to be justified in killing someone solely if there is a perceived threat. The consequences of this are severe; an investigation by the American Bar Association found that homicide rates had risen in states which had enacted Stand Your Ground laws.

These laws are in addition to an older legal exception to the duty to retreat called Castle Doctrine, which holds that a person had no duty to retreat if someone enters their home. Tellingly, this legal concept has recently earned the nickname “Make My Day” laws, after the Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character’s tag line.

It seems Hollywood has a lot to answer for:

Last September a Connecticut teacher shot and killed his 15-year-old son after his neighbor called to say she thought she saw a robber in the front yard. Just a few weeks after that, a retired Chicago police officer shot and killed his 48-year-old son after he came in the back door late one night. And an off-duty police officer killed his son last July while the two were on vacation in upstate New York, after he told police he believed him to be an intruder.

Those are just a few of the gun “accidents” that are happening all over this country every day due to people believing that it’s reasonable to shoot first and ask questions later. They see themselves as heroes like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson protecting themselves and society at large from violent predators. In fact, Dirty Harry and Bronson’s vigilante were criminals.

That’s true, but only in real life, but that’s the problem. Hollywood may be all about fantasy, but out here we know the difference between fantasy and reality. Fantasy is a factory product, now rather predictable stuff churned out on what amounts to assembly lines, down in the warehouse district. Maybe that stuff will make you feel better, but you weren’t supposed to take it seriously. Fred and Ginger weren’t really in Rio. And that guy was Charles Buchinsky. He only pretended to be someone else. It paid the bills.

Why do these Republicans take Hollywood so seriously? Out here, we don’t. Perhaps they have a death wish.

Posted in Ben Carson, Good Guy with a Gun, Republican Vigilante Model | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Whistling Past

Whistling past the graveyard can mean one of two things – you know the situation, things are dire, and you’re trying to keep your spirits up, but you know you’re going to die. That’s why you’re whistling. Whistling keeps you from screaming. Alternatively, you’re whistling because you have no idea what’s really going on – you’re blissfully unaware of the situation and the consequences of decisions you’ve made. You’re whistling because life is good. What graveyard? And we’ve been in Afghanistan for fourteen years now. Why are we whistling?

Afghanistan is, of course, a graveyard, the “graveyard of empires” as they say, and there’s a reason for that. Consider all the invasions – from Alexander the Great to the Greeks to Genghis Khan to the British (twice) and then the Soviets, back when they were the Soviets, not the Russians. They each came, they each conquered, they each set up shop, and then… and then they were gone, having drained their treasures and lost armies, for nothing at all. Afghanistan was never folded into anyone’s empire. No one even gained an ally. The empires eventually folded, Afghanistan didn’t. Messing around in Afghanistan just weakened them. The Soviet Union found that out. Ten years in Afghanistan, some antiwar riots in the streets back in Moscow, and then the Soviet Union was no more. This wasn’t cause and effect, but Afghanistan had helped bury the former Soviet empire. It has always been a graveyard of that kind. Avoid it if possible.

We showed up in October 2001 – to get rid of the government there, controlled by the Taliban, and to get rid of the Talban itself, that had been hosting al-Qaeda there. We did that, but somehow that turned into Operation Enduring Freedom – we had to hang around to make sure the Taliban didn’t return, at least until there was an Afghan army that could do that, and a stable Afghan government to direct that army and get the place functioning again.

That didn’t work out, and now, after fourteen years, we’re back where we started:

A day after Afghan security officials described making major progress in retaking the northern city of Kunduz from Taliban forces, the insurgents on Tuesday once again seem to have seized the upper hand. The Taliban’s white flag was once again hanging on the flagpole over Chowk Square, and half of the city was reported to be under Taliban control.

The insurgents continued to fight pitched street battles against Afghan forces, according to residents and some security officials, and the Taliban were pressing into service armored Humvees and pickup trucks they had seized from the troops.

The reports from Kunduz contradicted testimony by the American military commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday. He told the panel that most of the city had been retaken from the Taliban, and that the continued fighting had been relegated to isolated pockets in the city as the insurgents “for the most part melted away, left the city.”

We may have been whistling past the graveyard:

Public assessments issued by Afghan leaders on Tuesday mostly lined up with General Campbell’s portrayal. “The enemy was pushed out of the city yesterday, the Afghan security forces, especially the Afghan National Army, recaptured the city yesterday,” said Lt. Gen. Afzal Aman, director of operations for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

But the accounts of many Kunduz residents on Tuesday greatly differed, as did details from senior Afghan military officers who spoke off the record because they did not want to publicly contradict government spokesmen who were also claiming improvement in the city.

A New York Times reporter returning to Kunduz on Tuesday morning saw a steady stream of Kunduz residents taking advantage of a relative lull in the fighting to flee along the highway to the south, many with their whole families and with cars, trucks and even motorized rickshaws stuffed with their furniture and belongings.

That director of operations for the Afghan Ministry of Defense was whistling past the graveyard too. Those senior Afghan military officers who spoke off the record knew that, but this time there was a new problem:

A senior Afghan military officer blamed a lack of American airstrikes over the past two days for the Taliban advance on Tuesday, in the wake of the American airstrike that destroyed the Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Saturday and killed 22 people, mostly hospital staff and patients.

“The U.S. airstrikes are halted since yesterday evening,” said the officer, who confirmed that the city remains divided between the insurgents and government forces, with some fighting on Tuesday even in the Sare Dawra neighborhood, close to the airport, where the Afghan Army and American Special Operations troops have headquarters. “Until the airstrikes resume, it will be hard to have any progress in the fighting against the Taliban,” he said.

The senior officer also blamed a lack of coordination among Afghan units. “There are 10 generals from different organs, and they aren’t under the command of one person who should lead the fighting,” the officer said. “This way, it is unlikely for the Afghan security forces to achieve anything so quickly. The fighting might last for months and Kunduz city may not be retaken.”

Okay, no one’s in charge and we’ve halted the airstrikes, but this time because we screwed up:

The American commander in Afghanistan now thinks that United States troops who called in an airstrike that decimated a Doctors without Borders hospital probably did not follow rules that allow for the use of air power only in dire situations, according to American officials with knowledge of the general’s thinking.

Under those rules, airstrikes can be used to kill terrorist suspects, to protect American troops and to answer requests for help from the Afghan Army in battles that could significantly alter the military landscape in Afghanistan – such as the recent Taliban takeover of Kunduz – but not necessarily smaller firefights. The idea behind the rules of engagement was to give American troops leeway but not see them dragged back into daily, open-ended combat.

In private discussions with officials in Washington, Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander, has expressed his belief that the decision by Special Operations Forces operating “in the vicinity” of the Afghan troops in Kunduz likely did not meet any of those criteria, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

It seems that General Campbell was having a bad day:

After days of shifting and at times ambiguous American statements about the airstrike, which Doctors Without Borders has likened to a war crime, the general was as direct on Tuesday as any official has been to date.

“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he said.

Note the passive-voice construction. We didn’t strike a hospital. A hospital was struck. The “we” cannot be assigned yet:

The general said the military had received a request for air support from Afghan troops fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. “Even though the Afghans request that support,” he said, “it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure.”

Yet General Campbell offered little clarity about how that procedure failed or what events led up to the strike.

And then there’s the obvious:

The bombing in Kunduz and the faltering attempt by Afghan forces to recapture the city have renewed questions about the shape and scope of the American mission in Afghanistan. Most of the roughly 10,000 troops now there are focused on training and advising Afghan troops, and the White House placed broad limits on when and where the United States could use force after the American combat mission ended last year.

At the same time, it has given General Campbell wide discretion to do what he deems necessary to aid Afghan troops. For the most part, that has meant using air power. But the fighting in Kunduz over the past 10 days has illustrated the limits of air power. It has also offered a reminder of the danger airstrikes pose to civilians, who have repeatedly been killed by American aerial bombardments since the outset of the war 14 years ago.

That is a problem. Fourteen years of bombs and drones killing lots of civilians does seem to upset the locals. They might want us to go home, not that we will, now that things there are as big a mess as ever:

The recent gains by the Taliban appear to have restarted a debate within the Obama administration about whether to move forward with plans to cut by about half the current American force. The Pentagon, along with some senior officials within the administration, is pushing to maintain as large a force in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that the Afghan Army and police are still in need of American assistance.

The Republicans on the committee left little doubt that they believe the administration’s withdrawal plan would leave the Afghans dangerously exposed to their enemies. General Campbell was clear that he, too, would prefer to keep as many troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible.

Why? Salon’s Ben Norton examines that:

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to ensure it “would never again be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other radical Islamist terrorists to attack us again,” John McCain said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday morning. And “that mission has been successful for 14 years.”

To say al-Qaeda has not again attacked Americans on U.S. soil is technically correct, but to call such a mission “successful” is mind-bogglingly myopic. No rational person can look at the situation throughout South Asia and the Middle East today and say U.S. military intervention has been a success. This would take either extreme blindness or sheer delusion.

McCain insisted “American troops and civilians have made steady progress in supporting our Afghan partners to secure their country and dealt severe blows to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.” Yet these claims blatantly defy the facts on the ground.

Yes, this can be said, one more time:

It was the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that in fact led to the growth of al-Qaeda throughout the world. Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion; the U.S. war, which pulverized the government, destroyed enormous amounts of infrastructure, and escalated sectarian tensions, is what brought al-Qaeda into the country. This eventually led to the rise of ISIS – whose predecessor was ISI (the Islamic State of Iraq) – which broke ties with al-Qaeda for not being extreme enough.

McCain failed to mention in the hearing that al-Qaeda has grown exponentially since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began. Now al-Qaeda is present in almost every country in the region. And ISIS, even more violent than al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has entered Afghanistan, while taking more and more territory in war-stricken Libya – where U.S. bombing once again destroyed the government and left the country in shambles – along with Yemen – where Washington is backing the Saudi-led coalition that is responsible for approximately two-thirds of the thousands of civilian casualties and has used banned U.S.-made cluster munitions to bomb civilian areas – and more.

Never mentioned by McCain, moreover, is that over 220,000 Afghans were killed in the U.S. war, according to a report conducted by Physicians for Social Responsibility. (At least another 1 million people were killed in the U.S. war in Iraq, the study indicates, noting that “this is only a conservative estimate.”)

Norton goes on, but you get the idea, and should remember how this all started:

Unmentioned by McCain was, too, any of the history surrounding the conflict in Afghanistan. In his desperate call for more war, McCain glossed over the fact that it was U.S. military intervention that was responsible for the rise of the Taliban in the first place. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the U.S. government supported the militant Islamist movement the Mujahedeen – the Taliban’s predecessor – as part of its larger Cold War strategy. President Reagan even met with the Mujahedeen, whom he dubbed “freedom fighters,” in the Oval Office.

And so on and so forth. There was a lot of whistling past the graveyard on this particular Tuesday in Washington, but it wasn’t just Afghanistan. There was Syria too:

Ratcheting up the confrontation over the Syria war, Russia said Monday that its “volunteer” ground forces would join the fight, and NATO warned the Kremlin after at least one Russian warplane trespassed into Turkey’s airspace.

The saber-rattling on both sides reflected a dangerous new big-power entanglement in the war, as longstanding differences between Russia and the United States over President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his opponents increasingly play out not only in the halls of the United Nations but on the battlefield in Syria.

Russia squared off with Turkey and its NATO allies, calling the air incursion on Saturday an innocent mistake because of foul weather – a claim that American officials rejected.

This is getting hot and could be another graveyard for us, or for Putin’s Russia, but Patrick Smith, Salon’s foreign affairs columnist, argues that Putin isn’t the one whistling here:

A lot of good people are asking a lot of good questions these days, and this is an excellent thing. On the foreign policy side, it happens the best of these questions are posed by non-Americans, for the simple reason most Americans are not ready to think clearly about our moment and how we have come to it. We do not ask because we cannot answer.

My three favorite questions of late, it also happens, have to do with Syria. And let there be no doubt: It is all over for the Obama administration, the Pentagon, the spooks and all others still pretending there is a “moderate opposition” that will carry the day in the many-sided Syrian conflict. Washington has slipped its grip. Others are in charge now, and as they pursue a solution to this crisis the only choice open to the U.S. is whether or not to join in the effort. It will be interesting to see which alternative the White House and the State Department choose.

And the questions are these:

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation; do you realize now what you’ve done?” This is the first good question.

Vladimir Putin posed it in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly 10 days ago. Sensibly, the Russian president added, “But I am afraid no one is going to answer that.” To offer modest assistance, Mr. Putin, the U.S. leadership knows exactly what it has done, and this is why you are correct: Your query will go without reply.

The second and third good questions came from Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. For my money Zarif is among the ablest diplomats now on the scene. He addressed the U.S. on the Syria crisis during a conference in New York on Monday, and he asked, “Why are you there? Who gave you the right to be there?”

Questions like that allow no cheerful whistling:

To ask why the U.S. is in Syria is to brush aside all the customary bunkum about Washington’s humane outrage over the Assad regime’s brutalities. Underneath we find an obsession with “regime change” in Damascus so as to convert Syria from outlier to another Middle Eastern client. Left to the U.S., Assad’s successor, as in the case of al-Sisi in Egypt, would be welcome to all the brutalities he may find necessary. Almost certainly he would enjoy an arms package similar to Egypt’s now-restored $5 billion annually – most of which is now deployed against Egyptians.

“Who gave you the right to be there?” What a simple, pithy question. I have not heard any American other than people such as Noam Chomsky ever consider such a thing. Throughout Washington’s long effort to arm anti-Assad militias on the ground and more recently to drop bombs on Syrian soil – roughly 4,000 sorties to date – the illegality of U.S. policy simply never comes up.

Zarif thus forces two bitter truths upon us. One, we have been breaking the law from the first. We may not have anything to say about this, as we have not to date, but the silence will be conspicuous from here on out, given that others are now prepared openly to challenge the U.S. on the point. Two, whatever one may think of the Assad government, those now committed to backing it as part of their strategy to defeat radical Islamists in Syria do so in accordance with international law. Like it or not, this counts.

And this counts too:

We are always encouraged to find anything Putin does devious and the outcome of hidden motives and some obscure agenda having to do with his pouting ambition to be seen as a first-rank world leader. From the government-supervised New York Times on down, this is what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio and television broadcasts. I urge readers to pay no attention to this stuff. It is all about Washington’s agenda to obscure.

Russia’s favored strategy in Syria has long been very clear. It is a question of distinguishing the primary and secondary contradictions, as the Marxists say. The Assad regime is to be kept in place so as to preserve those political institutions still functioning as the basis of a reconstructed national government. Once the threat of Islamic terror is defeated, a political transition into a post-Assad reconstruction can be negotiated.

For a time it appeared that Washington was prepared to buy into this set of expedients. This impression derived from the very frequent contacts between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom the American secretary of state has often worked closely.

Then Obama and Putin met at the UN and Smith’s sources tell a sad tale:

Putin made the case that the important first priority had to be to eliminate Daesh [the Islamic State] and that after more than a year of the U.S. campaign there has been no significant success. Indeed, the contrary is the case.

Putin’s point was that air power alone will not succeed, and that now the only real boots on the ground are the Kurds and the armies of Syria and its supporters – Hezbollah and some Iranians, but the Iranians troops involved in the struggle with Daesh are operating mostly in Iraq.

Putin proposed creating a coalition, the equivalent of the anti-Hitler alliance, to focus on Daesh, and then focusing in Round 2 on the transition of Syria into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions – Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and a few others – which all work together now.

Obama wouldn’t bite:

Putin had been led to believe through the Lavrov /Kerry channel… that there would be a broader agreement to work together. So he was surprised that Obama did not seize the opportunity to engage the battle in a coordinated way…. In the end they agreed only on coordination between the two militaries to avoid running into each other.

That’s it? That’s it:

Obama has got it radically wrong in Syria – and indeed across the Middle East – but not in the ways we are encouraged to think. …

The first and biggest of them is his willingness to inherit the vision bequeathed by 117 years of American ambition abroad. In the American imperium it is all about us, always. Syria is not Syria, a land of 23 million people (before the exodus we prompted) just as Egypt as it aspired to democracy during the Arab Spring was not Egypt. These are squares on the geopolitical game board. In the Syria case, Russia has a strategy that is prima facie rational and right, but we must object because it is Russia’s. Certainly we cannot join Moscow to make common cause.

Putin and Zarif and others now posing questions are telling Washington something it will have to hear if it is to get off the destructive course of American foreign policy: This is not about you, as many things in the world are not. This is about a political, social and cultural crisis that requires the disinterested attention of those capable of contributing to a solution.

Think about the united front Putin proposes and Obama declines to join. It is already in motion, in case you did not notice. Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus are all now committed to cooperating – not least by way of intelligence sharing, which is a big one – in the fight to subdue the Islamic State.

That’s what we want, but something else made that impossible:

Obama’s second big mistake has to do with his response to the problem of American exceptionalism. One had a sense late during his first term and into his second that he understood it was time to lance this boil on the American consciousness, but in the breach he seems to have demurred.

The result has been his commitment to keep American troops out of conflict zones but to maintain the posture by way of Air Force bombers and supposedly surgical drone attacks. He thus altered only method, not purpose, the desired outcome—as, again, he inherited it. Not only has it failed to achieve any result in Syria; the grotesque bombing of a Médicins sans Frontière hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last weekend reveals the strategy to be a bust on any kind of life-saving, humanitarian grounds, as well.

Perhaps we should stop whistling that “American Exceptionalism” tune as we walk past these graveyards in the Middle East:

In my read, Russia and Iran have just popped open the door to a solution in Syria. All the pieces are in place but one: Washington’s capacity to acknowledge the strategic failure now so evident and to see beyond the narrowest definition of where its interests lie.

This brings us to the paradox embedded in those questions Putin and Zarif and a few others now pose: American primacy is no longer in America’s interest. Get your mind around this and you have arrived in the 21st century.

That’s an option, but so is whistling because you have no idea what’s really going on – you’re blissfully unaware of the situation and the consequences of decisions you’ve made. You’re whistling because life is good. America is good. What graveyard?

Don’t ask.

Posted in Afghanistan, American Exceptionalism, Losing Afghanistan, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Only in America

The French neighbor across the courtyard here makes her living as a tour guide – every few weeks she meets another gaggle of elderly French folks, piles them in a small bus, and then shows them Hollywood and Los Angeles. They love it – the most popular chewing gum in France is named Hollywood – but they really want a taste of America. There are the side trips to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. They love that too. They’re curious. What is this place all about? This could be it. There’s nothing more American than Hollywood and Las Vegas – it’s the Elvis impersonators there – but of course that’s nonsense. Akron and Altoona are America too. Most of America, like most of France beyond Paris, is a bit boring in a comforting everyday way – quiet people lead their quiet lives. Nothing much happens.

Of course you could get shot. Every foreign tourist must assume, given what they see on the news, that every American is packing heat. Make no sudden moves. Don’t make anyone angry. Avoid schools. Avoid malls. Avoid the freeways. The United States is the only advanced country in the world that allows pretty much anyone to walk around fully armed, and those weapons are often concealed, and they’ll use them. Be careful, or stay home, or come with your own big gun – but then you can’t do that, can you? You’re not a citizen here. Oh well. Enjoy your visit.

That’s not fair, but we make absurd assumptions about the French too – those cheese-eating surrender monkeys with questionable hygiene and even more questionable morals. It’s just that the gun stories just keep coming. This week opened with this:

An 11-year-old Tennessee boy has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of an 8-year-old neighbor girl. The Jefferson County sheriff said the boy, whose name has not been released, used his father’s 12-gauge single-shot shotgun to kill his next-door neighbor, McKayla Dyer.

The girl had been outside playing about 7:30 p.m. Saturday when the older boy asked to see her puppy, but she told him no, said Latasha Dyer, the girl’s mother. She said the boy, who had bullied her daughter since moving to the mobile home park in White Pine, went home to get the shotgun and then shot her daughter in the chest.

These things happen. He was angry. There was a gun in the house, and maybe you could say the father was irresponsible for not keeping it locked up, but lots of boys in rural Tennessee have their own guns, for hunting or fun. Perhaps the kid had a problem with impulse control. What eleven-year-old boy doesn’t? But there’s another way to look at this. If this eight-year-old girl had an AR-15 the bully here would be dead, not her. That’s the argument for arming everyone, especially the kids, all the kids, so they can protect themselves. Well, maybe not the kids, but that’s the general argument we’ve been making for a long time. Guns protect us. Everyone knows this, until the next mass shooting.

Even then, the most unlikely folks resist the idea that the guns are the problem:

The pro-gun sheriff in charge of investigating a mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College said Friday that he doesn’t subscribe to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting “truther” movement, despite having posted a video, raising questions about the tragedy, to his Facebook page.

“I know what you’re referring to, but that’s not a conspiracy theory that I have,” Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin told CNN late Friday when asked about the video.

Hanlin posted a link in January 2013 to a YouTube video called “The Sandy Hook Shooting – Fully Exposed,” which summarized conspiracy theories surrounding the shooting and quickly went viral. Hanlin posted the link about a month after the massacre of elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut.

“This makes me wonder who we can trust anymore…” Hanlin wrote. “Watch, listen, and keep an open mind.”

The Facebook post was removed from public view Friday afternoon after news outlets reported on it.

Two days after posting the video, Hanlin sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden stating that he did not believe stricter gun control measures would prevent potential mass shootings.

What Hanlin had posted to Facebook was this sort of thing:

Some conspiracy theories have alleged that the shooting was a hoax and a false flag operation staged by the United States government. Others claim the attack is being used by politicians to push through new gun control legislation, or to otherwise persecute gun owners and survivalists.

Lawyer Orly Taitz was quoted as asking “Was Adam Lanza drugged and hypnotized by his handlers to make him into a killing machine as an excuse as the regime is itching to take all means of self-defense from the populace before the economic collapse?”

Talk show host Clyde Lewis wrote: “Don’t you find it at all interesting that Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter at Sandy Hook, woke up one day and decided to shoot up a school and kill children at about the same time that Barack Obama told the U.N. that he would sign the small arms treaty?” …

In an article published by Iran’s Press TV, Veterans Today editor Gordon Duff quoted Michael Harris, a former Arizona Republican candidate for Governor of Arizona, who attributed the shooting to “Israeli death squads.” Duff speculated that the attacks were an act of “revenge” for the perceived cooling of Israel–United States relations under President Obama, especially as a response to Obama’s decision to nominate former senator Chuck Hagel, a perceived critic of Israel, for the position of United States Secretary of Defense. Duff further claimed that “key members of the military and law enforcement community contacted Veterans Today in full support of Harris’ analysis.”

Hanlin wonders if you can trust anyone, but he said he hasn’t chosen one of these theories. He still has an open mind about such things, and as for that letter to Biden, Hanlin argues that not only are federal gun laws useless, he need not obey them, and Ian Millhiser at Think Progress explains the issues there:

Hanlin’s letter blurs the line between a matter that is lawfully within state officials’ discretion and something much more akin to insurrection. Under the Supreme Court’s “anti-commandeering doctrine,” states may refuse to enforce federal laws that they do not wish to devote their resources to enforcing. For this reason, provided that state law gives him the discretion to do so, Hanlin is permitted to deny his department’s resources to federal officials seeking to enforce federal gun laws. What Hanlin may not do, however, is unilaterally assign himself the power to decide what is or is not constitutional and then refuse to “permit the enforcement” of federal laws by “federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.” …

If Hanlin believes that the federal government is acting unconstitutionally, he can file a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s action. But local sheriffs are not permitted to use the powers of their office to thwart federal officials trying to carry out their own duties.

The reason why local sheriffs do not have this power should be obvious. If local law enforcement did have the power to decide on their own what the Constitution says, and then to enforce their idiosyncratic notions about our founding document against federal officials, then this would be a recipe for armed conflicts between federal and local officials.

Well, he’s one of those Oath Keepers guys – when the Supreme Court declares something constitutional and it’s not, they’ll fight to stop it. They know better, all patriots do, and so on. How do they know better? They just do. That’s a recipe for chaos, and a Frenchman, visiting, might ask how we can run a country like this. There’s only one answer. Look, another Elvis impersonator!

There’s just no explaining this Oregon business:

According to multiple reports, the shooter’s mother boasted online about her arsenal and feared that gun ownership would soon be restricted.

“When the mood strikes,” Harper reportedly wrote on Facebook, “I sling an AR, Tek-9 or AK over my shoulder, or holster a Glock 21 (not 22), or one of my other handguns, like the Sig Sauer P226, and walk out the door.” Shotguns, she said, “are a little too cumbersome to open carry.”

According to officials, the Harper family moved from Torrance, California to Winchester, Oregon, in 2013. “I moved from So. Calif. to Oregon, from Southern Crime-a-mania to open carry,” Harper noted in that same Facebook post advocating for open carry laws.

Harper, a registered nurse who shared an apartment with her son, spoke “openly about her love of guns,” according to one of her patients.

“She said she had multiple guns and believed wholeheartedly in the Second Amendment and wanted to get all the guns she could before someone outlawed them,” Shelly Steele told the New York Daily News. Steele hired Harper to provide care for her sickly teenage son and said that Harper enjoyed talking to her husband, an avid hunter and former member of the military, about taking her son to shooting ranges.

Should we be worried? People could die, or did die in this instance, but Kevin D. Williamson tells us at the National Review that we shouldn’t do anything about mass shootings because, really, gun murders are incredibly rare, as we’d realize if we weren’t hooked on drama:

We shouldn’t play the shooters’ game. These acts are dramatic because they are unusual (not as unusual as we’d prefer), extraordinary because they are unrepresentative of the contemporary experience rather than representative of it…. We are not, in fact, a polity dissolving into chaos. Our streets aren’t filled with blood – they’re filled with mediocrity. Politicians sell you emergency when they want to take something away from you. Terrorists are not the only people who know that a scared population is a compliant population.

Our streets aren’t filled with blood? We have one mass shooting a day in America on average – some days are better than others, some worse – but never mind:

We insulated moderns are not very good at ranking risks… we love stories. We love them more than we love reality: The Republican party is not run by a secret cabal of warmongering billionaires; Barack Obama is a cookie-cutter Ivy League lefty, not a Kenya-born al-Qaeda plant; you’re going to die from emphysema or from being fat rather than from Ebola or a resurgent Islamic caliphate; the people who commit the murders are for the most part going to be ordinary criminals going about ordinary criminal business, and a fair number of the people they kill are the same thing. …

Even our dramatic crimes are mostly rooted in ordinary failures: those failed families, again, failed mental-health practices, etc. A scary-looking rifle is visually arresting, a fact that tells us something about the weapon, and maybe something about us. It doesn’t tell us anything useful about the actual challenges facing the United States in 2015.

The New York Times’ Charles Blow begs to differ:

We have grown numb to this scourge, and even when politicians politicize gun violence, Washington can’t seem to muster the political will to make even the most modest changes to our federal gun laws.

This has to change. We have to start the process of curtailing our gun culture, and I don’t say that as an anti-gun absolutist, but as a person who grew up around guns, and even owned a gun.

When I was growing up in the rural South, boys had rifles. There was nothing odd about it. Every boy in wood shop made a gun rack.

A rifle wasn’t a weapon as much as a tool. People hunted. They raised and slaughtered food animals. Rifles were used to keep the snakes out of the grass and the vermin out of the garden (though surely there must have been more humane ways to do this). They were poor folks’ fireworks on special occasions like New Year’s.

And they were a guard against intruders – though those intruders were more an idea than a reality in those parts – who might threaten life or property. Law enforcement officials were scarce, and 911 was nonexistent.

But that seems to me another time and place. There didn’t exist the fear and paranoia that grips so many now when it comes to gun ownership. And there wasn’t the fetish for military-style weapons and armor-piercing bullets.

That’s the issue here:

My oldest brother is a gun collector. He is a regular at the gun shows, buying and selling, but even he talks about a sense of unease at those shows as people engage in what can only be described as panic buying and ammunition hoarding.

These people are afraid. They are afraid of a time conservative media and the gun industry has convinced them is coming when sales of weapons, particularly some types of weapons, will be restricted or forbidden. They are afraid of growing populations of people they don’t trust. Some are even afraid that a time will come when they will have to defend themselves against the government itself.

Unfortunately this fear is winning, as many Americans think crime is up, even though it’s down. This fear is winning as massacres, and the gun violence discussions that follow, don’t lead to fewer gun sales, but more. This fear is winning, following continued violence by antigovernment militias and hate groups. Fear is winning as there are now close to as many guns in this country as people – with the gun industry producing millions more each year.

We have reached our supersaturation point as a culture. And with that many guns in circulation, too many will invariably make their way into the hands of people with ill intent.

The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne seconds that:

The most debilitating dodge is to claim that nothing can be done, that nothing works. The gun lobby specializes in isolating a given incident and declaring sagely that this or that particular solution would not have prevented it.

News flash: No law will ever solve every problem or create heaven on Earth. But it is a straight-out lie to assert that stronger gun laws make no difference. Here is the conclusion of a study released in August by National Journal: “The states that impose the most restrictions on gun users also have the lowest rates of gun-related deaths, while states with fewer regulations typically have a much higher death rate from guns.” State laws could be even more effective if they were matched by federal laws that made it harder for guns to get into the wrong hands.

Politicians who go on about American greatness should be ashamed of saying that the United States is the one and only nation that can’t act effectively to solve a problem every other free and democratic country has contained.

There’s even an example:

Conservatives might usefully listen to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has noted that he led “a center-right coalition” whose parties represented “virtually every nonurban electoral district in the country.” In other words, his party is a lot like our Republicans.

After a psychologically disturbed man killed 35 people in Tasmania, Howard championed state bans on the ownership, possession and sale of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons by Australia’s states, along with a federal ban on their importation. He also sponsored a gun buyback scheme that got almost 700,000 guns – the statistical equivalent of 40 million in the United States – off the streets and destroyed. “Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control,” Howard wrote in the New York Times shortly after the Newtown killings.

Forget the hypothetical Frenchman visiting America for the first time. Imagine an Australian instead. You’d know his question. What, are you people crazy?

Don’t answer that:

Conservatives all over the world are aghast at our nation’s permissive attitude toward guns. Is a dangerous and harebrained absolutism about weaponry really the issue on which American conservatives want to practice exceptionalism?

Well, maybe it is, but on the same day the eleven-year-old boy blew away the eight-year-old girl with his father’s shotgun, there was this:

The three leading candidates in the Democratic presidential contest each laid out proposals for new gun-control efforts on Monday, injecting fresh energy into the push for restrictions, which have faced heavy resistance from Republicans. …

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton proposed a series of measures that would tighten regulations on gun sales through a combination of legislation and, if needed, executive power. She said she favored overturning a law that bars gun-violence victims from suing manufacturers, and said as president she would act on her own authority to expand the definition of what sellers are required to conduct background checks.

“I’ve got no problem with people who are responsible gun owners. There are millions of them,” she said at a town hall in Hollis, N.H., broadcast live on NBC. But she added: “Let’s do everything we can to make sure the irresponsible and the criminal and the mentally ill don’t get guns.”

Then there was the other guy:

Gun control marks a rare issue in which Mrs. Clinton’s views are more liberal than those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is challenging her for the nomination from the left. Leaning into the issue may help her win over liberal Democrats.

Mr. Sanders, who has a mixed record on backing gun-control measures, laid out a set of proposals on Monday afternoon that have considerable support among Democrats, including Mrs. Clinton. They include requiring background checks for sales by unlicensed dealers at gun shows, banning assault-style semi-automatic weapons and providing better mental-health care.

“Like the rest of the nation, I am appalled by gun violence in our country and the mass shootings in our churches and colleges,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement. “While there is no simple fix, that does not mean we should do nothing.”

Mr. Sanders also bragged that he has a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.

When serving in the House, Mr. Sanders voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, which established mandatory background checks, and voted for the 2005 measure barring suits against gun makers. But he also supported legislation in 2013 that would have expanded background checks and banned high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.

And there was the guy no one remembers:

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has the most aggressive set of gun-control proposals. Among other ideas, he would require that every person who buys a gun get a license and be fingerprinted. And he would establish a national gun registry.

And there was something new and clever here:

Mrs. Clinton’s newest idea is to use executive authority to expand the definition of who is “in the business” of selling firearms to include any person trying to sell a significant number of guns, the Clinton campaign said.

Current law allows someone who owns guns as a hobby to sell them without conducting background checks, and defining who technically is in business is complicated.

“This would ensure that high-volume gun sellers are covered by the same common-sense rules that apply to guns stores – including requiring background checks on gun sales,” the Clinton campaign said.

Clever, but much of this was just basic stuff:

The campaign said the former secretary of state would also seek to expand the definition of a domestic abuser who is prohibited from buying a gun to include people in dating relationships and convicted stalkers.

Convicted stalkers wouldn’t be able to buy guns? So much for freedom in America:

Most Republicans remain strongly opposed to gun controls, saying tighter laws would restrict gun rights without any impact on preventing crimes, and many see the odds of congressional action as poor.

Josh Marshall explains why that is so:

According to Pew Research, the number of people who say it’s more important to protect ‘gun rights’ than control gun ownership finally became the majority opinion after Newtown. Roper meanwhile has parallel data, albeit using a slightly different question to get the broadest measure of the country’s attitude toward guns. … But the full picture only becomes clear when you look at the internals of these polls. … Going slightly beyond what the data tells us, it seems clear that being pro-gun has become a key element of Republican self-identification. That is to say, it’s not just that many Republicans’ views have changed since Obama took office, but that being pro-gun has become an elemental part of what it means to be a Republican.

And those Republicans will tell you that that’s what it means to be an American, and maybe it does. We’re used to the mass shootings. Maybe we’re actually okay with them – they let us know we’re free, really free – and maybe Republicans should be the tour guides. Let them explain America to those elderly befuddled French folks. America isn’t the Elvis impersonators. It’s the Elvis impersonator that snaps and guns down everyone on the Strip in Vegas. Welcome to our world.

Posted in Democrats Purpose Gun Control, Oregon Mass Shooting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Everyone Is Unhappy

There is going to be a hangover. The eight years of the Obama administration will be seen as an anomaly, an odd time before we woke up the next morning and found the world is just as awful as it always was. We had our fling with the unthinkable.

What were we thinking? We elected a black president. We elected a man who was thoughtful and careful and polite and smart and well-educated, who tried to be fair about things – not a rah-rah smirking bully who tried to make us feel good, or angry. The left felt betrayed. He tried to compromise with Republicans. The right never trusted him. We’d never done that before and we’ll probably never do that again, but, like it or not, he got things done. We got something like universal healthcare – well, not really, but a complex system that makes it possible for most everyone to buy health insurance from the giant private for-profit insurance companies, and sets a few minimal standards for them, is what could be done. We are not like every other advanced industrialized nation in the world. We take care of corporations, not our citizens. The free market will take care of our citizens. Adam Smith said so, even if he said the exact opposite – Government has the duty of “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” but which “are of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.” Adam Smith would have had no problem with a single-payer Medicare-for-all system, but never mind. That’s a moot point now.

What else? The economy – which had collapsed in the last months of the Bush administration – recovered – slowly. The 2009 stimulus was too small to fix it fast, but seven hundred billion dollars was what could get through Congress. Government spending, on roads and bridges and whatever, was cut to the bone. That too would have pulled us out of our troubles quickly, but the Republicans blocked all of that – they said total austerity would lead to prosperity. Obama did what he could. We’ve slowly crawled our way back to minimal prosperity, for some – but at least we’re out of Iraq and trying to ease our way out of Afghanistan, and we’ve not invaded and occupied anywhere else and tried to force the folks there to come up with a government we specify.

That’s odd. Our policy seems to be to keep things as calm as possible on all fronts and not do anything stupid. Obama’s informal mantra in the White House actually has been “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” – and of course those on the right, and Hillary Clinton, think that’s cowardly. But that Osama fellow is actually dead. You do what you can. It’s not very satisfying, but it works. Again, we’d never tried that doctrine before and we’ll probably never try that again – it’s not bold – but we’re not fighting Russia in the Ukraine, are we? Do we really want to occupy Syria for a decade as we try to get them to set up a government we like, or Iran? Iran won’t have nuclear weapons now – or at least for the next ten to fifteen years. You do what you can. The eight years of the Obama administration will be seen as not all that bad, and unusual. We didn’t say that we should rule the world, because we’re the best thing since sliced bread. That never got us anywhere anyway. We will have had eight years of being sensible.

That will come to an end soon. We’ll get back to normal. Hillary Clinton has always believed in a far more “muscular” foreign policy than Obama, and she and her husband were the masters of neoliberalism – the idea that unregulated free-market capitalism can lead to a good life for everyone at all levels, that through deregulation, outsourcing, privatization and free trade one could reach traditional liberal ends through traditionally conservative means. Hey, there’d be money for all the good stuff!

Hillary Clinton has eased off that a bit, for now, but were she elected we’d be back there soon enough, and on the Republican side it’s all Donald Trump, all the time. Obama is thoughtful and careful and polite and smart and well-educated. Donald Trump is rich, and mean. He seems to be saying that that’s precisely why we should elect him president. Things would get back to normal. He’d “Make America Great Again” – whatever that means. It’s easy enough to guess. It would involve a big wall.

The only calm and relatively thoughtful guy on that side seems to be Jeb Bush, who doesn’t shout out insults and challenges, but he’s doing badly. Bush has most of the Republican establishment on his side, with their money, but that’s not doing him any good. In fact, in South Carolina, he’s getting desperate:

With Jeb Bush struggling to connect with some Republican activists, his campaign has begun exploring whether to bring in the person it thinks may be best equipped to give him a boost with skeptical conservatives: his brother George W. Bush. The 43rd president is a very popular figure among Republican voters and could deliver a needed jolt to his brother’s sluggish campaign.

Advisers to Jeb Bush in this crucial early primary state have asked national campaign officials in recent weeks to send in George Bush, 69, who so far has appeared only at private fund-raisers, to vouch for his younger brother on the campaign trail.

The request for reinforcement underlines the growing urgency that backers of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, feel as other candidates vault ahead of him by stirring the passions of the party’s base.

But the question of how to use the candidate’s older brother is an agonizing one for the campaign. While dispatching George Bush to a state like South Carolina could shore up his brother’s standing with conservatives, and remind voters there of a political family they still admire, it could also underscore the impression that Jeb Bush is simply a legacy candidate at a time when voters are itching for change.

Jeb is not stirring the passions of the party’s base, and the Washington Post’s Dan Balz sees the problem here:

Lodged firmly in the establishment wing as the son and brother of former presidents, [Bush] faces resistance on the far right and among those yearning for an outsider. His hope is that he can change perceptions of himself, outlast his rivals with superior resources and persuade Republicans that he’s their best hope to win a general election.

Sally Bradshaw, Bush’s senior adviser, said the key remains what it has been from the start of the campaign: to portray Bush as a conservative reformer by stressing what he did in Florida. “People don’t know that yet,” she said. “When that message burns in, his numbers are going to change. That’s his path.”

They’ll see him as a sensible conservative, a little boring and a bit centrist at times, but one who gets things done. He’s the Obama of the right. That’s the idea, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice blog isn’t buying it:

Do you see Jeb’s problem? His plan is to say, “Yes, I’m a conservative – look at all the conservative things I did when I was in government a million years ago.” In other words, his plan for winning over voters who want not only a right-wing ideologue but an outsider is to tell people what an ideologue he was years ago, as an insider.

With that strategy, he simply can’t win the nomination.

He’s got it all wrong:

Jeb should pander. Jeb should try to appeal to conservative voters’ baser instincts on hot-button current issues. That’s what they want, and that’s what works. …

This election has been a sort of pander Olympics, with the three outsiders likely to sweep the medals. Trump panders on immigration. Carson panders on the alleged incompatibility of Islam and the Constitution. Carly Fiorina panders on Planned Parenthood. (And “pander” is probably not the word I’m looking for in all cases – Carson really seems to believe everything he says, and I think Trump believes quite a bit of what he’s saying, though I have serious doubts about Fiorina.)

Jeb Bush and his team have no idea how unhappy the party’s base is. His brother is irrelevant now. Obama is irrelevant too. Sensible is irrelevant. The Obama years are ending and everyone’s unhappy, not just Republicans. In fact, John Judis in the National Journal writes about the rise of the Middle American Radical – the Donald Trump voters and formerly the Ross Perot voters. These are those who believe that the middle class is being disadvantaged by a focus on both the rich and the poor. In 1976, Donald Warren, a sociologist from Oakland University in Michigan, identified these folks:

Warren called these voters Middle American Radicals, or MARS. “MARS are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected,” Warren wrote. They saw “government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply suspicious of big business: Compared with the other groups he surveyed – lower-income whites, middle-income whites who went to college, and what Warren called “affluents” – MARS were the most likely to believe that corporations had “too much power,” “don’t pay attention,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many liberal programs: By a large percentage, they favored government guaranteeing jobs to everyone; and they supported price controls, Medicare, some kind of national health insurance, federal aid to education, and Social Security.

David Atkins runs with that:

That helps explain why Trump has managed to stay at the top of the GOP field despite significant unorthodoxy on healthcare, taxes and other issues of concern to wealthy Republican donors. But I would argue that this sentiment extends far beyond just the demographic Judis explains. As a focus group moderator myself and a longtime precinct walker and phone-banker, I’ve talked to countless voters who have expressed similar sentiments – and they have ranged across political parties, age, races and genders.

It seems everyone is unhappy:

I particularly remember a series of focus groups I conducted among undecided, infrequent minority voters who were almost universally angry with food stamp and welfare programs because they worked full-time jobs and made just a little too much to qualify for them. They were angry that friends and neighbors of theirs were able to get assistance from the government, and they themselves were being “punished” for working. These were still liberal-leaning voters who were not going to vote for Republicans anytime soon because of their racism and because they wanted those welfare programs to continue to exist in case they themselves lost their job -but it didn’t change their angry perception that American government, in their eyes, seemed to advantage both the rich and the poor at the expense of the middle class.

And, predictably, the effect tends to be even greater among more comfortable white voters, who often have an unrealistically romantic idea of what being unemployed and on welfare is really like.

Our two political parties haven’t figured that out yet:

Republicans exploit this sentiment ruthlessly, but are of course hampered by their relentless determination to give the entire private and public treasury to the very richest. They also underestimate the degree to which, while many Americans do feel this frustration about the perceived lack of assistance to the middle class, they don’t necessarily want help for them to come at the expense of help for the poor – in other words, they don’t want to remove assistance to the poor so much as they want to increase assistance for the middle class.

Democrats hurt themselves in this respect through their rhetoric. Especially for neoliberal politicians, Democrats all too often speak as if the economy and government were working fairly well for everyone, but needed to be adjusted to “take care of those left behind.” Voters who hear that rhetoric assume that Democrats are going to take money out of their pockets to give to the poor. When talking about minimum wage, Democrats don’t spend enough time mentioning the macroeconomic effects, indicating how higher minimum wages aren’t just helpful to the families who directly receive the raise, but for everyone receiving the benefits of increased consumer demand and spending in the economy.

So we have a structural problem:

It’s an artifact of America’s peculiar winner-take-all political system that we only have two functional parties. Economically, this means that the conservative party works to align the middle class with the wealthy against the poor, while the liberal party works to align the poor and the middle class against the rich. But the middle class ideally wants to promote its own interests above all, and all too often it seems to them like no one is doing that.

So Atkins has advice for the Democrats:

Fortunately, there is no reason that Democrats need to reduce empathy or benefits to the poor in order to accomplish this. Policies like universal healthcare, student loan reform, housing reform and others serve to benefit everyone in the 99%, and can be accomplishing without making any cuts to the most unfortunate and oppressed in society.

What they don’t like is the comfortable neoliberal “center” in which everyone is supposed to get along with a smiling corporatist agenda, letting the rich use the market to run rampant over the middle class while smoothing out the sharpest edges at the very bottom. That makes almost everyone angry.

That is, in fact, why everyone is angry with Hillary Clinton and the blogger BooMan adds more:

One might object that the liberal party needs to raise money, too, and are increasingly uninterested in alienating the wealthy donors and (suburban) voters they need to be a successful organization. I’m of two minds about this. Yes, there’s more money in politics than ever and it changes how the parties behave. The obviously bad part of this is it that blurs people’s choices. There isn’t a party out there that has the workers’ interests as their primary directive. In a multiparty system, we’d have unapologetic union representation at the table at all times, for example.

On the other hand, a true governing party, particularly in a two-party winner-take-all system, needs to present a balanced platform that at least attempts to get the mix right for everyone. That means that a Democratic Party that wants to have a lock on the White House can’t be reflexively anti-Wall Street or pro-worker all the time across the board. It needs to serve more as broker or arbitrator. And this is more true as the other party becomes less of a good faith partner for negotiations. In the recent past, even Republicans as conservative and corrupted by money as Rick Santorum courted union votes and could be relied upon to consider their interests at least some of the time. Today, however, Republicans aren’t reliable allies to unions and they’re not reliable partners with the Chamber of Commerce, either. They won’t pave our roads or pay our bills, so the other party has to step into the breach and govern.

The positive part of this is that it gives the Democrats broad legitimacy as the only responsible and dependable party, and that’s something a majority-coalition party should have and actually needs to be successful. You could tell that the party had achieved this with Obama by the mix of donations he received and also by the fact that the Eisenhower Republicans basically abandoned their party and signed up with his program back in 2008.

Yes, he was odd. The left felt betrayed, the right never trusted him, and he got things done, at a cost:

This seems to have removed something critical from the Republican Party’s central nervous system, causing them to careen immediately into Know-Nothing Tea Party lunacy. But this only reinforced the cleavage between the two parties: one, a governing party, the other a party of permanent opposition.

What’s screwing up the works is that the opposition party has achieved an electoral lock on the House of Representatives, which means that the governing party isn’t permitted to govern even as it attempts to do so by taking in the interests of the wealthy, the small business community, and Wall Street.

This could explain the current mess:

A party that seeks to run this big country of ours with basically less than no assistance from their political opponents has to be a Big Tent party. If the other side were reliably representing the views of the big brokerage houses and the agricultural and other big businesses and if it were bringing the Chamber of Commerce’s positions to the table, then the Democrats could simply negotiate with the working people’s interests in mind. But, what’s actually happening is that the Republicans aren’t a broker for anyone, so the Democrats have to do all the work themselves. Now we’re the party that passes the budget and appropriates the money in John Boehner’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate. We’re the party that paves the roads and pays the bills on time. We’re the party that saves the Export-Import Bank, etc.

Money certainly contributes to this problem and corrupts our system, but the simple insanity of the other side and their refusal and inability to govern makes it necessary for our side to be the grownups.

In other words, for reasons of both money and votes, the Democrats can’t just be the workers’ party. But workers’ interests aren’t the only interests that have legitimacy. The Democrats aren’t being insufficiently populist simply because they’re chasing big money. They’re actually trying to fill a breach created when the Republicans abandoned their posts.

That is an odd situation:

Leftists see the Democrats as neoliberal sell-outs, while they also become responsible for everything the government does, good and bad. And since the government can only limp along in this crippled state, it’s not too popular to be responsible for their work product. This is why the Republicans can run the Congress so badly that people hate the federal government with a seething passion, and then win reelection in a landslide on the momentum of the anti-government feeling that they created through their obstruction and ineptitude. …

Still, where the rubber meets the road is in addressing the economic and cultural anxiety of the white middle class. If the Democrats can’t do a better job of that, and of selling that, they won’t win back the House and our government will remain crippled for the foreseeable future.

Expect that. The eight-year-anomaly that was the Obama presidency, where useful things somehow got done, is coming to an end. It’s the morning after now, and everyone is unhappy. Hangovers are a bitch.

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The Fatalists

That last year of college was going to be odd. In the spring of 1968, so long ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Many cities exploded, and after the riots burned themselves out, in the summer, it was Bobby Kennedy shot dead out here in Los Angeles, followed by those massive riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Dan Rather was roughed up by the Chicago police on the floor of the convention. Something odd was going on in the country, and then it was off for that senior year.

Nixon won the election in November – after he talked about law and order a lot and about that silent majority – the people who never took to the streets but wanted things just as they were and as they always had been. Many of them, however, did take to the streets. They weren’t silent. Those were the construction workers and angry Midwestern housewives with the big hair, shouting at the scruffy antiwar crowd – America, Love It or Leave it! They were on television every night, between the scenes from Vietnam of our guys slogging through the jungle and dying right before our eyes, or so it seemed. That fall was the Tet offensive, and Walter Cronkite – we all called him Uncle Walter – ended that one newscast by telling America it was time to get out of Vietnam. There was no winning this.

The silent majority trusted Cronkite implicitly. Now what? And all of this made it hard to focus on the college stuff. The honors thesis, on the structural semiotics of satire in the minor satires of Swift, seemed silly. That was, as they say, academic. The real issue was what the late sixties in America exposed – the total underlying incompatibility of conservatives and liberals.

Something was happening here. For almost two hundred years, conservatives and liberals had managed to keep America moving forward, more or less, save for that Civil War thing, by reaching grudging compromises on this and that. Give and take was assumed to be a necessary evil, and not really all that evil, but like slavery and states’ rights had ripped the country apart a hundred years earlier, Vietnam, and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, had ripped the country apart again. It was a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying “hooray for our side” – as in that famous song about the 1966 riots right here on the Sunset Strip. That wasn’t an antiwar song. That was about the apparent end of the possibility of people getting along with each other ever again.

That was the late sixties. Necessary grudging compromise didn’t end with Newt Gingrich in the nineties, or in 2010 with the Tea Party. It ended when we got stuck in Vietnam. Politics and cultural matters were reduced to the bare basics. Those on the left, from the meek dreamers to the angry militants in the streets, knew, for a fact, that what was wrong could be fixed, and what seemed good enough could be made better. Anyone who thought otherwise was a fool, or worse. Screw them. Those on the right, from the wordy intellectuals like William F. Buckley to the John Birch Society conspiracy folks, wanted things just as they were and as they always had been. If things were awful, the fix would be worse, and really, things are fine just as they are. If fact, some things just can’t be fixed. Deal with it. Those on the right settled into a rigid fatalism. What can you do about this or that anyway? Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, or worse. Screw them right back. America, love it or leave it!

No one says that anymore, at least that way – history has added too many layers of irony to those words – but America is just fine, so sit down and shut up. And dismissive fatalism is now what those on the right practice as a matter of course. Choose an issue. There’s nothing that can be done, and certainly nothing that can be done by government. Life is hard. Deal with it. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

That still plays out:

Donald Trump doubled down on his climate denial this week, saying on the Hugh Hewitt radio show that climate change isn’t something he thinks is happening.

“I’m not a believer in global warming,” he said after Hewitt asked about his views on climate change. “And I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming, and it’s going to start to cool at some point. And you know, in the early, in the 1920s, people talked about global cooling. I don’t know if you know that or not.”

Trump really is a fatalist:

“I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.”

Only a fool would try to deal with the oceans rising and drowning Miami or whatever. These things happen, and that’s a theme here:

Donald Trump says even if he becomes president, he doesn’t expect to halt all mass shootings like the massacre at an Oregon community college Thursday because there will always be people that society can’t stop.

Trump on Friday was asked what he would do as president to try to prevent attacks like the shooting at Umpqua Community College, but he said there are “millions and millions of sick people all over the world” that make it difficult, no matter how strong the laws are.

“You’re going to have these things happen and it’s a horrible thing to behold, horrible,” Trump said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

“It’s not politically correct to say that, but you’re going to have difficulty and that will be for the next million years, there’s going to be difficulty and people are going to slip through the cracks,” Trump added. “What are you going to do, institutionalize everybody?”

You’re going to have these things happen. Anything you try to do will be stupid, and Trump isn’t the only fatalist:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reportedly told a South Carolina crowd on Friday that gun control is not the answer to reducing gun deaths in the U.S. because “stuff happens.”

“I had this challenge as governor. Look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s necessarily the right thing to do,” Bush said, in response to a question about gun control.

The remark, first reported by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, came amid renewed calls for greater restrictions on guns in the wake of a massacre at an Oregon community college that left 10 dead, including the gunman.

Bush doubled down on the remark after the event. In video posted online, Lizza asks the presidential candidate is the phrasing was a mistake.

“No, it wasn’t a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Explain to me what I said wrong,” a visibly frustrated Bush responded. “Things happen all the time. Things. Is that better?”

Maybe not, because this came up at President Obama’s press conference later that day:

Obama, who clearly had not yet heard the quote from Bush, paused before saying, “I don’t even think I have to react to that one.”

After another few seconds of silence, he added, “I think the American people should hear that and make their own judgments based on the fact that every couple of months we have a mass shooting… and they can decide whether they consider that stuff happening.”

The Bush campaign then issued a statement – the response from Obama and other Democrats and the media was “sad and beyond craven” – these things DO happen. They’re awful. But that doesn’t mean we should do something stupid.

Slate’s Jim Newell tries to figure out what Jeb Bush was really saying:

Was he shrugging off the massacre, in a “what a crazy world we live in, whatcha gonna do” sense? Or was he – as conservatives like Frank Luntz as well as liberals like the New Republic’s Brian Beutler and the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald suggested – implying that the “stuff” was tragic, but it’s best to react cautiously lest hastily thought-out public policy decisions are made?

How about somewhere in the middle?

Bush wasn’t shrugging off the incident as unimportant, or just one of those things that happens. But he also seems to be treating it as an isolated incident that we haven’t seen recurring over and over again for years now. This massacre was not the dawn of a previously unconsidered public phenomenon; there are gun-control policy options available that legislators have been working for years to enact. It wouldn’t be an “impulsive” decision to move on them now, nor would it have been several years ago when President Obama pushed unsuccessfully to get them through Congress.

Yes, you “never want to pass a sweeping law immediately after a tragedy, before the country has had an emotional cooling-off period to properly assess its consequences” as Newell puts it – but the tragedies keep mounting up. They keep rolling in. That makes Bush’s static fatalism a bit absurd. What’s he waiting for? How long do we wait?

That depends on your sense of fatalism, as Heather Parton explains:

It is hurricane season and all along the east coast residents are girding themselves for major weather. Every once in a while a major storm makes landfall and property is destroyed and lives are lost. One hopes that doesn’t happen this year. But natural disasters are a fact of life people just learn to live with. Tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, major floods and fires are considered to be acts of God and while we try to mitigate the damage everyone knows that we cannot stop them. It’s just the way it is.

In America, gun violence is just another natural disaster. Like an earthquake for which you can never really be prepared, most people have come to see a mass killing like that which happened in Oregon yesterday as being unpreventable. We might as well try to stop the sun from coming up in the morning. All we can do is try to comfort the survivors and help people cope with the aftermath. On any given day we could personally be the victims of gun violence or turn on our TVs and computers and witness some kind of mass shooting, horrifying domestic dispute that ends in carnage, accidents or criminal activity. And that’s normal.

To the rest of the world, this is simply insane. Elsewhere they treat gun violence like a public health threat and limit the public’s exposure to it through strict gun regulation. Different cultures have slightly different approaches but there is no other developed country in the world that treats gun violence as if it were a simple fact of life they must live with.

But the fact that Americans accept this doesn’t mean they want it to be this way. The polling shows that majorities of Americans support common sense gun regulations of the kind which are proven to work in other countries.

That was what the polls showed after the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those majorities of Americans, however, faced the ultimate fatalist:

We can thank one man who runs one powerful lobbying group, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. According to the Frontline documentary “Gunned Down” it was clear that the NRA was thrown by the Newtown massacre and there was personal pressure on board members to accede to some kind of gun safety regulation to appease the national sense of horror over the event. At the very least, they thought it would be wise for the organization to keep a low profile in the aftermath. But without telling anyone LaPierre staged a press conference in Washington DC and came out swinging. He said in no uncertain terms that there would be no compromise, no negotiation. He doubled down on the vacuous, insincere NRA logic that the reason those tiny children were gunned down in their 1st grade classrooms was the fact that there weren’t enough guns there. …

The best they can do is to say that if we had sharp-shooters stationed in classrooms all over the country we could maybe cut the death toll. There would still be dead kids, of course. Maybe even more would die. But it is simply inconceivable to them that we might seek ways to end this violence in the first place. They say the world is full of monsters and predators. But just as we cannot hold back the tides it is impossible to keep deadly weapons out of their hands.

LaPierre gave no quarter after Newtown and the results speak for themselves. The bill the president pushed, as hard as he could, died in the Congress. And that, I believe, was the watershed that convinced Americans that we were impotent to deal with the problem. If the NRA is so powerful that it could single-handedly derail some very minor regulation in the wake of a massacre of babies then it just seemed hopeless. (And politicians wonder why people have lost faith in government.)

The fatalists won that one. Nothing can be done. Send in the armed guards. Arm the teachers. Hell, arm the kids. What else can you do?

Parton isn’t happy with that:

There is literally no reason the gun proliferation activists and the NRA will allow the common sense gun regulation that exists everywhere else in the developed world.

There are many fine people working to bring some sanity to American gun laws. In fact, one of the saddest consequences of all this gun violence is that each time a new mass killing takes place you see that more family members from previous horrific events have been radicalized by the government’s inability to deal with this problem. And one cannot give up hope. But the world’s worst terrorist attack couldn’t budge them. The wanton killing of 20 little six-year-olds merely motivated them to strengthen their resistance. Constant gun violence in work places and churches and movie theatres and schoolrooms has only caused them to redouble their efforts to put more and more guns into society. It’s hard to even imagine what could possibly make a difference at this point.

So Americans now carry on as if it’s as normal for average citizens to be randomly gunned down in a classroom or during a prayer meeting as it is for a tornado to tear through a small town in Oklahoma or wildfires to burn through the forest. All they can do is watch in horror and be grateful it hasn’t happened to them.

Conservative fatalism won the day, even if after the 2013 Navy Yard attack, President Obama recalled the massacres at Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown:

No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. None. Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is ten times what it is in other developed nations. … We Americans are not an inherently more violent people than folks in other countries. We’re not inherently more prone to mental health problems. The main difference that sets our nation apart – what makes us so susceptible to so many mass shootings – is that we don’t do enough. We don’t take the basic, common-sense actions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people. What’s different in America is it’s easy to get your hands on guns.

William Saletan takes it from there:

Republicans don’t buy the gun-supply theory. They blame our homicide rate on culture and mental illness. In January 2013, shortly after the Newtown massacre, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is currently on the rise among GOP presidential candidates, rejected Obama’s plea for new firearm restrictions. “Guns are not the problem,” Rubio asserted. “Criminals with evil in their hearts and mentally ill people prone to violence are.” In a Fox News interview, Rubio elaborated: “The issue America faces is not guns. It’s violence. I think the fundamental question is what is happening in our culture and in our society that’s leading to people committing these atrocities, whether it’s mental illness or some other violent propensities that have come into our culture.”

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and another GOP presidential candidate, expressed a similar view. A month after Newtown, he argued that gun control didn’t work. Instead, Kasich touted his state’s increase in funding “for people who are potentially violent and have mental illness.” Rather than crack down on weapons, Kasich explained, “My focus is on what I believe is the most important part of this, and that is a person who has violent tendencies who has nowhere to go.”

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, takes the same approach. Since Newtown, he has allowed tougher penalties for violating existing firearm laws, but he has also repeatedly vetoed new restrictions. Last year, when state lawmakers sent him a bill that would have trimmed the maximum capacity of gun magazines from 15 rounds to 10, he stripped out that language and rewrote the bill to propose changes in the state’s mental-health system. “It simply defies common sense,” the governor argued, “to believe that imposing a new and entirely arbitrary number of bullets that can be lawfully loaded into a firearm will somehow eradicate, or even reduce, future instances of mass violence.”

They’re all fatalists, but fatalists in action:

These politicians aren’t just tossing around idle rhetoric about depravity and mental illness. They’re betting people’s lives on the hunch that these factors – not the supply of weapons – account for gun fatalities. After Newtown, Rubio and his Senate colleagues killed legislation that would have tightened background checks for gun buyers. This year, Rubio introduced a bill to facilitate interstate gun purchases and remove local control of firearms laws in the District of Columbia. Christie vetoed a ban on .50 caliber rifles, as well as the 10-round limit on magazine capacity. Kasich signed laws that made it easier to carry a concealed weapon and to bring it into a bar or stadium. Both governors have waived or relaxed safety training requirements.

At no point have any of these men – or, for that matter, any other Republican presidential candidate – offered a plausible reason to believe that something unique in American psychology, rather than our high volume of firearms, explains our homicide rate. They have yet to answer the challenge Obama put to them not just on Thursday, but a year ago during a conversation with tech executive David Karp:

“The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course.”

That is sort of par for the course, if you’re a fatalist. The Second Amendment may or may not permit those guys to fill their basements and attics with massive firepower and enough ammunition to seize control of Cleveland. Original-intent strict constitutionalists argue that’s fine. What are you going to do? The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788 – it can’t be changed – the courts cannot say the Second Amendment doesn’t say what it says. America, love it or leave it.

Is that so? If you’re not a fatalist you believe it’s not 1788 at the moment. We’ve amended the Constitution. The Supreme Court has often ruled that what was codified in 1788 can been seen in lots of ways. America, love it and make it even better.

That was one of the two arguments in the late sixties. Fatalism can be fatal – but we still seem to be having those same arguments. There’s talk of the silent majority again. Something happened in the late sixties that is still happening. Damn, the senior year was difficult. It doesn’t get any easier.

Posted in Gun Control | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments