Monthly Archives: August 2009

Re American Meritocracy

I recently wrote about the eeriness of the American Mullahs, that club of practically identical – in dress, age, gender and ethnicity — senators panicking about Judge Sotomayor.  When you consider these distinguished whiners, the historical composition of the Supreme Court (two non whites and two women out of some one hundred justices), how close we were to a path of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, how there are still more Bush’s out there, and how Liz Cheney gets airtime, then its begs the question as to whether the U.S. is in fact a meritocracy.

In commenting on how W. Bush’s daughter, Jenna Hager, got her new gig as a Today reporter, Glenn Greenwald makes the following excellent points:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it.  They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment.  They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency.  Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.  There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

. . .  Just to underscore a very important, related point:  all of the above-listed people are examples of America’s Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work — The American Way.  By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor — who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice — is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

Losing another Kennedy is like peeing in the ocean; we still have a sea of American aristocrats to fill the void. What are we left with? The worst of Europe without any of the health benefits or modern infrastructure.


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Olé McCain


I congratulate John McCain for his appearance yesterday on Face the Nation, breaking with partisan ranks, calling torture, torture and disagreeing flat out with Dick Cheney.

I think the interrogations were in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the convention against torture that we ratified under President Reagan. I think that these interrogations once publicized helped al Qaeda recruit. I got that from an al Qaeda operative in a prison camp in Iraq who told– who told me that. I think that the ability of us to work with our allies was harmed and so– and I believe that information, according to the FBI and others, could have been gained through other methods.

Of course, I don’t quite see McCain’s logic in saying that the interrogation violated the Convention and then not recognizing that failing to investigate also violates the Convention. But McCain has been off-the-wall before (remember him calling the detainee habeus corpus decision one of the worst in Supreme Court history?).

It is revealing that the Face the Nation headline was not “McCain calls Cheney Interrogation Techniques Torture” but “McCain: CIA Abuse Probe ‘Serious Mistake’”. It even says that McCain “opposes investigation into ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques” (emphasis added) when McCain clearly called them “torture” and violations of law. So much for the liberal media bias.

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I finally got back in the saddle again and this week finished three long-awaited books: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout, Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz, and Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I have mixed feelings about Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel that just didn’t quite reach the same level as 2008’s The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Throughout the book, I waivered between finding the writing style and structure (almost a compendium of short stories tied together by the ever present Olive Kitteridge) compelling to wishing that I was reading a ligher and more uplifting John Irving novel (Olive Kitteridge takes place in Maine and New England is the principle setting in Irving’s fiction). I was also reminded, believe it or not, of V.S. Naipaul whose protagonists, in particular Mr. Biswas, are often unlikeable characters, just as we are not always sure whether to root for Olive Kitteridge. Overall, though, while I recognize the writing talent and effectiveness of the story’s underlying theme – the inevitable loneliness of life, even in a picture perfect All American town – I suppose that I just don’t want to relate to such bleakness at this moment in my own life.

I am a big fan of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s works; I especially loved The Black Box. But with regards to his new novel, Rhyming Life and Death, I am really not sure what to say. Billed as reflecting “on writing, reading, middle age and the elusive chimera of literary posterity”, this meta-novella about a few hours in the day of a writer and his public left me almost completely indifferent. Just like with recent works by Coetzee focused on middle age and aging, Oz showcases his great ease with storytelling, but that’s about it. Nothing too memorable.

Finally, the book I thought I would enjoy the least, Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, I finished in just one sitting. Nocturnes’ five short stories all have a common thread – “love, music and the passing of time” – and unlike his other novels that are darker and more enigmatic, these stories were light and playful.  Usually when I finish an Ishiguro novel, with the exception of Remains of the Day and the heart-wrenching Never Let Me Go, I always feel slightly disappointed, possibly because his books have such great and promising titles: A Pale View of the Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go, and now Nocturnes. I would love to be able to write novels with those names! Nocturnes, definitely not a magnum opus, at least left me wanting more, and definitely made up for me having to suffer The Unconsoled, possibly the most frustrating novel I have ever read (other than Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night which I quit after re-reading the first page ten times).


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My Daddy is Innocent


I don’t know what is more repulsive, Liz Cheney crying “my daddy’s innocent” or the mainstream press actually giving her airtime. Today she was back on the circuit on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, arguing that daddy is not a crook and that even second-guessing him or his subordinates would be partisan, unpatriotic and make us less safe. Transparency, by the way, is bad for America. Amongst her ridiculous and legally untenable claims, Lizzy now also argues that investigating someone twice is double jeopardy (double jeopardy attaches to prosecution, not investigation, Lizzy).

Worse, though, and particularly dangerous for democracy is the question that the press poses and the Cheney’s affirm: whether torture works. Who cares? There is no but-it-was-effective defense to a crime. In an another article by Glenn Greewald highlighting how the establishment press publishes unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and self-serving anonymous CIA leaks (as with the faux claims of Guantanamo detainees’ rates of recidivism or that waterboarding was effective with KSM after just one 20 second session) that are immediately repeated by other media outlets (including Mr. Stephanopoulos himself), considered credible and then spit back by Cheney in his defense, Greenwald explains why the question of the effectiveness of torture is irrelevant to the debate at hand:

The debate over whether torture extracted valuable information is, in my view, a total sideshow, both because (a) it inherently begs the question of whether legal interrogation means would have extracted the same information as efficiently if not more so (exactly the same way that claims that warrantless eavesdropping uncovered valuable intelligence begs the question of whether legal eavesdropping would have done so); and (b) torture is a felony and a war crime, and we don’t actually have a country (at least we’re not suppoesd to) where political leaders are free to commit serious crimes and then claim afterwards that it produced good outcomes.  If we want to be a country that uses torture, then we should repeal our laws which criminalize it, withdraw from treaties which ban it, and announce to the world (not that they don’t already know) that, as a country, we believe torture is justifiable and just.  Let’s at least be honest about what we are.  Let’s explicitly repudiate Ronald Reagan’s affirmation that “[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification of torture” and that “[e]ach State Party is required [] to prosecute torturers.” [Emphasis added]

And I am still waiting for Liz, Dick or any other Republican for that matter to tell me what the CIA is not allowed to do.

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Paris in the Spring

Here is a video from this spring in Paris (sorry if it is a little out of season), shot from Rivoli overlooking the Tuilieres gardens and the Louvre, not far from where I had my civil wedding earlier that day. The music is “I love Paris”, interpreted by Frank Sinatra from his 1957 album “Come Fly With Me“. As I have said before, on a clear, sunny day, Paris is arguably the most beautiful city in the world. We had one of those days.

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In Praise of Deficits ?


In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman (in Economics 101 style) explains why deficit spending in the short term is actually good for the economy and that the only arguments against it are purely for political gain. Perhaps his cheap shot at the Conservatives at the end of the piece, though I may agree with it, is counterproductive.

August 28, 2009
Till Debt Does Its Part

So new budget projections show a cumulative deficit of $9 trillion over the next decade. According to many commentators, that’s a terrifying number, requiring drastic action — in particular, of course, canceling efforts to boost the economy and calling off health care reform.

The truth is more complicated and less frightening. Right now deficits are actually helping the economy. In fact, deficits here and in other major economies saved the world from a much deeper slump. The longer-term outlook is worrying, but it’s not catastrophic. Continue reading


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In the summer, the Leonard Lopate Show runs an ongoing series of interviews about underappreciated works of literature. Last year, thanks to the Underappreciated episodes, I discovered the Tea in the Harem by Medhi Charef and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.  A few days ago, Lopate was discussing the mammoth, unfinished (both by myself and the author) The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I attempted to read this book a few years ago while on the beach in Fuerteventura, only to abandon it, slightly intimidated after 80 pages, for V.S. Naipaul’s much shorter A Bend in the River. Hopefully one day I will find my way back to The Man.

Promising works from this summer’s list include the short stories of Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris, the Slovenian novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and Paul von Heyse’s Children of the World, A Novel. In the past, Lopate has also featured one of my all time favorite works of Japanese fiction, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

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Godfather III

Just when I thought I was getting away from politics, when I thought I had exhausted the topic of torture and Guantanamo, I see the embarrassingly disgusting and partisan reactions to the DOJ Ethics Panel request for preliminary investigations into detainee abuse. Just like with Michael in Godfather III, right when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

To avoid repeating myself too much, where I have already made my argument, I will only add the following:

  • Of course it is obvious why Just-Trust-Me-Dick is against investigations.  All roads lead to Dick. It is almost impossible to argue with a straight face that the legal memos giving cover to the enhanced interrogation program were provided in good faith. In that sense, the Dick Cheney’s should be investigated, not the CIA. But as Kitapsiz has frequently commented, “What difference would it make in any event, he already shot a man in the face while under the influence and escaped the law …” As a result, just like with Abu Ghraib, the small fish pay the price.
  • If credible claims of criminal activities exist or, in the alternative, if Dick Cheney is so sure that the CIA did nothing wrong, then why wouldn’t an investigation be a good thing? It would both reinforce the rule of law and set Mr. Cheney free.
  • It is ironic that Mr. Cheney and the CIA defenders are calling this investigation partisan. This investigation would not have happened but for Mr. Cheney’s call for the enhanced interrogation program in the first place, a radical change in policy that, as detailed in the IG Report, even the CIA operatives recognized would eventually led them to be investigated. So although Cheney is now crying “foul play”, an eventual investigation was both foreseeable and anticipated. In that sense, the CIA was set up by Cheney. Furthermore, why is Cheney so worried about the CIA’s feelings? Does he think they are little children that need constant coddling?
  • Most of Cheney’s fear-mongering about Obama making the U.S. less safe is directed at policy changes that took place during Bush’s second term and that Obama is simply continuing. Remember even Obama the sell-out is against Holder’s independent investigation.
  • The Bush Administration did everything in its power to fabricate evidence and conceal information regarding the War in Iraq and has even recently admitted to manipulating terror alerts for political gain. The political and media class have had absolutely no accountability whatsoever for the key roles they’ve played in the massive propaganda campaign that has caused immeasurable death and destruction. The issue of torture only highlights the pathetic state of our establishment media and the farce that is congressional oversight. As Glenn Greenwald has written, Congress and the establishment media have played absolutely no role in demanding transparency here. The only reason any of this information is being disclosed at all is because of lawsuits by human rights groups. This represents a major failure in how our systems of checks and balance and free press are supposed to protect us from government abuse.
  • We were led to believe that only the worst of the worst, the most hardened of terrorists were subjected to enhanced interrogation. We now know that to be false. We also know that numerous Guantanamo detainees who were tortured and kept in cages for years were later declared innocent, not by bleeding-heart left-wing socialists but by seasoned military judges.
  • The press has largely ignored the fact that some one hundred detainees died under the enhanced conditions and apparently others “just got lost”.
  • According to our treaty obligations and therefore as required by law (in conformance with the U.S. Constitution), the U.S. is obliged to investigate credible allegations of torture. Failure to do so may subject U.S. officials to criminal prosecution abroad. Once again, it was Cheney’s program that has set our guys up to become international pariahs.
  • Since when was Jack Nicholson’s Cheney-esque “You can’t handle the truth” character from A Few Good Men supposed to be the hero or Daniel Day Lewis’ from In the Name of the Father (tortured until he confessed to a terrorist bombing he didn’t commit) the villain?

Back in 1998 during my last semester in law school, I worked on a project for the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law where I spent most of my time reading and compiling the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including all of the gruesome details of torture from the worst years of Cuba, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. For those of you who think that the IG Report is not so damning, it reads like it was right out of a Latin American dictatorship.

It’s interesting that we are supposed to be world leaders, beacons of light, yet the entire Republican Party and many Democrats, with an enabling press, are passionately against transparency and upholding the rule of law. As Juan Cole writes in reference to the CIA operatives who expressed concern about foreign prosecution,

But why weren’t they afraid of prosecution in U.S. courts? When did the U.S. go from having, in the Bill of Rights, among the most advanced human rights laws in the world to being a gulag backwater where it is only a trip to Holland that American torturers fear?

What is happening to us? Suddenly we are afraid of the rule of law. We refuse to innovate or even recognize, as in the case of health care, that other countries have models we can follow. Even in technology and infrastructure, we are falling behind (we are number 28 in the world in Internet connectivity speed). What is left of those infamous American values?


Filed under Essays, Obama 44

Re Joe Henderson

The background music to my life is generally filled with whatever Jazz is being shuffled on my iTunes library. On countless occasions I hear an amazing tenor saxophone solo that I just can’t put my finger on, and low and behold, it almost always turns out to be the versatile Joe Henderson. Although I have only a handful of his recordings as a leader, he is constantly popping up on my random playlists as a sideman for other musicians.

Here’s my Joe Henderson collection:

As a Leader:

As a Sideman:

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Too Hot


It’s hot, too hot. The daytime temperature in Madrid has not gone below 90F (30C) since the beginning of June, and I don’t have air conditioning. Three months of this continuous, unwavering heat takes its toll on you.

I could cool off at the local public pool, but that would be communism, right? Actually, I don’t go because a recent Leonard Lopate Show podcast totally turned me off to water leisure.

Sure, I would love to let myself get all worked up about

But it’s just too hot. Instead, I would rather spend time wedged between my fan and humidifier, finishing Olive Kitteridge, re-reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, watching the new seasons of Mad Men and the continuously disappointing Weeds, following the revived Real Madrid, and stressing about my upcoming Moroccan wedding.


Filed under Digressions, Essays, Literature, Living la vida española, Obama 44