Monday, August 11, 2008

Saving Each Other

We all save one another. It's the way of the world. -- Benazir Bhutto

In this week's Sift:
  • The Way of the World. Ron Suskind's new book reads more like a novel than a history.
  • "The One" ... from Satan? McCain's ad couldn't really be referring to the rumors that Obama is the Antichrist. Could it? (Plus other election notes.)
  • Look! A Bright Shiny Sex Scandal! Yes, I supported Edwards. No, I don't care whether he's the kid's father.
  • Short Notes. Bush as hurricane. A good place to start understanding the health care problem. Big government seems to work in Denmark. And the Wall Street Journal declares victory in Iraq.


The Way of the World
Ron Suskind's new book The Way of the World has been all over the news the last couple weeks, but the stories about it really don't prepare you for what it is.

Most of the coverage has focused on the specific charges the book makes. Like this one: Saddam's head of intelligence (Tahir Jalil Habbush, the Jack of Diamonds in the Coalition's deck of cards ) was a British informant. Before the war, he met a British agent in Jordan and told him the straight truth: Saddam's games were all about keeping the Iranians from realizing that he had no WMDs. (Saddam didn't take our invasion threat seriously. "Why would the Americans want to take over this country?" Habbush reported him saying. "It would be a nightmare.") The British passed that report on to the Bush administration, which ignored it along with a similar secret interview with Saddam's foreign minister Naji Sabri. Instead, they hid Habbush in Jordan after the invasion, and used him to forge evidence of a false Saddam/Al Qaeda connection.

From stories like this, I was expecting a journalistic tome, with fifty pages of dense references. Instead, The Way of the World is written like one of those portrait-of-an-era historical novels, maybe Doctorow's Ragtime. Suskind follows a cast of just-outside-the-headlines characters as they make their way through Bush's America: a young Muslim from an influential Pakistani family, working in D.C. and living with his college buddies (a straight Christian and a gay Jew) in a "sit-com worthy" apartment; the pro-bono lawyer for a Guantanamo detainee; an ex-CIA guy now a Blackwater executive; an Afghan exchange student trying to cope with America; and a bureaucrat trying to get the rest of the government to think seriously about how terrorists might get nuclear weapons.

Their stories weave around a big, messy novel-like theme: that moral authority is the only thing powerful enough to keep the world from spinning out of control, and you get it by doing the right thing without asking for anything back. Force and cynicism seem like the safe path, but ultimately they lead everyone to destruction. The title comes from a casual comment by the soon-to-die Benazir Bhutto:
They think they're saving you, and you think you're saving them. That's where the trouble starts. Someone says, "I saved you, now here's what I want." And it's the same with big countries and little ones, religious leaders and their followers, even husbands and wives. When things really work, though, it's because people realize that this is a lie, that, really, we all save one another. It's the way of the world. Things work out for the best when everyone makes it, together, when we manage to save each other.
Who heard that statement and wrote it down? No clue. Suskind has obviously done mountains of research, but the book has no references at all. Sometimes he quotes specific people, but usually he just tells stories and paints scenes. You trust him or you don't.

The L.A. Times thinks the book doesn't work, but I couldn't put it down. It depends on what you're expecting, I guess. Reading The Way of the World as a journalist or historian has got to be frustrating. You sit there wondering, "How does he know that?" From a novel-reader's point of view, though, it works fine. The characters are well-drawn and fascinating. The challenging theme pulls it together without getting in the way.

"The One" ... from Satan?
When McCain's attack ad "The One" came out a couple weeks ago, I thought: "Wha?" Why would a major-party presidential candidate waste his money promoting images of crowds wildly cheering his opponent?

Well, Time's Amy Sullivan has an explanation: It's a dog whistle to the extreme religious Right, that ... no, I can't say it, I have to let Sullivan say it:
It's not easy to make the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign seem benign. But suggesting that Barack Obama is the Antichrist might just do it.
Yep, that's it. "The One" is supposed to feed speculation that Obama is the Antichrist. Seriously. The point, according to Sullivan, is to motivate evangelicals (who otherwise aren't excited by McCain) to get out and vote.

Sullivan notes similarities between the ad and the Left Behind series of novels about the End Times (70 million sold), where the Antichrist is "a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia."
Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech.
And Sullivan goes on to claim this:
Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue "O" logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.
My first reaction was that Sullivan was probably making a lot out of not much. The Conservatives for McCain web site certainly thinks so. (At the very least they're correct that Sapp's Daniel reference is weak.)

Then I hit a YouTube link off of some pro-McCain video and there I was in Obama-is-the-Antichrist land. (Enjoy your stay. Visit our souvenir stand.) I followed links from one video to the next: here, here, and here. You can keep going for a very long time by checking the Related Videos list. Some of the videos only have about a thousand viewings, but this one has almost 30,000 and this one 87,000

And while religious-Right heavyweight Hal Lindsey (author of the 35-million-copy seller The Late, Great Planet Earth and other apocalyptic hits) won't say Obama is the Antichrist, he does point out that Obama is like the Antichrist:
Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him – a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib and seemingly holding all the answers to all the world's questions. And the Bible says that such a leader will soon make his appearance on the scene. It won't be Barack Obama, but Obama's world tour provided a foretaste of the reception he can expect to receive. He will probably also stand in some European capital, addressing the people of the world and telling them that he is the one that they have been waiting for. And he can expect as wildly enthusiastic a greeting as Obama got in Berlin. The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance.
OK, I know how this game works. When someone like Lindsey declares "the Bible says ..." it really means "the Bible provides some mysterious phrases and images that an imaginative person can run with." But let's play along. Does this even work within the worldview that takes end-times prophesies seriously? Back in March, CNN's conservative talk show host Glenn Beck asked noted apocalyptic expert John Hagee about Obama being the Antichrist "because I receive so much email on this, and I think a lot of people do." Hagee said no. And in 1999 Jerry Falwell said "If he's going to be the counterfeit of Christ, he has to be Jewish." That's the one major religion I haven't heard attributed to Obama. (Wait, I spoke too soon. Typing "obama is a jew" into Google got me this article.) So, no. A serious student of the end times would not conclude that Obama is the Antichrist.

But what conclusions should we draw about McCain and his ad? First, the McCain campaign didn't start the Obama/Antichrist meme, which has been out there for nearly two years. But they surely know about it and realize they're exploiting it. Second, "The One" is not anything as direct as a scene-by-scene allegory. It's a suggestion, not a statement. It's deniable. And some of its appeal mirrors the sharp-but-harmless sense of humor of liberals who put "Republicans for Voldemort" stickers on their cars.

Except that nobody seriously believes in Voldemort, while some people not only believe in the Antichrist, but might be willing to act on that belief. And that's where this story passes freaky and goes all the way to scary: A number of the videos I watched referred to the prediction -- I'm guessing this is from Left Behind, because it's not in any Bible I've ever read -- that the Antichrist will be shot in the head and survive. People mention this as if it would be the sure sign.

After hearing that, doesn't any decent candidate step back and say "We're not touching this"?

Obama started hitting back in the last two weeks, with the ads "Pocket", "Low Road", "Original", and "New Energy". They're all issue-oriented, and none paints McCain as anything much worse than George Bush's successor. An Obama supporter does a 3-minute YouTube piece that is a little sharper. And Obama's deputy economic policy director takes 3 minutes to go point-by-point through a deceptive McCain ad.

Paris Hilton also hit back against the McCain "Celebrity" ad. ("See you at the debates, bitches.") And the news-comedy site 23/6 does an edition of their ongoing series "If they IM'd" with McCain and Hilton.

Exhibit #46913 in the case that the Washington Post is not liberal: Sunday's Post has an article headlined: "Obama Tax Plan Would Balloon Deficit, Analysis Finds". Only the readers who make it to paragraph 10 learn that John McCain's tax plan balloons the deficit even worse. Much worse, in fact, unless there are "massive spending cuts" that McCain has never specified.
Exhibit #46929: When McCain was making scurrilous charges and Obama had yet to respond, WaPo columnist David Broder didn't think the negative tone of the campaign was worth mentioning. But almost the instant that Obama started hitting back, there's Broder with an "even-handed" column wishing we could get "back to the high road" that McCain was never on to begin with.

Broder presents the low-road campaign as if it were some kind of star-crossed tragedy, attributable to no one in particular ... except maybe Obama. Because this would never have happened, Broder assures us, if Obama had accepted McCain's offer for ten joint town hall meetings: "Since the idea of joint town meetings was scrapped, the campaign has featured tough and often negative ads and speeches." In Sunday's follow-up, Broder ends with: "McCain's offer of weekly joint town meetings still stands. It is not too late for Obama to change his mind and take up this historic offer."

So basically, WaPo's even-handed David Broder is playing the good-cop role for McCain. McCain throws a few below-the-belt punches, then a sympathetic Broder comes into the room and says, "It wouldn't have to be this way, Barack, if you'd just cooperate."

Amy Silverman of the Phoenix New Times gives her long-term perspective as someone who has been covering the McCains locally for a very long time. And Progressive Media Research tears down McCain's claim that he has never sought pork-barrel projects for his state.

Look! A Bright Shiny Sex Scandal!
I'm a little surprised by my own reaction to the John Edwards affair: I don't care. I haven't read his statement or Elizabeth's. I'm not curious about the details. I don't care if he's the child's father or not.

Now, I recognize all the reasons why people are upset: What was he thinking, either when he had the affair or when he decided to go ahead and run for president anyway? It's scary to imagine what would be happening now if he had won the primaries and this story was coming out just weeks before the convention that was supposed to nominate him. Or if Obama had already named him VP.

But none of that happened. Edwards' political career is pretty much over now, at least for the foreseeable future, and that seems like an adequate public punishment. As for the price he will pay or deserves to pay in his private life ... it's impossible to see into other people's marriages, even though we all imagine that we can.

I voted for Edwards, said nice things about him online, and gave money to his campaign. I did all that for reasons that remain valid: He had the first and best health care plan among the major candidates. He made poverty an issue. More than any of the other candidates, he "got it" -- that Democrats have to figure out how to stand up to the Right rather than find new and better ways to imitate them. It's a shame something from his personal life has blown all that away.

And why was I surprised by what followed? Pundits immediately started sparring over whether the scandal hurts Obama (because Edwards endorsed him) or McCain (because he's had an affair). It's sad. We're fighting two wars; our civil liberties, the transparency of our government, and the separation of powers have all seriously eroded during the past 7 years; our financial system is in trouble; unemployment is rising; our health care system is badly broken; and the 2009 budget deficit is now estimated at $490 billion. McCain and Obama have very different ideas about how to deal with these problems. Are people really going to base their votes on a sex scandal about somebody else? I'm with digby:
we use this natural fascination with private sexual behavior in the United States these days as some sort of proxy for the public character of our politicians, as if this tells us something so important about them that it supersedes anything else we might know about them. But it's a fallacy, since we can't know enough about their marriages or their inner lives to be able to accurately judge these behaviors. So we end up with some sort of cookie cutter morality that leads us to reject a politician who steps out on his wife, allegedly because he's shown a propensity for "reckless behavior" or lying, while we accept someone who has lied repeatedly in his public life and shown a propensity for recklessness with public policy, because they are harder to understand. But the truth is that private behavior is not a good guide to leadership. There have been too many examples of fine leaders who led complicated personal lives and too many examples of bad ones who never strayed.
Short Notes
The funniest thing I saw this week: the Onion's "Bush Tours America to Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency". The story is framed as if Bush's presidency were a hurricane. Kansas is described as "one of the fifty states in the direct path of the presidency."

Slate pulls together a bunch of good links on what's wrong with the health care system and how to fix it.

Like most Americans, I had trouble finding the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia on a map. (It's northwest of Azerbaijan, if that helps.) Now they're at war with Russia over a place I had never heard of: Ossetia, whose northern half is in Russia and southern half is in Georgia. Anything more I could write at this point would only add to the ignorance, so I'll settle for linking to some background here and here.

Mission Accomplished II: Guess what? "The war in Iraq is over. We've won." So says the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens. That's the kind of scoop the WSJ never used to get in the bad old days before Rupert Murdoch bought it. Unfortunately, the four U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq in the five days following Stephens' announcement will not be attending the victory parade.

You have to admire the courage of someone like Stephens. If he turns out to be wrong ... it will never be mentioned again and he will go on being a pundit. That's how things work.

Thomas Friedman describes how Denmark became energy independent by the artful use of taxes and government regulations.

Here's another of those graphs showing exactly how big the gap between the very rich and the rest of us is getting.

On FireDogLake Blue Texan annotates Bush's message to the Chinese, which is a good lesson in what has happened to America's moral authority over the past seven years. And Julia pulls together comments on the Hamdan case.

1 comment:

media boy said...

Paris obviously has some marketing savvy; she can turn anything into a PR boost