Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Authenticity Bad for Business?

Here's the danger for Paramount, inc. and Tom Cruise, inc. in Tom Cruise's romance with Katie Holmes. Tom Cruise might be a great entrepreneur and the second coming of Mussolini as a producer, but Tom Cruise, inc. is largely a function of Tom Cruise's popularity as an actor--the public's perception of him as being handsome, likable, talented, interesting, "real," a regular guy, and things like that. It's Tom Cruise the "persona" that powers Tom Cruise, inc. rather than Tom Cruise the businessman and people have to REALLY like Tom cruise the persona if they're going to buy half a billion dollars of tickets and 20 million DVD's of Mission Impossible III (bias alert: I'm not a fan of the Tom Cruise persona. I hated Jerry McGuire, Mission Impossible, and Eyes Wide Shut but liked Minority Report).The unpopularity of Tom Cruise's romance with Katie Holmes puts the whole Tom Cruise enterprise at risk. If the tide doesn't turn (and there's no reason to think it will), Cruise will become the next Ben Affleck--a guy who couldn't sell water in the Sahara. The character on which Cruise built his business was the likable rogue who redeems himself from being a total asshole. Otherwise, we didn't know that much about him and didn't want to know that much. Yeah, he was married to Nicole Kidman and dated Penelope Cruz, but all of that followed the tabloid scipt. Beautiful people "fall in love," have extended dating periods, marry and have beautiful children before they divorce in order to go through the cycle again. As was the case with Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Uma Thurman, Tom Cruise the guy who was married and divorced never intruded on Tom Cruise the persona. And business was good.What's happening with the Katie Holmes affair is that Tom Cruise the guy has messed up Tom Cruise the persona. It seems that Cruise decided that being extremely good-looking, extremely famous, extremely rich, and extremely good at business gave him a license to be himself in public. "Tom" is in love with Katie Holmes so he goes on Oprah to tell 40 or 50 million of his closest friends. Tom has opinions about what psychiatry did to Brooke Shields, so he let's us all know. But Cruise is finding out what so many better actors and actresses than him find out on Golden Globes and Oscar night, that the public does not want to know, see, or hear them as persons. What the public wants is the persona and it's going to be extremely angry if your private person interferes with your popular persona. Cruise forgot this and now the public thinks that he's a Jerry Springer type, religious weirdo rather than a lovable rogue. That change of opinion will cost Cruise a lot and Paramount even more.So, when's the comeback?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

I'll Never Shot Put Again

In my household this week, a tragic accident at the U. S. Track and Field Championships overshadowed everything that happened at the NBA finals, the U. S. Open, or Wimbledon. An official named Paul Suzuki was killed when a shot put hit him in the head during a practice session. Suzuki, 77, had been been retired for some time and officiated regularly at many track meets. He was immediately knocked unconscious and died at the hospital later.I was very glad to see that the man or woman who through the errant shot was not named. It would not have been fair at all. Hitting somebody with a shot put, discus, javelin, or hammer is every thrower's nightmare. A shot put is an eight (for high school women), twelve (for high school men and adult women), or sixteen pound (for adult men) metal ball and shot-putters always face backwards when they go start their throwing motion. When they turn around to prepare themselves to throw, they can't see what's out in the field they're throwing to. Most shot-putters then go through a very tight little spinning motion and release the shot as they are coming out of the spin. Once they start spinning, they can't see anything in the blur of their motion. The shot putter in question wouldn't have known where Paul Suzuki was standing or exactly where the shot put was headed as they looked up from their release. He or she would not have known there was a problem until it was way too late.Shot-putting has a powerful, tightly wound beauty to it. Brian Oldfield, the first shot-putter to use a discus spin, described shot-putting as "punching holes in the air." But it's more than that. Even the shot-putter's initial self-gathering as the shot-putter is shrugging at the back of the ring is exhilarating because it's a simultaneous relaxation and coiling, a little exercise in defying dichotomy. Likewise, a shot-putter's spin is so tight, so self-focused, and so quick that shot-putters live in a little, blurred moment apart from the rest of the world as they move across the ring. This moment of almost complete narcissistic self-involvement culminates in a shot-putter's explosion into the ball as they put all their human force into sending the shot up and out. Gathering their entire human being narcissistically into themselves, they then give everything they are to the throw. Every moment of it is beautiful. Every moment is addicting.I know. I threw the shot for five years during high school and college. I was addicted the whole time. After I was asked to concentrate on the shot as a high school sophomore, it became my number one sport. I threw two or more hours every day for four summers in my back yard and worked at lifting and throwing 2 hours a day all year in college. I loved every thing about the shot. I loved carrying a 12 or 16 pound ball lightly as though it were a grape fruit. I loved the solitude and narcissism of practicing. I loved that I could measure my success after every throw and became an expert at eye-balling short distances. I even owned my own shots. I loved beating bigger, stronger guys. As a high school shot-putter, I was 5' 8" and weighed 170 at most and I beat a lot of guys who were a lot bigger than me. Of course, I was too small to be championship caliber on any level. It especially hurt that I didn't have big thighs. You don't have to be really tall or heavy to be a top shot-putter. You can be 6' or 6'2 and 240 and be a great shot-putter like Jeff Nelson or Al Feuerbach, but you need to have powerful legs to really explode into the ball and I just didn't have the leg weight to make up for being small. Eventually, I gave it up when I was in college. Although I grew to 5'10 and bulked up to 190, I wasn't really competitive with the more athletic big guys who threw the shot in college. So, I gave up throwing, gave up lifting weights, lost forty pounds and started to get obsessed with my eventual field of political philosophy. Adolescent obsessions gave way to adult obsessions. Such is life. But I paid the price. A couple months after I stopped working out full time, I started to get anxiety attacks. It turned out that working out so heavily helped me stabilize an enormous amount of fear and anger from my childhood in an abusive family. Eventually, I would be forced to face the whole psychological mess directly.I've still been known to shot put vegetables and fruits to the compost bin every once in a while now that I'm 51, demonstrating the fine points to my daughters. But now I wonder. I know that the nightmare that goes with every throw of every practice and every meet happened to somebody else. It seems like that would give a dimension of sadness to throwing. I doubt it will ever be the same. Maybe I'll just toss the fruits and vegetables underhand.

Democrats Drop the Ball

I wish that the Democratic elite would stop being "outraged" by the Bush administration and start honing our own critical edge.Chuck Shumer, Joe Conason, and a cast of hundreds of Democrats were sputtering over Karl Rove's claim that the Dems would have advocated therapy for bin Laden after 9-11. But, they exclaimed, "I'm FROM New York." "We were OUTRAGED by the attack on the twin towers." "We were WITH George Bush in the days after 9-11." "It was Rove who turned the war against terrorism into a war against Democrats. That's what's unpatriotic." Conason argues that current poll numbers mean that Rove is speaking from a position of weakness and that the Republicans are in trouble.The Republicans are certainly failing. Because of the Bush administration's fantastic misjudgments, the American military has been stalemated by the insurgents. The economy limps somewhere between mild progress and stagnation. Unemployment isn't bad, but profits aren't very good. The DOW has never made it back to its 2000 peak. Nasdaq is currently at 40% of its peak. Republicans are under attack for corruption at the national level and state levels. And it looks like John McCain is going to take a shot at the Republican Right during the 2008 primaries.And what do those Democrat leaders do? Do the Dems have a position on the future of Iraq other than we shouldn't have gone to war in the first place? No? Have the Democrats held the Bush administration accountable for its tactical blunders? No? Do the Democrats have a position on the economy? No! The list of No's goes on. What really gets the Democratic leadership is strong speech by either side. Rather than add to Dean's fire, the Democratic Congressional leaders pooh-poohed Dean's partisanship. Then they let Dick Durbin twist in the wind. Now, they're outraged by Karl Rove.But Rove has their number. Not only has Rove beaten the Dems two elections in a row with first a fairly weak candidate and then a failed president, he knows that the Democratic leadership is not a strong group. And he knows where they're not strong. So, Conason is wrong when he claims that Rove is speaking from weakness when he makes fun of the Democrats for not being tough enough. To the contrary, Rove is speaking from the great strength of the 30-35% of the electorate that take the weakness of white Democrats as an article of faith. Until we realize the extent to which people think this, we aren't going to get anywhere.Why do people think that white Democrats and liberals are weak?Partly, it's a matter of associating the broad principles of liberals with weakness. Liberals are reluctant to go to war, try to empathize with non-whites, poor people, accused criminals, and people in non-Western nations, and support for gay rights and women's rights. Being bigoted to the bottom of their tippy toes, conservatives interpret most of these positions as effeminate weakness. So, somebody like Rove is speaking from a powerful (if extremely mistaken) faith when he treats the Democrats as weak on this score. This doesn't mean that we can't answer people like Rove, but it does mean that he is speaking with authenticity.Rove's contempt for Democratic principles resonates with Republican constituencies. What gives Rove's comments real bite, however, is that Democratic leaders waffle so much in relation to those principles. Democratic leaders are unimaginative, weak, and uncertain in promoting liberal principles and Democratic Party constituencies. To give one example, Kerry was very weak on abortion during the second debate and I know some people who voted for Bush because of that. Same with just about every other issue. The Democratic leadership can effectively obstruct when they're opposing the latest right-wing outrage. However, the Democrats waffle horribly on gay rights, racial issues, support for unions, victim's rights v the rights of the accused and so on. Given the limitations of the Democratic leadership, Rove is credible when he pronounces liberals weak.The second area of weakness is that the Democratic Party is afflicted by a moderate DLC wing that considers liberals their primary enemy and Republican policies as a model to be emulated. Support from big business gives the DLC a bigger voice than it would otherwise merit and the constant carping of the DLC and moderates like Mickey Kaus against any effort to define a party position creates both the image and the substance of weakness.A third area of weakness is that the Democratic leadership and Democratic-leaning journalists do not return Republican and conservative fire. This can be seen in the response to Rove. Rove claimed that the Democrats wanted to give al-Qaida therapy rather than hunt them down and kill them. Democrats like Conason have been offended and outraged, but they have not returned fire at all. Why can't somebody say that the Bush administration has been acting as al-Qaida's no. 1 recruiter--first by the pointless invasion of Iraq, second by the promotion of torture in the Gonzales memos, third by the "take every man of military age" tactics of the military sweeps, and fourth by the outlaw conduct of the facilities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Democratic elites don't have the imagination to respond to Rove and the Bush administration this way and they don't appear to have the backbone for the ensuing media firestorm that would result. This is where Rove has a real point about the weakness of the Democrats. People like Rove and Cheney have the guts to tell outrageous lies and defend them. Our ineffective Democratic and liberal elites don't even have the courage to tell the truth. Sometimes, I think they would rather avoid thinking about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Abramhoff's Rip-Offs

From yesterday's testimony before John McCain's committee, it appears that Jack Abramoff ripped the Choctaws for the purpose of funding secondary Republican organizations.

Two things:

1. I imagine that a Democratic Abramoff would just put the money in his or her pocket. The Democrats just aren't that excited about themselves.

2. With all the money floating around Washington, Abramoff's rip-offs have to be just the tip of the iceberg. There's too much cash to not tempt people to steal it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dueling Delusions

What happens when delusions collide. Does that mean that they combine to become a super delusion? That one delusion wins and becomes the dominant delusion? That either view has a chance of linking to the real world. Let's see.
Representative Walter Jones, R-NC, called yesterday for the Bush administration to set a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. This was a surprise because Jones had been the Congressman who first suggested renaming French fries into "freedom fries." It would also seem that Jones would have more than the average stake in the war because he represents the district that inclues the Marine training base at Camp Lejeune.
The Bush administration's spokesman Scott McClellan responded to Jones with the standared delusion that the insurgency is becoming "increasingly desperate." In the war with the insurgents, the Bush administration seems to equate effectiveness with desperation. The American military and its Iraqi allies have been conducting several sweep operations in Baghdad and Western Iraq lately, but those operations have been ineffective in places like Tel Afar because the insurgents just leave town and pop up in other cities. After the Americans are gone, the insurgents then come back none the worse for the experience. The U. S. just does not have enough troops to maintain a presence in an area after the sweep. So the sweeps don't accomplish much except for headlines back home in the U. S. Who knows, that may be their main purpose anyway.
The insurgents seem much more effective. The money is good, there are plenty of targets, and their attacks are shown on media outlets all over the world. The insurgents demonstrate their manliness and resilience against a superior American force and inspire more foreign jihadis to come in to lend assistance. So the insurgency continues to grow. In terms of the Bush standard delusion, that means that the insurgents are desperate.
But Jones has his own delusion. According to Rep. Jones, "Clearly we are giving the Iraqis every reasonable chance for democracy." In the spiffy new Jones' delusion, the Iraqis have been given "every reasonable chance" to form a democracy because we overthrew Saddam, allowed political factions to form, and conducted elections.
So, we should just leave it to the Iraqi government to quell the insurgency, end the sectarian chaos around Baghdad, sort out the various private militias, and find a way to deal with the Kurds that satisfies the Kurds without sparking a Turkish invasion. That's not to mention the economic catastrophe that we would be handing over to the Iraqis. The economy is in shambles, basic services are a wreck, and there probably isn't a tax base to finance the government. Yep, we did everything we reasonably could.
Maybe the politics of the Iraq war has become a duel of right-wing delusions. Maybe those of us on the left should start thinking of our own delusions. How about starting a fund to purchase anti-delusional prescriptions for right-wing politicians?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Hoping for a Banana Republic in Iraq

Today's Washington Post article on the "new" Iraqi military was a devastating picture of the quagmire in Iraq. The Sunni soldiers being interviewed were serving in the Iraqi military because they couldn't find jobs in a "new" Iraqi economy where unemployment was 19%. They expressed loyalty to Saddam Hussein rather than the "new" Iraqi government, dispersed when they were attacked, refused to raid a local mosque that was hosting snipers, and blamed the Americans rather than the insurgents for the destruction of their town. Not only did American troops not respect the bravery and commitment of their Iraqi colleagues, but the American military assumed that the new Iraqi soldiers had been infiltrated by insurgents and did not trust them with any knowledge of the next day's operations. As a result, the Iraqi soldiers had no idea of where they were being sent or what their mission was.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the story is that the American military hand-picked this particular unit to be interviewed. One had to assume that other units are worse, perhaps much worse. There are 169,000 men listed as being in the "new" Iraqi military and police forces, but the American military only lists three battalions (about 2,300 men) as able to operate on their own and the Washington Post article made that estimate sound overly optimistic. None of the American soldiers interviewed for the article had any hope that these Iraqi soldiers would ever be ready to defend a democratic Iraq on their own.

The failure of the new Iraqi military fits well with the lengthy string of miscalculations and blunders by the Bush administration and the American high command in Iraq. There was the ludicrous idea that the U. S. would be able to install Ahmed Chalabi at the top of the Saddam era administrative apparatus, the mistaken belief that the Iraqi's would be relatively immune to fundamentalist Islam because of the relatively high level of education and secular character of the Saddam regime, failure to maintain law and order after the occupation of Baghdad, failure to maintain basic services like electricity, failure to clean up ammo dumps, failure to secure the borders, failure to rebuild economic infrastructure, and failure to re-evaluate the strategy for Iraq after the initial wave of reverses. In the context of so many significant failures, the real successes of the American occupation--the quick military conquest, capture of Saddam Hussein, and holding of elections--all look like empty victories that have done little to create the ground conditions for a stable Iraqi democracy.

Of course, there's some reason to doubt that the Bush administration really wants a stable democracy in Iraq. The original vision of stable democracy in Iraq meant a government of secular, pro-Western types like Chalabi. Now, stable democracy means Shiite-domination backed by the prestige of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and fundamentally hostile to the American military occupation. The over-all strategic aim of the Iraq invasion was to establish a strong American military presence at the center of the Middle East. If Shiite democracy stabilizes, a "new" Iraqi government would most likely try to make itself popular by expelling American troops. As a result, a strong insurgency benefits the Bush administration because it means that the Iraqis still "need" a large American military presence. Without the insurgency, the invasion would have been a waste because a Shiite government would have asked our troops to leave.

So, what can we do to create a real basis for hope in this situation? Actually, WE can't do anything. However, there is some basis to think that the Iraqi government can create a military force that can be competitive with the insurgents. The first building block for a government military force is not the "new" Iraqi army controlled by the Americans. That's probably hopeless, but the Iraqi government does have a building block for a military establishment in the Badr and other Shiite militias. If Iraqi's democratic Shiite government could gain control over the new Iraqi army and turn that army into a committed force on behalf of Shiite rule, the government could recruit soldiers with a religious, ethnic commitment, get them to serve with more courage than the American-created force, and avoid the security problems plaguing the current Iraqi forces. Financed and trained by the Americans, a national Shiite government force would serve as a real fighting force that would be complimented by the Shiite militias. It would be the growth of a Shiite army and Shiite militias (along with the Kurds) that would create an Iraqi counter-weight to the Sunni insurgents.

So, what does that hope add up to. Not really a whole lot. Iraq would become the Middle Eastern version of a banana republic--with weak governments presiding over a chronically divided country, a semi-permanent state of civil war (like Guatemala and Columbia) and an ever-present danger of drifting into anarchy. But there's a chance that a Shiite government could sustain itself with Kurdish support and enough Sunni participation to look legitimate even if the insurgency becomes a chronic state of affairs. That looks like the best we can do.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Questions on Iraq?

Is the occupation of Iraq creating a nation like: a. an Eastern European satellite; b. a banana republic; c. a stable democracy in the Middle East?

Is the war in Iraq more like: a. the occupation of Germany and Japan after WWII; b. the occupation of the Phillipines after the Spanish-American War; c. the drug war