Thursday, September 22, 2005

It's official: no celibate gay priests

The decision was widely anticipated, but now it's official: the Roman Catholic church will bar all homosexuals from ordination to the priesthood—even those whose sexual probity is beyond question.

The church is fortunate the new policy was not in force when Father Mychal Judge was ordained in 1961. He was the heroic fire chaplain who was buried with full honors after his body was pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. And he was a homosexual. Father Judge's biography at Wikipedia describes his death:
It was while giving the holy sacrament to firefighter Daniel Suhr that Father Mychal removed his helmet and was struck by falling debris. He continued administering last rites even while injured. Father Mychal then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center north tower where an emergency services command post was organized. The south tower collapsed and debris filled the north tower lobby killing many inside.
Father Judge was also honored by his church: 3,000 attended the funeral mass celebrated by New York's archbishop. Two months after his death, the New York Fire Department presented his helmet to Pope John Paul II. The U.S. Congress nominated him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but to date President Bush has not acted on the recommendation.
Mychal Judge never built a church or a school, or raised a lot of money. What he did was build a kingdom spiritually, so people feel close to God. You can't measure that, and you can't see that. He didn't realize that that was his gift. But that was evident in the thousands of people who came out to his wake and to his funeral.—The Rev. Michael Duffy, eulogist at Father Judge's funeral
Under the new rules, the church's gatekeepers would have declared Mychal Judge unfit for ordination—"objectively disordered" in the favorite phrase of the church's official catechism.

Vatican inquisitors will soon visit each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the U.S. to begin the purge.

More links on this subject

A gay priest speaks out (Commonweal)
Vatican to tighten rules on gay men (New York Times)
Pope approves ban (Catholic World News)
Andrew Sullivan on the new ban
No greater love: Chaplain Mychal Judge, O.F.M.

Read the full article

Monday, September 19, 2005

Left Party gains votes across political spectrum

The Left Party's opposition to American-style economic and tax policies was a magnet for voters from across the Federal Republic's political spectrum. The Left was the only party to win votes from all of the other major parties in Germany—from left to right. It was also uniquely the one party to mobilize non-voters who returned to the ballot box on Sept. 18 to cast their votes for the embattled "social state."

Parties that lost voters to the Left

Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union290,000
Social Democratic Party970,000
Free Democratic Party100,000
Previous non-voters who supported the Left430,000

The SPD saw nearly one million of its voters defect to the new party, which was organized just three months ago by the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and a faction of traditional Social Democrats dismayed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's neo-liberal reforms. The conservative CDU/CSU and environmentalist Greens together lost more than half a million votes to the Left, and even the pro-business Free Democrats saw 100,000 of their former supporters vote Left.

The Left was the only party to increase its vote total in virtually all electoral districts. Its base continues to be eastern Germany but its share of the votes in the more populous western states more than quadrupled from 1.1 to 4.9 percent. Its most stunning electoral breakthrough came in the industrial Saarland, where it rose from obscurity to become the third strongest political force—outpacing the Greens and FDP for the first time in a western state. It is now the second strongest party in three states (Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia) and the third strongest in four others (Saarland, Berlin, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern).

No political consensus for neo-liberal reform?

Some conservative analysts argued before the election that a relatively strong Left Party might prove useful because it would isolate those voters who oppose pro-business "reforms" on the American model—including broad tax cuts for the wealthy, higher fees for health insurance and education, and limits on unemployment compensation. The Left, so the theory went, would drain off these alienated voters from the electoral base of Germany's traditional center-left parties, permitting an ideological realignment of the remaining parties in favor of a "reform" consensus.

But exit polls suggest that a significant number of anti-reform voters remained loyal to the SPD and Greens on election day. The issue of "social justice" motivated more SPD voters (45 percent) than any other. For Greens, it was the second most important issue (41 percent) behind the environment (51 percent). But "social justice" (a code word in Germany for the "social state") was a priority for only 17 percent of CDU/CSU voters and 16 percent of those who supported the Free Democrats.

Clearly, there is no political consensus in Germany for American-style economic and social policies. The two parties that campaigned on this issue, the CDU/CSU and FDP, scored only 45 percent—far short of the decisive majority the polls had forecast earlier in the campaign. The SPD and Greens, on the other hand, were able win back part of their anti-reform voter base from the Left by playing down the neo-liberal policies they had pushed as governing parties and reclaiming their image as protectors of the social state.

The election shows that support remains strong among center-left voters for Germany's traditional "social-market" economy—which until the current crisis of globalization had maintained social consensus in postwar West Germany by promoting private enterprise, encouraging labor-management cooperation, and supporting a strong social state to defend the rights of workers and the most vulnerable members of society.

Final election results

Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union35.2
Social Democratic Party34.3
Free Democratic Party9.8
Left Party8.7

Potential multi-party coalitions

Grand CoalitionCDU/CSU (black) + SPD (red)
"Traffic Light" CoalitionSPD (red) + FDP (yellow) + Greens
"Jamaica" CoalitionCDU/CSU (black) + FDP (yellow) + Greens

More links on this subject

Left Party more than doubles its vote
Left on the rise in Germany (news analysis)
The Left: Big Winner in the German elections (Monthly Review)
Above all, this was a vote against neo-liberalism (Guardian UK)
Election analysis in detail (ARD)
New Left, Old Right (Le Monde diplomatique)
What's at stake in the German elections? (DIRELAND)
Interview with Left Party activist (Lenin's Tomb)
Can Germany's labor movement survive? (Monthly Review)

Read the full article

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Left Party doubles vote in Germany

The Left Party—an alliance formed by post-communists and defectors from Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party—has won 8.7 percent of the vote in today's federal election. The result more than doubles the party's previous score of 4 percent in 2002. In that election, just over 1.9 million voters supported the post-communists when the party failed to reach the five-percent threshold required for full representation in the German Bundestag (federal parliament). Today the Left won more than 4 million votes. As a result, its strength in the Bundestag will increase from two to at least 54 seats.

The party has surpassed the Greens to become Germany's fourth-strongest political force.

Today's vote leaves Germany in political chaos. The hoped-for conservative coalition of the conservative Union parties and the pro-business Free Democrats did not materialize. At the same time, the ruling SPD-Green coalition was voted out of office. Neither alignment has enough seats to form a majority government.

The Left Party need not apply

Germany's traditional parties have vowed never to enter into coalition talks with the Left, although theoretically a "red-red-green" government of the SPD, Left Party and Greens would command a stable majority. Otherwise, there are three possibilities open to Germany's political establishment:

Grand CoalitionCDU/CSU (black) + SPD (red)
"Traffic Light" CoalitionSPD (red) + FDP (yellow) + Greens
"Jamaica" CoalitionCDU/CSU (black) + FDP (yellow) + Greens

A fourth possibility is a minority coalition "tolerated" by one of the opposition parties. But the prospect of minority government horrifies many Germans, and the media aren't yet discussing the subject. Weak governments and frequent elections were a feature of the political landscape in the Weimar Republic, and Germans are reluctant to repeat that experience.

Disappointment for the conservatives

The result is a disappointment for the Union—Germany's conservative alliance of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. When SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called surprise elections in May, the conservatives were widely expected to win more than 45 percent of the vote with a clear mandate for social and economic "reforms" widely supported by Germany's corporate elite. Its natural partner was the liberal FDP, which traditionally has supported big business. But while the FDP surged ahead at the last minute to become the third-strongest party in the Bundestag, the Union's result was barely a percent ahead of the Social Democrats. As a result, the political picture is ambiguous at best.

The Left, once written off as a dying party of aging East German communists, returned from the grave with a professional campaign and the support of pro-labor voters in western Germany who deserted the SPD in protest over high unemployment and cutbacks in social services. Led by the charismatic post-communist politician Gregor Gysi and the equally charismatic former SPD leader, Oskar Lafontaine, the party vows to build a stable democratic alternative which in coming years will oppose reforms designed to weaken Germany's "social state."

In eastern Germany, the Left became the second strongest party with 25.4 percent of the votes—just ahead of the CDU but behind the SPD. In western Germany, it won 5.2 percent of the votes, a big improvement on its 2002 result of less than 2 percent.

Polls showed that about 11 percent of German voters were undecided until the last minute. Most of them decided to support one of the smaller parties, with the Left picking up the greatest share of undecided voters, followed by the FDP liberals and the Greens.

The final vote tally*

Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union35.2
Social Democratic Party34.3
Free Democratic Party9.8
Left Party8.7

*One district will vote next week: Dresden I. The outcome there may change the official results slightly.

More links on this subject

Left on the rise in Germany (news analysis)
New Left, Old Right

Read the full article

Left on the rise in Germany

This analysis of the Left Party's dramatic rise in German politics was originally published on Aug. 16. I am republishing it here for the convenience of my readers. The party's final score in Germany's federal election on Sept. 18 was 8.7 percent—more than 4 million voters.

Lothar Bisky
The sudden and unexpected "high-altitude flight" of the reborn "Left Party" in Germany's pre-election polls has baffled political reporters, especially in the U.S.

Formed by an alliance between the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the upstart "Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice" (WASG), and led by two of Germany's most charismatic politicians, the Left Party might win an unprecedented 8 to 12 percent when Germans vote on Sept. 18. If current trends hold, it could become the third-strongest force in the German Bundestag with as many as 60
to 70 seats—a dramatic reversal of fortune for a party that is now represented by two lonely back-benchers.

Struggling to interpret the dramatic rise of a party reorganized in just two months by politically marginalized trade-union officials and the despised ex-communists of East Germany, some American reporters are repeating the same formulas the German political establishment has been testing in its campaign to beat back the rising Left tide. "It is the classic protest party," Richard Bernstein wrote dismissively on July 29 in the New York Times. "It stands for almost nothing, and certainly it has no program to govern Germany—nor, in fact, will it ever govern Germany." According to Peter Schneider, a German pundit quoted by Bernstein, the party's sudden rise as a political force is "an unsettling sign that Germany is doing badly enough to have generated a political reaction reminiscent of Weimar."

Christian Social Union anti-Left poster
Schneider's reference to the ill-fated Weimar Republic, with the sinister subtext that soon street warfare could break out between armed Communists and Nazis, was subtle compared to Markus Söder's attack on Left Party co-founder Oskar Lafontaine as a "National Communist." Söder is general secretary of the conservative ruling party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which together with the federal Christian Democratic Union (CDU) hopes to win this election.

Söder's primal scream was echoed by his boss, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber: the Left's supporters in eastern Germany, he said, are "stupid calves" who are prepared to vote for their own "butcher." In one of many conservative gaffes that could drive even more voters into the Left camp, Stoiber said that east Germans are not as "intelligent" as Bavarians.

German historian Götz Aly pushes the dark vision of the Left Party as born-again Nazi-Communists to its extreme limit: voters attracted to the Left, he theorizes, are Germany's last disciples of the Nazi theory of a racial "People's State." Thus, the party is fighting for such "national socialist concepts" as extra pay for Sunday workers. The sillygism here is fairly typical of the panic with which Germany's traditional parties have reacted to the prospect that the Left will scoop up millions of their voters on Sept. 18: (1) The Left Party supports Sunday overtime pay. (2) The Nazis introduced Sunday overtime pay during the Third Reich. (3) The Left Party is "national socialist." In logic this fallacy is called an "undistributed middle term," as in the following: (1) Mel Gibson has an opposable thumb. (2) All lesbians have opposable thumbs. (3) Mel Gibson is a lesbian.

Logical or not, Aly's reasoning was given wide play by the English-language service of the German Press Agency (DPA) under the headline, "Historian links Germany's new Left Party to Nazis."

Clearly, the parties that stand to lose the most to the Left are trying to demonize their unwelcome competitor as simultaneously "red" and "brown"—a dangerous force that appeals both to the extreme left and the extreme right. The attacks have already knocked a percentage point or two from the Left's ratings in the polls. But German voters tend to be well-informed, and they could hardly fail to take note that two of the Left Party's three most important leaders are Jewish, that the party's membership includes a number of Holocaust survivors, that among its Bundestag candidates is the leader of Germany's Turkish community, or that it advocates same-sex marriage. It can have no conceivable appeal to the anti-semitic, anti-immigrant,
ultra-nationalist and homophobic clientele of Germany's small right-wing parties. It could hardly be "brown."

Left parties normal in western Europe

If not "brown," how "red" is the Left?

The Left Party clearly has roots in Communist as well as Social Democratic traditions, but this is not unusual in Europe (apart from Britain). Relatively strong parties of the left have by now become a normal feature of politics in several countries in western and northern Europe. This new "European Left" has stabilized partly because millions of unemployed and under-employed voters have lost not only jobs and incomes but also their confidence in the political establishment they once supported.

Voters have noticed that European corporate executives—who once were willing participants in a three-way social pact with government and labor—have begun to behave like their predatory colleagues in the United States: a "creative destruction" of labor to boost stock dividends is becoming a fixture of management policy in Frankfurt and Paris. Jobs can be sacrificed at any time, during economic upturns as well as downturns, in fat years as well as lean, after profits and after losses. One symbol of the Americanization of Europe's corporate culture was the announcement in March by Germany's Deutsche Bank that its net profits had reached an unprecedented $3.2 billion—an 87-percent increase over the previous year. Managers celebrated by promptly eliminating 6,400 jobs and shifting another 1,200 to low-wage countries. This is normal business practice in the United States, but a shock for many voters in Europe.

Meanwhile, European governments of both the center-right and center-left have come to the conclusion that their economies can't compete globally unless they cut social and labor costs. Their move to the right has opened up a new space for left competitors—one that has been filled mostly by reformed and restyled communist parties who jettisoned the last remnants of orthodox Marxist ideology in the 1980s and 90s. In some countries, they represent between five and ten percent of voters.

In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder's center-left coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens has followed this rightward trend. Concretely, that means no extra pay for Sunday work. No minimum wage. Tuition fees. Increased payments for medical care. Reduced unemployment compensation and compulsory low-wage jobs for the long-term unemployed.

Instead of reinvigorating the German economy, the reforms have failed so far to make a dent in unemployment rates that are well above 10 percent and closing in on the record levels of Germany's worst year of the 20th century—1945. But apart from their failure as a job-creating mechanism, Schroeder's policies have not gone down well with many Germans who still believe that the state has a moral and legal responsibility to protect them from the predations of private capital.

"Social" values are family values in Germany

The idea of a strong social safety net has the status of a "family value" in Germany. As early as 1883—more than 50 years before the advent of Social Security in the U.S.—Germany was the first country in the world to adopt social legislation providing for government retirement pensions, disability pay and universal health insurance. Social Democrats expanded the safety net during the Weimar Republic and the Nazis coopted it as a centerpiece of their caring "racial community." The racist Nazi concept of a Volksstaat ("race state") did not survive the war, but there was hardly a democratic party in postwar West Germany that opposed the idea of a strong Sozialstaat ("social state"). It was by no means a uniquely German trend: the social zeitgeist was replicated almost everywhere in the capitalist societies of western Europe. It became practically an article of political faith for parties of the center-right as well as the center-left. The "social market economics" of West Germany's conservative Christian Democratic government (1949-1968) fostered economic growth through a mix of private and public investment, promoted peaceful relations between capital and labor, and guaranteed protection for industrial workers during normally brief episodes of unemployment. Germans of all classes feared nothing so much as economic and political instability: the Weimar Republic was a constant reminder that a democratic order can go under if a stable government cannot secure some measure of social and economic justice.

Those values, simultaneously conservative and progressive, still have a resonance in German society. The word sozial has never gone out
of usage in the political vocabulary of most German parties, and wohlstand (welfare) still evokes an image of public responsibility. Germany's Protestant and Roman Catholic churches continue to warn against the breakdown of social solidarity under the pressure of neoliberal economics: sozialer wohlstand for them is a moral question. At a mass meeting of German Protestants in May, one church leader denounced "the romanticism of market-liberal" economics which "subordinates moral values to economic goals." This is a "fatal reversal of social relations," he said. "The economic question must be reversed: How can the economy be shaped so it serves the life of the individual and the community?"

German Supreme Court justice Wolfgang Nesković explained this mentality in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt on Aug. 4:
ABENDBLATT: Can we actually still afford the social state?

NESKOVIC: Regardless, the Basic Law [the German Constitution] is socially orientated. In our Constitution's general moral structure, the principle of the social state is a fundamental value right at its center. Whoever says we can no longer afford the social state is no longer speaking on the grounds of the Basic Law. The state is obligated to be able to procure the necessary means to guarantee the existence of the social state.

ABENDBLATT: What do you understand by social justice?

NESKOVIC: Social justice means that the economically strong must shoulder a heavier burden than the weak.
Judge Nesković is now a Left Party candidate in this election: it's the only party, he believes, that still defends social values. Another Left candidate, Lothar Bisky, is not appealing to either red or brown extremists when he says that "the market cannot rule everything" and that "whoever looks upon the world only as a profit zone sins against the nations." In a sense, these are conservative, Christian values in Germany.

Strong in the east, weak in the west

The rise of the Left is a stunning change of fortunes for the widely-reviled Party of Democratic Socialism. Until now, the reformed post-communists have been a relatively strong force in eastern Germany, but virtually a non-entity in the west. East of the Elbe river, they co-govern with the Social Democrats in two federal states and are the largest opposition party in two others. More than five dozen municipal governments are in their hands. The PDS has worked hard over the years since German unification to cultivate an image as an honest, moderate, pragmatic party that delivers good government when elected to office. As a result, the party is trusted by many east German voters despite its origins in the despised ruling party of the former GDR. Its share of the eastern vote in federal elections has oscillated between 17 and 22 percent. But the PDS never gained a foothold in the west of Germany, where its electoral potential with voters seemed permanently thwarted by its communist past.

The party's future was precarious. When, after an ambitious and trendy campaign, the PDS scored only 4 percent of the vote in the 2002 federal election, it seemed on its way towards footnote status
in German history books. But the post-communists quickly recovered
and recalled one of their most pragmatic and media-oriented politicians, Lothar Bisky. New leadership restored self-confidence and a sense of mission. The PDS bounced back in time for the European parliament elections in 2004, winning a record 6.1 percent nationwide.

So the party's immediate prospects were reasonably bright when public opinion forced SPD Chancellor Schroeder to call for early elections in September—one year ahead of schedule. Bisky and others persuaded the party's former media star—a fast-talking Berlin lawyer named Gregor Gysi—to return to public life only months after brain surgery and two heart attacks. With Gysi's silver tongue and his relative popularity among east German voters, with new political capital accumulated by the party's support for nationwide protests against Schroeder's failed reforms, and with the promise of a snappy, professional campaign, it seemed likely the PDS would at least reach the five-percent threshold required for full representation in the Bundestag. Cautiously, the party announced that "five percent plus" was its goal. But no one, least of all the PDS, expected the post-communists to compete seriously with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats in the race to become Germany's number-three party behind the dominant CDU/CSU and SPD. An electoral breakthrough of that magnitude would require a miracle: the support of at least 4 or 5 percent of the western vote.

Oskar Lafontaine
Party's fortunes changed overnight

But everything changed literally overnight. The day after Schroeder fixed the date for new elections, his Social Democrats were stunned to learn that Oskar Lafontaine, their former leader and one-time chancellor candidate, was handing in his red party book and joining the rebellious "Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice" (WASG) founded in 2004 by trade unionists who had lost faith in their traditional party, the SPD. One of Germany's most flamboyant power politicians, long recognized as the éminence grise of the SPD left, reviled by his enemies and revered by his supporters as "Red Oskar" and the "Napoleon of the Saar" during his 13 years as premier of the industrial western state of Saarland, Lafontaine announced he was available to lead the fight against Schroeder ... but on one condition. The WASG and the PDS could not afford to split the potential left vote. They must form a united ticket before the election.

It was an ideal but improbable marriage. Lafontaine and Gysi are arguably Germany's two most charismatic politicians: both are powerful speakers and brilliant debaters. Lafontaine and the WASG gave the alliance credibility in the west, Gysi and the PDS gave it a strong electoral base in the east.

In less than four weeks, the two parties hammered out an agreement. Fusion will be postponed until after the election, but in the meantime Lafontaine and other WASG candidates will run on the PDS ticket. As a gesture to its new allies, who said the PDS brand name was electoral poison in the west, the party renamed itself "Left Party.PDS" or simply "The Left.PDS," with the letters "PDS" optional in western states.

Almost immediately, the new alliance's poll numbers took off on what the German media described as a "high-altitude flight"—from 5 to 9 percent, then 10, 11, 12, 13. Both the environmentalist Greens (tarnished by their support for Schroeder's policies) and the pro-business Free Democrats fell behind. Recent polls track the Left at 26 to 33 percent in the east, 6 to 8 in the west. The momentum cannot last, but the party does appear to be winning support broadly across Germany's political spectrum. Nearly 30 percent of its current electoral base supported the SPD in the last election, another 30 percent voted for the PDS. More than 20 percent did not vote at all: apparently the new movement is winning over many disillusioned Germans who saw no point in supporting any party in 2002. Even the conservative Christian Democrats could lose half a million voters to the Left. And in an obvious rebuff to the accusation that the Left is appealing to an anti-immigrant clientele, less than 4 percent of its potential voters said they had supported extreme right-wing parties in the previous election.

According to polls, the Left's high-altitude flight is already levelling off. But a diminished result of only 8 percent would put the Left Party in the same league as the Greens and Free Democrats—an electoral breakthrough no one imagined two months ago.

After the election, the Left's future is uncertain. The very different political cultures of the two partners reflect the social and ideological divisions between eastern and western Germany. It will be a difficult marriage. But the will to form a credible and stable alternative force in German politics is strong on both sides.

Yes to a new social idea

Meanwhile, the party has unveiled its new display ads and its commercials for TV and movie theaters. The 270,000 billboards and posters strike a positive note: "yes" to a "new social idea." The aggressive red and black color scheme of previous PDS campaigns has been modified by a palette of cheerful pastels. A lone red triangle on the party's new logo is a subtle reminder of its socialist heritage: it could be a red flag, or a red arrow pointing left, or a red megaphone.*

The cinema ad similarly deconstructs the Left's former image as the angry protest party of a traumatized minority. Two cleancut women boxers are fighting it out in the ring. One is wearing a red helmet and trunks, the other is in conservative blue. Red is taking a pounding as her coach shouts, "lead with the left!" Exasperated, he cries out, "the left! the left!" Red advances on Blue with her left glove extended. The motion freezes and the roar of the crowd fades. Then the Red boxer puts her left arm around the shoulders of the Blue fighter, and together they stop the match.

Will that conservative message of social reconciliation, mixed with feminist and pacifist undertones, win over voters to a party whose distant political heritage includes the militant "Red Front" of the Weimar Republic? The Left is betting that it will. Both a party of protest and a party of pragmatism, both progressive and conservative, both east and west, both red and blue, the reborn Left is hoping to transform the political balance of power in Germany. It may succeed ... at least for this year.

More links on this subject

We can't realistically expect to win (Deutsche Welle)
Historian links German Left Party to Nazis (DPA)
Left Party puts cats among the pigeons (Der Spiegel)
Left Party's TV, cinema and radio spots
Left Party's display ads
History of Left Party.PDS (English)
Left Party's campaign platform (English)
Left Party's online newsletter (English)
Norman Birnbaum on Germany's political scene (DIRELAND)
Why Europe is moving towards the left (Monthly Review)
German capital flees in search of more profit (Le Monde)
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (English)
André Brie, Left MEP (English)
Sahra Wagenknecht, Left MEP (English)

Read the full article

Saturday, September 10, 2005

War of the Worlds: truth or fiction?

One of the most interesting people I've met in Cleveland is Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Rumors that he is the former head of an international criminal organization are, he says, "LIES! ALL LIES!" I found his delightful reflections on Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" and its surprising relevance to current events worthy of note, and I think you will, too.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Helga and I finally went to see "War of the Worlds" last weekend: we had to wait until it reached the discount theater at the mall. Damn those SPECTRE budget cuts! Thirty years ago a typical night out for Ernst Stavro Blofeld was a romantic dinner in Monte Carlo followed by a high-stakes game of Baccarat at the Grand Casino. Now it's the buffet at Olive Garden and a cheap matinee at the multiplex!

And I had to replace my deadly piranha with hamsters! Do you have any idea how impossible it is to maintain discipline in your criminal empire when the worst punishment you can threaten is a plunge into the hamster pit?

But what a great movie! It had all the elements of a true Blofeldian classic: machines, death rays, mass murder. Spielberg had lots of spectacular ideas I'd love to incorporate into the Mark VI DRADS (Death Ray Delivery Systems) I'm building in an abandoned salt mine deep below Lake Erie. But Lord knows those blasted accountants at the home office would never authorize the slightest modification in our plans for world domination. The fools!

Illustration from French 1906 edition
Spielberg's rediscovery of H.G. Wells' original vision made me wonder if, perhaps, I made a mistake investing so many billions into 1950s technology. My advisers insisted the best model for my death machines was the flying-wing concept embodied in George Pal's 1953 version of "War in the Worlds"—graceful silvery wedges gliding silently on anti-gravity generators. But in Spielberg's movie, retro-engineered tripods were belching out industrial booms and clanking away like a division of Tiger tanks rolling through the cobblestone streets of an Alsatian market town during the Battle of the Bulge. And his death rays reminded me of an unfortunate experience I had with a barber in East Berlin whose heavy-industrial electric hair clipper malfunctioned during a brown-out. The sounds were nearly identical: mmmmmmzngTHWAP, scream, sizzle, mmmmmmzngTHWAP, scream, sizzle.

Of course, Spielberg's story breaks down in several places. Why, for example, would the tripedal alien invaders bury their war machines beneath the surface of the Earth "millions of years ago," then turn around and fly back to Mars? Why not do the job right away—when the only opposition would have been woolly mammoths, giant sloths and spear-throwing hominids? Why wait through the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs before making the big grab for world conquest?

Another flaw:
Is it really possible that a technologically advanced alien race would simply forget to immunize its troops against the bacteria of the planet they'd been planning for "millions of years" to invade? Not one microbiologist on the evil invasion-planning committee? You could forgive Wells for missing this little detail in 1898: the relationship between microbes and disease was a relatively new discovery and perhaps his Martians had neglected the biological sciences in favor of metallurgy, space travel and death rayology. But in 2005 that kind of slip-up requires more than a willing suspension of disbelief.

Or does it?

Sometimes, reality is as fantastic as science fiction. Imagine that the invaders were led by the Martian avatars of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Michael Chertoff. Millions of our compatriots are apparently quite content to believe that "no one could have predicted that invading Iraq would open the country's borders to thousands of fanatical suicide bombers" or "no one could have predicted that a massive hurricane would cause a big flood in New Orleans." So why wouldn't the equivalent Martian spin—"no one could have predicted that our invading forces would be infected by earth microbes against which we had no immunological defenses even though we'd been planning this thing for millions of years"—make for a perfectly credible plot?

That suggests the possibility of a sequel, doesn't it? What happens after the planned tripedal cakewalk over a prostrate Earth turns out to be a deadly quagmire?

My proposed outline: despite the Earth fiasco, the Great Ruler of Mars wins reelection by a comfortable margin because gullible voters actually believe he is more qualified than the other candidate to protect the Martian way of life from the threat of the non-destruction of Earth. He vows to "get the job done" and warns that not "staying the course" would be interpreted as "a sign of weakness" and would "give those earth folks exactly what they want: not getting exterminated." He pours reserve troops into the conflict, and this time everybody gets immunization shots. But the war drags on for years: the Earthlings, despite their technological inferiority, discover they can defeat the protective energy blisters by detonating roadside bombs underneath the Martian machines. Martian war minister Dlanod "Ymmur" Dlefsmur orders more than 11,000 tripods withdrawn to Mars to be "up-armored" to withstand the threat.

Meanwhile, the Great Ruler's bone-carapaced subordinates—basically a crew of mendacious Good Old Tripeds—neglect their own planet's defenses against natural disaster and a huge dust storm wipes out New Snaelro, a city famous for its Zzaj music and its savory Red Mars Sauce. The Great Ruler promises that "Armies of Non-Extermination" (the Martian word for "compassion") will ride to the rescue, but the relief effort is screwed up in Red Mars Tape. The Great Ruler explains that "no one could have predicted a big dust storm" but this is laughed off because, well, after all, Mars is a very dusty planet and the Annihilator Corps of Engineers have been warning for decades that New Snaelro's system of protective energy blisters was badly in need of repair.

But Mars is now divided into "Blues" and "Reds" and the credulous Red majority will believe whatever blathering macho nonsense comes out of their Ruler's speech-orifice. A compliant media—particularly the talking heads of the Xof News Network—manage to deflect the blame onto local and state authorities, and after (literally) sacrificing a few lower-ranking subordinates, the administration stumbles forward to new disasters.

Truth? Fiction? You decide.

Read the full article

Monday, September 05, 2005

We all live in an economic New Orleans

By Steve Kurdziel

Steve Kurdziel of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is our guest columnist as we continue to explore the moral and economic consequences of Hurricane Katrina. This column is a renewal after more than 30 years of our relationship as reporter and editor when we were undergrads at Georgetown University. He's a gifted writer and an occasional (and highly-praised) columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Feel free to engage Steve in conversation by posting a comment below. I've also posted as a comment (below) his second article on President Bush's failure to use his legal authority to intervene at an early stage of the hurricane crisis.

There is no doubt that the disaster on the Gulf Coast was a major failure of government. As David Brooks says in his New York Times column, this massive and very public debacle has joined in the public mind with the Enron scandal, the intelligence screw-up on weapons of mass destruction and the shame of Abu Ghraib in a broad indictment of the sheer incompetence and moral failure of our political leaders and institutions. The result, Brooks thinks, could be a tectonic shift in our politics similar to the one that brought Ronald Reagan to power in 1980.

But perhaps we need more than a shift in the political landscape. My fear is that the crisis unleashed by Hurricane Katrina could obscure a greater danger: the coming economic disaster that Katrina has brought even closer.

The counter on the front page of this blog spits out the dizzying, relentless cost of our intervention in Iraq. That's important. But to be honest about what we're facing economically, we need simultaneous counters reeling off:
  • our dependence on consumer debt to keep our economy afloat (doubling from $5 trillion in 1998 to $10 trillion in 2004, with 80 percent of that based on a home loan);
  • the increasing share of our gross domestic product based on consumer sales, growing from just under 50 percent in 2000 to nearly 90 percent in 2004;
  • the unfunded responsibilities for pensions and health care that will be needed as baby boomers retire.
Oh, and we should have a counter that's stuck on zero to show how much America is saving now that we've become addicted to the idea that we don't need savings when we have an ATM machine in our house.

Are we are living in an economic New Orleans?

Katrina is going to cost at least $100 billion. Iraq and the other costs of maintaining Pax Americana are a financial open sore that will continue to bleed for years. The Social Security and Medicare bills will be in the trillions. And we don't know how much the next terrorist attack or the next California earthquake will cost, although both disasters are probable (as FEMA warned in 2001), if not inevitable.

In fact, we are all living in an economic New Orleans, well below the sea level of an economy where expenses, present and future, are balanced by income and savings. Our temporary protection has been a system of easy, cheap credit and the illusions of wealth that (we have been repeatedly warned) will not stand up forever if they are strained.

Make no mistake, we are here because this administration gambled that it could keep everyone buying things with plenty of inexpensive credit while they created a new economy of new jobs through tax cuts and free trade. That plan depended upon those new jobs showing up and the credit slowly being dried up.

Now, because of Katrina, the overheated credit machine will have to keep running. The great illusion of increasing wealth will mask the mounting public and private debt that must someday be repaid.

The administration's plan: the rich can ride out the storm

If you think it's outrageous that the administration has been so obtuse, so ill-prepared and so wrong about Iraq and Katrina, consider that its policies are now dependent on an economic base of stagnating incomes, non-existent savings and massive bills coming due for what we already know and for what we know is coming.

What is their plan?

Part of it seems to be a version of the evacuation plan for New Orleans—those who can should drive out of town, and those that can't will have to drown. David Brooks called the abandonment of the poor in New Orleans the moral equivalent of leaving the wounded on the battlefield. Does that image also apply when only a tiny segment of America has the means to ride out the coming economic collapse while the middle class is trapped in houses on which they owe more than they are worth and a bankrupt government lacks resources to help the poor?

We can't turn back the clock to prevent last week's catastrophe. But there may still be time to fix our economy—although, as was the case with the storm levees, the job and the costs will be massive and it is very tempting not to act. The price of failure in this case, however, will not be limited to one region nor confined to the destructive force of a single hurricane.

More links on this subject

A tale of two families: one poor, one middle class
Times Picayune to Bush: "bald-faced lies"
Tikkun: America, welcome to the global era
Maureen Dowd: United States of Shame
Paul Krugman: a can't-do government

Read the full article

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Undisposed bodies in a less-than-ideal world

"In an ideal world, we would pick up and dispose of any cadavers," Secretary of Homeland "Security" Michael Chertoff said at a press conference Sept. 1. But "[w]e're not in an ideal world."

Army Photo by Spc. Kevin Gropp
Political reporters like to know "where the bodies are buried." But, as we've watched the scenes of horror from the Gulf coast in the past week, the bodies were in plain sight.

And the body count has been building for a long time: Hurricane Katrina only adds to the toll. The coffins are returning almost every week from Iraq, in hushed-up military ceremonies that are never publicized except in rare cases where families refuse the cloak of secrecy. So Secretary Chertoff is wrong. The Bush administration has known for a long time how to "pick up and dispose" of its cadavers. But this mendacious talent for concealing the human cost of the President's failures seemed to fail this week: nobody could keep the press away from the bloated corpses floating down flooded streets, lying in full view outside the Superdome, or discovered in shattered houses up and down the Gulf Coast.

Is there a connection between the endless war in Iraq and the federal government's tragic incompetence during the first critical days and nights of this horror? Of course there is. On Aug. 4 New Orleans TV station WGNO reported prophetically: "When members of the Louisiana National Guard left for Iraq in October, they took a lot equipment with them. Dozens of high water vehicles, humvees, refuelers and generators are now abroad, and in the event of a major natural disaster that, could be a problem."

Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Smith
High-water vehicles? Humvees? Refuelers and generators? Today (Saturday)—five days after the hurricane and one day after federal aid finally began to arrive—thousands of citizens are still stranded in their homes without food, water, electricity and sanitation. The elderly and the chronically ill have died by the hundreds (if not thousands) in hospitals and shelters where, without power, conditions quickly reverted to the pre-industrial age. The New Orleans police report that many officers are deserting their posts in despair, and two have committed suicide. The thousands of troops Bush has ordered into the city may be able to restrain looting but have no training in either disaster relief or rescue operations.

Now the President and his Homeland Security czar are claiming the devastation was a bolt out of the blue. Who saw it coming? Apparently, no one. "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," Bush said Thursday with a straight face. The magnitude of the disaster was "breathtaking in its surprise," Chertoff echoed. It "exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody's foresight."

That, of course, is a breathtaking lie. The Army Corps of Engineers warned as recently as May that disaster threatened the city and reminded the Administration that funds to strengthen the flood barriers had never been allocated. In 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Administration (now under Chertoff's mismanagement) said the United States faced three likely disaster scenarios that would require massive response: a terrorist attack, a California earthquake, and the flooding of New Orleans.

But the Administration had other priorities.

Other stories on this subject

Warnings went ignored as Bush slashed flood budget to pay for wars
Iraq war diverted funds from flood control preparations
Scientific American predicted disaster
Officials warned for years of flood danger
Maureen Dowd: United States of Shame
Paul Krugman: a can't-do government

Read the full article

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