Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Choose Your Outrage

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

So Much News, So Much to Consider

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with all the news. Take Wednesday, January 3, when it seems lots of people were pointing to a fascinating article from Germaine Greer, with its Hollywood and Paris implications - Lauren Bacall was not at all like Catherine Deneuve. No kidding. What of it? Ah, there are the lessons to be learned -

    The movie phenomenon known as Lauren Bacall took time to put together. The woman who began life as Betty Joan Perske studied dancing for 13 years, then acting, and became a stage actress and model called Betty Bacall. Her picture on the cover of Harper's Bazaar caught the eye of the wife of movie producer Howard Hawks, who cast her in To Have and Have Not (1944) and created the movie star Lauren Bacall. She was not a regular beauty; her face was too broad, her mouth too wide, her eyes too far apart, and her ears too big. She was also neither blonde nor dark, but sallow and mousy.

    Catherine Deneuve is the opposite. Everything about her is perfect: eyes beautifully set in perfect oval face, mouth neat, skin transparently fair, a body that could serve as the template for the first blow-up doll. Only her name and her hair colour were fake. She was born Catherine Dorléac, daughter of stage and screen actor Maurice Dorléac and his actress wife, whose maiden name she eventually took. Deneuve got her first screen role when she was only 13, and she has been in movies non-stop for 50 years. She never thought of doing anything else, and at 63 she still doesn't. She says she never works more than half of any year, but what she does with the other half is unknown.

    … Try as I might, I can't remember anything said by any character that Deneuve ever played, but the difference is as much one of era as of talent or personality. When Bacall came into the limelight the war was still on, and women were still self-sufficient, bouncing around in short skirts and chunky heels, talking loud and drawing a crowd. Before the Hays Code sanitized the movies in 1934, a series of remarkable actresses, including Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow, had created female characters who managed to be tough, funny and sexy all at once.

    Catherine Deneuve … Her big breakthrough was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), a masterpiece of romantic French whimsy devised, written and directed by Jacques Demy, in which 20-year-old Deneuve played Geneviève, the 16-year-old daughter of the proprietress of a shop called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. She and her mechanic boyfriend are in love and want to get married but he is called up for military service in Algeria. They go to bed together, he leaves, she bids him farewell at Cherbourg railway station - et voilà, she is pregnant. In fact, Deneuve had just given birth to her son by Roger Vadim when she started work on the movie.

    Geneviève was a role for a French Olivia Newton John, and Deneuve was probably the nearest thing they had, but without a voice. What she did have was hair, as much hair comparative to the rest of her as any Barbie doll, and bleached beyond an inch of its life. The mass of hair did all the acting and most of the dancing for her. Under the hair was the perfect face, virtually expressionless, endlessly caressed by the camera. Though the plot requires Geneviève to jump the gun and have premarital sex with her boyfriend, Deneuve conveys not one scintilla of sexual desire. She might as well be going to the dentist as going to lose her virginity. Bacall could signify sexual interest with a glance; Deneuve cannot project it at all. This is not so much a matter of personality as of changed priorities.

    The Hawksian woman was an idea that flourished at a time of crisis, in the depression and during the war, when the full energies of women were needed if they were to survive. After the war she was supplanted by the female eunuch, weighed down with huge hair and false eyelashes, unequal to any challenge - all things to all men and nothing to herself.

That's the core of it, although there's a lot of movie history elided here. But this explains why the Frenchwoman who was on the last Air France flight out of Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese Army despises Catherine Deneuve. Ah well, Michel Legrand still wrote a wonderful score for that umbrellas movie.

Okay - minor stuff, perhaps. But closer to home, and of importance to more people, might be one more ominous Wal-Mart story, from the Wall Street Journal, of all places.

This is about shifting risk - Wal-Mart is moving forward with widespread implementation of new employee scheduling software. So what, you say? The software tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each of those periods. And there's a whole range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. No big deal.

Ezra Klein differs -

    [P]ity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, "experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be "on call" to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule... That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next."

    Brave new world. And one that can be used to push out older, more experienced, better-paid workers. "Some longtime workers," the Journal reports, "also say they believe managers use the system to pressure them to quit. After working 16 years at a Wal-Mart in Hastings, Minn., Karen Nelson says managers told her she had to be open to working nights and weekends. After she refused, her hours were trimmed, though they have been restored in recent months. 'The store manager said he could get two people for what he pays me,' says Ms. Nelson, who earns about $14.50 an hour." Take a highly-paid veteran and begin shaking up their shifts, demanding nights and weekends, and scheduling erratically, and soon you'll have a former highly-paid veteran.

    This isn't, it should be said, an initiative unique to Wal-Mart. Other retailers, from Radioshack to Payless, have given the system a shot, though with varying degrees of ferocity. But Wal-Mart's adoption will make it standard. The whole enterprise underscores the dangers of the service economy, with its relentless focus on efficiency and terrifying absence of concern towards its workers.

Yeah, well, not to get too Marxist or anything, what did Ezra Klein expect? The corporation exists to make money for the shareholders, the owners - those who provide the capital, thus "the capitalists." The "workers" hardly matter, and if they are unhappy they can quit - there are plenty of people who need jobs of any sort at all. We live in boom times of lower and lower labor costs - or higher productivity, if you will. There's a reason the stock markets always spike upward on news of high unemployment numbers or the latest story of wages not keeping up with inflation - that increases the pool of eager workers who will accept low wages and no benefits, and with the subsequent decline in actual labor cost and rise in profit margins. As long as there's no great depression with no one is buying much of anything, that's good news. The trick in any capitalist economy is to come as close to a major recession as you can, but still have a reasonable number of folks here and there with some disposable income left to spend. That there's clever software to squeeze those currently working and get the troublemakers and "the expensive" to quit just makes it all high-tech. There's no news here, but for the ingenious software.

The same day the Wall Street Journal published something really unusual - an opinion column from President Bush - but most doubt he wrote it all by himself. It has the feel of committee work filtered through a staff of speechwriters, then massaged by Karen Hughes and approved by Karl Rove. It's all about bipartisan cooperation - the new Democratic House and Senate, we are told, had better be careful. If they pass things just to make some political point, "the public" will see through that and hate them, and Bush will veto it all. So the unusual situation, after six years of single party control there will be two years of "divided government," as the president warns here, had better be one where the Congress does nothing partisan and gives him legislation to sign that he wants to sign. Otherwise, the business of the nation will stop, and it will be the Democrats' fault, entirely. He threw down the gauntlet the day before the new congress convenes.

It was all pretty clear.

Tax increases? Forget it. "The elections have not reversed the laws of economics It is a fact that economies do best when you reward hard work by allowing people to keep more of what they have earned."

The war in Iraq? We're staying the course. "We now have the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war."

Some Democrats may have hoped it would be the president who is contrite after the election. Fat chance.

Senator Schumer of New York - "I think what the op-ed showed was the fundamental division within the White House and probably within the president's head whether to stick to the old issues and just talk bipartisanship versus really doing it." Yeah, maybe so.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto - "It's an appropriate time to say where we are on these things and to again reiterate the president's view that we can work together to find common ground. It also doesn't mean that a Democrat-controlled Congress passes whatever they want and we sign it - that's not bipartisanship. We'll have to see as we go forward over the next six months, in particular, if everyone has the same understanding of what bipartisanship means."

It means agreeing with the president or things stop cold. It's going to be interesting. And elsewhere we're told that the January 23rd State of the Union will "Knock Our Socks Off" - a major call for total energy independence. Didn't he do that already, last year - something about ending our addiction to oil? Maybe he's really, really serious this time.

The major address, really, will come before that, reportedly on Tuesday the 9th - the "no big surprise" speech that we're escalating the Iraq war, adding seventeen to twenty-thousand more troops. Robert Parry calls it Operation: Save Bush's Legacy -

    Even top advocates for the "surge," such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and neoconservative activist Frederick W. Kagan, have argued that U.S. troop levels must be increased by at least 30,000 for 18 months or more to bring security to Baghdad, what they call a "precondition" for any successful outcome.

    "Any other option is likely to fail," Keane and Kagan wrote in an Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2006.

    So, the more modest escalation of up to 20,000 soldiers would appear to represent what might be called "Operation: Save Bush's Legacy," with the goal of postponing the inevitable until 2009 when American defeat can be palmed off on a new President.

That's a plan. The word is he will dump General Casey and any general who disagrees with him. As reported in the Times - "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave." Casey, who speculated our massive presence there was ham-handed and making things worse, is so gone.

But the word is the president will call for "sacrifice" on our part. The Democrats will no doubt be too timid to suggest restoring the previous tax rates for the wealthiest one percent of Americans would be a reasonable sacrifice by those folks to help pay for this all, but no matter.

This is not going down well. Fewer than twenty percent of the public likes the idea, and no politician does, save John McCain and Joe Lieberman. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group said do the opposite. But the president is determined. And that lead to what was called the most blistering indictment of a sitting President in the history of broadcast television - Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (video here or here).

Some of that -

    This senseless, endless war.

    But it has not been senseless in two ways.

    It has succeeded, Mr. Bush, in enabling you to deaden the collective mind of this country to the pointlessness of endless war, against the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

    It has gotten many of us, used to the idea - the virtual "white noise" - of conflict far away, of the deaths of young Americans, of vague "sacrifice" for some fluid cause, too complicated to be interpreted except in terms of the very important sounding, but ultimately meaningless phrase, "the war on terror."

    And the war's second accomplishment - your second accomplishment, sir - is to have taken money out of the pockets of every American, even out of the pockets of the dead soldiers on the battlefield, and their families, and to have given that money to the war profiteers.

    Because if you sell the Army a thousand Humvees, you can't sell them any more, until the first thousand have been destroyed.

    The service men and women are ancillary to the equation.

    This is about the planned obsolescence of ordnance, isn't, Mr. Bush? And the building of detention centers? And the design of a 125-million dollar courtroom complex at Gitmo complete with restaurants.

    At least the war profiteers have made their money, sir.

    And we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

And do it goes. Is it time to take away the car keys? Things don't work that way. There is the argument that we now have Sociopath as President, but in spite of that man's book and some previous discussion of that, that's a bit over the top.

After all - as one administration office said, this surge thing is "more of a political decision than a military one." Call it fighting irrelevancy, or something. And anyway, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have a new article in Foreign Policy arguing that a variety of human cognitive biases all tilt the scales in arguments unduly in favor of hawkish, aggressive solutions and away from dovish, compromise oriented ones. So what did you expect?

And Fred Kaplan carefully explains that the president is an Iron Man and simply won't change his strategy -

    In short, nothing has changed. The midterm elections - which amounted to a clear referendum on Bush's policies - never happened. The Baker-Hamilton report's critique is as dismissible as its prescriptions.

    What's going on here? Does President Bush simply want to avoid admitting that he's been wrong? Or does he really think he's been - and still is - right?

    Probably both. His unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, however profound or trivial, is legendary. Yet it's also the case, as a few former high-ranking officials have recently told me, that he genuinely believes he's on "the right side of history" when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, the freedom agenda - all of which he sees bundled into a single grand vision (as distinguished, and self-consciously so, from his father, who was famously and explicitly the opposite of a visionary).

    … Bush is unpopular because, it becomes clearer by the day, he doesn't seem to have a strategy.

    One thing Bush does have, however, is an ironclad commitment to his visions. This can be an admirable trait, or it can be the hallmark of a delusional; it depends on the vision. Another thing about Bush—something frequently forgotten until we're reminded of it - is that he tends to mean what he says (also a quality that's neither here nor there when it comes to gauging wisdom).

    Bush has said countless times that Iraq is the central battleground in the war on terror and that winning the war on terror is vital for the future of civilization. He seems to believe this; several of his high-ranking officials confirm that he does believe this. Yes, it's odd that he hasn't done much in support of this belief - for instance, he hasn't done anything remotely like putting the country on a war footing - but much about this administration's war policies have been odd. (For instance, an argument might have been made, back in the spring of 2003, for mobilizing a small number of American troops or for disbanding the Iraqi army, but not for doing both, and yet this administration did just that.)

    Everything that Bush has said, and everything that he has revealed about his character, adds up to this: He almost certainly is not going to budge from Iraq; he is likely to pour more American troops in - as many as the Army and Marines can manage (which isn't all that many more) - before he pulls any out. He's playing for History (most definitely with a capital H), which, he seems convinced, is on his side.

You may think that's noble, or dangerously delusional, or perhaps both. It doesn't matter. That's what we have. No one wants to go where he's going, but he sees things differently. A hundred years from now we'll all know better, or not.

Olbermann -

    Mr. Bush, your judgment about Iraq - and now about 'sacrifice' - is at variance with your people's, to the point of delusion.

    Your most respected generals see no value in a "surge" - they could not possibly see it in this madness of "sacrifice."

    The Iraq Study Group told you it would be a mistake.

    Perhaps dozens more have told you it would be a mistake.

    And you threw their wisdom back, until you finally heard what you wanted to hear, like some child drawing straws and then saying "best two out of three . . . best three out of five . . . hundredth one counts."

    Your citizens, the people for whom you work, have told you they do not want this, and moreover, they do not want you to do this.

    Yet once again, sir, you have ignored all of us. …

    First we sent Americans to their deaths for your lie, Mr. Bush.

    Now we are sending them to their deaths for your ego.

Or for his "vision." What's the difference?

But no matter what, there are no good choices, really. Former war supporter Andrew Sullivan agonizes over that -

    I cannot have been the only one to have spent the Christmas break wrestling with the central question we have to answer in 2007: what to do in Iraq. The more you ponder it, the harder a call it is. It seems to me we have to leave behind recriminations against the Bush administration. History will damn this president sufficiently. There is no need for us to pile on now. The question is simply: what is in the best interests, first, of the United States and second, of Iraq? And yes: the American priority is clear. A serious foreign policy places national interest first and foremost in its judgment.

So Choice One -

    One option is to plow forward with this president, a new defense secretary and a "surge". By a surge, I mean a serious commitment of 50,000 combat troops to try and pacify a raging civil war - in Baghdad for starters. The point of such an operation is to do what should have been done almost four years ago: maintain the order necessary for any halfway peaceful transition to normalcy in Iraq. The drawback here is twofold. The first is that it really is too late. The civil war has gone well past the point of no return. Pacification of the entire country may well not render any of the parties more eager to sacrifice for a national democracy. American casualties could surge along with troop numbers, with domestic opinion already sharply hostile to continuing the war. The American political system could itself buckle under the strain - along with the military.

    The second and graver problem is that any such surge would, at any moment, require the U.S. to side with one of the factions in Iraq and so embroil us in the Shia-Sunni civil war that is spreading throughout the region. That strikes me as a terrible risk. We are already targeted by terrorists simply for our freedom. To be targeted for being pro-Shi'a or pro-Sunni would add another layer of risk to the American public.

And behind the other door -

    The alternative is withdrawal. Many will call this a defeat. In many ways, it is. The attempt to remake the Middle East on our terms and on our own schedule has been revealed in retrospect as pure folly. The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead. It seems clear to me that the deep trauma of the Saddam years - an unimaginable hell to those of us who have experienced nothing like it - needs time to resolve itself. It may even need a civil war to resolve itself.

    The risks of withdrawal are also obvious: it would doubtless lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing on a hideously cruel scale. It may unleash a regional sectarian war with unknowable consequences. It is very difficult for any president to unleash such disorder on a global scale. Except, of course, this president has already unleashed such disorder as deliberate policy, and stood by as chaos spread.

So what are you going to do? Sullivan offers this -

    … we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities. This will force Iraqi indigenous forces to come up with their own leader, a man who has real power and a capacity to restore order, however brutally. We may get another dictator. In fact, we may have witnessed his unofficial swearing-in at Saddam's execution: "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" So be it. The current chaos ties the U.S. down in a hideously tightening vise. We have to change the dynamic and actually do something we can accomplish. We cannot win this civil war for any side, and we shouldn't. We can, however, withdraw.

    My own view is that withdrawal might even have some beneficial consequences. It will force Iran and the Sunni powers to intervene either to foment war or to stymie it. It could well unleash turmoil in Iran, and give Tehran a huge headache that will give it an incentive to deal with the world at large. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad will regard al-Sadr as a stable partner. Crucially, withdrawal could change the narrative of this war. So far, the narrative has been the one scripted by bin Laden: Islam versus the West. Thanks to Zarqawi, the narrative could soon become: Islam against itself. That is the real struggle here, masked by Western enmeshment. By getting out of Iraq now - decisively, swiftly, and candidly - we could actually gain in the long war. At some point, the chaos could force Iran to the negotiating table for fear of the massive instability on its doorstep. So Iraq could become the key to Iran after all.

    The moral cost of withdrawal is huge. We should do all we can to provide amnesty for any Iraqis who have been loyal to us. (It does not surprise me that we shamefully haven't. This is the Bush administration.) But the moral cost of plowing on is also exponential. It may merely delay the day of reckoning. It risks sending young Americans to die in order for a president to save face, not in order to win.

So we have lost this battle, if not the war. And if we do not get out by June, things will be much worse. Many agree. It doesn't matter. Oh, and by the way, here and here you can see that "senior officers and defense executives" in so-called "Defense World" are said to have "confided" that "the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims." That would be the cadre of evangelical officers at the Pentagon. Great.

But a US military spokesman does say "we" would have hanged Saddam Hussein differently. But of course - the guys in the black leather jackets and black full-face ski-masks, taunting Saddam Hussein with chants about Sadr, was a bit over the top. We would have been more subtle, or more dignified, or something.

One of Josh Marshall's readers, looking on this "sorry spectacle of the Hussein execution" sees more in any triumphal crap from the right -

    They don't really believe in democracy, they don't really believe in the rule of law, or in impartial justice. Every Bush effort, and every Republican effort, since the Iraq war got started has the same touches on it as this sorry spectacle, rush things to fit political time tables, ride over the rule of law, chaos, incompetence, and the country looking worse at the end of it. Some of your readers don't understand the problem, but it's the same problem as what's going on in Gitmo and god knows where else, it's all of a piece. Rule of law isn't some neat extra cool thing that democratic countries came up with because its nice and convenient, it's like oxygen, entirely necessary. It's what gives the entire process of justice something more than simple bloodletting. We see the consequences of a lack of respect for the rule of law in the savagery of Saddam's execution, do we imagine that these thugs are any less savage to anybody else they deem "guilty" but is actually simple an innocent from the wrong tribe? The longer this thing goes on, the more clear it becomes that the current Iraqi government is the child of its Republican fathers in every meaningful way. Are we supposed to imagine that a (Republican) government which is so clearly incompetent, dangerous, savage when it can get away with it, elevates political theatre above actual results, and plays hard to its base somehow created a government that does the same exact things in Iraq (where those tendencies have even worse results) by accident or coincidence? No. The Iraqi government is as much an import from the US as the US solders sustaining it are.

And this was supposed to be a good thing, and bring closure and all that. Oops.

Ah, this is all the American view. Here's an Iraqi view, as in "Saddam jailed me but his hanging was a crime - Iraq's misery is now far worse than under his rule," from the novelist Haifa Zangana -

    At 3.30am last Saturday, I was abruptly woken by the phone ringing. My heart sank. By the time I reached the phone, I was already imagining bodies of relatives and friends, killed and mutilated.

    It was 6.30am in Baghdad and I thought of the last time I spoke to my sister. She was on the roof of her house trying to get a better signal on her mobile phone, but had to end the call as an American helicopter started hovering above. Iraqis know it is within the US "rules of engagement" to shoot at them when using mobiles, and that US troops enjoy impunity whatever they do. But the call was from a Turkish TV station asking for comments on Saddam's execution. I drew a deep sigh of relief, not for the execution, but because I did not know personally anyone killed that day.

So you count your blessing when you can. And the core of this -

    I am speaking as one who has been, from the start, a politically active opponent of the Ba'ath regime's ideology and Saddam Hussain's dictatorship. At times that was at the high personal cost of prison and torture. In 1984, during the Iran-Iraq war, my family had to pay for the bullets used to execute my cousin Fouad Al Azzawi before being allowed to collect his body. But I find myself agreeing with many Iraqis, that life now is not just the continuity of misery and death under new guises. It is much, much worse - even without the extra dimensions of pillage, corruption and the total ruin of the infrastructure.

    Every day brings with it, due to the presence of occupation troops to protect US citizens' safety and security, less safety and security for Iraqis.

    The timing and method of the execution of Saddam Hussein proves that the US administration is still criminally high on the cocktail of power, arrogance, and ignorance. But above all racism: what is good for us is not good for you. We are patriots but you are terrorists.

    The US and their Iraqi puppets in the green zone chose to execute Saddam on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. This is the most joyous day in the Muslim calendar when more than 2 million pilgrims in Mecca start their ancient rituals, with hundreds of millions of others around the world focused on the events. They then further humiliated Muslims by releasing the official video of the execution, with the 69-year-old having a noose placed around his neck and being led to the drop. The unofficial recording shows Saddam looking calm and composed, and even managing a sarcastic smile, asking the thugs who taunted him "hiya hiy al marjala?" ("is this your manliness?"), a powerful phrase in Arabic popular culture connecting manliness to acts of courage, pride and chivalry. He also managed to repeatedly say the Muslim creed as he was dying, thus attaching himself in the last few seconds of his life to one billion Muslims. Saddam had literally the final say. From now on, no Eid will pass without people remembering his execution.

His conclusion? It's quite simple -

    This was the climax of a colonial farce with the court proceedings' blatant sectarian overtones welcomed by Bush and the British government as a "fair trial". The occupation also welcomed the grotesque public execution as "justice being done". Contrast this with the end of our hopes, as Iraqis in opposition, of persuading our people of the humanity of democracy and how it would, unlike Saddam's brutality, put an end to all abuses of human rights, to execution in public, and to the death penalty.

    It is no good the deputy prime minister John Prescott now condemning the manner of Saddam's execution as "deplorable" when, as a representative of one of the two main occupying powers, his government is both legally and morally responsible for what took place.

    It is hell in Iraq by all standards, and there is no end in sight to the plight of Iraqi people. The resistance to occupation is a basic human right as well as a moral responsibility. That was the case during the Algerian war of independence, the Vietnamese war of independence, and it is the case in Iraq now.

Oh crap. If he's right, and we're escalating, let's all take crap jobs at Wal-Mart and watch Lauren Bacall movies in our down time.

This item posted January 7, 2007

[Choose Your Outrage]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik