Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2012

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A 2007 Jon Swift picture.)

Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel. He left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the “reasonable conservative” blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows...

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's 2007 and 2008 editions. The 2010 revival here, and here's last year's edition.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, Blogroll Amnesty Day (co-founded with skippy) is a celebration of small blogs that's still going strong, and coming up again the first weekend in February.

Thanks to all the participants, especially those who helped out behind the scenes. (I continue to try to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) Apologies to anyone I missed who wanted to participate. You still can, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2012.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

Brilliant at Breakfast
"The Pigeonholing of Adam Lanza"
Jill: "Musings on the media using the language of middle schoolers to try to turn an obviously troubled kid into a monster."

Ornery Bastard
"History Indeed Repeats Itself"
Bustedknuckles connects a recent disaster with an infamous past one.

"Come Home, George McGovern"
Darrel Plant: "How a change of 4.5% of the popular vote in the 1972 presidential race could have defeated the criminal re-election of Richard Nixon."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Alpha-Political Verse (Election 2012)"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My humorous 26-line poem about Election 2012, in all its alphabetized glory. "

David E's FaBlog
"Normal Democratic Means"
David Ehrenstein: "Justice Antonin Scalia's virulent homophobia. The post reveals that he didn't even deign to read the facts presented in "Lawrence vs. Texas" before deciding (against the court majority) that "sodomy" laws should stand."

Real American Liberal
"Breathe In, Breathe Out ... In ... Out ... Good"
John Sheirer: "A post-election message to Republicans who believe Obama voters are crazy or stupid or America haters: Take a deep breath, unbunch your undies, be still and quiet for a few moments, and search for your faith in America and in humanity."

"How Ronald Reagan Unwittingly Laid the Groundwork for the Death of Capitalism"
Marc McDonald: "Over the years, Ronald Reagan has gotten a lot of credit for achievements that he had nothing to do with (like "winning" the Cold War). However, Reagan should get credit for something that he actually did achieve: laying the groundwork for the death of capitalism as we know it."

"The 2nd Worst Mass Shooting in US History"
Mikeb302000: "Concerning the very recent horror in Connecticut, I put the blame squarely at the feet of the NRA and their adherents."

"Santorum and Delilah"
Dave Dugan: "Satire of Rick Santorum's superstitions regarding his success in the Iowa Caucus."

Pruning Shears
"Concerning violence advocates and nailing jello to walls"
Dan, DCblogger, affinis, lambert and okanogen: "A look at how some have tried to justify violence at Occupy with endlessly slippery arguments."

"Please Proceed, Governor"
Jon Perr: "Now that Mitt Romney’s perpetual quest for the White House has failed, he doesn't merely need to leave the national stage. Mitt Romney must take his brand of "post-truth" politics with him. As a much better man once put it: "Please proceed, Governor.""

"You might be an old fart if..."
J. of J-TWO-O: "Although I have many good (satirical) political posts, I decided to go with a little much-needed humor."

Poor Impulse Control
"Waiting For the End Of the World"
Tata: "When the states go all dudely privilege, dames need a new state for a dude-free state of mind."

skippy the bush kangaroo
"king of bain"
skippy the bush kangaroo: "parody lyrics of the police classic."

The Rude Pundit
"Andrew Breitbart in Hell: A Fantasia"
Lee Papa (The Rude Pundit): "Andrew Breitbart drops dead and realizes that he's heading to Hell. On his way down, he wonders what awaits him."

The Agonist
"Totalitarianism in the US: An Accident Waiting to Happen"
Numerian: "Compares Republican political philosophy to that of Soviet Russia, starting with Pravda like propaganda and promoting themselves through big lies, and in our case, small ones too."

"The View From 88—Distress and Hope"
Robert Stein: "From the far shores of old age, an ancient blogger seeks perspective from the hype of his own Greatest Generation to the bashing of Baby Boomers and tries to imagine a future beyond what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now.""

"And I Ask Myself, How Did I Get Here? -OR- Do I Owe My Soul To The Company Store?"
Rehctaw: "Reversal of fortune for the middle-class and other casualties of modern life."

Mike the Mad Biologist
"A Modest Proposal: Alabama Whites Are Genetically Inferior to Massachusetts Whites (FOR REALZ!)"
Mike the Mad Biologist: "Every so often, like a bad case of hemorrhoids, the race/IQ/genetics kerfuffle flairs up. Well, the Mad Biologist can settle it once and for all."

"I Cannot Truly Want What I Am Told I Must Have"
Melissa McEwan: "A post exploring choosing to be a woman without children and why I made that choice. Set against the backdrop of the Republicans' war on agency, I explain that, for me, as long as my culture and government try to coerce me into motherhood, the only truly authentic choice I have is to choose against parenting."

Confession Zero
"Love is above all, is all and cherishes all and would no more send part of Love to writhe in agony than breathe hate into our lungs"
Mark R. Prime takes a poetic approach.

Mock, Paper, Scissors
"An Affair to Remember (Charted)"
Tengrain and the crack team at MPS spend literally minutes analyzing all the known players and whatnot involved in the nefarious Petraeus Sexy-Time Affair and document the timeline in this handy cut-out-and-keep chart.

Strangely Blogged
"Because He's President, That's Why"
Vixen Strangely: "A rumination stemming from the heckling by a Dally Caller reporter on how right wing irrationalism shapes the choices President Obama makes, and how it totally doesn't."

Simply Left Behind
"Bread and Circuses"
actor212/Carl: "The Super Bowl is an annual spectacle that most closely hearkens back to ancient Rome in its decline. It's a sign to be cautious that we are not that far away from collapse."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Yes, I Do Take It Personally"
Mustang Bobby: "When the Constitution talks about “We The People,” I’m one of those people. I didn’t give up the rights enumerated in that document because I happen to be gay.”

The Way of Cats
"Village of Elves"
Pamela Merritt: "Remember wanting Sea Monkeys as a kid because the ads were so compelling? Their promise has been fulfilled; feline style."

Southern Beale
"Sometimes A Bra Is Just A Bra"
Southern Beale: "The post commented on Sally Quinn's unwittingly patronizing/unquestionably hilarious column in the WaPo about that infamous photo of a female protestor in Cairo being hauled away by police, clothes stripped off to reveal she was wearing a blue bra. Quinn just couldn't seem to get past the fact that an Egyptian woman wore a blue bra beneath her clothes. Talk about missing the forest for the trees!"

A Blog About School
"What Does This Blog Want?"
Chris Liebig: "It's basically a plea for people to think about schoolchildren in the context of other historically disenfranchised groups, and to be more conscious of the moral hazard posed by our authority over them. In the name of "achievement," are we teaching kids to conform to a less humane, more authoritarian world?"

"Who is John Galt?"
driftglass: "An in-depth look at Paul Ryan's desperate denialism of his Randite roots."

"Good move"
Brendan Keefe: "If by "best" one means "what provoked the most reaction ..." I like this post for the comments – instructive or unintentionally hilarious, depending on your mood."

Amendments We Need
"Romney's Ever-Fixed Mark"
Paul Wartenberg: "For all of Romney's flip-flopping during his campaign, he had one constant stance the whole time: a massive tax cut for the rich. This article attempted to shred that stance."

League of Ordinary Gentlemen
"My Year of Guns"
Tod Kelly: "Three encounters with guns – each in my eighth year – that shaped my love, respect and occasional lack of comfort with them."

"Full Metal Redneck"
Peter Barrett: "A rumination on killing a varmint."

"Internet Man Does Not Want To Be On The Google Anymore"
TBogg: "George Tierney of Greenville South Carolina does not understand women or how the internet works. Hilarity ensues…"

Mister Tristan
"Will to Live…and Ultrarunning"
Gary Bruner: "This post concerns dying before one’s time, the will to live, and quality of life, triggered by seeing a downed limb while running."

The Rectification of Names
"Workers unite! You have nothing to lose but elections"
Yastreblyansky: "It's from a series of parodies of David Brooks columns (David Brooks writes...), this one the early November piece on "The party of work", by which he meant Republicans. I know, how can you satirize that?"

Polite Company
"On the Internet, You Can Be Anything... "
Thursday: "It really disturbed me to see a level of degenerate thought going on in what is a community that prides itself on thoughtfulness, especially those folks "defending" the (possibly unintentional) creeper."

Sketchy Details
"Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games "
Robert Gannon: "In one of the weirdest entertainment stories of the year, a feminist blogger trying to Kickstart a project examining gender stereotypes in video games became the voice of women harassed and trolled for daring to have a voice on video games. Video games are apparently serious business for young male gamers."

glad you asked
"still struggling to come out"
aarrgghh: "a freeper asks his fellow wingnuts for advice for coming out to his gay friends."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"Guns, gun nuts, gun violence, Second Amendment nonsense, and the bloody results"
LarryE: "Newtown was not the first mass shooting and unless we call out the gun nuts and realize how limited the reach of the Second Amendment really is and then act on that knowledge, it will not be the last – or the worst."

Mutant Poodle
"The Perils of Privilege"
Mutant Poodle: "A reflection on the downside of never having had a shitty job, among other perils of a privileged upbringing."

"Political Theology"
Michael Odom: "I don’t blog as much as I once did, but the theocratic leanings of Mourdock at al. led me to a piece about religious certainty. "

p3 – Persuasion, Perseverance, and Patience
"Two countries separated by a boorish candidate"
Nothstine: "The English Language, the American Language, and America's most embarrassing ambassador of good will in 2012."

"Vertical Solidarity Is Nonsense"
B-psycho: "A response to Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay about race & reaction to Obama."

This Is So Gay
"On Stereotyping"
Duncan Mitchel : "The triumph of the meme."

His Vorpal Sword
"The Congress of the Forest"
Hart Williams: "One momentous day, the Forest Congress assembled to debate the burning issue of the hour: a bill had been offered declaring every acorn a tree, and, thus, all criminal penalties should accrue to anyone disturbing an acorn just as they would to anyone cutting down a tree ..."

"Paul Fussell, Scotch, a Birthday, & the Sophomore: A Shaggy Dog Story"
Ellen O'Neill: "Paul Fussell died this year. I was one of his "cookie cutter" students at Rutgers, except there was another side to him than the complete curmudgeon he came across in a People magazine article."

"I Give It Four Farts"
Roy Edroso: "I took the opportunity presented by some stupid documentary about wingnuts to channel my favorite comic character, Jonah Goldberg."

Pass the Doucheys on the Right-Hand Side
"Truth, Hypocrisy, and the Legacy of Leviticus – Part Two"
DC Martin: "A questioning of the frequent citing of Leviticus when people tout their "righteous" homophobia while they continue to engage in other behaviors clearly banned by the same book of the bible."

The Inverse Square
"Anatomy of a Zombie Lie"
Tom Levenson: "This post is a take-down of the claim, repeated after every gun massacre, that guns save many more lives in their use for self defense than they cost in these tragedies."

They Gave Us a Republic
"You're not supposed to pull the ladder up behind you"
Blue Girl puts it in perspective.

The Reaction
"Privileged rich douchebag: The Mitt Romney narrative for 2012"
Michael J.W. Stickings: "Long before the remarks about the 47% became such a significant campaign story, the essence of Mitt Romney's character was clear. This post set the tone for 2012."

We Are Respectable Negroes
"White Men Like Adam Lanza Commit 70 Percent of the Mass Shootings in the United States. Why is the Media Afraid to Talk About This Obvious Fact?"
Chauncey DeVega: "After the tragic Newtown massacre by Adam Lanza, a conversation about the relationship between race, gun culture, and mass shootings began—however briefly. In a series of posts, I began a discussion about white masculinity and mass shootings. Because white folks are "invisible" and do not have a "racial" identity in the United States the mass media does not talk about "white crime"…"

Lance Mannion
"Asperger's Un-diagnosed"
Lance Mannion: "There’s a general conception that Asperger’s is basically a form of clinical nerdiness complicated by reflexive jerkiness. Long-time readers know why that idea makes my blood boil."

Blue Gal
"Welcome to the Culture War"
Fran/Blue Gal: "Why no one can be a bystander in the Republican war on women."

The Hunting of the Snark
"Power and Money"
Susan of Texas: "I picked [this post] because it reveals the lengths Megan McArdle goes through to hide her ties to the Koch brothers, despite her claims that she has no loyalty to them."


Vagabond Scholar
"The Four Types of Conservatives"
Batocchio: "Most conservative political figures break down into one of four broad groups: Reckless Addicts, Proud Zealots, Stealthy Extremists and Sober Adults. (A long form post.)"

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2013.

(Added: A special shoutout to DougJ of Balloon Juice for his help these three years in obtaining submissions and thus spreading the luv.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hallelujah Chorus 2012

This post is a repeat, but for the season, it's hard to beat the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. First up, a neat flash mob version:

Next up, Cantillation with the Orchestra of the Antipodes, conducted by Antony Walker:

The Robert Shaw version is also quite nice, and then there's this one from the Roches (h/t Steve Audio):

Christmas 2012

Mr. Bean's Nativity Scene. (Hat tip to Blue Gal for the reminder. If British comedy is your thing, you can also check out Terry Gilliam's Christmas Carol.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tim Minchin – "White Wine in the Sun"

The animated verison of a lovely Christmas song by a nonbeliever. Minchin can be very funny, but here's he's quite touching. (I was first introduced to this a year or so back through the Balloon Juice community, and reminded again of it through a recent Digby post.)
Eclectic Jukebox

Digby's 10th Blogiversary

The insightful and indefatigable Digby is celebrating her 10th blogiversary. As usual, she's running an end-of-the-year fundraiser, and re-running some of her greatest (and most relevant) hits. Head on over!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ravi Shankar‪ – "Raga Ahir Bhairav"‬

RIP. It would be hard to overstate Ravi Shankar's influence on introducing world music… to the world. He was an excellent musician, a true master, and also a good composer. I'm fond of his work with Phillip Glass, he did the music for early films of the great Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, and Beatles fans are well aware of Shankar's influence on George Harrison. Still, for all the fusion and crossover work he did, much of it very good, it's his traditional music that may be the most, well, transcendental. I haven't been able to authenticate it, but he allegedly said something I love about education and learning being an ongoing process: "One does learn the sitar – one studies it." He leaves behind an amazing legacy.

Here are the obituaries from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times (also an appreciation), The Washington Post and the AP (plus another piece, "Sitar maker says Ravi Shankar’s legacy will inspire another generation of musicians"). Other appreciations abound.

Shankar was ridiculously prolific, and YouTube features a great deal of his music, including a playlist or two.

Local KCRW DJ (and world music guru) Tom Schnabel will be doing a Ravi Shankar tribute show this weekend. (I'll update the link for the specific show after it airs.)

Eclectic Jukebox

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to Read for Writers, by Vonnegut

A new book is out of Kurt Vonnegut's letters, and Slate has been running some selections. His advice to a friend slotted to teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop is interesting (and gossipy), but I really enjoyed his term paper assignment. Apparently, Vonnegut "wrote his course assignments in the form of letters, as a way of speaking personally to each member of the class."

November 30, 1965


This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...”

I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children ...”

Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.

Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.

Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.


There are many things to like about this. The first is Vonnegut's warmth. The wit isn't surprising (and the "poloniøus" handle is probably a little self-deprecating humor, Vonnegut casting himself as the fool even as he urges his students, "this above all..."). Still, he seems to genuinely like his students and teaching. It'd be hard not to respond positively to that. The second thing is his explicit (and implicit) instructions to his students not to try to agree with him – he wants them to think for themselves. The third thing I love about this assignment is the "you are a minor but useful editor" bit. Vonnegut is trying to help his students learn how to revise, how to evaluate the purpose of passages and their effectiveness and necessity. This is a very practical and an important skill. ("Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art…") If writing is both an art and craft, this assignment is designed to increase his students' understanding of craftsmanship. Lastly, while Vonnegut preemptively tweaks any tendency toward pretentiousness, and the assignment is extremely pragmatic, there's an irrepressible joy to the whole endeavor. It's a well-thought-out task, but he's also made it fun. He must have been a fantastic teacher. (Also, detailed grading of eighty 20 page term papers? That'll make ya swallow more than just two ounces of very good booze… and more than just good booze.) Vonnegut's other writing advice is quite good, all the more so because (true to form) he himself doesn't take it too seriously.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Dave Brubeck Quartet – "Blue Rondo à la Turk"

RIP. I have several Brubeck albums, and the man had a great run, performing 'til he was 88. This tune is one of his most famous, and also one of his best.

Eclectic Jukebox

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Political battles do not occur in a vacuum, and the current scrum features several highly familiar elements. If you've been following the "austerity bomb" / "austerity crisis" news (better terms than "the fiscal cliff"), one of many striking features is the colossal bad faith of the Republicans. Steve Benen devised the nifty chart shown above breaking down how lopsided the current "deal" is. He also notes that some conservatives are complaining that this deal, despite being both bad policy and massively skewed toward the losers of our recent huge election, doesn't go far enough in conservatives' favor. From "The plan the right is pretending not to like":

So, as far as the right-wing GOP base is concerned, a debt-reduction deal in which Republicans make no concessions at all represents an enormous sellout.

Except, in this case, I don't really believe the base is sincere.

We'll probably never know for sure what leading far-right activists are thinking, but by complaining about a deal in which GOP gives up nothing, they seem to be engaged in some political theater.

In other words, the Koch brothers' operation and the Heritage Foundation's lobbying wing are trying to offer some cover for House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership -- if the left and right both claim to oppose the GOP's so-called "counteroffer," then maybe it's the moderate solution between two extremes.

As for the "merits" of the latest offer from John Boehner and the Republicans, Greg Sargent provides a good summary of the latest exercise in Republican magic math in "Magical thinking in new GOP fiscal cliff plan":

So yesterday, House GOP leaders offered up their own fiscal cliff proposal. In exchange for substantial spending cuts, the big concession Republicans would make is that they would agree to $800 billion in new revenues. They would not raise tax rates, they would lower rates through tax reform, and produce the new revenues by closing unspecified loopholes and deductions, to be worked out later.

Is this even possible?

The plan is too lacking in detail to say for sure whether the numbers can even be made to work, according to a tax expert I spoke to this morning. He added that based on what we know now, it would require the elimination of so many loopholes and deductions as to be extremely impractical, and probably politically impossible, though the GOP goal is theoretically attainable under certain very narrow conditions.

Republicans have said that the $800 billion in new revenues would come from eliminating loopholes and deductions in a way that only targets those over $250,000. That way, Republicans can argue that their plan doesn’t hit the middle class, only the rich.

The problem, though, is that you’d have to eliminate virtually every significant loophole and deduction that benefits the wealthy to make this possible, according to Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Worse, if you also want to lower tax rates, as Republicans say they do, it would become even harder.

“If the tax rates are going to be lowered significantly, it’s harder and harder to hit that revenue target,” Williams told me, adding that until Republicans specified what sort of rate cuts they have in mind, it’s impossible to say whether this is even doable.

Williams added that to come within the ballpark of raising $800 billion in new revenues in this fashion, you’d probably have to pare back substantially or eliminate an enormous range of deductions, from the write-offs for employee provided health insurance, interest from municipal bonds, and money invested in retirement plans, to itemized deductions for charitable contributions, state and local taxes, and mortgage interest payments.

Good luck waiting for Congress to eliminate all of those.

Not that any of this is new, but this latest political battle shows once again that:

1. Republicans do not care about good policy or responsible governance.

2. Republicans do not care about public opinion. (Numerous polls show that the public supports raising taxes on the rich.)

3. Republicans do not care about election results (unless they win).

4. Republicans do not believe in fair dealing and good faith.

5. The media will not report political disputes accurately if doing so means criticizing one party significantly more.

A country cannot function well given this state of affairs, but as usual, the corporate media will not assess blame accurately or fairly, and the Beltway "solutions" offered are tend to be plutocrat-friendly measures that screw over the middle class. (Not to mention the poor. Remember them?)

We'll consider other aspects shortly, but more good pieces on this whole affair, see:

Ezra Klein's Wonkblog: "The White House reveals their tax math," "Boehner’s latest tax offer is $150 billion less than he offered in 2011" and "Yesterday’s tax revenues can’t support tomorrow’s America."

Jonathan Bernstein: "Boehner’s offer: A start, but it’s still unclear whether it’s real."

Paul Krugman: "Fighting Fiscal Phantoms," "Class Wars of 2012," "What Defines A Serious Deficit Proposal?" "The Full McConnell," "Operation Rolling Tantrum," "It’s Health Care Costs, Stupid" and "Why People Are Confused About the Fiscal Cliff"

Josh Barrow at Bloomberg: "What's Wrong With the Republican Fiscal Cliff Counteroffer"

Jonathan Cohn: "The Fiscal Cliff Is Better than Boehner's Lousy Offer"

Digby on the so-called grand bargain and fiscal cliff (and don't forget David Dayen).

Meanwhile, it's worthwhile to look at some of the other overarching dynamics.

Republican Sabotage

Republicans decided from the very beginning they would try to sabotage Obama's presidency. Despite their whining and accusations that Obama rebuffed them, they have always been acting in bad faith. Dan Balz provided one of the best accounts back in September in a Washington Post feature. It's worth reading in full, but this section in particularly sticks with me (emphasis added):

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who fought with and compromised with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, believed the country was hungry for an end to political conflict and was invested in the success of the nation’s first African American president. On Inauguration Day, Gingrich said recently, he told his wife, Callista, that if Obama followed through on what he had said throughout the campaign, “he will be Eisenhower and he will split the Republican Party.”

Later that evening, Gingrich joined a dozen or so other Republicans for a dinner at the Caucus Room restaurant. Their conversation about how to plot a comeback was described in some detail by author Robert Draper in his book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.”

When Gingrich left the dinner, he told his colleagues, “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”

Asked recently to reconcile his feelings on the afternoon of the inauguration and his conclusions after the dinner, Gingrich’s response encapsulated both the promise of the Obama presidency and the obstacles he would encounter trying to fulfill it.

“Our job was to design the optimum GOP strategy,” Gingrich said. “Obama’s job was to govern so our strategy would fail.”

Said Axelrod, “If on inaugural night, leaders of the Republican Party are meeting to talk about how they could thwart the president, it belies the notion that they are waiting patiently by their phones for a call from the president to see if they could work together.”

Balz (and Draper, in his book) go into far more detail, but the evidence is damning, and several elements are notable here. One, Gingrich was and remains one of the people most responsible for "political conflict" and hyper-partisanship in America. He's still despicable, and given his pandering racism during his presidential run, he certainly wasn't "invested in the success of the nation’s first African American president." Two, the Republicans are acting in bad faith even by the degraded standards of this account; despite being beaten, despite the failure of their "strategy," they're still opposing Obama… and good policy, and the will of the people. Three – Gingrich doesn't seem to realize how incriminatory this account is. In a corrupted D.C., perhaps it's nothing too shocking, but this story is further proof of the Republican Party, of movement conservatives, putting their party before their country. It is unpatriotic. It is sabotage. It may not be treason in the technical, legal sense, but it is (or comes close) in the everyday sense. It is contemptible to harm one's country, to screw over one's own constituents, all to try to acquire more political power. Sincere conservatives exist who champion polices I strongly disagree with, but I don't doubt their basic patriotism, that they're working for what they believe to be their country's best interest. That is not the case with this breed of conservatives, and they are dominant in the Republican Party. (Consider all the conservatives who attacked anyone who dared to question an unnecessary war under Bush as a traitor. Bush certainly had his detractors, and earned many more, but congressional Democrats worked with him, and liberals and moderates generally wished him well in office, because, contrary to Rush Limbaugh, the country can't really do well if the president doesn't.)

Norquist Victory

Ezra Klein makes an excellent point in "Grover Norquist is winning"

Don’t take Norquist’s pledge at face value. It’s an absurdity. From a budgetary standpoint, it’s an obscenity. And everyone — Norquist included, because he is very, very smart — knew it would eventually fall. It’s how it falls that matters. And right now, it’s falling exactly according to plan.

For decades now, Norquist has asked lawmakers to pledge to oppose any and all taxes. That’s a ridiculous pledge. Ronald Reagan, a president Norquist considers such a conservative inspiration that he’s embarked on a quest to name every airport and park bench in the country after him, raised taxes time and time again.

But that’s the point. The severity, even extremism, of the commitment demanded by the pledge has helped entrench a public impression that tax increases are a no-man’s land for conservatives. As recently as Reagan’s day, it was pretty much a given that cutting the deficit meant, in part, increasing taxes, even for Republicans. Today, Republicans who believe the debt is the greatest threat our nation faces — the new “red menace,” in the words of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — get plaudits just for being willing to consider the idea of a tax increase, no matter how small.

Norquist and his pledge changed more than the conversation. They changed American politics. The question isn’t how we’ll increase taxes and by how much. It’s whether we’ll increase taxes. For a Republican to simply consider a tax increase is considered a massive concession. That helps them ultimately agree to less in taxes, as having conceded so much philosophically and politically, they’re expected to do less as a matter of policy.

The true test of Norquist’s pledge wasn’t whether a Republican ever voted for another tax increase. It was whether it held tax revenues below where they’d otherwise be. It’s whether it increased the political cost of raising taxes. And today, you can see how well his pledge has worked.

I've made this basic point before, that the Norquist framework falls far short of sense. Streamlining tax returns would be a good idea, but we should debating how much we should raise taxes on the rich, how many brackets we should add and at what level and rate, not debating whether or not to raise taxes on the rich at all. Norquist is an excellent, dark example of an Overton window success story. (And while Obama and congressional Democrats certainly have their faults, and some awful "Grand Bargain" is still a threat, Romney would have moved the taxes issues significantly further to the right.)

(It turns out that Bill Moyers' show tonight has two segments dealing with Republican intransigence on taxes and the Norquist pledge.)

Media Complicity

Michael Grunwald recently wrote a fantastic piece that violates the code of silence among Beltway reporters, titled "Fiscal Cliff Fictions: Let’s All Agree to Pretend the GOP Isn’t Full of It":

It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

This isn’t just cognitive dissonance. It’s irresponsible reporting. Mainstream media outlets don’t want to look partisan, so they ignore the BS hidden in plain sight, the hypocrisy and dishonesty that defines the modern Republican Party. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I’m more than three weeks old.

I’ve written a lot about the GOP’s defiance of reality–its denial of climate science, its simultaneous denunciations of Medicare cuts and government health care, its insistence that debt-exploding tax cuts will somehow reduce the debt—so I often get accused of partisanship. But it’s simply a fact that Republicans controlled Washington during the fiscally irresponsible era when President Clinton’s budget surpluses were transformed into the trillion-dollar deficit that President Bush bequeathed to President Obama. (The deficit is now shrinking.) It’s simply a fact that the fiscal cliff was created in response to GOP threats to force the U.S. government to default on its obligations. The press can’t figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it’s taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened.

The next fight is likely to involve the $200 billion worth of stimulus that Obama included in his recycled fiscal cliff plan that somehow didn’t exist before Election Day. I’ve taken a rather keen interest in the topic of stimulus, so I’ll be interested to see how this is covered. Keynesian stimulus used to be uncontroversial in Washington; every 2008 presidential candidate had a stimulus plan, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. But in early 2009, when Obama began pushing his $787 billion stimulus plan, the GOP began describing stimulus as an assault on free enterprise—even though House Republicans (including Paul Ryan) voted for a $715 billion stimulus alternative that was virtually indistinguishable from Obama’s socialist version. The current Republican position seems to be that the fiscal cliff’s instant austerity would destroy the economy, which is odd after four years of Republican clamoring for austerity, and that the cliff’s military spending cuts in particular would kill jobs, which is even odder after four years of Republican insistence that government spending can’t create jobs.

I guess it’s finally true that we all are Keynesians now. Republicans don’t even seem to be arguing that more stimulus wouldn’t boost the economy; they’ve suggested that Obama needs to give up “goodies” like extending unemployment insurance (which benefits laid-off workers) and payroll tax cuts (which benefit everyone) to show that he’s negotiating in good faith. At the same time, though, they also want Obama to propose bigger Medicare cuts, even though they spent the last campaign slamming Obama’s Medicare cuts and denying their interest in Medicare cuts. I live in Florida, so I had the pleasure of hearing a radio ad from Allen West, hero of the Tea Party, vowing to protect Medicare.

Whatever. I realize that the GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.

While these general insights aren't new in the liberal blogosphere, it's a well-written piece… yet what's really striking and depressing about it is that such subjects are rarely written about by Beltway reporters. In the corporate media, pointing out the outrageous bad faith of the Republican Party (or the actual consequences of their policies) is considered terribly uncivil and "partisan." (Despite their faults, the Democrats simply aren't remotely as bad.) It's as if the so-called liberal media had been forced to swear an oath of omertà to movement conservatives not to give the game away.

Political scrums do not occur in a vacuum. It's hard to get anything productive done when honest. accurate discussion is precluded on the national stage. (For some political players, that's certainly by design; in other cases, it's laziness.) It's a radical thought, but maybe we could discuss the actual merits of policy (without Beltway class bias dominating), uphold the results of elections, and insist on responsible governance and fair dealing from all sides. Contrary to the Beltway conventional wisdom, which is almost invariably wrong, America isn't suffering from a lack of compromise – it's suffering from idiocy, corruption and cowardice.

(For previous posts on Republican extremism, American plutocracy, and the preponderance of bullshit in political coverage, see "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice," "The Four Types of Conservatives," "Attack of the Plutocrats" and "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit.")

The Post-Election "What Republicans Should Do" Rant

Post-election analyses about what the Republican Party should change have been pretty popular recently, and it's been fun to see sharp bloggers poke holes in the most blind, hubristic or otherwise ridiculous "advice." Personally, while I'm happy to work with decent people who self-identify as conservative or Republican, that type of person is faaaar from the norm in the conservative base or leadership. I'd really like to see a bipartisan commitment to responsible governance, so while I have my criticisms of the Democrats, the tremendous bad faith shown by John Boehner and other Republican leaders has me pretty pissed. (Yeah, who said an election should decide anything?) I'll try to return to more sober analysis later, but here's my terribly intemperate, uncivil advice to the conservative movement and Republican Party. Ahem.

Stop being racist assholes.

Stop being plutocratic assholes.

Stop being theocratic assholes.

Stop being anti-science, anti-empirical assholes.

Stop being McCarthyite assholes – and learn some basic civics and history, plus the meaning of the word "socialism." (Hint: it doesn't mean "things I [think I] don't like.")

Stop saber-rattling and overdosing on chickenhawk war porn. Stop defending and promoting unnecessary wars and torture. (You keep defending and promoting torture, you fucks.)

Stop attacking the arts, PBS, NPR, and teachers, you fucking bullying assholes.

Stop sucking the teat of the government and reaping the benefits of the Commons – and then turning around and attacking them. That's a dick move.

Stop treating pig-ignorance as a virtue.

Renounce all Norquists and start doing your damn job, representing your constituents' best interests and passing good legislation.

Stop confusing your own privilege with freedom. Stop throwing a temper tantrum when you're prevented from imposing your will on others.

Stop fighting against any and all accountability for your and your party's many failings.

Stop acting like any election or vote or thing-that-exists-in-some-way-that-you don't-like is illegitimate or un-American. Stop acting entitled that you're supposed to win, despite all the crap that you constantly pull.

Stop pretending that you really liked social progress (MLK, Latinos, etc.) all along after your latest dick gambit failed and you've gotten your ass kicked. Stop setting up new bulwarks to prevent progress immediately afterward.

Stop acting outraged anytime anyone has the audacity to object to you being an asshole. (That's sorta a feedback loop.)

Finally, stop lying all the fucking time, from lying about your own crazy or extreme beliefs, to arguing against good policies and for bad policies in colossal bad faith. You are the reason we can't have nice things, you selfish, stupid-evil-crazy muthafuckas.

If you can do that, sure, I think we can work together. But trust is earned with action, and your track record, uh, kinda sucks. So put up or shut up. If you won't reform your ways, well, karma's a bitch, and so are demographics.

(For more calm and detailed analysis, see "Common Ground in Diagrams" and "The Four Types of Conservatives.")

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dido – "Thank You"

A repeat, because it works so well for Thanksgiving. (Plus, I'm currently reading The Aeneid.)

Eclectic Jukebox

Meditation, Compassion and PTSD

Yesterday, NPR ran a good (and moving) story on the use of meditation to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which afflicts roughly one in four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Given a less cheery recent post on PTSD, and the spirit of the day, this seemed especially appropriate.)

The Vietnam vets talk first. Some say they'd never even heard of PTSD until a few years ago. Now that they're getting treatment, it's like they're making up for lost time.

"The idea, of you saying, 'just like me,' that does a lot for me in a sense because I know how I'd like to be treated or how I want to feel," says John Montgomery, who has a bushy gray mustache and a tattoo of a scorpion on each forearm. "So if I'm showing that to somebody else, I find myself looking at me a little better and being satisfied with what I see."

Montgomery says he knows that what the meditation is teaching him sounds incredibly basic: Treat others the way you want to be treated; it's Human Relationships 101. And yet, it's completely at odds with the person the Vietnam War trained him to be.

"You're in a situation where you don't negotiate. You either make it or you don't," he says, "because we were taught to survive."

When he came home, Montgomery says, he had forgotten how to be a son, a parent, a friend. This lasted for decades.

John Perry, a soft-spoken Vietnam vet from Phoenix, steps in.

"It's pretty much just a self-imposed prison," he says. His story is much the same as Montgomery's.

"I didn't talk to anybody. No one would ask me any questions about it. I wouldn't answer if they did," Perry says. "So isolation has been my problem for 40 years."

Hey, whatever works. Meditation alone might not do the trick for every vet, but it's definitely helping some of them. It's also heartening to see Vietnam vets get some attention along with the younger vets. The skills and mentality necessary for surviving warfare, an unnatural environment, are often ill-suited for civilian life. Not every soldier suffers PTSD, but the transition alone can be difficult (something The Best Years of Our Lives, among other works, captures well). "Treat others the way you want to be treated" may be "Human Relationships 101," but it's one thing to know it intellectually, and quite another to know it your bones, to feel it, to live it, to grow into that understanding more deeply over a lifetime. The most moving part for me is hearing the older vets reaching out to the younger ones – they've been there, and can speak with authority… and as John Montgomery discovers, compassion.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

School of Seven Bells – "Night"

The band solicited fan videos for this song, and this one was the winner. More information here.

Eclectic Jukebox

Food Banks – November 2012

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, this is a good time for those with the means to donate to their local food banks, or for those in need to get assistance. In my area, the Los Angeles food banks make a little go a long way. (A few years back, I started making an annual donation about this time of year.) The Feeding America site has a useful national food bank locator. Best wishes to all those in need.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day 11/11/12

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans' Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

This year, I wrote a new post, "Only the Faithless Suffer," along with a brief post featuring videos of First World War poetry (we've looked at a fair amount of war poetry over the years). Additionally, author of The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell, died earlier this year.

Three years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon). (2008)

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

I'll update this post below the photo with links to other folks' pieces for 11/11 as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me. Thanks.

Only the Faithless Suffer

In past years for Armistice Day, we've looked at how denying loss can tragically lead to more loss. We've examined how eagerly a blind rage can be embraced. This year, I wanted to look at willful blindness. (It turns out that the Beltway establishment and the Religious Right are quite similar in that regard.)

The Morality of Drone Strikes

First, let's consider Joe Klein and his remarks in late October on the drone strikes Obama has authorized in Afghanistan. The drone conversation starts roughly 7:15 in and goes until about 13:00:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Some of the key lines (emphasis added):

SCARBOROUGH: What we're doing with drones is remarkable: the fact that over the past eight years during the Bush years - when a lot of people brought up some legitimate questions about international law - my God, those lines have been completely eradicated by a drone policy that says: if you're between 17 and 30, and within a half-mile of a suspect, we can blow you up, and that's exactly what's happening . . . . They are focused on killing the bad guys, but it is indiscriminate as to other people who are around them at the same time . . . . it is something that will cause us problems in the coming years . . . .

KLEIN: I completely disagree with you. . . . It has been remarkably successful –

SCARBOROUGH: at killing people –

KLEIN: At decimating bad people, taking out a lot of bad people - and saving Americans lives as well, because our troops don't have to do this . . . You don't need pilots any more because you do it with a joystick in California.

SCARBOROUGH: This is offensive to me, though. Because you do it with a joystick in California - and it seems so antiseptic - it seems so clean - and yet you have 4-year-old girls being blown to bits because we have a policy that now says: 'you know what? Instead of trying to go in and take the risk and get the terrorists out of hiding in a Karachi suburb, we're just going to blow up everyone around them.

This is what bothers me. . . . We don't detain people any more: we kill them, and we kill everyone around them. . . . I hate to sound like a Code Pink guy here. I'm telling you this quote 'collateral damage' - it seems so clean with a joystick from California - this is going to cause the US problems in the future.

KLEIN: If it is misused, and there is a really major possibility of abuse if you have the wrong people running the government. But, the bottom line in the end is - whose 4-year-old get killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

Digby remarks:

Am I wrong or did Klein say that he thinks killing 4 year olds is legitimate because it "limits the possibility "that 4 year old American will get killed? Holy Moley. That's so far beyond the concept of self-defense he's veering into simple pathology.

Klein tends to slip up and inadvertently spill the beans about what our foreign policy elite (of which he is one) really think. Now, I would guess that he was trying to fudge here and say that it was too bad that 4 year olds got killed but "we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." But the truth that slipped out was that he believes we are killing their 4 year olds as part of a campaign of terror. And, for him, the good news is that we can do it with a joystick in California. That's sick.

Now, I doubt very seriously that anyone's targeting 4 year olds at the moment. Even I am not that cynical. But I also don't doubt that there are people who believe that if the 4 year olds of "those people" are killed it will wear down the enemy and make them cry uncle. It sure sounds to me like Joe Klein is one of them.

Greenwald dismantles the argument, showing that Klein's formulation results in exactly the opposite of what he claims to want. I'm so repelled by the fact that anyone would blithely remark that such a "trade-off" in this situation is remotely moral that I can't get past it.

There's much more that can be said about Klein, who's very much a Beltway establishment pundit. He's currently backing Obama, but he's hardly a liberal; he seemed to make it a point of pride to "punch hippies" objecting to civil rights abuses during the Bush administration.

Ever notice how the people who say "Shit happens" are often the people doing the shitting? (Or fully supportive of it.) It's a nifty little trick, pointing to the undeniable suffering in the world, and then shrugging to suggest that their own selfish actions are somehow ordained. It conflates life's unavoidable tragedies with those that can be avoided – and ignores that working to avoid tragedies, or minimize their impact, is the entire point. The people saying such things often honestly believe in what they're saying; it's the usual cognitive dissonance for mental self-preservation. It's an attempt – conscious, unconscious, or semi-conscious – to normalize selfishness, cruelty, or just callous disregard for the horrible consequences of one's actions (and inaction).

The conceit of people such as Joe Klein is that they are making the hard choices, that they are the realists – but this is, of course, self-aggrandizing bullshit. It's also evil, not matter how fashionable it may be in certain circles. Klein doesn't make the case that killing four-year old Afghani children is necessary. (Of course it's not, and even if one ignores the grotesque immorality of it for a moment, blowback does greater harm than any such killing could possibly achieve.) Klein has posed a theoretical "tough choice" without offering any evidence that it actually exists; he thus swiftly glosses over reality to present his fantasy as a pressing, urgent actual situation. This is the same game many a torture apologist has played, whether out of sincere fear or disingenuously. As Rear Admiral John Hutson testified in 2007, "Torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough." As we've discussed before, there is nothing "hard" or "tough" in letting someone else suffer, certainly not in the context of war, torture and abuse. That's the easy path. Klein has merely invented a shoddy rationalization to help him live with himself. He wants the answer he's invented – because it means he bears no responsibility, and he doesn't have to do anything. It's a kind of bourgeois imperialism or the usual ruling class corruption, all with the familiar pseudo-tough macho posturing of the chickenhawk. It's self-serving, willful blindness that seeks to excuse and normalize unnecessary suffering. Americans: Do not question the empire, or lose faith. Afghanis: I have made the hard choice to let you suffer.

The Conservative Mindset

We'll look at how religious conservatives in the Bush administration harmed patients suffering from PTSD, but I think a brief detour to explain the underlying mentality might help. Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) provides a perfect example; a 2011 Blog Against Theocracy post looked at remarks Shimkus made during March 2009 hearings of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:

The key remarks are:

The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.

Shimkus has said plenty of other dumb things. However, these particular remarks were both dumb and theocratic, and therefore of greater concern. They're problematic – or dangerous – for at least three reasons.

One, environmental and energy policies for the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. The same goes for all public policy, but the problem is especially glaring for any policy involving science. (We'll deal with some caveats in a bit.) Shimkus was pushing a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Passing a law that said, "You can't regulate pollution because the Bible says so" would not pass constitutional muster.

Two, Shimkus is on shaky religious grounds as well. The passage he cites only refers to what the God of the Bible will or will not do - human beings are quite capable of destroying the planet all on their own. (More specifically, human beings are quite capable of destroying humanity, but the planet would survive.) Additionally, Shimkus is picking and choosing what he wants from the Bible in his Appeal to Religious Authority. He's not asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban eating shellfish, or asking Congress to abolish a few amendments to bring back slavery, or trying to outlaw certain types of clothing, or otherwise trying to enforce many other precepts in the Bible.

Three, assuming Shimkus is sincere in his stated beliefs, his religion makes him a less reflective, less responsible human being. He has spouted beliefs that dictate that he, and other human beings, and the government of the United States of America, do not need to act responsibly when it comes to energy and the environment, because God will sweep in to save the day.

This third point is the key one for our purposes. Obviously, reflective religious people exist, but some people, such as Shimkus, use religion to shut down reflection – and absolve themselves of responsibility.

This is hardly a rare trait. While obviously not all conservatives are theocrats, and not all conservatives think this way regardless of the specific rationale, a core conservative tenet –directed at those Other People – can be expressed as:

1. Your misfortune is your own fault.

2. Therefore, I don't need to do anything to intervene.

The thing is, in reality, precept #2 actually leads to #1, not the other way around; it's a rationalization for conservatives' preferred (in)action, hierarchy, notion of the natural order, simple and comforting view of the world, and so on. Numerous studies have shown that conservatives (especially the more authoritarian conservatives) prefer a simpler world view or even black-and-white thinking, free from ambiguity or nuance. This "moral" stance justifies them doing nothing to help the fellow man or woman (just as the Gospels teach).

Denying PTSD

One of the more striking accounts about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) being denied comes from "God, the Army, and PTSD" by Tara McKelvey for Boston Review in 2009. The piece looks at Faith Under Fire, a memoir by Army chaplain Roger Benimoff, who served in Iraq and suffered from PTSD. Do read the whole thing, but here's some background (emphasis added):

During the Iraq war, however, the great difficulty veterans experienced in getting psychiatric care—greater than before—was not a product of cost-cutting, but of conviction: many Bush administration officials believed that soldiers who supported the war would not face psychological problems, and if they did, they would find comfort in faith. In a resigned tone, one prominent researcher who worked for the VA, and asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, explained that high-ranking officials believed that “Jesus fixes everything.” Benimoff and the others who returned with devastating psychological injuries found a faith-based bureau within the VA. At veterans’ hospitals, chaplains were conducting spirituality assessments of patients.

The story of the mistreatment of returning veterans from Iraq is well known and shocking. But the role of religious ideology in that mistreatment—how, inside the government, it was a potent tool in the betrayal of an overwhelmingly Christian Army—is much less known.

“I couldn’t stand to hear that phrase any longer—‘God was watching over me,’” Benimoff wrote.

He wasn’t watching over the good men I knew in Iraq. Faith was the center of my life yet it failed to explain why I came home and those soldiers did not. The phrase was a Christian nicety, a cliché that when put to the test didn’t fit reality.

Things had already begun to change dramatically at the VA by early 2005, shortly after Roger Benimoff left for his second deployment to Iraq. Many appointees at the agency were disturbed that so many Iraq veterans showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In part the concern grew from skepticism about the diagnosis itself, which some believed to be a legacy of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement. Whatever the merits of the diagnosis, it was clearly widespread and, moreover, staggeringly expensive to treat. In 2008 the RAND Corporation put a number on the problem, reporting that one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has suffered some form of mental illness, mostly PTSD and depression.

“God doesn’t like ugly,” one political appointee told Paul Sullivan, an analyst in the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, in a clumsy attempt to reduce the cost of caring for psychologically traumatized veterans. “You need to make the numbers lower.” Sullivan left the VA in 2006 and became head of Veterans for Common Sense, a group that filed a class-action lawsuit against the secretary of the VA for the shoddy treatment of veterans. It was dismissed in 2008 and is now being appealed.

These accounts are disturbing, especially given PTSD's potentially crippling effects and the history of PTSD treatment. Back in World War I, PTSD was called "shell shock," and many British doctors treated it as a failure of the will. (Luckily not all did. See the work of W.H.R. Rivers and the novel Regeneration. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dalloway provides a memorable portrait of a horrible doctor of the period.)

We should know better by now, but unfortunately, PTSD has too often been poorly treated in the past decade. Some of that poor treatment has been due to a macho military culture that frequently still sees PTSD as a personal failing versus an affliction, and some has been due to a Christian evangelical outlook that has essentially taken the same stance. See, for instance, Harper's, "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military and "U.S. Attorneys Scandal–Milwaukee," The Washington Post, "A Political Debate On Stress Disorder", The Nation, "Disposable Soldiers," as well as "AP: VA Makes It's too Easy for Veterans to File Claims ... Seriously," "Blaming the Veteran: The Politics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," the archives at They Gave Us a Republic and my own modest archives on the subject.

This is the section of the Boston Review piece that really sticks with me (emphasis added):

Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. “That’s too many,” McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. “They are too young” to be filing claims, and they are doing it “too soon.” He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are “costing us too much money,” and if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.” At that point, he slammed his palm against the table a final time, making a loud smack. Everyone in the room fell silent.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Sullivan said, recalling the incident. “In that one comment, he appeared to be a religious fundamentalist.” For Sullivan, McLendon’s remarks reflected the views of many political appointees in the VA and revealed what was behind their efforts to reduce costs by restricting claims. The backlog of claims was immense, and veterans, often suffering extreme psychological stress, had to wait an average of five months for decisions on their requests. When I asked him years later about the meeting, McLendon laughed. Then his face darkened in anger. “Anybody who knows me knows I wouldn’t talk that way.”

Nevertheless, McLendon was open about the skepticism he felt toward the diagnosis of PTSD, calling it “a made-up term,” which has “taken on a life of its own.” As he spoke about the diagnosis, he pounded the table with the side of his hand more than ten times, hitting it so hard that the wooden surface shook. “Do I think they have a mental illness and should be stigmatized for the rest of their life?” he asked. “What gives a psychiatrist the right to do that?” Later, in an email about our conversation, he wrote:

[PTSD] is not a diagnosis based on empirical evidence, but rather . . . it is an artificial construct erected by a vote of selected psychiatrists. This does not mean that there are not problems that certain individuals do have [and] issues that need to be addressed. But rather, it means that we have created policies and programs that have not served veterans well.

He recommended several books on the subject, including The Selling of DSM, whose authors, Stuart Kirk and Herb Kutchins, show a deep mistrust about the disorder and the scientific rhetoric surrounding the diagnosis. McLendon’s outlook seems to have had a significant impact on the way veterans are treated upon their return from war.

McLendon and many of the other high-level officials at the VA shared political convictions that, along with doubts about the science of PTSD, made them less likely to push for additional psychiatric services for veterans. They believed in streamlined government and free markets, and they supported a prominent role for faith-based organizations. The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, R. James Nicholson, had previously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and as ambassador to the Vatican. McLendon’s politics closely mirror his boss’s, and under Nicholson’s watch, veterans had increasing difficulty in obtaining adequate psychological care.

When a 2006 Government Accountability Office report raised questions about whether soldiers were getting the psychiatric help they needed, an assistant secretary of defense disputed the report’s findings, pointing to the fact that soldiers were being referred to chaplains. During this time contracts for veterans’ services were increasingly parceled out to leaders of faith-based organizations rather than to secular ones, even though veterans’ advocates opposed any bias toward faith-based treatment and argued that replacing empirically proven, nonsectarian programs with faith-based ones was a mistake.

One last bit – the military handed out many copies of Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life overseas, but:

As Benimoff and other soldiers eventually discovered, The Purpose Driven Life was not helpful, especially as the war’s own purpose grew less clear. Since Vietnam we have learned that PTSD tends to hit people especially hard when they fight in wars of choice.

Obviously, anyone's free to have any beliefs regarding religion (including atheism) they wish. That includes both soldiers and those treating them.

However, if your job is to help soldiers, and your religious beliefs are interfering with that – that's a serious problem. It is the moral duty of the caregiver to reach out to the person suffering, not the other way around. The line that's always stuck with me is:

...if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.”

McLendon denies he said it, and perhaps other readers will find that credible; I frankly don't believe him. Everything else he says in the article, his dismissal of PTSD and the DSM, and all the other pieces linked above that point to a sort of Christian triumphalism in the military, suggest otherwise. The thinking, however unconsciously, goes something like this: If God is all-powerful, and God is just, then the good are rewarded and the wicked suffer. Ergo, if someone suffers, he must be wicked. It's their own fault if they have PTSD. It's their own fault if they're suffering. I don't need to do anything.

...if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.”

When I first read that line, it stopped me cold, as if reading about a case of child molestation. If you're read or seen accounts of PTSD, and have some inkling of how devastating it can be, how it can destroy lives, break up marriages, lead to homicides and suicides – the casual, callous disregard for suffering in those words is glaring. When I read those words, I felt (and still feel, when I think about it) a deep if quiet rage, held in check by appalled shock. I want to talk to this man, question him, demand of him, How dare you?!? I want to try to slowly explain to him how horrible his actions have been, what unnecessary harm he has caused, what preventable suffering he has allowed… But I suspect he would not understand, would not let himself understand – because that's been the whole problem from the start.

These proudly Christian men thought they were godly; instead, they're Pontius Pilate.

If you send men and women to fight, die and get wounded overseas in the name of their country – especially in an unnecessary war – the absolute least you can do is to give them adequate care when they return. It is immoral to send them into a horrific situation – and then when they respond appropriately, as human beings, to that horror – to tell them that they have somehow failed, that it is their fault.

It is absolutely unconscionable for someone in this position of power to be this ignorant of the basic realities of his profession. And who let him be there in the first place? It would be like inviting a finger painter to perform major surgery on critical patients (except with a lower fatality rate). There are forms of stupidity so willful, so harmful, so cowardly, so self-righteous and blindly cruel they become a form of evil.

McLendon stepped down in 2006 because he allowed the theft of computer data, so part of this story is moot. But unfortunately, the mentality lives on and flourishes in some arenas. Like Joe Klein, like John Shimkus, Michael McLendon invented a way to wash his hands and absolve himself from responsibility. McLendon and Shimkus believe themselves to be men of God, and Joe Klein believes himself to be a wise political advisor. They are all painfully wrong, and their being wrong is not without consequence. It will be impossible to put an end to unnecessary wars and tragedies as long as men and women in power continue to convince themselves that the suffering of others is unavoidable or somehow a good, that only the faithless suffer.