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


 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Deciding on the Right Frame of Reference

On President's Day 2007, out here at the end of the world, the Los Angeles Times published George Pendle on The Forgettable Millard Fillmore - "Fillmore reminds us that the platitude that 'anyone can be president' is as much a threat as a promise."

That's cute - it reminds one of Roger Ebert commenting that Batman Forever was the only movie he knew where the title was an actual threat.

And the Fillmore item was not nice at all -

    He had been president for three years, from 1850 to 1853, but he seemed little more than a cipher. "Could it be possible," asked one newspaper in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., "that living thus near to him, we failed to adequately appreciate his greatness?"

    The answer is a resounding "no."

    … Despised by the North and discarded by the South, Fillmore was as dead a duck as the White House has ever accommodated. When it came time for the next election, he was rejected by his beloved Whig party, despite being the incumbent, and when he ran for the presidency again four years later, it was at the head of the rabidly anti-Catholic Know Nothing party. Cartoonists rejoiced. He received "a very light vote." Fillmore spent the last 20 years of his life in self-imposed exile from public life. In 1860, he wrote that he was "the world forgetting; and by the world forgot."

    … On Presidents' Day we are so used to praising the wisdom and courage of Washington, Lincoln, a Roosevelt or two, that we expect their qualities to go hand in hand with the office itself. However, the office can't transform its occupant into a great leader. Rather than alter character, the presidency tends to magnify it: the good become great; the bad become wicked, and the venial flaws of the mediocre swell and bloat to become moral and political catastrophes. Being a likable, blundering, normal guy, with a good head of hair (and Fillmore had one of the best in White House history) is simply not enough.

Draw what conclusions you will about the current president - this was just context for the holiday.  The author made no overt connection.  If you are of a generous frame of mind you might simply conclude that just as skyscrapers and tall hotels traditionally have no thirteenth floor at all, perhaps we should not have had a thirteenth president. And remember, more recently, that Apollo 13 mission didn't go that well at all - without Tom Hanks they'd have never made it back.

The more interesting item in the Times on context, for those of us getting a bit long in the tooth (whatever that means), was from Paul Kennedy, the professor of history and the Director of International Security Studies at Yale - the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Paul Kennedy says we're losing a bit of rather important context in our nostalgia for The Good Old Days of the Cold War

Who thinks that the days of fallout shelters and, with the Cuban missile crisis, the possibility the world would actually end in a worldwide nuclear firestorm, were a rather fine time?

That would be the man who currently runs our military -

    Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's polemical attack on the United States by remembering the 50-year Cold War as a "less complex time" and saying he was "almost nostalgic" for its return.

    ... Nor is he alone. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia these days for the familiar contours of that bygone conflict, which has been replaced by a much more murky, elusive and confusing age.

Well, you do find that all over the place on conservative side - things were better back then.

Kevin Drum disagrees -

    I've always figured that anyone who thinks that the world today is more dangerous and more frightening than, say, the decade after WWII, is either too young to remember, too incurious to have read any history, or else just plain nuts.

It's just helpful to the administration to keep asserting this is so - and the young are of course offered little in the way of history, and seek out less, while as a nation we are noted worldwide for our lack of curiosity about the details of things (we prefer hope and big dreams).

And Kennedy points out these guys have a moderately compelling argument -

    The argument goes as follows: The Cold War, although unpleasant, was inherently stable. It was a bipolar world - centered on Washington and Moscow - and, as UC Berkeley political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued, it was much more predictable than, say, the shifting, multipolar world of the 1910s or 1930s, decades that were followed by calamitous wars. Yes, it's true that the two sides possessed masses of nuclear weapons aimed at each other's biggest cities, but the reality is that they were constrained by a mutual balance of terror.

    They had divided Europe and divided Asia, and no one, except in the Korean War, crossed those lines. Even that conflict confirmed the essential stasis. Of course, they carried out surrogate wars - in Asia, Africa and Central America, in Vietnam and Afghanistan - but they never came into direct conflict. Hot lines, summit conferences and SALT treaties kept things under control. Polish and Czech dissidents might get tossed into prison but, hey, that was not a cause for an international crisis. Those were indeed the good old days. East was East and West was West.

    Today's world is far less stable and indeed much less favorable to the comfortable Western democracies. It is not just that we face an almost-impossible-to-manage "war on terrorism," with all of its capacities for asymmetrical damage to ourselves, our allies and everyone else, even as we swat the occasional terrorist group. It is not just that we are deeply mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the whole Middle East may totter because of the failure (one hopes not, but let's not blink) to win on the ground. It is not just that we haven't a clue how to deal with the present, disturbing Iranian regime. It is not just that we haven't the energy to block Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from his arrogant anti-American policies across Latin America.

    It is not just that Putin is advertising his anger against the United States in speeches and continuing his manipulation of global oil and gas prices, his support of Iran, his intrusions into the Middle East. It is not just that the Chinese leadership is openly staking a new place in the world order, in its Africa diplomacy, its missile tests and its move into hitherto Western-dominated international institutions. And it is not just that a dozen or more fragile states, chiefly in Africa, are collapsing into chaos, while various other societies, chiefly in South America, are unraveling. It is the unnerving fact that all of this is happening at the same time, though at different speeds and different levels of intensity.

What - we cannot multitask?  We cannot deal with complexity and ambiguity? We sort of elected, and then actually reelected, a president who promised us everything was simple, really, and now we see his simplifications of it all have just made things far, far worse - and he keeps trying to reduce it all to one big set of bad guys, when reality just won't cooperate with him. Calling what we face now far worse than the Nazis and the Soviets and the Red Chinese and French mimes all combined may defy logic - but it has a certain emotional satisfaction. We cannot really have elected another Millard Fillmore.

Kennedy calls it all the silliness that it is.

First, "however tricky our relationships" Russia and China are these day, "the prospect of our entering a massive and mutually cataclysmic conflict with either nation are vastly reduced." And he notes the right-wing hawks argued avidly for "nuking" communist China during the Korean War (and again during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1954) - and newly released archival evidence overwhelmingly confirms "how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis." Those were the good old days?  We forgot -

    And who still remembers 1984-85, when we were riveted by Jonathan Schell's argument in the New Yorker that even a few nuclear explosions would trigger such dust storms as to produce a "nuclear winter"?

    Those were really scary times, and much more dangerous than our present circumstance because the potential damage that could be inflicted during an East-West conflagration was far, far greater than anything that al Qaeda can do to us now. No one has the exact totals, but we probably had 20,000 missiles pointed at each other, often on high alert. And the threat of an accidental discharge was high.

    None of today's college-age students were born in 1945, 1979 or maybe even 1984. None lived with those triangular signs proclaiming their schools to be nuclear bomb shelters.

He says university professors have taken to showing Cold War movies just to provide context - "The Manchurian Candidate," "Fail Safe," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Hunt for Red October," "Five Days in May," "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."

The result - "Students look rather dumbfounded when told that we came close, on several occasions, to World War III."

Well, maybe that's a natural state.  They always look that way.

But they really cannot get it -

    It is hard to explain to a younger generation that such delightful countries as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Poland and Czechoslovakia (to name only a few) were run in those days by fascist generals, avowed racists or one-party totalitarian regimes. I am ancient enough to remember the long list of countries I would not visit for summer holidays; old enough to recall how creepy it was to enter Walter Ulbricht's East German prison house of a state via Checkpoint Charlie in the late 1960s. Ugh.

It wasn't that long ago. For most, it's all pointless ancient history.  "Most" are somehow convinced this is the final crises - a few thousand Islamic fanatics mean these are the end times. If you weren't around during that Cuban missile thing, you just don't know the feeling - that odd tingling thought that the world really could end, perhaps tomorrow.  These last six years, while awful, present problems that can be solved, or if not solved, managed. We're not talking the end of the world here. Why would we?

Matthew Yglesias adds further context -

    This matters, because I think people sometimes underestimate exactly how horrible it would be in humanitarian terms to return to Cold War-style conditions of global competition between the United States and some other power (presumably China). People often - and correctly - see that the UN Security Council process is often going to be an impediment to certain kinds of humanitarian military ventures and want to just let it all drop. And it's true that this sort of thing can be frustrating. Ultimately, however, a world where the major powers have cordial, mostly cooperative relations with one another is a much, much better world to live in.

No kidding.  But then why would we think we're facing the end of all things?

There are of course the usual arguments that having us think that way feeds another purpose.

On the left side of the political world there's David Neiwert - forever talking about a slide into fascism under the Bush-Cheney administration.  On the Libertarian right, in the American Conservative of all publications, you can find Hunger for Dictatorship - Scott McConnell arguing something is up here.

We're talking the other f-word, the Mussolini one. This Iraq business and all the other "crises" seem to have put the possibility of the end to American democracy on the table.  It's up for discussion now.  The pro-Bush right finds itself arguing that, given the ultimate crisis we find ourselves in, it may be time acquiesce to and actually welcome the suppression of what some say are core American freedoms.  New Gingrich has, after all, very recently argued that we can no longer afford free speech or a free press - things are that dire. He thinks that bit of context-setting will propel him to the presidency.

So whack-jobs like Paul Craig Roberts rants about the Brownshirting of America - and no one much notices. 

But then, on President's Day, 2007, the far more mainstream Joe Conason decides it is time for It Could Happen Here (an excerpt from his upcoming book) -

    For the first time since the resignation of Richard M. Nixon more than three decades ago, Americans have had reason to doubt the future of democracy and the rule of law in our own country. Today we live in a state of tension between the enjoyment of traditional freedoms, including the protections afforded to speech and person by the Bill of Rights, and the disturbing realization that those freedoms have been undermined and may be abrogated at any moment.

    Such foreboding, which would have been dismissed as paranoia not so long ago, has been intensified by the unfolding crisis of political legitimacy in the capital. George W. Bush has repeatedly asserted and exercised authority that he does not possess under the Constitution he swore to uphold. He has announced that he intends to continue exercising power according to his claim of a mandate that erases the separation and balancing of power among the branches of government, frees him from any real obligation to obey laws passed by Congress, and permits him to ignore any provisions of the Bill of Rights that may prove inconvenient.

    Whether his fellow Americans understand exactly what Bush is doing or not, his six years in office have created intense public anxiety. Much of that anxiety can be attributed to fear of terrorism, which Bush has exacerbated to suit his own purposes - as well as to increasing concern that the world is threatened by global warming, pandemic diseases, economic insecurity, nuclear proliferation, and other perils with which this presidency cannot begin to cope.

He who controls the context controls everything. Argue that these last six years, while awful, present problems that can be solved, or if not solved, managed, and that we're not talking the end of the world here, and you'll quickly be labeled as a ninny who "just doesn't get it" (the nice end of the spectrum), or a traitor who hates our troops, hates America, and wants the terrorists to win (the other end).  You just don't' mess with the context these guys have so carefully built. Don't get between someone and their need for power, or something like that.

Kevin Drum, again, is simply amazed -

    The debasement of our national security discourse has reached staggering proportions. Just consider the half-witted nonsense we're deluged with these days: Can you support the troops if you don't support the war? (Yes. Don't be a moron.) Should Hillary apologize for her war vote? (Seriously, who cares?) Will the surge work? (No.) Is Iran "meddling" in Iraq? (Of course they are. What did you expect?) Where is Carmen Muqtada al-Sadr?

    I guess it's always been this way. Still, we could use a break from the trivia, and my greatest wish for this campaign season is for Democrats to back off from the trifles now and again and instead spend some time getting back to basics and outlining a broad perspective on both American and global security that competes with the puerile bluster that currently passes for intelligent discussion among Republicans.

Too late - the puerile bluster has won the day.  They established a context where it does seem like puerile bluster at all - it's noble and brave and all that.

Drum says he's "pretty much given up hope that there are any Republicans left who understand anything serious about the exercise of American power."  But to expect the Democrats to change the context now may be asking too much.  It was six years in building.

And for fun, see this President's Day editorial, Making Martial Law Easier -

    A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous defense budget bill at the Bush administration's behest that makes it easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.

    The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president's use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.

    The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any "other condition."

It goes on to call for public hearings or some kind of public debate.  It would be nice to pin down those "other conditions" for example.  It would also be nice to find out how some provision like this get slipped into bills without anyone being told.

It hardly matters. That's how things work, or how they work when you control the context.


A note on context for really old folks -

Eric Hobsbawm in the Guardian (UK) takes us way back - "The Spanish Civil War was for young leftists who did not live in Spain like the heart-rending memory of a first great and lost love."

That old thing? 

It goes like this - "The wrong side may have won, but in creating the world's memory of the conflict, the pen, the brush and the camera have had the more lasting triumph."

Here's a bit -

    The film Casablanca (1942) has become a permanent icon of a certain kind of educated culture, at least among older generations. The cast will still be familiar, I hope: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, Conrad Veidt, Claude Rains. Its phrases have become part of our discourse, such as the endlessly misquoted "Play it again, Sam" or "Round up the usual suspects". If we leave aside the basic love affair, this is a film about the relations of the Spanish civil war and the wider politics of that strange but decisive period in 20th-century history, the era of Adolf Hitler. Rick, the hero, has fought for the republicans in the Spanish civil war. He emerges from it defeated and cynical in his Moroccan café, and the film ends with him returning to the struggle in the second world war. In short, Casablanca is about the mobilisation of anti-fascism in the 1930s. And those who mobilised against fascism before most others, and most passionately, were western intellectuals.

Who would they be? That's easy -

    American writers, whether or not they accepted American neutrality, were overwhelmingly opposed to Franco, and Hollywood even more so. Of the British writers asked, five (Waugh, Eleanor Smith and Edmund Blunden among them) favored the Nationalists, sixteen were neutral (including Eliot, Charles Morgan, Pound, Alec Waugh, Sean O'Faolain, HG Wells and Vita Sackville-West) and 106 were for the republic, many of them passionately. As for Spain, there is no doubt where the poets of the Spanish language - those who are now remembered - stood: García Lorca, the brothers Machado, Alberti, Miguel Hernández, Neruda, Vallejo, Guillén.

And the big guns wrote about it - Hemingway, Dos Passos, Malraux - and the young British poets - Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, and so on.  It was a big deal.

And this is good -

    WH Auden, asked to go to Spain for the propaganda value of his name, wrote to a friend: "I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier. But how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?" I think it is safe to say that most politically conscious British students of my age group felt they ought to fight in Spain and had a bad conscience if they did not. The extraordinary wave of volunteers who went to fight for the republic is, I think, unique in the 20th century. The most reliable figure for the strength of the body of foreign volunteers fighting for the republic is around 35,000.

None of the young Republican web log writers are off to Iraq, are they?  Check out Operation Yellow Elephant on that matter.

Of course things were different then - Hemingway and the rest were fighting fascism, not longing for it.

And anyway, they all lost.

This item posted - in its final version - February 24, 2007


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