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January 30, 2011


Good stuff.

It's a Zeno thing.

Good to see a post by you, Russell.

So many of the best writers think they're not good enough.

That's often how you can tell they're good writers: they have high standards, and don't realize how good they are.

The reverse holds: so many bad writers think they're good.

These are generalities, with vast numbers of exceptions.

But as a former pro editor, I'm, as they say, just sayin'.

My two cents.


You know, if a guy didn't know any better, he'd think you were talking about Victorian England. A majority of a population, or at least a huge-assed number, facing financial hardship at the pleasure of a mandarin and gluttonous minority, perpetual war here and there, the major problems of a country deliberately not being solved, a dysfunctional, punitive system of incarceration, all topped off with the insistence that we're still great and good...

Well, if this isn't enough proof for you that this is an American Empire, then I don't know what is.

Sekaijin, history does not repeat, but it does rhyme, even with dissonance.

We have so many aspects, still, and again, repeating, of the Victorian age, and the Gilded Age, and the Manifest Destiny era, and so many yet further past ages.

It's bad, but it's not as bad as it was, in some ways, and in others it's so much worse.

My only thought, and this is purely my own, is that slowly, so very very slowly, I think the world is getting better, much as so much of the evil is often more concentrated, and surrounds us, and it's hard to see otherwise, and hard to think that it might be otherwise.

This, too, as I was just saying in another thread, is very hard to do, and all I can say is that there's much good in the world to be found, as well, and time is often the only cure for many things, and it doesn't cure anyone who right now, and for the rest of their lives, will suffer and die because of indifference, parochialism, greed, stupidity, and all the other evils of human kind.

And we must be angry about, it and fight it, and have what strength we can.

But, yes, without wanting to get into granular arguments -- which we'll doubtless have, because what else are blogs for? -- about what does and doesn't constitute an "empire," I'd say it's a fair word to use as shorthand, and American does indeed, in so many ways, suffer all the evils of that -- the word is imperialism, and though it's easily dismissed by many as mere leftist cant, it's something to be thought about by the thoughtful, and then argued about thoughtfully, and eventually, well, Britain went through much, and Rome, and then they were no longer empires, and there was much evil, and much good, but some survive, while others die needlessly, and this, too, will all pass in time. One way or another.

Sorry for taking a long philosophical view at the moment, while at other moments I'm furious with passionate rage, as so many of us are, and should be, when we see the evil done in our name and by our government, which must be fought, but I do both things, and there's no real contradiction save what one is paying attention to at that moment.

So: argue, everyone, but also try to play nice, and assume good faith when you can, please. Ultimately, we're all trying to do good as we best understand.

All acts have multiple effects, good and bad. Fight the evil, but avoid collateral damage.

I can see where Obama would spout a feel-good SOTU, because he's clearly in campaign mode and has zero intention of doing much of anything for the next two years. But, like Recovery Summer, I think he's counting on vaporware.

TJ, I think the reason for the feel-good SOTU, and for the lofty themes with few specifics, was actually simpler and more immediate than that. Any specific proposal that he identified would certainly be dead on arrival in the House; if there is anything the Republican members of Congress have demonstrated beyond question, it is that they know how to say NO! So, no point to specifics.

I suspect that things will get done over the next two years. If only because the guys accustomed only to saying NO will realize that their constituents will be unhappy if nothing gets done. But agreement between the President and the Congress will necessarily happen behind closed doors -- public discussions would only require that everybody refuse to compromise int he slightest.

"And we must be angry about, it and fight it, and have what strength we can."

Couldn't agree more, and with your whole comment, Gary. I would suggest that we carefully organize our rage against the people most truly responsible for obstructing progress. Obama came into office at a modern nadir. A lot got done, and even so, the most positive thing that was accomplished (in terms of the number of people helped), the health care act, was the very thing that was unpopular enough (because of the effective negative propaganda) for the Democrats to have lost the House. I agree with wj that perhaps some things might get "done" (or at least some Republicans might act rationally enough to keep the country from exploding further, such as raising the debt ceiling). But not if, any any way, they're seen to be supporting an initiative of the President.

And I'm trying to take my own advice. But viscerally it's hard to quell my own anger at people who dismiss the difficulty of what liberal voices in government have to fight in order to get anything accomplished. The vapid essay in the NYRB by David Bromwich is an example of what galls me the most. This professor of English at Yale should certainly, if anyone does, have the rhetorical prowess to move the masses to rise up for change in a manner that would encourage Congress to legislate fairer tax codes, the end of Guantanamo, a more humane prison system .... So why doesn't he do it? Arth32, a commenter in the comment thread, says "I always knew that [Obama] was a fraud, and now we are stuck with him, for lack of a superior alternative." For lack of a superior alternative? Hmmm - wonder why he's the best we could find. I would argue that it's because he's the best that there is.

Obama's critics on the left are good at grading papers. Out of 100 points, meaning everything solved, did he pass the public option? Nope, minus 10. Were tax cuts for the rich repealed? Minus 8. Guantanamo still open? Minus 15. Afghanistan still in a mess? Minus 10.

I watched the State of the Union live, and anxiously support Obama's attempts to play the difficult hand he's been dealt. People who have a clue how he can accomplish more should reveal their own strategy. In the meantime, watch the Koch brothers organize the Republican ranks this weekend to promote the economic philosophy of Paul Ryan and the foreign policy of Elliot Abrams. (Thank you, Steve Benen, of the Washington Monthly, for keeping priorities straight.)

The Affordable Care Act incorporates a number of ideas for controlling health care costs. A lot of people who probably know a lot more about health care than you do think that they have a good chance of working; see for example the list of signatories to the letter available at http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2011/01/pdf/budgetcommitteefinal.pdf

You are of course entitled to to disagree, but asserting that these people don't have a "freaking clue" strikes me as a baseless insult which does not contribute meaningfully to the debate.

I don't know that the SOTU is the place for all you wanted said. I would have liked to hear more, myself, but I did hear someone say this morning on The Chris Matthews Show that Obama would be making a speech soon dealing with guns, so that should liven things up.

You know, if a guy didn't know any better, he'd think you were talking about Victorian England.

That strikes me as well. IMO if we were really playing heads up ball, we would be preparing ourselves for a world in which we are not the only dominant actor.

Obama's critics on the left are good at grading papers.

Don't know if this is directed to me or not. If so, please note that my post here is not really all that much about Obama. That's by intent.

What the post is about are the topics that IMO are important things for us, as Americans, to address, but which are, also IMO, largely ignored.

Shorter me: I'm not talking about Obama as much as I'm talking about all of the rest of us.

You are of course entitled to to disagree, but asserting that these people don't have a "freaking clue" strikes me as a baseless insult which does not contribute meaningfully to the debate.

When I read summaries Affordable Health Care Act, I see legislation whose primary focus is expanding coverage and/or preventing denial of coverage.

Not the same as lowering the cost of care.

Thanks for the link, though, it's useful and appreciated.

This captures my America as well as any short piece of writing I have seen in a while, russell, I tip my hat. And, as you say, it's not even clear what purpose it would have served for Obama to address these points in close detail at this point - we can all see they are what faces us well enough, and it's not clear what he can do about any of them at this moment, though he's done some about most of them over the last two years I'd argue, as much as he could given our backward reigning political ideologies and institutions), it's just that that still hasn't added amounted to much at all compared to the scope of the problems. Pathetically little, really, and so they persist.

The point is not how directly they were addressed by our figurehead in our annual pageant; the point is that they're real, we all see and face them, and it's good when someone find to plain, hard language to siply say what they are. So thanks.

I too reflect further on what I'm sure some might feel are defeatist words on my part, but I'm heartened by the nuanced sense that others are bringing to what I said.

In one sense, I don't have to give a damn about what happens in America. I live in Japan, a country that has plenty of problems of its own, with its own cadre of mandarins, more than a few know-nothings, and its equivalent of the Tea Partiers. I care about what happens to it because my wife is from here, shares exactly my views on things, and in spite of everything, feel it is still a country worth living in, with more than a feeling of affection for it, in all its imperfections.

I think the connection I feel with America, though, and the better part of me that cares about what happens there, comes from the fact that yes, we may be in a bizarre era that is part Gilded Age, part Victoriana, part Jim Crow South nostalgia, and something that I can only describe as a weird culture of overweening complaint and civic immaturity that has no sight of what is worth standing up for, only that of transient and illusory passions and prejudices. I too know, or at least hope, that they will pass someday, somehow.

The problem I have with it, though, is our surrender of the high ground we already had in the wake of the first Gilded Age, the first Victorian era, and the actual Jim Crow South. We had crafted legislation in a wide variety of areas that were redresses of these things, and we have turned our back on them. We've had labor reform, financial reform, the Civil Rights Act, the whole shebang - but you'd never know it. At least, a good number of Americans act like they haven't, either because they live within a socio-economic regime that is barely touched by any of these things, or are so ignorant of how their own government works that they treat it all as new, under Obama, and to be subject to attack as a result.

So if things are going to get better, I also think that we can count on it all getting worse. And while we can talk about how things have been worse, and we've survived, etc., this is the rock-bottom worst I have seen America get in my lifetime, and it scares the hell out of me. For in spite of everything, I too, have more than a passing affection for it, in all its imperfections.

A good footnote to the SOTU. Unfortunately, our media & political environment is so poisonous and deranged that this President at this moment trying to come to grips with the really hard problems - the ones that have very, very powerful interests opposed to solving them - is a waste of time.

I'm actually extremely optimistic for both the long and short run, based on my feeling that we're at a rightward point on the swing of the pendulum. Maybe wishful thinking. But economies that have massive spare capacity in both capital and skilled labor - and are willing to print enough money - are in a good situation to have a sustained period of extremely high growth, given reasonable technocratic management, and given that we managed to avoid a full-on depression.

But that's me.

Our foreign wars are dismaying. The US appears to do this about every 20-30 years. I don't know what can be done about it. One of these days the practice of launching foreign wars for fun is going to get this country into serious trouble, and by serious trouble I mean the kind which ends up with tens of millions of Americans dead.

However, the fact that we just had our every-30-years war may mean that we're about to begin the part of the cycle where we don't go to war for a while. And that may be long enough for the world to change enough that the US won't have anywhere to fight 20 years from now.

I said I was an optimist, I guess.

You are of course entitled to to disagree, but asserting that these people don't have a "freaking clue" strikes me as a baseless insult which does not contribute meaningfully to the debate.

Your link is to a letter from people at universities and think tanks, Kenneth Almquist. Its signatories, if they are "these people," do not include anyone "in a position to actually make or enforce policy," as russell limited his statement to.

Perhaps they can influence policy, but they can't make or enforce policy.

But, as russell wrote, thanks for the link. It's a good one.

Jacob: "I'm actually extremely optimistic for both the long and short run, based on my feeling that we're at a rightward point on the swing of the pendulum."

I agree with you, Jacob, with the modifier -- speaking purely as a matter of personal opinion, of course -- of "cautiously" over "extremely" and stressing "long" term over short.

And it's the "mid" term that matters most, if we're defining that as "within our lifetimes."

Otherwise I'm extremly optimistic about the long term of the next several thousand years, but not so much necessarily about the next several billion. :-)

Hard to say about that latter. :-)

"Despair is the conclusion of fools."

-- Benjamin Disraeli

The Wondrous Tale of Alroy pt. 10, ch. 17.

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