Just another little note about that damn flag

>> Sunday, June 28, 2015

Is it still possible to stipulate that someone who murders nine people has something wrong with them?  This used to be self-evident.  Relatively well-adjusted people don't usually go around killing anyone, much less numerous anyones; when a person with a history of relative well-adjustment goes and kills someone we almost always look to a moment of imbalance--what pushed this person over the edge, what made them "snap"?

This isn't a comment at all on anyone else who might have some kind of disability or illness, who might be receiving treatment or in need of treatment.  This isn't stigmatization.  This is merely stating something that used to be obvious.  Something that ratchets one way: someone receiving psychiatric treatment isn't one bad day from an unlawful killing, but surely someone who kills another without lawful excuse or justification ought to have been receiving some kind of preventative treatment.

I have seen, of course, quite a lot of people contest the above assertions.  Denounce the merest suggestion that the young man who murdered nine people in a Charleston church was mentally ill.  He wasn't diagnosed or in treatment, so far as we know, so how can we say he was mentally ill?  Aside from taking that time he killed all those people as evidence of some extreme form of mental disturbance, that is?
Just as, naturally, I've seen a lot of people denounce the suggestion that this was in any way about the widespread availability of firearms, as if it were nearly as easy to kill one person--much less two, or three, or nine--with a tool that requires one to get up close to another person and exert oneself, as it is to kill as many persons as one has bullets with a tool that allows one to slowly walk around holding your arm out, working a little lever with your finger.

We are talking (by which I mean we aren't, but should be) about a trifecta.  There are racists with guns who never hurt anybody.  There are mentally ill racists who do little more than post hundreds of messages to the kinds of fringe social media websites the Southern Poverty Law Center tries to monitor.  There are mentally ill people with guns who don't drive a hundred miles to terrorize one of the most important historically black churches in the United States, opting instead to shoot their parents or a schoolhouse or whomever the neighbor's dog told them to.  What we have in Charleston is three-by-three, what happens when a mentally ill racist has easy access to firearms.

We Americans are stuck, right now, on guns.  Perhaps we always will be.  They aren't going away any time soon, and the Supreme Court has hampered any efforts to restrict the number of firearms in circulation.  Any number of people have pointed out that the gun control laws in place and the gun control laws frequently proposed and most of the gun laws lately struck down wouldn't have kept a gun from the Charleston shooter.  Perhaps they miss the point that if there were simply fewer guns all around, he might not have been able to get one, not even legally; or that if he'd only been able to get a long gun, having to openly tote it into a church would have made his intentions more obvious and frightening; or if he'd been restricted to a firearm with a much more limited rate of fire and/or limited magazine, his victims might have had more opportunities to escape or disarm him.  After all, if you read the Second Amendment as a state right to militias instead of as a broad personal right to almost anything except possibly nuclear weapons, you could, maybe, limit firearms possession to the personal ownership of muzzle-loading flintlocks, or to the temporary possession of assault rifles checked out of the state armory for closely supervised militia drills, just to offer two extreme f'r'instances.  But that's a dead issue, because that's certainly not how we read the Second Amendment, so you don't even need to argue with this paragraph if you're inclined to: if you disagree with everything I've said in it, congratulations, you've already won.

And we are stuck on mental illness.  We don't appear to be particularly interested in diagnosing people, or in treating them, or (to be more precise) we don't appear to be interested in paying for it, which amounts to the same thing.  Don't misunderstand me and think that I'm saying we could diagnose and treat every dangerously violent person in the country even if we spent the whole national budget on it.  But since we're not inclined to spend much money diagnosing and treating any of them, the point seems moot, yes?

But perhaps we can do something about pervasive racism.

Here is the thing about the Charleston murderer (you'll have noted I've avoided his name, both because he hasn't been convicted--though it appears he's confessed and that his identity was never in much doubt--and because I take some small pleasure, frankly, in depriving him of his name): perhaps in a less-racist society, his obsessions would have taken a different turn---messages from the neighbor's dog, a cloud of ennui compelling him to the thought of using the schoolyard across the street for target practice.  But in this society, his obsessions turned to "white pride" and the belief that black Americans were harming this country; that recent, highly-publicized incidents of white-on-black violence were somehow the victims' faults; and he expressed his obsession, not by immediately going out and murdering nine of his fellow human beings, but at first by decking himself out in the symbols and icons of racial supremacy--the Rhodesian flag, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia--and by telling racist jokes and talking about killing blacks when he was drunk.

And this is the thing, the very worst thing about that: perhaps in a different, better place, decking oneself out in racist iconography and saying racist things would mark oneself as a potentially dangerous obsessive, would lead one's intimates to at least keep a watchful eye out and perhaps even contact the police, might (under the right set of circumstances) lead to one being involuntarily committed and evaluated to determine if one was mentally ill and dangerous to self or others (if one's conduct and language crossed the fine line between Constitutional guarantees of one's right to be an asshole and legitimately menacing society).

But in Twenty-First Century South Carolina, as in much of the United States, attitudes like the killer's are so commonplace in kind, if not necessarily degree, that his behavior was within the bounds of cultural norms.

That is, there's nothing unusual about a contemporary American saying racist things, and lots of Americans have racists symbols on their clothing, cars, and in their front yards; so maybe this guy's a little "Can't he talk about something else for a change?" but there's nothing that weird about him.  CNN reports:

"They were just racist slurs in a sense," [someone who went to high school with the killer] said. "He would say it just as a joke. ... I never took it seriously, but now that he shed his other side, so maybe they should have been taken more seriously."

And why would you take him seriously?  He sounds like lots and lots of people, only sometimes more so.

Surely that's something that ought to be changed?

And this is why taking the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina State House grounds, and off of shirts and toys, and taking it down anywhere else it appears, is a small victory.  Very small.  It's not that you take the thing away and suddenly centuries of institutionalized racism from race-based chattel slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to today vanishes in an instant as if it were never there.  Nor is it only a small win because it no longer slaps African American citizens in the face (in the South, anyway, many black residents have gotten somewhat used to the damn old thing; it's complicated).  It's a small win partly--actually, the word I'd prefer is largely--because its presence normalizes the things it represents in some circles, because tolerating it even under some pretense of "heritage" (and I've written about what I think of that recently) provides far too much cover for those who irrationally, obsessively, and (yes) sickly dangerous.  Because there shouldn't be any question about whether the Charleston shooter was mentally ill or just some kind of "run-of-the-mill bigot," who didn't need to mask himself or exercise very much self-control because, frankly, he wasn't dressed strangely or saying anything you hadn't heard coming from the mouth of a family member or co-worker (or even thought or said yourself).

From everything I've read, he just sat out there in plain view until he decided to go a-killing.

I have a problem with that.  You should, too.


Quote of the day -- "the hope of companionship" edition

>> Friday, June 26, 2015

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.   In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of  the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.

There are things I never really expected in my lifetime.  This is one of them.

I think many readers will understand that the Court's decision today somehow means even more to me since my own marriage to the Scatterkat.

Elsewhere in his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy writes, "Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other."  Indeed.  My own marriage feels more valuable to me today, not less.

Congratulations today, to everyone who would like to get married, might ever like to get married, or whose marriages are now recognized all across the United States as a result of this decision.  And much love.

For all the darkness and despair I sometimes feel when I think about the state my country is in, days like today remind me that sometimes, yes, implausibly and improbably, love wins.


Hot plates

>> Thursday, June 25, 2015

Last week, I was ranting and raving about the Confederate flag on the South Carolina capitol grounds.  Since that post, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, joined by Senator Lindsey Graham (the chief whipping boy of my previous post) has called for the removal of the traitor's flag.  Some of my fellow travelers on the left have impugned her motives on this score--some have noted that South Carolina's rootin' tootin' racism has cost the state outside business investments, some have commented on the political favor Governor Haley does for the Republican party by taking this particular embarrassment off the table at the beginning of the campaign season.  I'm not going to join in that particular dinging; rather, I'll point out that people frequently do the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons, and that a deluge begins with a single raindrop, and a small advance up the side of a cliff is always preferable than falling down it again.

To be clear, taking the flag down isn't going to solve our nation's problems with racism; if the American Civil War and Reconstruction failed to do so, it would be magical thinking indeed to imagine removing a single symbol is all it takes to make everything better.  But it's a small, achievable step: maybe if the symbol gets hidden away to the museum it belongs in (a label saying "Never Again" would be too much to hope for, yet we'll hope), it won't be there to preserve and promote the post-Reconstruction historical revisionism that turned a bloody fight over white-supremacy-based chattel slavery and the nation's soul into a "noble" "Lost Cause" over "state's rights" and "Yankee aggression".  At the least, maybe it won't be a public face-slap to the victims of past and present racial disparities.

It's a step, anyway.

And in keeping with the deluge/raindrops cliche, there's the promising sign that the South Carolina confederate flag fracas has been followed by feeling a few more drops on our upturned faces.  We're talking about the racism of the Confederate States of America more than we usually do, we're talking about other places the flag ought to be removed from.

As an utterly trivial f'r'instance, Warner Bros., doubtlessly motivated more than commerce than moral fortitude (but again, who cares?), is removing the Confederate flag from the top of the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee custom Charger.  And you might well ask, "So what?"  Well, it's pop culture icons like the General Lee that perpetuate the "heritage not hate" canard and obscure the flag's connection to a nation founded on the premise that white superiority not only justified but mandated chattel slavery of blacks.  The flag on the car roof normalizes it, makes it frivolous, makes it the icon for "good ol' boys, never meanin' no harm," rather than the icon of men who said things like "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."  Just a few years ago--in 2012--Warner told the New York Times they had no intention of taking the flag off the car.  And now they're taking the flag off the car.

It's worth pointing out at this juncture, I think, that symbolism clearly meant a lot to the murderer of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Singleton, and  Myra Thompson.  He liked his flags, or so it appears.  It's also worth pointing out that the solidarity that has manifested in the short term around his crimes (and we hope it lasts into the long term) is probably not the effect he intended.  It's doubtful he meant for the symbols of his deviancy and irrelevance to become a source of embarrassment, a target of sustained criticism, and to be removed from view with a recognition that these are symbols of hurt and hatred.

The idea that the flag needs to go away has spread, and is now manifesting in my own home state with a small contretemps over the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plate.  Unfortunately, we seem to be getting it wrong.

Governor Pat McCrory, in what has become a rare moment of moral clarity, has called for the state legislature to do away with the traitor flag on the plate.  The State House has responded that they don't need to do a thing, the Governor can do away with the plate without their help.  The Governor's spokesperson has made the surrebuttal that state law requires a civic group's plate to include the civic group's insignia, hence the need for legislative change.

Oh, if only there were, I don't know, some kind of recent U.S. Supreme Court case directly on point (PDF link).

So, to bring you up to speed, here's what's happening: the NC Division of Motor Vehicles has been authorized under  NC General Statute §20-79.4 to issue more than 250 flavors of specialty plate, which is a gimmicky but effective way to generate revenue, since nearly all of the specialty plates cost a vehicle owner an additional fee (the military service plates, such as the plates for Bronze Star recipients, don't cost anything to those who qualify for them).  Parenthesis 42 under the statute allows DMV to issue a special plate for "Civic Clubs":

(42)      Civic Club. - Issuable to a member of a nationally recognized civic organization whose member clubs in the State are exempt from State corporate income tax under G.S. 105-130.11(a)(5). Examples of these clubs include Jaycees, Kiwanis, Optimist, Rotary, Ruritan, and Shrine. The plate shall bear a word or phrase identifying the civic club and the emblem of the civic club. A person may obtain from the Division a special registration plate under this subdivision for the registered owner of a motor vehicle or a motorcycle. The registration fees and the restrictions on the issuance of a specialized registration plate for a motorcycle are the same as for any motor vehicle. The Division may not issue a civic club plate authorized by this subdivision unless it receives at least 300 applications for that civic club plate.

Now, as it happens, back in 1997, the NC chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (NC SCV) applied for a specialty tag under §20-79.4(42), and as it happens, the "emblem of the civic club" is a variation of the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia or Second Confederate Navy Jack--I'm putting a picture of the plate next to this paragraph, so if you didn't already know what we were talking about, now you have no excuse.  And the NC DMV denied the plate--the then-Commissioner of the DMV offering as an official rationale that the NC SCV "does not meet the statutory criteria for a civic club".

I will allow that this was pretty obviously a bullshit excuse.  I mean, transparently bullshit.  The NC SCV had all the legal makings of a "civic club" within the purposes of the statute, and one suspects that the "not a civic club" justification was merely a non-First Amendment-implicating cover for an actual rationale that the NC SCV are tacky, insensitive assholes who want to commemorate a chapter of our state's history that we are simultaneously embarrassed by and proud of, humblebragging that we were the last state to secede and first to give blood to the Civil War (as an aside, the latter portion of that may or may not be true).  Not to mention the offensiveness of the symbol.  Or the way North Carolina has spent much of the past fifty years trying to be the Newest and Shiniest state of the New South--we would much prefer that when you think of us, you think of Charlotte banking and Triangle R&D, and how much fun your yuppies and hipsters can have in Asheville or Wrightsville Beach.  (We have a wine country now.  I want to be clear about that: we have a wine country.  Don't think, "North Carolina, segregated lunch counters"--that was all very sixty years ago; think, "North Carolina, mmm, delicious, delicious wiiiiiine."  Please?)

Anyway, you'll be unsurprised (I hope) to learn that the NC SCV sued and won, and the NC DMV appealed, and the NC SCV still won.  But the issue wasn't the sacred First Amendment right of assholes to be public assholes; the sole issue that the NC Court of Appeals addressed in North Carolina Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Faulkner, 131 N.C. App. 775, 509 S.E.2d 207 (1998) was whether the NC SCV was a club, specifically a "civic club".  The only Constitutional comment from the appellate branch was in the first of the court's two footnotes:

1 SCV's emblem strikingly resembles the Confederate flag. We are aware of the sensitivity of many of our citizens to the display of the Confederate flag. Whether the display of the Confederate flag on state-issued license plates represents sound public policy is not an issue presented to this Court in this case. That is an issue for our General Assembly. We are presented only with the issue of whether SCV-NCD [Sons of Confederate Veterans - North Carolina Division] has complied with the language of section 20-79.4(b)(5), and note that allowing some organizations which fall within section 20-79.4(b)(5)'s criteria to obtain personalized plates while disallowing others equally within the criteria could implicate the First Amendment's restriction against content-based restraints on free speech.

If that was the last word in the matter, then the Governor's office would clearly be quite right that this was a legislative matter.  There it is in very plain text: the court is only interested in whether the NC SCV has complied with the Motor Vehicle Code, and oh-by-the-way, if the court were to look into a free speech issue, well, yeah, they'd probably have to find against the state then, too, if--but it's not before us.

But last week--a complete coincidence--the US Supreme Court decided a case brought by the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans against the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Texas SCV lost.  In a five-four ruling, the Court held in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans (2015) (still a PDF link) that "Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design."

I think what this means for the NC DMV is that the DMV probably can--by way of an executive order--simply stop issuing these plates on the grounds that the State of North Carolina has a right not to endorse an offensive message on public policy grounds.  Except.  There's a wrinkle.  Why is there always a wrinkle?

I started this post with some harsh words for Governor McCrory, who I assumed (and I think not unreasonably, frankly) was simply ducking and weaving a potentially controversial issue by kicking it over to the State House, and that the Legislature was returning the serve tit-for-tat.  But then I'm looking over the opinion in Walker and I notice something about the Texas specialty plate statute.  According to Justice Breyer:

The relevant [Texas] statute says that the Board "may refuse to create a new specialty license plate" for a number of reasons, for example “if the design might be offensive to any member of the public... or for any other reason established by rule."  Tex. Transp. Code Ann. §504.801(c).

Not really a fan of Texas law (coincidentally, I was looking up a point of Texas law for personal reasons not too long ago: I'm an informed not really a fan of Texas law, this isn't just me talking out my ass like I normally do; they're kinda crazy, and no, that's not a surprise), but this provision seems... pretty logical.  I qualify that because on the one hand you have common sense that suggests the DMV really ought to be able to reject the most fucked-up license plate proposals to cross their desks because, I mean, c'mon seriously, people?!  On the other hand you have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (applicable to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment, natch), and it's generally been held that the government isn't really supposed to question the dickery of its worst citizens, even when they're obviously trolling, except in the most egregious and extraordinary of situations.  So while the Texas statute seems logical, I can also see where it could be an endless source of bureaucratic and legal headdesking.

But, anyway, you know what I did, right?  Yeah, I went back to the goddamn North Carolina Motor Vehicle Code and started looking for the similar rejection provision in the North Carolina statute, and guess what I found?  Let me put it this way: you're welcome to look, and you may be smarter and less-lazy and more observant and you probably smell better and have nicer teeth, but I couldn't find it and I think I couldn't find it because it isn't there, not because I'm an idiot (although, you know, yeah).  Which is... pretty logical.  because on the one hand you have common sense that suggests the DMV really ought to be able to reject the most fucked-up license plate proposals to cross their desks because, I mean, c'mon seriously, people?!  On the other hand you have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (applicable to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment, natch), and it's generally been held that the government isn't really supposed to question the dickery of its worst citizens, even when they're obviously trolling, except in the most egregious and extraordinary of situations.  So while the North Carolina statute seems logical, I can also see where it could be an endless source of bureaucratic and legal headdesking.

(You, ah, see what I did there, right?  Anyway.)

It occurs to me that the "transparently bullshit" excuse Commissioner Faulkner offered the NC SCV back in 1997 was, unfortunately, the only one available to her, since the legislature didn't actually give her a "dude, shit no, go away" option.

And you see the wrinkle, right?  While the DMV may have a constitutional right per Walker to decline to express some viewpoints for public policy reasons, they don't appear to have a statutory mechanism for actually doing so.  As far as I can tell, the North Carolina General Statutes merely say that if someone qualifies for a plate, they get the plate.

The wrinkle has wrinkles.  As far as I understand Walker, the Supreme Court absolutely is not saying that the Sons of Confederate Veterans can't have a Sons of Confederate Veterans plate; the Court only says, "Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design."  So the SCV can come back with a less-patently-offensive design and if the Texas DMV doesn't have a problem, they have to issue a plate.  North Carolina's statute says, "The plate shall bear... the emblem of the civic club" (emphasis added).  If a duly-recognized, tax-exempt civic club has three hundred applicants apply for a specialty tag and it just so happens that the club's emblem is an Anthony Weiner dick pic... I guess the highways are jammed with penis photos of a New York Congress guy.  (Yes, you can totally sing that last line if you know the tune.  Get out your lighter when you do.)

The way this could work, see, is the Governor takes the Legislature's bait.  No more NC SCV plates, please.  The NC SCV sues, one imagines.  The case goes up, and the Governor argues "Flag plates are a public forum endorsement of speech we don't have to make because Walker."  The NC SCV argues, "So what, the state still has to follow the law, read Faulkner."  Aaaaand... and I think the Governor loses, actually.

Which meeeeeans... both the State House and Governor's office are kind of right, but the Governor is... more right?  Because ultimately it would be up to the Legislature to either specifically ban traitor flags from plates using Walker as constitutional cover, or to at least give the Governor and DMV authority to reject specific designs on grounds of offensiveness or strong public policy merits?  But either way, it's up to the House?

I think that's how it works out.  So (just so you know), I think I kind of changed my mind while I was writing this.  Not about the fucking flag, which is still the symbol of racists and traitors, but about how it would have to be taken off North Carolina license plates.  And, I hate to reach this conclusion, that leaves me thinking it ain't gonna happen, then, since both sides (the Governor and Legislature, I mean) are going to be able to bounce that ball around until the next Very Bad Thing comes along and we rant about something else for a bit.

And that's the state of the onion.


We know it's who you are. We don't like who you are.

>> Friday, June 19, 2015

What do you say about this that hasn't already been said?  And I don't mean this week.  We are a country still torn by the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, a country that lets its mentally ill roam the streets unsupervised because we're too high-and-mighty about the rights of white people to lock them up and too cheap to provide care for them, and where dead children are the proper and necessary price for a God-given right to bear arms.  We've spent much of this past year watching black people die on film, and having rallies to protest that "Black lives matter," when the essential, basic truth of this nation is that human lives don't matter; that statement isn't an attempt to recast a racial issue as somehow magically non-racist as if centuries of slavery and racist discrimination are to be waved away; no, it's to observe that a bitter truth of this horrible nation's shameful history is that of all the lives that don't matter, black lives matter least.

By Billy Hathorn (South Carolina State Capitol grounds)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],
via Wikimedia Commons
And boy oh boy, is South Carolina the fiefdom that wants to prove this the hardest.  Down there in the heart of treason and tyranny, those good ol' boys have the Confederate flag waving at the monument to the Confederacy at the South Carolina State House, nothing new there, except for the unsurprising revelation today that it takes a literal act of legislation to take the damned thing down to half-mast in mourning for the nine lives they'll pay lip service to today.  Turns out, see, they're so committed to making sure nobody comes to take their damn banner away, they went and wrote into law that it can only come down to be changed out.  The national flag flies at half-mast, as it should, and so does the South Carolina state flag, as it should, but the flag of the defeated failed country that opened fire on American soldiers because they thought a duly-elected American President would take away their precious right to exploit the chattel labor of their fellow men?  Oh, that stays high and mighty on a permanent mount.

Naturally, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina and would-be President of the country his proud forefathers repudiated and shot at, is one of those called upon to answer for this, and what does he say?  He says:

At the end of the day it's time for people in South Carolina—to revisit that decision would be fine with me, but this is part of who we are. The flag represents to some people a Civil War and that was the symbol of one side. To others it's a racist symbol, and it's been used by people, it's been used in a racist way. But the problems we have in South Carolina and throughout the world are not because of a movie or a symbol, it's because of what's in people's heart. You know, how do you go back and reconstruct America? What do we do in terms of our history?

Oh, brah-vo, Senator.  "The flag represents to some people a Civil War and that was the symbol of one side"?  Indeed, I cannot possibly dispute that: it was, indeed, in fact, well-and-truly, indubitably and undeniably the symbol of the losing side.  The side that founded a government upon "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition," as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens put it on March 21st, 1861.

"[U]sed by people, it's been used in a racist way," Senator?  Why yes, you are correct, you are on a roll.  We called those people "Confederates" and "Rebels" and "Secessionists" and "Disunionists".  I'm afraid that perhaps the word we ought to have used after the War Between the States was "Traitors".  Later, of course, the flag was picked up by Klansmen and skinheads and neo-Nazis--other traitors, in other words, others who would stand against the principles this country pledged itself to in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, however shoddy our efforts have been at making those notions a reality.

People throw around the phrase "un-American" to describe those they merely disagree with.  But disagreement is nothing, disagreement is the fundamental premise of a democracy, a form of government in which people put disagreement to a vote and pledge to tolerate, if not support, the result.  Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed about nearly everything except for a general sense that being an American meant subscribing to a Constitution and ideal.

(I exaggerate: they started calling each other "traitors" and accusing one another of being "too French" or "too Tory" within minutes of John Adams inauguration, and proceeded almost immediately to outlawing free speech; they were, I fear, more like us than we allow.  But go along with me for the point I'm attempting to make, please.)

But if there's anything that truly qualifies as "un-American," surely it's opening fire on a Federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861, or opening fire on a prayer gathering on June 17th, 2015 because your fellow Americans are supposedly "taking over our country. And... have to go."  Forgive me, I'm not trying to say these events are both apples or both oranges; what I'm attempting to say is that both acts proceeded from a willingness to reject a fundamental value this nation attempted to found itself upon: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  That they proceed from not just a dissatisfaction with our institutions, but a rejection of the principle that our institutions provide mechanisms for repairing themselves, and that the will of a violent minority--or individual--should trump whatever wisdom is possessed by the masses.

The flags of the Confederacy--the national flag or the more often displayed Confederate battle flags--are un-American, anti-American; they are the flags of a defeated slave state.  How do you "go back and reconstruct America"?  You don't do it, surely, by flaunting the diseased symbols of the anti-Union, of the traitor state.  To do so does nothing more than rub salt in the wounds of those who were to have been freed by the crushing of the insurrection against the Constitution of the United States and goad on those who truly don't belong here--the "state's rights"-ers and racists and unreconstructed disunionists who yearn nostalgically for a faltering feudal state where men owned men and the most ground-down white prole could ignore the burdens crushing his class because he could convince himself at least he was "better than a ------."

In Senator Graham's extended comments at CNN he added, "We're not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It's him... not the flag."  This is, of course, nonsense, pleasing tripe that a certain kind of Southerner perpetuates and possibly, foolishly, even believes.  As if the flag is a deflection, as if it really symbolizes "heritage" without needing to go into exactly what constitutes that heritage.  This is a flag that symbolizes a heritage of anti-Americanism and bigotry and violence in the service of anti-Americanism and bigotry (the disputed flag, as Confederate apologists often like to smugly observe, is the battle flag or Navy Jack and not the national flag of the Confederacy; ah, yes, point taken--it's the flag rebels stood under when they were actually shooting at the defenders of the Republic, and not the one they stood under while talking about shooting Americans, got it).  The flag is the murderer's banner, the murderer's banner is the flag; there's a symbolic identity at play.  The Senator talks about, "what's in people's heart[s]."  Certainly, indeed: it appears this flag was in the heart of this madman with a gun.

Those who fly the flag under which a gaggle of slavers demanded blood be spilt for the cause of bigots and torturers and exploiters, of those who would take liberty and give pain, of those who would break the backs of their fellow men and women for profit--yes, we worry what's in your hearts.  We see what you associate yourselves with, the history you glorify, the truths you deny, the apologies you offer and the lies you tell, the illusions you weave around your precious heritage and we worry that Senator Graham is honest and earnest when he says that's just a part of who you are.  We don't like that part of you.  No, we don't like what that flag represents and we don't like what it says about who you are--that is, we don't like who you are.  You're right to fear we look down upon you, that we feel contempt and fear and anger--we do, we do, we do.  We have contempt for your values and fear for what you might do for them, and we are angry, so very, very angry, at what you have done already for them.

We know it's a part of who you are.  How dearly we wish it wasn't.


Dumb quote of the day: so dumb it accidentally circled around and became smart (but probably not in the way the speaker intended) edition

>> Thursday, May 21, 2015

Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question
- Rep. Louie Gohmert, as quoted by Miranda Blue,
Right Wing Watch, May 20th, 2015.

Soooo... if I understand what Representative Gohmert is saying, he's saying that President Bush shouldn't have invaded Iraq?  Gee, who'd'a ever thunk I'd agree with Louie Gohmert on anything?

I mean, let's totally set aside the point that Rep. Gohmert is talking through both sides of his ass as far as President Obama's foreign policy is concerned.  Whether or not you like the President's efforts or the consequences, any problems aren't the product of the President not supporting "the right people" and not "helping our friends" and his "helping the enemies."  Rather, let's consider the actual proposition Gohmert is unwittingly making, which is that an American President doesn't control his succession (in a first term, he isn't even guaranteed he'll have a chance to succeed himself), and therefore probably ought to factor that into his policy making to whatever extent its practicable to do so.

Or, put another way: let's just assume for the nonce that Gohmert's premise that President George W. Bush was succeeded by an incompetent is correct; why, let's double-down on it, and propose that Bush was followed by a drooling idiot who can barely work the Velcro straps on his shoes and dresses himself backwards some mornings, who gets stuck pushing or pulling on doors with hinges that swing the other direction, that he once got lost for several hours because he turned out a bathroom light before exiting, that he is what that great American icon B. Bunny would have characterized as "a real maroon".

Well, then it seems Mr. Bush himself was a fool not to at least consider the possibility the reins of his little Middle Eastern adventure would be taken up by such a half-witted dunce, yes?

Indeed, let's walk things back a little and simply suppose that our imaginary President Obama is not a complete blockhead, but that he's some kind of blockhead savant, who is particularly good at some singular aspect of American foreign or domestic policy and merely Bad At War.  Surely Mr. Bush should have thought about that.

Why, come to think of it, he should have even considered the possibility he'd be succeeded by someone less capable from his own party, even!  Supposing we weren't talking about "President Obama" at all, but about "President McCain"!  I mean, Bush might suppose that Senator McCain would be a capable successor, notwithstanding the infamous 2000 South Carolina primary campaign during which "somebody" (surely not Lee Atwater, who'd never think of doing such a thing) supported Bush's first presidential bid by suggesting that McCain was at best mentally ill from his treatment as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison and at worst a brainwashed "Manchurian Candidate".  But maybe not.  Indeed, in the unlikely event Bush believed any of the garbage from the South Carolina whisper campaign, our scenario becomes one in which the sitting President starts a war with a strong possibility that it will be continued by a treasonous puppet controlled by Vietnamese Communists.

Besides, even if Bush (as is likely the case) didn't believe the slanders leveled at his former rival, who is his successor's running-mate?  William Henry Harrison kicked a bucket a month after his inauguration.  Sure, medicine's come a long way since the 19th Century, when the chief criterion for calling yourself a doctor was the ability to say "doctor," but (as Job so wisely teaches), shit happens.  (I mean, really, really fucked-up shit, too.  Just sayin'.)  As it happened, we certainly could have had "President Palin".  (She probably would have resigned three years into her term, but still.)

Now, there's an obvious hole in that, only that hole is actually the entire point of this.  To wit: that when George W. Bush launched the Iraq war, he of course had no idea Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama would eventually seek his office, or that McCain's running-mate would be Governor Sarah Palin, any more than he might have known that he himself would run against Senator John Kerry (instead of one of the other likely Democratic nominees) in 2004 or would be assured a win in that election; indeed, it's very likely Bush hoped his Iraq war would be over quickly and the capacity of his successor irrelevant in that regard, and had no idea the war would still be a thing in 2008.  But all of that's really the point, isn't it?  He didn't know.

And of course you never do, never can, because the future is uncertain and comes with few guarantees beyond the fact the Earth will still be spinning around the Sun and the Sun spinning around the Milky Way and the Milky Way zipping whichever direction it's zipping in, whether or not you're here tomorrow morning or next month or next year or next decade to notice any particular step in our cosmic dancing.

But given that you do know that much--is this what the poet Rumsfeld meant by "known unknowns"?--isn't that something you should try to factor into your plans as best you can?  If you're baking up some kind of plan (whether for a fine little war somewhere or for something else), and your plan depends on This One Guy and you don't know if This One Guy is going to be in play one day or the next (because you can't), isn't that a flaw in your plan?  If your plan is completely contingent upon never being screwed up by idiots, isn't that a flaw?  Shouldn't you do your best to come up with contingencies and escape routes?  And if you can't, then isn't that a warning flag that maybe you should scrap the plan altogether, especially if the plan is for something that isn't entirely and absolutely necessary?  I mean, maybe things are so dire that a bad plan is better than doing nothing (that could easily be the case), but if it isn't that kind of crisis?

In other words, this is part of the problem with Bush's Iraq war.  It's not at all clear that anyone involved in the operation had a clear idea of what to do if the war turned into an occupation and the occupation turned into a grind.  It'd be one thing if it looked like they planned things out and the plan just didn't work, but I don't think they did that much.

There's a point here, by the way, that's better than Bush-bashing, which is probably what the people who gave up several paragraphs ago think this is.  Bashing Bush is kind of pointless at this stage, what's done is done and what is fucked is fucked.  But there is an object-lesson here, one which many leaders have neglected, sometimes even more catastrophically than the Bush Administration did.  (For all his greatness as a President, Abraham Lincoln's acceptance of Andrew Johnson's nomination as his running-mate in 1864 has to top our list of American presidential decisions made with stunningly poor foresight.)  The lesson, and point, is that any President ought to be thinking more than twice about the unknown future and (among other things) whether he might be succeeded by a mouth-breathing lummox or knuckle-dragging meathead.  Or even an ordinary scissorbilled clod, dunderheaded nitwit, cretinous dingbat, dumb-assed sap, foolish peabrain, or doltish boob.  (Let me just say that a thesaurus has been my best friend in drafting this post.)  If you're President, and you're contemplating a policy that could turn into a fiasco because of the unknown next administration's imbecility, maybe it's a bad play.  And even moreso when the plan (and its continuation) involves the spilling of American kids' blood.

Maybe you should think about that, yeah.

Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf
Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf
Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf


"But if you ask for a rise, it's no surprise...."

>> Monday, May 11, 2015

One's first thought, as ever, is to remember that old ditty about currency and the wry observation alluded to in the title to this post: "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today; but if you ask for a rise it's no surprise they're giving none away."  Congressman Issa is evidently the humblest of men: he could, perhaps, give away all his Guilders  and Simoleons and walk the streets barefoot in sackcloth and ashes, living in a park and conversing with the squirrels and pigeons à la a latter day St. Francis of Assisi, but he wouldn't want to make us jealous.  Indeed, his martyrdom is the most noble and severe kind of martyrdom: the more evil Kronen he gathers to himself, the prouder the rest of us can be in comparison.  I'm not nearly as enviable as the guy who stands in the median on the W. Brookshire at the I85 interchange, but next to $448 million (sorry, $448 point four million, my bad), I'm the frickin' cock of the walk.

A first thought implies a second, and there's certainly more.  For instance, one wonders why a certain segment of the population seems to think--and in the CNN clip, Issa explicitly states--that developing, Third World, post-colonial states should be where we set our bar.  Apparently, we're to take it as a given that it's better to have one's family starve in America than, say for instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the poorest state in the world, not one mentioned by Issa), a premise that manages to simultaneously be broadly true and yet bafflingly irrelevant.  We might grant that the United States is a better place to starve than some without agreeing that starvation is acceptable in the first place.  It also doesn't make the claim any more palatable when one considers the extent to which the miserably low bar set in some of these places was set by our own conduct as a colonial/demi-colonial power in the first half of the 20th Century and as a Cold War superpower in the second half.

E.g. doubtlessly one reason it's worse to be poor in the Congo than to be poor in Alabama is that in the 1960s the United States funded a right-wing anti-nationalist coup led by Joseph Mobutu, who proceeded to install himself as a corrupt, homicidal despot who spent thirty years watering his country's soil with the blood of dissidents and rivals while siphoning his country's wealth off to personal Swiss Bank accounts (in this, we yet again discern the humble man morally elevating his people by making them enviable); we did this, naturally, because a Congolese nationalist (Patrice Lumumba) was giving our friends the Belgians a hard time (first mistake) by saying maybe the Congo shouldn't be nearly so Belgian anymore (especially given what the Belgians had done with it) and went to the Soviets with hat in hand (second mistake) when the United Nations seemed, well, a bit Belgian about the whole affair.

Regrettably, this is a narrative that repeats (with variations) all over the place: "Well, if you think it's so bad here, what about life in this other place we raped, or helped rape, or helped the rapists of--count your lucky stars you aren't living there."  Following this line of thought all the way down the hole, one has to admit to wondering if one of the reasons some of these wealthy Republican types are so keen on keeping the proletarian classes so blessedly poor is that the West is running out of opportunities for rape and pillage abroad.  I mean, yes, our corporations pay people pennies to assemble shoes and computers and answer telephone complaints, but lately many of those people seem  keen on keeping their pennies over there where we're sending the pennies.

I dunno, maybe that's not a tenable hypothesis.  But the point perhaps remains the same, which is that one really wonders about an American Congressman not only suggesting that poor Americans ought to count their blessings they're merely desolate and not utterly devastated, but going on to suggest that if these Americans want to stay competitive in a global economy, they might consider emulating those terrible places they're lucky not to live.  (Does this sound anything like cognitive dissonance, by the by?)

And then there's one more thought, a sort of punch line to the whole thing that isn't quite relevant to Congressman Issa's comments and yet is somehow so apt one wonders if there is in fact a God and this Creature has a penchant for white suits and labored literary affectation.  I had to wonder, you see, where Mr. Issa's four-hundred (and almost a half!) million dollars came from, and to that end consulted with my era's version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, our great digital brain to which you pose any question and from which you receive any answer, and it turns out that Mr. Issa's burden was not inherited from some 19th Century robber baron, as so many American fortunes have been, but was, indeed, self-earned.

By selling car alarms.

Now, it is possible you don't see why this is so grimly funny.  Or maybe you do, and in that case I may not say anything worth reading (this assumes you're still here and have found this worth reading so far, natch).  In case you don't see why this is terribly ironic and so funny that one can't even laugh, but ends up grimacing with gritted teeth and shaking one's head like a dog trying to get out of a collar, please allow me to explain something you already know.

You see, in the United States of America (as in many places), an automobile is a thing of value in and of itself, and a status symbol as well.  It allows one to get from one place to another rapidly, it is made up of myriad components that have some inherent value as replacements and/or possibly upgrades, it possibly "looks cool", it makes a statement that one is independent and free as the wind, it may send (the possibly erroneous) message that one has mad cash that one can throw away on something luxurious and impractical (a self-effacing display, of course).  And it is inherently mobile, unless it's up on blocks or has a blown engine or something--forget the qualifier, and let's just agree for the point that the automobile as designed can be taken from one place to another some indefinite distance away.  And it's expensive, or expensive-ish, depending on the model and one's budget.  And it is large enough to function as a kind of container--one might keep many things in the compartment or the trunk, often things of value (even though this might be a bad idea).  And various improvements to the use and enjoyment, the radio for instance, also have some value.

All of which, point being, makes the vehicle a target for thieves.  Specifically and generally, for thieves for whom it is easier to steal a car than to buy one, or who find that taking a car and/or it's various components and selling them is a somewhat reliable and convenient way to acquire much-needed money.  (Sure, you could rob a bank instead, but if you try sitting on top of the pile of money in the vault and making vroom-vrrrrooom--scroooch-va-room noises, they will catch you.)

While some people will surely always be thieves, just as some people will always be serial killers and some people will always be saints, most people will be nothing much in particular unless forced by their circumstances to be better or worse than the human lot.  'Tis just the human condition.  Thus, if there is a rise in car thefts or breakings-and-enterings, one might conclude that more people are being forced by circumstances to steal, and that the most likely pressure is a lack of money, perhaps a lack of money brought on by lack of work or lack of opportunity.  That is, one might suggest that a rise in property crimes is a symptom of poverty.

Naturally, however, the people who have cars and things in their cars don't much want their cars broken into, their cars stolen, the items in their cars taken away, and--you see where this is going, yes?  Faced by an epidemic of automobile break-ins, car owners buy car alarms, and Darrell Issa gets rich... because poverty.

I don't intend to imply that Issa is a parasite, so instead I'll just say it outright: Darrell Issa is a parasite.  This is a harsh statement, I realize, and I should mitigate it by observing that while parasites are squicky and disgusting from a certain perspective, taken from another they're also wonderfully amazing and resourceful illustrations of the wondrous variation millions upon millions of years of evolution has produced on this planet, and are even admirable in the many ways they savvily occupy and exploit the openings (no pun intended) created by life's great flourishing.  Perhaps you think of your GI tract as, well, your GI tract, but from another perspective it's just a warm, wet place with lots of nutrients regularly flowing through it and wouldn't it be a nice place to live if clamping down in warm, wet places and passively absorbing nutrients was your thing; wouldn't it be downright clever if millions of years adapted your species into the form of the simplest, most efficiently-constructed entity that can anchor itself, soak up food, and periodically spawn?  No, you wouldn't want to have a tapeworm living inside you, but you can nevertheless grudgingly admire the tapeworm's lineage for thriving in thousands of generations of guts.

So when I say Issa is a parasite, I honestly don't mean that in the sense of a creature that embeds itself somewhere and takes and takes while giving nothing back to its host, and is therefore (from a certain POV) lazy.  (An accusation so often leveled at parasites that "lazy parasite" sometimes appears redundant.)  Starting an automobile security company with the sale of several used vehicles and a loan from family members  and nurturing it into an extremely successful four-hundred-million dollar venture clearly takes resourcefulness and effort (and we'll confine ourselves to only passing snark re: stealing cars is something Issa seems to know something about, and thus could be seen as an application of his skills and education).  Many parasites in nature also put hard work into finding a host--that is, into finding a place in their world--and latching on and never letting go and getting all they can from their situation.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  Sure, it's possible Mr. Issa could have embarked on the surely less-lucrative enterprise of figuring out ways to obviate anyone's need to break into cars, but let's not talk the crazy talk, you and I.  Realistically, it's a lot easier to treat a symptom of need than to cure the underlying cause, and Mr. Issa has done well by that, for sure.


Back on the Chang gang

>> Monday, April 13, 2015

This is too good to not share: over at Esquire, Charles Pierce draws attention to Marco Rubio's magic sword, in turn leading us to Steve M., Timothy Noah, and Brad DeLong quoting the Gainesville Sun:

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about "unleashing Chang," his "mystical warrior" friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians: "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. "I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior," he said, as the crowd roared. The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to "unleash Chang" as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently "unleashes Chang" as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future.

The reason this is wonderful, however, isn't the prospect of Rubio (who is expected to announce a Presidential campaign sometime today) going all Connor MacLeod on Congress, shrieking "There can be only one!" and embarking on an arguably overdue and much-needed decapitation spree.  No, what's wonderful about it is that Rubio may be an even bigger ignoramus than previously suspected, while George H.W. Bush once again offers evidence he spent much of his career hiding his light under... (sigh)... under an archaic word for some kind of basket or bucket container used to measure volumes of dry goods, okay?  Take it away, Mr. Noah:

"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got," and it was partly an expression of sincere competitive spirit and partly a self-mocking acknowledgment that he had what his daughter Doro Bush Koch, in a memoir, lovingly describes as "a bit of a weak serve." (I use the past tense because, at 87, former President Bush has, I assume, given up tennis, but with these old Wasps you never know. According to Doro, Poppy was still unleashing Chiang on the tennis court in 2006.)

Doro explains in her book that "Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao. One of the principal reasons Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the great postwar right-wing hero, was relieved of his duties by President Truman was that he bypassed the White House and publicly urged Congress to allow him to unleash Chiang. Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea because Chiang could not win (he'd already been whupped once by Mao's army) without the U.S. dropping a few atom bombs on mainland China, and perhaps not even then. (You'll recall we had a hard enough time with the Chinese in Korea.) [internal links omitted]

I was not a fan of the elder Bush when I was a younger man, and I can't say I've changed my mind about his Presidency.  Still, I have to give the man grudging credit for having a sardonic sense of humor that appears to be lost on his sons' generation of conservatives and an independence of thought that doesn't appear to have been widely inherited within the modern GOP (unless you're counting awkwardly misplaced libertarians like Rand Paul).  Using "Unleash Chiang!" as a battle cry for your lousy tennis serve isn't just a reference to Asian history, it's grade-A, high yield snark of startling purity.

The Kraken
You have to remember that throughout WWII and well into the postwar era there was a great deal of dissension in American political circles, and particularly within the American right, over the headaches caused by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or whether he was really a headache at all.  America's "China Lobby" considered Chiang to be the world's great hope in the face of the International Communist Conspiracy's expansion into China.  This despite the fact that during WWII Chiang was not only helpless before Japanese invaders, but also proved himself incapable of uniting a country divided among a motley of local regional warlords and a surprisingly effective insurgency led by Mao Zedong.  Indeed, Chiang's ineptitude was so gross he was kidnapped and held hostage by his own generals in 1936.  Postwar, Chiang's Nationalist government haplessly gave ground to the communists until they literally had nothing left under their feet to give--in 1949, he withdrew with what remained of his forces to the island of Taiwan, where he pretended he was still governing China.

And yet, many on the American right nevertheless continued throughout the 1950s to insist that Chiang's Taiwanese government-in-undeclared-exile had some miraculous potential they'd simply never been able to muster when fighting the Japanese, the communist insurgents, and their own damn selves through the 1930s and '40s.  To say that "Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea," is one of those transcendent understatements that is so severe it's nearly false in its truth.  Those in the United States who clamored for the chance to unleash Chiang were at best fools and at worst disingenuous to a horrifying degree: the only way to "unleash Chiang" would be to use a Nationalist re-invasion of the mainland as cover for a full-scale invasion of China or an atomic bombardment, so the suggestion was either a nadir of foolhardiness or a thinly-veiled plea to begin a holocaust (there were people, like Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who plainly wanted to bomb somebody into the Stone Age and lobbied at every opportunity).

"'Unleashing Chiang'--watch this, I've got nothin'," is basically what H.W. Bush was saying, and the former Ambassador to China and WWII Pacific veteran knew it.  It's funny stuff.  I've got to give the old man credit, that's a good one.

But then what do we make of Jeb Bush picking this up?  Did he get the joke?  Not get the joke?  Did he tell Marco Rubio about "unleashing Chiang" and Rubio misheard him and didn't get the reference, or did Jeb really say "unleash Chang" and they're both really that gormless?  And they both apparently want to be President, eh?

I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be.  Given that the collapse of China played directly into the fiascoes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I also can't say that not-knowing about the history of mid-Twentieth Century China is relatively harmless the way not-knowing some other historical subject might be; that is, you can learn something useful from almost any historical subject, however trivial, but in the specific case of Chinese-American relations in the Twentieth Century you have a trove of cautionary tales about backing bad horses, throwing good resources after bad, getting swept up in one's own fantasies, not repeating recent mistakes, the limits of American power and influence, keeping a line between domestic and foreign politics and the proper boundaries of party politics, etc..

Plus, there's this enormous irony in what Steve M. correctly observes: "Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry."  Yes, this.  Even if Rubio had the right "mystical warrior" (and there's an ironical expression when you're referring to Chiang Kai-shek right there), you'd still have to grapple with H.W. Bush's snark being turned into some kind of triumphalism.  Chiang Kai-shek was never someone who you wanted by your side because he'd never let you down; he was the "buddy" who'd beg you to loan him money for the electric bill that he'd set aside for back-due rent he wasn't going to pay, either, and who'd eventually end up sleeping on your couch and double-parking his busted, oil-leaking, fume-spewing, can't-pass-inspection, expired-tag hoopty in the neighbors' assigned spots.

So what have we (re)-learned?  Marco Rubio is probably kind of dumb.  Jeb Bush is also probably kind of dumb.  And George Herbert Walker Bush was a lot funnier and smarter than some of us usually gave him credit for.  Unfortunately, only one of those men is ineligible for the Presidency.


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