Monday, November 30, 2009

UPDATE 8: Goofy Sarah Gets Punked - Again

Once again, Sarah Palin got punked by a comedian.

This time, "reporter" Marg Delahunty - played by Mary Walsh - of Canada's long-running social and political satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes tries to interview Sarah Palin at a book signing in Ohio.

So she's advocating repealing the "socialist" Canadian healthcare system and replacing it with a system that works so well in the US?

Hey, Sarah: Donchaknow your plane flies over Canada on the way to Wasilla?

h/t to Denis Campbell at The UK Progressive.

Obama’s Afghan Box Canyon

Anyone who’s been to Afghanistan knows that its eastern mountains bordering Pakistan are filled with countless box canyons from which the only way out is the same way you came in. They’re deadly – Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in this nightmarish geography – because it’s easy for insurgents to rain RPGs, mortars and small arms fire down on soldiers who never see what’s coming or from where it’s coming.

Thanks to George Bush’s seven years of neglect, Pres. Obama finds himself in just such a deadly box canyon in Afghanistan, militarily, politically and financially. Tomorrow night, he’ll lay out a strategy to do the nearly impossible: Outline a way out without getting out or getting trapped.

Carefully leaked snippets of what he’ll say at West Point are telegraphing that he won’t agree that the best way out of Afghanistan is to leave. So, we’re likely to hear some new version of the old version of the story.

Beyond Bush, a good measure of Obama’s dilemma is that someone high up in the Pentagon or working on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s staff in Kabul leaked his troop proposals to The New York Times and other reporters and then gave a public speech in London touting his views while the president was still forming an overall strategy; the speech earned the general a face-to-face dressing down from Obama on Air Force One as it sat on the ramp in Copenhagen after the president’s appearance at the Olympic Selection Committee. McChrystal got off easy because Harry Truman fired Douglas Macarthur for doing pretty much the same thing over Korea.

A combination of the leaked memo and McChrystal’s telling the Institute of International and Strategic Studies that a scaled down policy favoured by Vice President Joe Biden would lead to "Chaos-istan" narrowed Obama’s options. It gave Republicans a chance to scream “Listen to your general!” while allowing the left to accuse the president of opening the door to another Vietnam quagmire.

Even Bill Moyers – who was present at the creation of Lyndon Johnson’s mess – is expressing strong reservations. Besides announcing his retirement, Moyers devoted an entire Journal episode a week ago to a detailed recounting of how LBJ spent more time “listening to his generals” than to thoughtful people such as Senators William Fulbright and Richard Russell or newspaper publisher John Knight who, while recognising the domestic political risks, were telling the president Vietnam was a mistake, we should get out because Americans would be fighting for a decade and 50,000 soldiers would be killed.

How sadly prescient Fulbright, Russell, Knight, Sen. Wayne Morse and others were in 1965.

Military Debacle

As Danny Schechter wrote at Media Matters a few days after Moyer’s broadcast his cautionary warning, “The parallels with the present day, and the upcoming decision by President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan, are unmistakable and undeniable.”

As did LBJ in 1965, today the words “winning” and “finishing the job” and “fighting terrorists” creep into nearly every discussion of Afghanistan. Politicians, so-called military experts, reporters, pundits, talking heads, Dick Cheney, and loudmouth idiots insist upon looking at the war through a cracked prism, one that sees Bullets Over Broadway as the only possible, logical outcome if we don’t throw everything we’ve got into a fight in Khandahar.

The fact is, there’s a military debacle awaiting Obama behind every boulder.

“Whether Obama can 'finish the job' in Afghanistan depends on what he defines the job as,” Juan Cole wrote at Informed Comment, his authoritative blog on the Middle East and South Asia. Cole continues, “If it is to build a 21st century Afghan state and crush the Taliban and other Muslim political movements in the Pashtun areas, then I am extremely skeptical. If it is to prop up a shaky … Afghan government and military before pulling out, then his odds of success, while still bad, do rise.”

Pres. Obama will reportedly send 4,000 military trainers as part of the escalation. He could send 40,000 and it wouldn’t make any difference. There are widely published reports that desertion rates in the Afghan army runs at 25% and illiteracy rates among soldiers is roughly 90%.

How can a soldier be taught to stand and fight when they can’t read the manual that explains how to load a magazine cartridge into their rifle or clean the damn thing?

Moreover, soldier’s pay is low: Much lower than the $5 a day farmers, who are mostly non-political but whose families are starving, get paid by various insurgents for planting a roadside bomb or two before disappearing into the countryside. And, for the most part, working part-time for an insurgent group is a whole lot safer than being a semi-trained, illiterate, uniformed solider going into battle under corrupt leadership.

Regardless of the President’s strategy, there is disaster awaiting American, Canadian and NATO troops. Just ask Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan. The British. The Soviets.

Political Nightmare

There could be as much of a disaster awaiting Obama at home, where he hasn’t come across as fighting for serious health care reform, more interested in getting one or two Republican votes than in fulfilling a major campaign promise.

“It is extremely dangerous for him to go on alienating his base, which wants peace and prosperity,” Dr. Cole predicts, “with policies that make rightwing Republicans happy – coddling bankers in a jobless recovery and escalating an eight-year-old, increasingly unpopular war. The rightwing Republicans will vote for these in Congress but blame Obama for them, and benefit from Democratic disillusionment in 2012.”

Obama is in the same box canyon politically as he is militarily.

If he doesn’t send more troops, the deadly stalemate will continue and the GOP will have an election issue that could draw independents and moderate Republicans back into the fold.

If he sends more men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan, he won’t have any greater success at stabilising the country yet many Democrats and most progressives will feel betrayed again. Although Obama may enjoy a brief up-tick in poll numbers after his talk, as soon as larger numbers of American bodies come home in flag-draped coffins, and Walter Reed fills up again with the damaged bodies and minds of soldiers whose lives have been ruined, the country will turn against what it thought, in November, 2009, was a good idea.

Blank Checks

Even worse, the GOP will seize on the cost of escalating the war – which is something like $1-million per soldier per year – as an excuse to cut much-needed social programs at home: The public option, education, jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, converting to a greener economy, dealing with climate change, all will suffer as a result.

Moreover, fiscally conservative Democrats in Congress – of which there are far too many – will join in, effectively blocking what sound economists such as UC-Berkeley’s Dr. Robert Reich and Princeton’s Nobel Prize winning Dr. Paul Krugman – among many others – demonstrate is a much-needed additional stimulus to bring down the nation’s unholy unemployment and underemployment numbers, noting that current debt levels can be dealt with later because low bond rates show the market isn’t worried about how much the US owes.

As recently as Monday morning, Krugman wrote in his New York Times column a major new jobs programme is needed, warning that while “(a)ll of this would cost money, probably several hundred billion dollars … (b)ut has to be weighed against the high cost of inaction in the face of a social and economic emergency.”

The question is whether Congress would support such a programme. The House might but it’s likely to get bottled up in the Senate – along with nearly 1,000 other measures the House passed this year but the Upper House has yet to discuss.

Meanwhile, Obama is stuck trying to find his way out of a box canyon that, first, Bush’s neo-cons and, more recently, Gen. McChrystal led him into without getting another 3,000-to-5,000 Americans killed as needed programmes at home go wanting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Spirit Of Thanksgiving

Even after 19 years of living in Canada, it seems odd not to be gorging myself on a food fest the last Thursday in November at the start of a four day holiday.

Fortunately, Wednesday Addams reminds all of us of the true meaning and history of Thanksgiving.

h/t to Paul Krugman

Monday, November 23, 2009

Like Leaves, Life Always Drifts Back To Earth

By this time last November, I’d already wrenched my back shovelling. Twice. But this year, November in Toronto feels like May. Of course, May felt like March and August like late October so maybe it’s all just evening out.

It’s been in the 50s and 60s – called “double digits” in Canada, which insists on using the totally unfathomable Celsius thermometer – and sunny since Halloween. Knowing that such warm weather this late is like living on borrowed time, my dog and I are taking full advantage, spending afternoons in a nearby off-the-leash park. Prince, a Golden Retriever I adopted a few years ago, romps, stomps and rock-n-rolls with assorted friends – some familiar, some new, but to dogs it doesn’t make any difference and they greet all comers without prejudice. Finally, he hauls his tail over to where I’m sitting on a bench in the sun and lays down, panting, smiling and utterly exhausted.

He rests there contentedly, his white fur flecked with red and orange and brown bits of dried leaves, looking up at me every so often as if saying, “Thanks, pop, that was way too much fun!” If a buddy dashes over for more, all Prince has the energy to do is roll on his back, legs flailing at the air while making gentle, throaty sounds of joy as he plays mouth games with the other pooch. When the dog runs off to find a more active and eager buddy, Prince is content to let them go. At nine, he knows his limits; once he lies down, that’s it.

I know mine, as well, and it’s time for me to lie down.

I know this because, along with incredible weather, November brought me both a birthday and a report from the latest round of medical tests I underwent that had been administered by a long line of anonymous Torquemada’s dressed in identical white coats and pale blue scrubs some 10 days earlier. My cancer is back for a return engagement.

I’ve decided not to undergo more treatment. After I’ve-lost-track of how many rounds of chemo and radiation, plus a bit of surgery stuck in there someplace, enough’s enough. After thinking about it seriously, I’m not going to submit to months of feeling lousy – I mean really lousy – during treatment again only to be told six months later I need more treatment. I’ve heard “… and this should take care of it” one too many times to believe it anymore.

Naturally, my oncologist was beside himself and sent me off to see a hospital social worker. It was a pleasant enough exchange but not so pleasant I want to have another one. I did talk about this at length with my psychiatrist, who sometimes calls himself Flapping Lips, and while urging me to reconsider, he admits he doesn’t know what he’d do if he were in my situation and had lived my life.

I’ve had a great time during big chunks of that life.

When I was only seven, Warren Spahn taught me how to throw a baseball in the outfield grass at the old Milwaukee County Stadium before a Braves’ game. I couldn’t have learned from anyone better: Spahn went on to win more games than any left-handed pitcher in Major League history – a record he still holds today, decades after he retired from the game – and is in the Hall of Fame.

At one time or another, my work took me all over the world. I’ve been to all of Western Europe, much of Eastern Europe, China and Asia, and parts of Africa and South America. I've eaten dinner in the Eiffel Tower, stood in Red Square, played with a lion cub in a South African game preserve, walked on the Great Wall, watched jade traders at a street corner market on a Kowloon backstreet in Hong Kong, seen the sun rise on Bali and set over Phuket. There’s an elegant Chinese expression that, translated inelegantly, says "The same man does not return from a journey as the one who departed on it." I think it is true of all types of journeys and not just those involving travel.

I’ve lived in six great cities in two countries, absorbing bits of each along the way ranging from how I pronounce some words to a more expansive view of the world, and life, and me.

I’ve enjoyed five fairly distinct and generally successful careers; along the way, I was employed by only one place that I detested so thoroughly I couldn’t wait to get out.

I’ve met four US presidents, one in the Oval Office, and two Canadian Prime Ministers. I spent some fascinating time with two different men who played major roles in changing the face of Eastern Europe, and several days with a Chinese premier who turned his nation into the coming economic powerhouse of the 21st century before retiring. I’ve dined with authors, artists, playwrights, actors and artisans.

I’ve also met and written about the downtrodden, the helpless, the throwaway people who lost when life rolled the dice for them. In a few cases, what I wrote brought them to the attention of others who were able to help them turn things around, if even just a bit and for a little while.

I’ve seen the positive glow of pride and self-accomplishment that came into the eyes of more than two dozen adult illiterates I helped learn to read for the first time in their life.

And, since I fancy myself something of a writer, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with a number of them, often on airplanes and typically by accident.

I met Hunter Thompson just this way: The computer assigned us adjacent seats. I seem to be blessed with a peculiar kind of karma with airlines; flights are usually late and the service minimalist, but computers keep plunking me next to wonderful writers. Besides Thompson, over the years I’ve sat next to David Cornwall - John Le Carre - on a flight from London to Paris, Jimmy Breslin on the Boston-New York shuttle and Margaret Atwood from Toronto to somewhere, among others. All were engaging travel companions.

(Of course, it also works the other way ‘round: On a dreadfully long, non-stop flight to Tokyo from Toronto, I endured 14 hours next to an ageing academic who had the pungent aroma of old cheddar cheese and even older moth-balls about him. He had just published a scholarly article on Nietzsche. The premise, he explained in excruciating detail as we crossed the Pacific, was that the brooding, ominous German philosopher’s ideas still can be found underlying many mainstream political theories. Oh, good: The Boys From Brazil are alive and well and having fun in capitals everywhere.)

I’ve covered one war, two major civil insurrections over war, race and poverty in America during the late 60s and early 70s, and three presidential campaigns that ended up being turning points in American history.

A raft of activists, actresses, models, centrefolds, musicians and an actual heiress called me boyfriend at one time or another. So have writers, businesswomen, scholars, shop girls, secretaries, a couple of lawyers and a few single moms.

Ten dogs and one cat have graciously allowed me to share my home and life with them.

On the other hand, parts of my life were overwhelming and deeply disappointing.

None was more so than my sister dying 10 years ago. As hard as it can be to lose parents, one has time to prepare if they live their three score and 10 or more. I saw mine age, lose the ability to do things for themselves that they always took for granted, attended funerals for their friends. But there was no way prepare for watching Janice go from healthy to dead in 11 weeks, of brain cancer. Her loss affected me profoundly, and still does in some ways.

There was a pair of short, disastrous marriages; countless ill-starred, putative relationships with women; one suicide attempt. I was 16 and a sophomore at university, thwarted only because Mr. Donaldson – our retired neighbour across the alley – happened to be awake at two or three o’clock that morning and saw me go into the garage behind our house on Logan Avenue. He was sitting in his darkened kitchen having coffee. Who drinks coffee at three ayem if they’re not working the night shift?

I don’t regret not having children but I do regret never hearing a woman say “I love you” to me and actually mean it. Once, it would have been nice.

I’ve made horrid choices in women, to the point where, sometime in the early 1990s, a friend from my Chicago days recommended that “the next time you meet someone who’s interested in you, run away!” It took another 10 years but I finally realised she was correct and stopped dating altogether. I’m not sure what took so long; maybe it’s living proof of the triumph of hope over experience. Experience finally won.

Experience with my ex-wives contributed but only partly. There also was Elise, the world’s best juggler who managed to hide her fiancé from me - and, I assume, me from her intended - until a week before her wedding; Louisa, the wacky wop; Jacquelyn, the drunken skater; Barbara, the dark creature from hell; Amanda, the bi-coastal bi-sexual who had a boyfriend in New York (me) and a girlfriend in LA; Grace, who was anything but; Holly and Riba and Sera, all of whom thought men were simply gold cards attached to a life support system.

And people wonder why I haven’t asked anyone out for so much a glass of wine since 2003.

Or why I feel disconnected from the world, especially now as my medical situation stares at me blankly, an expressionless reality that has more fight left in it than I have remaining in me.

So it goes.

Death will be patient, if I let it. No oncologist worth the Hippocratic oath will tell a cancer patient how much time they have left because, frankly, they don’t know and the really good ones admit they don’t know. Cancer is an intelligent and clever disease, capable of thwarting brilliant human talent and crackling machines worth millions of dollars. In my case, I’m told, one cell hiding somewhere in my body, invisible to even the most sophisticated of diagnostic tools, is sitting there throwing off cancerous cells that go directly to my colon.

Thus, should I undergo yet another round of debilitating chemo and enervating radiation, that hidden, little cell will lay in wait in some dark, moist place inside me until I’m pronounced “clear” and then start its dirty task all over again.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in playing medicine’s game another time.

Sorry to tell you this Chuck Grassley and Sarah Palin and Virginia Fox and Glenn Beck and the rest of the Teabaggers and people who think the richest nation on earth is doing just fine having one-third of its population uninsured or underinsured: The only death panel is the one inside each of us.

I’ll keep working and writing as much and as well as I can for as long as I can. When I think the time has come, then Prince, Sparky – my 10 year old cat of unknown and highly suspect origins – and I will cross the Rainbow Bridge and go together into the great void, returning to cosmic dust.

This appeared originally at QOR, a site that carries my work and whose contributors discuss culture, and modern life and living in words, images and music.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Remake Of Pelham 1-2-3: Why So Many Movies Today Are So Lousy

I just saw The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 remake so I could better understand the inevitable sequel, The Putting Back of Pelham 1-2-3 Right Where It Belongs, and to compare it with the 1974 original, which spelled out the numbers in the title because audiences had longer attention spans back then.

The original, done in the pit of New-York-as-Hell era of filmmaking, was a crackling film packed with sturdy performances: Walter Matthau as the Bassett Hound subway dispatcher who deals with the hijackers; Robert Shaw as a steely-nerved soldier of fortune; Lee Wallace as a whiny, flu-plagued Mayor Ed Koch. But the real star was New York: Grim, shabby, broken, peeling. It looked like it smelled of uncollected garbage and bum’s socks.

Yet the movie was great. Everyone loves a crisp heist-and-caper flick, especially when you don’t know how the crooks will escape – or get caught. Add seasoned actors who knew how to inhabit a role and a director who lets the story tell the story instead of some jacked-up FX computer monkey doing it in the edit suite, and you had a superb, edgy film.

The remake is noisy, hyperactive, bright and incessantly vulgar.

We know the bad guy is bad ‘cause he shouts "Fucker!" frequently and "Motherfucker!" even more often. No, hold on; the good guys say that, too. Well, the bad guy is bad because he's an unhinged killer with a gripe, which is much more theatrical than Robert Shaw's deadly menace. With John Travolta, you know you're getting the former heart-throb, greased-up dance master, in his "I love being bad" persona first displayed in Pulp Fiction. After only a few scenes, we look forward to his death. You wanted Robert Shaw to get caught; you want Travolta to get shoved under a train.

But that's just part of the horror. Tony Scott is a hyperactive director who cannot hold a shot anymore than a frat boy can hold liquor; his enthusiasm sloshes and staggers and gets the spins, hurls left and right and up and down, and bears no resemblance to reality.

It exhausts, it annoys. It seems afraid to do anything else. By comparison, Transformers is The Sorrow and the Pity.

I just curled up in a ball and waited for the punches to stop.

Monday, November 16, 2009

UDPATE 7: Reviewing Goofy Sarah’s Goofy Book

Thanks to a friend at an on-line book seller, on Friday morning a courier delivered a preview copy of Going Rogue, Sarah Palin’s latest gyration in her bizarre, on-going odyssey into fringe folk-lore, self-promotion, and an increasingly pathological need to keep yelling “Look at me! Look at me!” like a whiny eight year old trying to get attention in a room full of grown-ups.

“If anyone else had written this,” read a note from my friend that I found in the envelope, “they’d be shipped off to a shrink and put on heavy meds. Instead, Palin is getting rich. Life’s not fair!”

The book is as unevenly written and, in parts, mysteriously unfathomable as Palin herself – despite having wordsmithing help from a sub-editor of an evangelical religious magazine. For example, the very first paragraph of the book includes a sentence declaring, “I breathed in an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.”

Huh? I hope publisher Harper-Collins didn’t pay ghost-writer Lynn Vincent much money for whatever it is Vincent did with Palin’s text.

More to the point, beyond turning on the same McCain campaign that plucked her from obscurity and propelled her to the infamy that led to a $5-million advance for her memoirs, Going Rogue reinforces the well-earned perception of The Wicked Witch of Wasilla as so devoutly anti-intellectual, so thoroughly uncurious about the world, and so totally convinced that the fake blue collar image of her life means she knows all there is to know and only God knows all the rest, as to make her popularity among the remains of the Republican Party truly frightening.

Sadly, the book only increases her appeal to that very base of the shrinking GOP while leaving moderate Republicans, independents and anyone else who actually thinks about things out in the Alaskan cold.

Payback Time

Aside from the snippets of her life in Alaska – much of it true, some of it clearly part of the carefully-crafted storyline created about her by Palin’s handlers in the McCain campaign – the book is mostly a loosely-linked chain of self-aggrandizing, petulant slams at McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and a handful of other professional pols who were trying to get their ticket elected against very long odds.

She comes across as an eager player in a blame game – something she’s been doing ever since high school, according to published accounts of people who’ve known her since her prom queen days.

Equally important, she polishes her campaign persona of “hockey mom” triviality. She confesses to being unfamiliar with the Middle East, the Iraq war, Afghanistan or Islamic politics. “I knew the history of the conflict,” she writes at one point, “to the extent that most Americans did.”

Oh? Better tell that to Rush Limbaugh, who claims Going Rogue is one of the best policy books he’s ever read. I gather this means what it implies: He doesn’t read many policy books.

And, anyway, “most Americans” don’t want to be vice president of the United States and aren’t manoeuvring to become a major party’s nominee for president next time around.

Just as astonishing, Palin argues without explanation that “there’s no better training ground for politics than motherhood.”


Palin writes that she and Todd are perfect to represent America’s Joe Six-Packs because that’s who they are themselves.

“We know what it’s like to be on a tight budget and wonder how we’re going to pay for our own health care, let alone college tuition,” she boasts. “We know what it’s like to work union jobs ... We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.”

One problem: The very economic policies she touts in the book, at her Facebook page, when she Twitters little nothings in the ears of her followers, and on the stump during the campaign have been killing union jobs and ordinary Americans since the days of Ronald Reagan.

Elsewhere, she writes about creationism, proudly confessing that she doesn’t hold truck with “the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.” She knows as much about anthropology as she knows about the Middle East: Monkeys climbed into trees first, before learning to walk upright. Oh, and studies have shown that nearly all primates are “thinking, loving beings.”

But to Palin, God is in charge of everything in her life, a sort of personal concierge. “My life is in His hands,” she testifies. “I encourage readers to do what I did many years ago, invite Him in to take over.”

I doubt whether Palin knows it, but that statement is the best argument I’ve read to support atheism. Surely, a caring, loving, all-knowing and all-seeing God would never give a Sarah Palin such a platform so there's almost a prima facie case that a God doesn't exist.

Saturday, November 14, 2009’s Erick Erickson’s Head Officially Explodes

It was bound to happen sooner or later to poor Erick Erickson.

He runs the right-wing fringe website and, after 10 months of increasingly pulsating throbs like a character in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon with every move the Obama Administration has made, Friday morning his head absolutely exploded.


Because the Obama Administration has the audacity to return America to the rule of law abandoned by George Bush, Dick Cheney and their henchmen. Instead of a kangaroo court at Gitmo, the Justice Dept. will have Khalid Sheik Mohammad and four co-defendants in New York standing trial in federal court on terrorism charges relating to his role in planning and plotting 9/11.

In a frantic, fear-mongering, mass e-mail sent Friday morning, Erickson screams out his warning:

“In that trial, the terrorist will get all the rights afforded an American citizen in a criminal trial, (emphasis his) including the right to a fair trial, the right to a taxpayer funded attorney, the right to review all the evidence against him, potentially including classified intelligence matters, the right to exclude evidence against him including, potentially, any confession obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques, etc.”

In other words, Erickson is aghast that an American president will use the American legal system and American rules of evidence to prosecute people who broke American laws.

In RedState’s view, apparently, Mohammad should have an unfair trail governed by no lawyers representing him, keeping secret evidence against KSM so it can’t be used in his defence, and prosecutors should use information obtained through torture.

That’s the true American way, according to this goofball who seems to have as solid an understanding of the Constitution, US laws and treaties, as those great legal scholars from the Bush era, John Yoo and Jay Bybee.

Uhm, I remember seeing videos of Osama bin Laden and several al-Qaeda spokesmen publicly stating after Sept. 11 that the group wants to destroy everything America stands for. Well, it seems Erickson is all in favour of letting the terrorists have their way, going so far as to demand Washington finish the job those four groups of highjackers started by destroying the rule of law.

Shouting Not To Be Heard

Before urging recipients to call members of Congress to object to bringing KSM or any of his cohorts to the US, Erickson dips into the bizarre.

“At best, this will be a show trial fit not for the American Republic, but a third world kleptocratic totalitarian regime. At worse, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will gain access to classified material he can then leak to other terrorists while New York yet again becomes a target for terrorists. We have already had occasions in this country where terrorists' sympathetic lawyers have conveyed information, orders, and plans to other terrorists.”

Not only does Erickson not understand the principles underlying America and its system of laws, he’s busy trying to rewrite history.

The Gitmo tribunals sent up by Donald Rumsfeld at the urging of Dick Cheney met the very definition of “show trial.” Clearly, Erickson hasn’t read much history of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1930s, Josef Stalin’s frequent purges kidnapped hapless victims before dragging them in front of rigged courts after being tortured in the Lubyanka’s cellars. For good measure, they could neither see any evidence against them, question state witnesses or mount an actual defence before being either shot or sent to die in Siberian forced labour camps.

This is what Erickson thinks the US should emulate?

While I’m sure that calling Obama’s decision one that would be made in a “third world kleptocratic totalitarian regime” managed to rouse his readers – if they know what he meant – Erickson should have checked before using such big words. There are two definitions:

Klep-toc-ra-cy – [klep-tok-ruh-see]
noun, plural -cies

A government or state in which those in power exploit national resources and steal; rule by a thief or thieves.

A government characterized by rampant greed and corruption.

While this sort of behaviour was not just tolerated but rampant during the Bush years – in Washington, on Wall St., at outfits like Halliburton, KBR and Blackwater, and among defence contractors – so far, Pres. Obama hasn’t shown much tolerance for thievery.

Instead, he and the Democratic Congress increased spending for veterans by the largest amount in history. He’s working to bring health care to the one-quarter of the population who are either uninsured or underinsured and impose some semblance of rules on the health insurance cartel. He’s urging Congress to pass legislation that will allow workers to vote in secret ballots to form a union without management peering over their shoulders taking notes and naming names. He’s sort-of started cracking down on kleptocratic defense contractors who stole billions from the Treasury during Bush’s reign of error. Democrats in Washington are trying to re-impose rules on a resistant financial services industry rules to both level the playing field and give consumers a break.

Who’s Taking A Leak?

Finally, Erickson has his boxers all in a bunch because, he insists, a trial will make New York a target for more terrorist attacks and because KSM will see classified evidence that he will then leak to other terrorists.

Alas, dear Erick sees only red when the world is a bit more shaded than he wants to admit.

For openers, Erickson out-does even his own wing of the Republican Party in hyperbole by declaring there have been “occasions” – which was once – when “terrorists' sympathetic lawyers have conveyed information, orders, and plans to other terrorists.” Actually, one lawyer passed a personal message to an acquaintance of a defendant she was representing. No information. No secrets. No plans. And there was no evidence that the person who received the note was a terrorist, only that they happened to be of Middle Eastern origin and a Moslem.

Oh, silly me. In Erickson’s world that’s a prima facie argument they were a terrorist.

If RedState and the other right-wing grandstanders who shoved their way in front of TV cameras Friday afternoon are so concerned about leaks, like the self-promoting Joe Lieberman, why don’t they stick a sock in the mouth of Rep. Pete Hoekstra who gives away intelligence every time he grabs his BlackBerry and sends out a Twitter message? Especially since Hoekstra is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

Why does Erick Erickson hate America so much?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Billionaires Serenade Michelle Bachman’s Insane Capitol Rally

Our favourite group of indolent n’er do wells, Billionaires For Wealthcare, showed up at Michelle Bachman’s rally on the steps of the Capitol last week to serenade the crowd. Then, they marched into the halls of Congress itself to sing for Senators – you can spot John Kerry in the crowd – Representatives and staffers eating lunch.

In between songs, the group stood in the crowd shouting "Stock options, yes! Public option, no!"

To Hell And Beck

We’ll take as a given that Glenn Beck is crazy, in the same league as Michelle Bachman and people who show up at police stations wearing aluminium foil hats demanding the cops make Martians stop beaming radio signals into their head.

Who besides Beck would invite PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk on television to join him in criticising Nobel Prize winning former Vice President Al Gore for only cutting back on the amount of meat he eats, not eliminating it from his diet entirely, and then using this as the basis for lashing out at Gore’s new book, Our Choice?

Who other than His Nuttiness would praise nurses for their knowledge, care and understanding when they tended to him after he was hospitalised following botched hemorrhoid surgery only to turn on them a year later for supporting health care reform so people who don’t have Fox News’ lush group plan can get insurance?

Who else would provide Jon Stewart with such rich, delicious fodder for parody on a Daily Show segment? Beck’s emergency appendectomy this week gave Stewart an opening to tear out his appendix using a scalpel of satire.

Yet another reason why Stewart provides the most-incisive coverage of news on television.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Another Great Swindle: Doctors, Hospitals, Pharma As Much To Blame As Insurers

Six months ago, in a long-forgotten article, I quoted a Cleveland physician complaining that health care reform will cut his income so sharply he will be forced to curb his lush standard of living.

… a physician acquaintance in Ohio who is a highly regarded specialist with a seven figure income … complains to me that any of the current health reform proposals will cut his income in half, at least, as if his life would disintegrate if he had to live on only five or six hundred thousand dollars a year. Better 47-million people not have access to his training, skills and expertise than he drops one of his two country club memberships because of personal financial hardship.

While the health insurance industry’s immoral, amoral and, sometimes, illegal treatment of policyholders is an appropriate prime culprit and target in the current push for reform, the fact is that physicians, hospitals and drug companies are getting an undeserved pass by much of the media. They are as much to blame for health care problems and out-of-control costs as Aetna, the Blues, Wellpoint and other insurance companies.

Trouble is, not only is the media letting them off the hook, so is Congress.

One of the original key goals of health care reform was to lower the obscene cost of getting sick and recovering in America, whose citizens pay far more for everything from a simple visit to the doctor to complicated tests to prescription drugs than anyone else in the civilised world. Yet neither the likely House version nor the current Senate version of reform give cost cutting more than a flicker of attention.

So Kaiser Permanente chief executive George Halvorson showed Ezra Klein of the Washington Post a series of revealing and extremely disturbing charts, comparing the cost of similar medical services in the US and five other Western countries plus US Medicare.

Kaiser is the largest managed care organisation in the US, founded in 1945 by industrialist Henry Kaiser, and consists of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and regional Permanente Medical Groups.

Since it insures some nine million people as well as operating not-for-profit hospitals and clinics, Halvorson has horses running in the race – but on both ends of the betting line. So while he is in a unique position to see the issue two ways.

Office Visits

According to Halvorson’s charts, it costs the typical patient in the US anywhere from $59 to $151 to see a doctor. In countries with a national health plan, the price is a fraction of what it is here. In Spain, the cost to see a doctor is $15; Germany $22; France $31; the Netherlands $32; and Canada $30. Under Medicare, it is $72. In Canada, for example, the fee for a doctor’s visit is negotiated between the government and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in each province; in the US rates are whatever the doctor can get away with charging, except when treating Medicare and Medicaid paitents.

Yet Congress is backing off trying to control even a portion of the cost of an office visit by refusing to roll back scheduled increases in what Medicare pays physicians to see each patient. No wonder the AMA gave its full-throated endorsement of the House bill – and reform generally – yesterday: Its member’s income won’t be affected one bit so my physician friend in Ohio will be able to keep both of his country club memberships.

Complex Exams

Nothing in the human body is more complex than the brain yet there are enormous spreads in the cost of a CT head scan between the US and other countries. In America, with “the greatest health care system in the world,” a CT head scan cost ranges from $950 to $1,800. In Canada, where I’ve had such a scan, the cost to the system ranges between $41 – really! – and $530. Germany is the most expensive of the six countries compared yet its cost per scan is one-third of the low end of the US range.

Prescription Meds

It’s just as bad in the US after the tests are done and a patient walks from the doctor’s office to a pharmacy across the street to fill a prescription.

Lipitor is a widely-advertised and often-prescribed medication for lowering cholesterol. In America, the pharmacist will collect anywhere from $125 to $334 before handing over the prescription bottle because drug prices are not regulated.

In one of Congresses most disgraceful sell-outs, in 2005 it prohibited Medicare from negotiating with Pfizer for what will be charged patients for the drug. Yet in each of the five other nations surveyed – where government negotiates the price of all prescription medications – patients pay a tiny fraction of what Americans must shell out.

What happens when the price of Lipitor is negotiated? It plunges. I mean plunges: In each of the other five countries, the cost per prescription is anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of what Americans shell out for the exact same medicine treating the identical ailment.

Yet Big Pharma got Congress and the Obama administration to agree to not set up a system to negotiate drug prices. So, every time any American needs to have a prescription filled, the pharmaceutical industry and member of Congress will make them wish they lived somewhere else. No wonder so many people in the US buy medicine in Canada.

As WaPo’s Klein notes, “There is a thudding consistency to the (charts): A series of crude bars, with the block representing the prices paid by American health-insurance plans looming over the others like a New York skyscraper that got lost in downtown Des Moines.”

There is a reason why American health care costs so much more than in any other country: We pay so much more for each unit of care. As Halvorson explained to Klein, and both university studies and consulting companies confirm repeatedly, if you leave everything the same – number of procedures, days spent in hospital, number of operations done – but plug in prices Canadians pay, America’s health care spending falls by 50%.

This is more than enough to cover every uninsured person in the US.

Monday, November 2, 2009

UPDATED: Humana Trolls College Campuses For Whores

Here’s good news for college and university students desperate for a part-time job that won’t even require leaving a dorm room.

Humana, Inc., the fine and good corporate citizen that spends millions of its customer’s premium dollars to fight health care reform and a public option rather than using them to pay claims, now wants to use even more premium bucks to pay students willing to sneak on-line at places such as Facebook and Twitter to tout the horrors of any change to America’s superb health care delivery and financing system.

In other words, Humana is trolling college campuses looking for whores willing to accept money to be on-line promoters of an anti-reform policy that’s against the student’s own, best interests – or will be, once they leave school and are on their own. Given the state of the economy, no doubt Humana will be overwhelmed with applications.

On Monday morning, blogger Molly Horan reports that Humana is actively recruiting students to develop and implement viral media strategies designed to undermine support for health care reform among their unsuspecting peers, making the whole thing appear as if it’s coming from just another tea party protester who can use a computer.

Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is one step ahead of Humana.

New Disclosure Rules

Beginning Dec. 1, bloggers and TV shows alike will have to disclose if they’re getting cash for mentioning or touting a product or idea. Clearly, Humana’s paid corps of anti-reform student zealots will have to mention they’re getting more than a penny for their thoughts.

As N.E. Marsden wrote Friday in an Op-Ed piece at the Washington Post, “bloggers and, more important, stealth corporate marketers (must) post ‘clear and conspicuous’ disclosures when they receive payment for endorsing online. … The principle is sound: People have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something.”

While I’m all in favour of the free marketplace of ideas, when the ideas are being slipped to a writer in exchange for cash, I’d like to know who’s footing the bill. This is on a par with George Bush secretly paying Iraqi journalists in 2005 to write glowing articles on the glorious wonders of the American invasion and occupation.

Humana’s strategy gives a new and broader meaning to its slogan, “Guidance when you need it most.” Under the circumstances, it might be more appropriate as “Guidance we pay for when we need you to shill for us.”

Is Everyone A Fraud?

Look, I know times are tough. Jobs scarce. The future scary. Real health care and insurance reform a toss-up. So, having been one once, I can’t really blame journalism students for trying to grab a bit of spare change where they can – although, hopefully, some will have the integrity to see the offer for what it is, and reject the idea of applying out-of-hand.

Still, I can’t help but shudder when I read the job posting:

Humana – Guidance when you need it most
Role: Political Communications Specialist (part-time, limited-term)
Location: Chicago, Ill. or work-at-home

Are you interested in politics and political communication? Have a way with words? Know your way around Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere? Put your skills to work where politics, communication and public relations intersect. You will:
• Help manage and track a variety of online (“Web 2.0”) channels
• Build a strategic new media and social media presence
• Contribute content for both traditional and new media
• Get a “foot in the door” and gain valuable experience in one of today’s most challenging and fast-paced public policy arenas – health care

This is PR flackery, pure and simple, and of the worst kind. Humana is trying to lure virgin minds onto the rocks of whoredom by singing a siren song promising money and “valuable experience” in exchange for selling out America.

It’s ethical fraud; not illegal but definitely immoral.

Of course, it turns out there’s as much ethical fraud being committed by mainstream and highly respected journalists, as well.

A week ago, the lead story on CBS’ 60 Minutes covered the supposed $60-billion fraud in Medicare payments. I sat watching it dumbfounded, wondering if this might pound a huge nail in the coffin of the public option. Pierre Tristam had the same reaction. But then, he decided to confirm the 60 Minutes reporting.

Tristam is an editorial writer for the Daytona News Journal. He started by calling the show’s producers who referred him to the person at the Justice Dept. who worked with 60 Minutes which, he eventually admitted, used a high figure in the “range” of “possible” and “believed to be” Medicare fraud.

So Tristam kept digging, finally publishing a remarkable Sunday piece titled “Loose With Numbers: Medicare Fraud Report A Fiction.”

Steve Kroft and his producers never bothered to trace their facts to the source for viewers, relying instead on the slob-journalist's cheapest cop-out: Attribution by estimates. Nor did they make the equally important point: Insurance fraud isn't unique to Medicare or government-run programs. If anything, it affects the private sector more. Shame on "60 Minutes" and the Justice Department for throwing around wild numbers. Those are the numbers – the fictions – shaping public opinion across the country and public policy in Washington.

Medicare fraud is a serious problem. But singling it out and exaggerating it beyond credibility won't fix it, although it may help doom any government expansion of health care. In that regard, the 60 Minutes segment did its death-panel best.

I feel as if the whole world has turned into the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, sneaking around behind everyone’s back, putting in the fix, winking and nodding at the rubes, and damning the consequences – as well as the rest of us.

UPDATE – Nov 3, 2009

It’s not just Humana that’s looking for students to be on-line trollers. Israel is also looking for people, according to the website Desert Peace:

“The Foreign Ministry unveiled a new plan this week: Paying talkbackers to post pro-Israel responses on websites worldwide. A total of NIS 600,000 (roughly $150,000) will be earmarked to the establishment of an "Internet warfare" squad.

“The Foreign Ministry intends to hire young people who speak at least one language and who study communication, political science, or law – or alternately, Israelis with military experience gained at units dealing with information analysis.”

And so it goes.

A special h/t to Breandan Healy