Monday, December 6, 2010

Does Wikileaks Really Matter?

Julian Assange is now quite probably the most-wanted man on the planet. In a story that sounds like part of a Neal Stephenson or Cory Doctorow plot, Assange’s tiny nonprofit group, Wikileaks, managed to unload gigabytes of official secrets onto the Internet for anyone to read, throwing diplomatic circles into disorder across the world and infuriating one of the most powerful countries on the planet. As a direct result, Mr. Assange is currently living in hiding, literally on the run from the law, and a massive international effort has been launched to shut down Wikileaks in an attempt to close the barn door after the cows have gone.

Most of the documents in this hoard are internal communications from within the Department of State, the government agency charged with the day-to-day management of the USA’s foreign affairs. It is, in a sense, like an email discussing his coworkers in scathing terms that some unfortunate man accidentally forwards to the entire corporate mailing list.

Two questions arise from the Wikileaks incident. The first is, will it really be important in the long term? The second is, is more transparency in the diplomatic world necessarily a good thing?

In terms of the first question, the array of embarrassments to come to light so far ranges from the egregious through the banal to the laughable. Secretary of State Clinton is documented as approving a program of spying on United Nations officials and other diplomats. A list of “vital” sites, important to the interests of the USA, includes an insulin factory in Denmark and a snake venom antidote factory in Australia. If Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi never leaves the house without his voluptuous blonde nurse Galyna, what have I to say but good for him?

There is no surprise at all in learning that Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is in antiseptic State Department prose, “risk averse and rarely creative,’ or that Italy’s PM Silvio Berlusconi is a party animal with an eye for (much) younger women. Anyone paying attention to international affairs would probably reach the same conclusion. It would be impolite to say as much in public, of course, and their will doubtless be plenty of awkward moments for the next several months as diplomats find themselves in meetings with persons they described in unfavorable terms.

Some of the leaked documents sound incendiary but, as in the case of the memorandum describing Saudi Arabia as an “ATM machine for terrorists,” the quoted comments from various Arab leaders expressing concern for Iran’s nuclear program, or the note describing Afghan president Hamid Karzai as a corrupt weakling with delusions of grandeur, don’t contain anything that hasn’t been public knowledge for over a decade.

Some of the largest embarrassments will likely come from the American public finally learning what their government has been up to under the table. Karzai may not really care what a US diplomat thinks of him, but the American public will likely want to know why the USA is supporting a corrupt weakling in the first place

Although the State Department releases lack the immediate and visceral effect of Wikileaks’ previous releases of documents concerning the Iraqi and Afghan wars, the long-term consequences of StateGate, CableGate, WikiGate, or whatever it will eventually be dubbed will become more clear only over the long term. It is premature to say what these consequences might become. They could be quite severe, or perhaps not. It is entirely possible that the total damage done by CableGate will add up to less than that incurred by the Bush Administration’s never-adequately-prosecuted outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent in 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In some respects, the Wikileaks incident may not actually matter very much. Regardless of what US diplomats may have said behind closed doors about South Korea, Seoul will still have to contend first and foremost with the psychotic hermit kingdom of North Korea, and will perforce retain close ties to the USA. Persons and countries already predisposed to dislike the US—Iran, for example-- will continue to do so, while our longtime allies will likely not see the documents as sufficient cause for severing a mutually beneficial relationship.

In fact, it is likely that CableGate will only really matter in areas in which the US already has a multitude of problems- for example, in dealing with China, Pakistan, or client states in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the arena of the United Nations. In those areas, the US will likely have severe troubles, akin to trying to play a game of poker when all the other players have already seen what’s in the hand. The exposure of Secretary Clinton’s espionage initiative is probably the single most damaging revelation to date, but of course, the act was an egregious breach of the gentlemen’s agreement protocols surrounding the UN, and should not have been undertaken in the first place.

This isn’t the first time that diplomatic secrets have become public and created a furor. In fact, the United States should be thankful that the reaction so far has been benign—at least, by comparison to historical precedent. After all, the infamous “Zimmerman telegram” of 1917 was a diplomatic communiqué from Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassadors to the United States and Mexico. This telegram, surely one of the shortest important documents in history, directing the ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, to propose a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event that the United States appeared likely to enter the First World War, and to offer Mexico assistance in recovering the lands lost to the USA in the previous century. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and cracked the code, and Whitehall promptly published the incriminating little memo. The USA was of course infuriated at what Washington and the general public alike saw as foreign meddling with an ostensibly neutral USA, and entered the Great War three months later.

In one of the more curious postscripts to the Zimmerman telegram and to the private becoming public in general, in 1929 President Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, disbanded the United State’s own telegram-reading and code-breaking unit, the Black Chamber, with the dismissive remark "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Stimson later found himself in charge of a massive intelligence apparatus when he served as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of War during the Second World War.

One thing the United States should not worry about, however, is offending its ‘friends,’ since to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, “nations have no friends, only interests.” The community of nations is not a high school class in which one group suddenly takes a visceral dislike to a particular kid in math class because of something he said about a girl in the cafeteria. It may have been like that at times—for example, the Ems Dispatch which sparked French public opinion into the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870—but it is not now. The carefully-measured cynicism of realpolitik is a century and a half old and has seeped its Savile Row-clad way into every nook and cranny of every embassy in the world. A nation does not stop needing oil or wheat or steel just because the ruler is called out for hiding money in foreign bank accounts and becomes annoyed with the foreign diplomatic corps.

De Gaulle was right. For all the talk of globalization, cooperation on mutual concerns such as international terrorism, and the growth of supranational organizations such as NATO or the European Union, each nation is still out for its own interests, which often conflict. For this reason, modern diplomacy still includes a great deal of secrecy and deception, a recursive tangle of “I know that they don’t know that I know that they know.” This is also the reason why even nations that have long histories of alliance still spy on each other. Consider how the Bush Administration coaxed, chivvied, and coerced other nations into accepting the bogus claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003—eventually outright falsehoods had to be presented on the floor of the UN because all the ‘legitimate’ arguments had been presented and discredited.

It is no coincidence that one of the first fields laid out for studies in information theory was the issue of what information one could use in negotiations without rendering the information valueless.

This brings us to the second question: is more transparency in the diplomatic world necessarily a good thing?

The world’s international relations are a gearbox, in which nations’ interests and goals are inflexible blocks, and where deception, secrecy, doublespeak, and general sneakiness play the essential role of lubricant for the gears. “To be diplomatic” is itself a euphemism for shading one’s true feelings with language intended to avoid upsetting someone, whether negotiating an international nuclear weapons treaty or politely suggesting the ambassador from Belarus not eat all the canapés at the reception. It is precisely because of this film of the untrue or half-true or intentionally overlooked that the big pieces of metal can slide past one another to keep the machine spinning.

What causes the system to break down is when someone drops a big handful—several gigabytes big, let’s say—of truth into the gearbox, or when some thread of the international conversation becomes public when one or more parties to the discussion would rather it stay out of public view. That’s when all the difficulties arise.

For example, several major spy rings operated by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, have been uncovered in the United States over the last forty years, when all the while the United States has been by far Israel’s most generous and (for better or for worse) most loyal benefactor. Whenever Israeli spies are caught at their business, the whole nasty business is usually shoved under the rug—at least, to the extent the public can see.

Although the long-term effects of CableGate are not yet clear, the importance of what Wikileaks has done is shown simply by the speed and ferocity of the attempts to shut Wikileaks down. Within a week of publication, had booted the group from its servers, PayPal had shut down the group’s donations access, the website was hacked repeatedly, and a New Hampshire internet services firm had essentially shut off the Wikileaks website. All this led Assange and his representatives quite reasonably to complain about the US government’s attempts to shut Wikileaks down and re-bury the documents.

Try as Wikileaks’ opponents might, however, the cows have already left the barn—Assange and his cohorts spread their information far and wide across the Internet, in the form of encrypted ‘doomsday bombs’ that contain far more information, and far more sensitive information, than has been released to date. There is now essentially no way to re-bury that information without shutting down the entire Internet in every country on Earth. The United States is no longer in control of the situation, and if it takes extraordinary steps to try to keep control it may end up doing more damage to its own interests than the leaked documents would have inflicted.

The saving grace of the situation is that although the United States has been caught out on a great many lies, bogus promises, or nasty comments about world leaders, it’s very likely that most of those people already expected the USA to be lying to them, or at the very least to have hidden opinions about them. We know that, they know that, and we know they know we know that. If anything, Mr. Assange and his cohorts should have held off on releasing their information until they had ‘dirt’ on every government and major corporation, and released it all at once to level the playing field.

Of course, to borrow the catchphrase of the urbane, thoroughly vicious, and fortunately fictional British politician Francis Urquhart, “You might well think that, but of course I couldn't possibly comment.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

A couple of book reviews

This is a short review of Susan Ronald’s The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire, and John Nolan’s Sir John Norrys and the Elizabethan Military World. Since I have never mastered the ability to write anything short, I will throw in some additional observations.

The Pirate Queen is a generally enjoyable and accessible discussion of Elizabeth I and her pet “sea dogs”- Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh, and the like.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the first few chapters, which present an incisive examination of the relationship between the queen and her adventurers.

Most of Elizabeth’s adventurers were younger sons or the peerage or gentry, men raised with expectations of a certain quality of life, but who would not ordinarily inherit the familial wealth to maintain it. They had to earn it, as in past centuries their ancestors had done by going off on Crusade, plundering foreign lands as mercenaries, or attempting to carve holdings out of the Irish chaos. Is for this reason that Elizabeth’s adventurers generally “were not the stuff of ordinary merchant stock… who thirsted for knowledge, had tremendous egos, were desperate to make their fortunes, had an acute business sense, and possessed more than a fair portion of intelligence and cunning.” (17)

As Ronald puts it:

“If a lucky adventurer had a cunning plan to find treasure that mitigated the risk to the crown, then royal patronage would not be far behind. However, before the queen would commit herself or her ships to dangerous and costly overseas expeditions, she demanded that her men put their own personal fortunes alongside hers at the realm’s disposal for most voyages seeking treasure.” (22)

Elizabeth managed, in a sense, to privatize her naval war against Spain by combining the twin incentives of plunder and royal favor. Royal favor could bring opportunities for plunder—command of a ship, army, or fleet, a government sinecure, or a position in Ireland-- and plunder itself could buy royal favor. After all, the Crown got a cut of every expedition’s profits, and the bigger the booty, the bigger her cut.

There was thus a very fine line between public service and private ambition, since the one could be the means to satisfying the other. This was by no means limited to the adventurers—even members of what passed for the regular civil service indulged in wanton corruption and considered it a prerequisite of the job. Competition for such gleanings of office was fierce, and spawned countless bitter rivalries that spilled over into national policy based on who was more popular at court at a given time—for example, stripping troops from Sir John Norreys’ army in Brittany and sending them to the Earl of Essex’s in Normandy (see below).

The remainder of the book consists primarily of potted histories of the various sea dogs’ adventures, ranging from bloody raids on all things Spanish to the more epic achievements—Drake’s three-year circumnavigation of the globe, Raleigh’s failed colonies at Roanoke, the Armada, and the like. Although most of them are interesting, particularly the less commonly-known ventures such as the “English Armada” of 1589, the sequential recounting of these leaves something to be desired, as after the fourth or fifth voyage to the Caribbean to plunder galleons, the narrative becomes rather repetitive.

For those with a view of early modern history that extends beyond PBS reruns, Elizabeth is not an easy monarch to like. Even by the admittedly low and Machiavellian standards of her time she was inconstant, capricious, paranoid, easily taken in by her favorites such as the Earl of Essex, vindictive, displayed an exasperating unwillingness to commit to anything that had the slightest risk to it, and had a favorite sport in bear-baiting. Her preferred method of raising money was to bypass Parliament whenever possible, by handing out land grants or monopolies on trade in certain goods to her favorites.

In short, she probably had more personality traits in common with her correspondent Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy than any of her other contemporaries. Granted, one can hardly blame her, given whose daughter she was (Henry VIII) and what her early life was like, with religious wars, interregnums, foreign intrigue, and the like. Miranda Richardson’s comically vicious portrayal of the monarch in a series of Blackadder is probably much closer to the mark than most people realize.

Ronald’s book does, however, help illustrate England’s position in the grand scheme of things. For all that Britannia ruled the waves (and much of the land bobbing amidst those waves) in later centuries, during the later 16th Century and most of the early 17th Century, the cluster of small kingdoms set on a clutch of islands in the North Atlantic comprised second or third-rate powers at best. Christendom as a whole was in turmoil, with religious wars wracking France and Germany, the Turk literally battering at the gates of Vienna, and the Catholic powers were lashing out on all sides. Great Britain was not an important theater, the egos of the English-speaking world notwithstanding. Even the Spanish Armada of 1588, probably one of the two defining events of the century for England and the English (the other being Henry VIII’s break with Rome) is generally misinterpreted. The purpose of the Enterprise against England was principally to stop the English from meddling in the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and her rebellious Dutch and Belgian subjects. By the time of the Armada battles in 1588, Elizabeth had been openly supplying troops to the Dutch for three years, and had been sending money for decades (Sir John Norreys had led an expedition of ‘volunteers’ to the Netherlands in 1577), and then had the effrontery to be upset when the Spanish launched an attack on her!

Now remember, the modern distinction between public and private business was still in its infancy in Elizabeth’s day. Her reign sat at the beginning of one of the great eras of disingenuousness in international politics, which lasted until the modern monarchical state was cemented into place during the early Enlightenment. Rulers could claim—sometimes even truthfully—that they couldn’t control their subjects, since the machinery of control was so primitive. It was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times for Elizabeth to turn her sea dogs loose on Spain’s lands and commerce, in exchange for a cut of the take, while heatedly denying to Philip II’s ambassadors that she had any part of the business. It’s entirely possible she did the same thing in her famous ‘Golden Speech’ of 1601, in which she professed she had no idea how badly her favorites were abusing the commercial monopolies she had granted them.

Other rulers did the same thing—allowing border populations or ambitious ‘private citizens’ to wage a private or proxy war on a kingdom’s behalf, without the kingdom itself becoming involved. The Ottoman dynasty allowed its frontier freebooters free rein, and so on. A century’s worth of English and Scottish monarchs let the Border Reivers raid, kill, and burn at will—the West Riding of Yorkshire, site of so many Bronte novels, was formerly a thinly-populated wasteland in which every house was of necessity a fortress. Charles II let the English buccaneers of the Caribbean do whatever they wanted, so long as he wasn’t actually allied to Spain at the time. The Cossacks of the Ukraine, in their century long barroom brawl across the steppe, fought first for the Poles against the Russians, and later vice versa, and warred the whole time against the Ottomans and the Crimean Tatars (or put another way, the Cossacks sat in the middle and fought all their neighbors in turn),

It may sound laughable to modern ears to hear of a monarch protesting that he can’t control his own subjects, but this is largely because people today expect governments to be able to control people. The machinery of social control was very primitive in the Sixteenth Century—with a government numbering at most a thousand clerks, justices of the peace, courtiers, and so on, the best that Henry VII and Henry VIII had been able to do to keep public order was to forbid the nobility from keeping private armies, and that mostly by threatening them with charges of treason and the prospect of the royal army coming down on their heads. Likewise, much of what made the Spanish Inquisition seem so horrible to contemporary eyes was how unprecedented it was—it may not seem like much compared to the legal machinery of the 21st century, but for its time it was a terrifying panopticon.

Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan Military World will be of less interest to the general reader, and will probably appeal more towards the historian (professional or amateur) or the military hobbyist, as it is one of the very few biographies of the Elizabethan fighting man. It is a fairly straightforward biography of one of Queen Elizabeth’s relatively small coterie of what might be termed professional soldiers, and one of the even smaller number of successful and competent ones.

Sir John Norreys was born in 1547 at Yattendon Castle in Berkshire, the son of gentry who were staunch partisans of Queen Elizabeth. His family’s connection to the Tudors was occasionally a little awkward, as his grandfather had been Anne Boleyn’s friend and possible lover, and had been executed for it.

Nolan’s account then follows Norreys’ life and career in a chronological sequence. Much of the narrative focuses on administrative matters—cities taken, raids made, skirmishes with the Spanish, Irish, or Catholic French. Nolan discusses Norreys’ problems with money, food, and logistics in such detail that these constant complaints become rather tiresome, but their discussion is important because they were a major feature of Norreys’ career.

The book opens like a novel, with the young John and his brother Henry as sideline observers of the 1567 Battle of St. Denis, a particularly bitter clash in the French Wars of Religion. Norreys then spent some months fighting as a gentleman volunteer in the Huguenot army, before seeking out opportunities in Ireland under his father’s command. In this capacity he was responsible for the notorious Rathlin Island massacre of 1575.

This abrupt change in styles of warfare—cavalry actions in France in 1571, brutal hack—and-stab raids in Ireland in 1573, siege warfare in the Low Countries in 1577, back to Ireland in 1584, the Low Countries again in 1585—were a good general introduction to extremely diverse styles of warfare, and probably a much broader education than most of his continental contemporaries got (aside from those who had fought the Turks).

Save for being a soldier rather than a sailor, Norreys is by background or lifestyle not out of place in the company of Drake, Frobisher, and the other Elizabethan adventurers as a combination swashbuckler and venture capitalist. “Black John” Norreys had a lifelong reputation as a hard man; both his superiors and his subordinates considered him to be stubborn, opinionated, and arrogant, and he was certainly prone to allowing or encouraging atrocities. Very unusually for men of his age and social station, Norreys never married. He was conspicuously religious, and was apparently a strict Protestant with, in Nolan’s evaluation, possible Calvinist leanings acquired during his time spent with the Huguenots and Dutch.

One of the more interesting aspects of Norreys’ career, to which Nolan devotes some well-deserved attention, is the Norreys family’s ‘affinity,’ or a loose association of family members, feudal retainers, employees, and other trusted comrades who worked together in various arenas over a period of decades. Norreys would use many of the same officers and petty-captains (the contemporary equivalent of the non-commissioned officer) in most of his campaigns, also endeavoring to keep a core of veteran common soldiers available. In some circumstances, such as the early 1590s, Norreys was desperate for the Queen to restore him to favor and give him a job so that he could keep his affinity together. Without the Exchequer footing the bill, Norreys’ affinity would have disintegrated as his followers and comrades had to move on to greener fields in order to keep body and soul and estate together.

The most important difference is that while the sea dogs represented Elizabeth’s successes, Norreys’ career is often a list of her failures. Norreys was perpetually starved of resources, harassed and micromanaged by the government in London, accused of peculation and embezzlement, and generally prevented from doing anything worthwhile on the Continent because the Crown so dreaded the possibility of defeat that it dared not take a chance on victory. After his successful assault on a fortress at Arnhem and the Battle of Aarschot in 1585 earned him a thinly-veiled rebuke from the Queen for taking what the Queen saw as too much of a gamble. Within months after this victory, however, Norreys’ little army of raw recruits had virtually disintegrated due to lack of food, pay, and the like.

Norreys was also the chap saddled with the miserable task of preparing a land defense against the Spanish Armada. This was Norreys’ apogee, as he was given command of the largest land army England had assembled since the 1540s, and the largest before the outbreak of the Civil War. Ultimately it was all for naught, as the Armada was defeated at sea, without any Spanish forces landing in England

For all the national trauma the 1588 invasion scare had brought, Elizabeth’s government was quick to revert to its old miserly and vacillating ways. While on campaign in Brittany, which was to prove a pointless exercise, Norreys and his men went for long periods without receiving food, pay, or even ammunition, and had to resort to living off the land like their ancestors did during the Hundred Years’ War. At the same time, Lord Burghley’s government and the Queen herself spared no effort in sending a tide of nagging ‘suggestions’ to Norreys.

In the years after the Armada crisis, this miserly and crippling attitude towards the Queen’s wars was exacerbated by Lord Burghley, who succeeded Norreys’ erstwhile patron Lord Walsingham as the Queen’s Principal Secretary in 1590. Largely as a result of the shocking expense incurred by the Armada crisis, Burghley rather foolishly attempted to run the war against Spain on a strictly limited budget. The result was that if the bills came to more than Burghley wanted to spend, he simply let them go into arrears, sometimes for years and sometimes ad infinitum. Several once-promising campaigns in Brittany, the Low Countries, and Normandy thus quickly ground to a halt for lack of money and supplies, and Norreys’ older brother Henry was warned during Henry’s defense of Ostend, that excessive spending on fortifications would come out of his paycheck.

Between the two of them, these books give the reader a decent inside look into the Elizabethan world, government, and military. I’m going to go watch The Young Ones now.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thinking about the election.....

I am thoroughly sick of the election coverage right now. This has been going on since November 2008. Sarah Palin is suffering from overexposure (and not just the Alaskan weather kind) and I can't keep track anymore of which vitriolic right-wing candidate's followers have arrested or beaten up people who disagree with the candidate. Joe Miller, Rand Paul, they all run together after a while. Personally, I think private retinues of political thugs is a rather ominous phenomenon. Alas, I'm not talking about Roderick Spode again.

The Tea Party is a formidable opponent, far more ferocious than the old-line institutional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They have a broad appeal to the people who feel they've been given short shrift by the system. Most of them are, however, probably mad at the government for what was actually done to them by their health insurance companies, employers, or banks, or the general and continuous slide in real wages since the 1970s, rather than the government.... but it is hard to get that point across. In any case, they're mad as hell and are lashing out at the most visible and vulnerable target. After all, you can't vote out the head of your HMO after your benefits have been slashed.

In that respect, they're not that different in motivation than the progressives who voted the Democrats into control of Congress in 2008, and into the White House in 2008. Some of them are probably even the same people.

Still, when the Tea Party puts the Republicans back in charge of the House, it won't be the hellraisers who get the prominent seats and the most power. We'll be back to guys like McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, et al., most of whom have been in DC for ages. Even if Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, or any of the other current crop of Tea Party heart-throbs get elected, they'll be reduced to cogs in a machine controlled by older men with very different priorities, including an affinity for corporate economics and an ill-concealed disdain for the people and populism, even as manifested in the Tea Party. There is seldom any gratitude in politics.

Thus the irony.

It also says a great deal about the respective priorities of the Obama White House and the Republican machine that while the White House has imposed strict new disclosure and access requirements for lobbyists and has fought for campaign finance reform, the Republican candidates in this year's election benefit from the Citizens United windfall, which opened the gates to a flood of unregulated cash from anonymous donors. The Republicans are outspending Democrats seven to one on media advertisements, and it hasn't escaped public notice that multimillionaires in New York are meddling in congressional elections in Oregon by essentially laundering money through a 527.

For all that President Obama and his supporters have accomplished in the last year and a half-- and the list is really impressive, to those who bother to read it-- it was unlikely the Democrats would retain even their nominal control of Congress after the midterms.

That the Democrats managed to accomplish what they did in the face of such entrenched, well-coordinated, and well-funded opposition is extremely impressive.

I call it a nominal control because of two things. The Republicans managed to get a great deal of mileage out of simply saying 'no' and filibustering at every opportunity, and because the Democratic majority was a paper tiger that depended too heavily on Blue Dogs, many of whom are 'conservatives in the wrong party,' so to speak-- leftovers from before Goldwater and Nixon turned the Republican party into what it is now. Once you stop counting the Blue Dogs as Democrats (which Reid and Pelosi might well have done, since they couldn't count on Blue Dog support without heaps of pork), the Democrats didn't have any kind of a majority at all.

Most importantly, the expectation that the Democrats will take losses in the 2010 election isn't sour grapes or pessimism, it's based in historical reality.

Incumbent parties almost always take a brutal walloping in the midterm after a new president is elected. The most recent such midterm, in 2002, was an anomaly, largely because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even in midterms in general, every midterm election for the last 70 years has resulted in the President's party losing seats in Congress, with exactly three exceptions-- 1934, 1998, and 2002.

I must admit, though, that the Democrats are actually doing better than I expected.

What I find exasperating, however, is how many Democratic candidates like Chet Edwards, Jason Altmire, and Joe Manchin have essentially given in to the right wing's demonization of the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and (perhaps most of all) Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most of these guys are essentially Blue Dogs anyways, and fighting for their lives against Republicans, but it is infuriating nonetheless.

The Republicans, for their part, generally wasted no time in running away from George W. Bush after 2006. I'm sure the world still wonders why.

I think part of the problem is that the public is just grossly misinformed about the issues.

TARP didn't start under Obama, it started under Bush.

So did the auto industry bailout.

The deregulation that allowed the crash of 2008 also happened under Bush, but Obama did something about that.

Most of 'Obamacare' consisted of strictures binding on health insurers, not the consumer, and were certainly more to the benefit of the consumer than the Republican bill of 2005, which forbade Medicare from negotiating pharmaceutical prices and gave Big Pharma the right to charge whatever it wanted.

The Obama administration actually CUT taxes for most people, which begs the question of exactly what reality most of the Tea Party howlers live in.

I'd particularly like to know how many people in the US actually understand what socialism is and how it works, as opposed to just parroting right-wing talking points.

In general, the election coverage as a whole increasingly begs the question of whether a non-conservative administration, candidate, or party can expect a fair shake from an increasingly partisan news media. Jon Stewart really IS the hardest-hitting journalist in the media, and I'm appalled by that fact too.

By partisan, of course, I certainly do not mean the mythical "liberal media." I point as an example, rather, to the network whose owner has donated millions of dollars to Republican party organs, and whose primary media outlet once used as a defense in court the argument that the media has no obligation to tell the truth.

The result ultimately remains to be seen......

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glenn Beck, America's Own Roderick Spode

My last post, Glenn Beck, The World’s Greatest Authority on Slavery, included the phrase “America’s own Roderick Spode.” I cross-posted the blog on the Daily Kos, and one Mr. Dbug enjoyed it immensely.

The more I think about the comparison, the more apt and amusing it seems, so I thought I should delve into it some more.

This is Roderick Spode, as played by John Turner in an episode of the Jeeves and Wooster television series produced during the 1990s. Most Americans will probably not know who Spode is, save for those of us who enjoy British humor.

Roderick Spode is a recurring character in P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” novels. Spode, usually portrayed as a nemesis of Jeeves’ master Bertie Wooster, is an overbearing presence, described as looking “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” In his spare time, Spode is an "amateur Dictator" and the leader of his own fascist movement, dubbed The Black Shorts. Spode is typically encountered as he stomps around the countryside, delivering passionate speeches at rallies (click to see Spode at full tilt) or marches consisting of a few dozen Black Shorts, while he poses and preens as if he was watching thousands go by.

Although an aristocrat—a baronet, and the 7th Earl of Sidcup-- and a wealthy man, Spode is a populist who believes that national industrial capacity, national prosperity and national unity are correlated, promising that “at birth, every citizen, as of right, will be issued with a British bicycle and an honest British-made umbrella. Thus assured of a mobile workforce adequately protected against the elements, this great country can go forward once more to glory!”

If Wodehouse’s satiric pen is laid aside for the moment, much of Spode’s ideology consists of a marriage of scientific rationalism (the idée du jour) to appeals to historic British nationalism, particularly the ideal of the “free-born Englishman.” Though in reality largely mythical, the idea was real enough in the heads of generation after generation of nostalgic working-class Britons as they sought a decent condition for themselves in the socioeconomic hammermill of the Industrial Revolution.

For all his buffoonery, Spode is unalterably convinced that he is right and bound only for success, and takes every opportunity to press his views on the idle landed gentry who are Bertie’s social circle. As Spode himself put it, “Nothing stands between us and our victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!”

Like Beck, Spode had many strange fixations—his political platform included dedicating Wales entirely to the production of turnips; a ban on the import of foreign root vegetables; the mandatory eating of asparagus; widening railroads to allow for the transport of livestock; and the scientific measurement of all British male knees (a riff on the contemporary eugenics movement). Spode enthused at length on the knee issue in The Code of the Woosters, declaiming: “Not for the true-born Englishman the bony angular knee of the so-called intellectual, not for him the puffy knee of the criminal classes. The British knee is firm, the British knee is muscular, the British knee is on the march!” Spode is glib when it comes to defending his bizarre positions, with blandishments such as “I can assure you, it has all been worked out scientifically ...”

One of the easygoing Bertie Wooster’s few truly fiery moments was when he upbraided the overbearing Spode in The Code of the Woosters, written in 1938.

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

—P. G. Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster in The Code of the Woosters (1938)

Granted, Bertie had an ace up his sleeve, courtesy of his valet Jeeves, concerning Spode’s own dark secret—that Spode’s other enterprise is a very successful ladies’ undergarment store. As Bertie later put it, "You can't be a successful dictator and design women's or the other, not both..."

Spode was a cutting parody of the UK’s real would-be fascist of the 1930s, the pompous but deadly serious Sir Oswald Mosley, the aristocratic leader of the British Union of Fascists, as well as other fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and the like. Most of Mosley’s BUF was consciously based on Mussolini’s Brown Shirts and similar fascist groups in other countries, and his Black Shirt paramilitary organization were a rising and ominous force in British politics during the 1930s, until their defeat in an East London street brawl known as the Battle of Cable Street brought about the Public Order Act of 1936, forbidding political uniforms and private paramilitary associations in the UK. Mosley and the BUF championed British isolationism both before and after the outbreak of the Second World War. Mosley himself was attacked by a mob after the German invasion of Norway, following which he was interned as a potential spy or traitor, and kept under arrest for the remainder of the war. Ironically, after the war he changed his politics dramatically and launched a new, non-fascist organization, the Union Movement, whose goal was a unified Europe. Mosley continued as a perennial fringe candidate in British politics until 1977.

If you haven’t seen the Jeeves and Wooster series, incidentally you are seriously deprived—Hugh Laurie stars as Bertie Wooster, a well-meaning wastrel aristocrat, and the incredible Stephen Fry stars as Jeeves, valet to the gods. Hilarity ensues.

This is Glenn Beck. Most Americans will know who he is, mostly because he’s managed to attract a great deal of attention to his on-air and on-screen antics, as well as his recent rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

[I assure you, I had nothing to do with the coincidence in their poses and uniforms. All right, so I did, but it was only because the resemblance is what put the Beck = Spode thing in my head in the first place.]

Glenn Beck is a prominent conservative talk-radio personality, television presenter, and political activist, strongly allied with the more radical elements of the Republican party and other conservative organizations. He was born in 1964 and grew up in Washington State, having been raised Catholic. Catholicism notwithstanding, his parents divorced when he was 13, due to his mother’s alcoholism. Rather than attending college, Beck got married, worked a series of low-paying jobs at radio stations and “getting high every day” for fifteen years. After joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1994, he remarried and converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. From the late 1970s until 1999, Beck was a low-grade comedian and prankster, one step up from Jackass or Punkd.

Mr. Beck is frequently lampooned for his frantic blackboard diagramming and over-emotional delivery, including his famous March 13, 2009 ‘breakdown’ when he broke out in tears and theatrically sobbed, "I'm sorry, I just love my country and I fear for it." Jon Stewart of the Daily Show parodies Beck’s style here. The weeping was eventually revealed to be a not-even-very-clever stage trick, done by smearing Vick’s Vapo-Rub on his face to make his eyes water. Beck marries the fervor of the convert and true believer to the cynical charlatanry of the carnival huckster.

Beck is also frequently criticized by economists, scientists, historians, and other experts for gross errors of fact and repeated clumsy attempts to rewrite the republic’s history to fit his political views. These have included Beck’s supporting the patently false claim that Thomas Jefferson endorsed the idea of the US as a Christian republic, based on the evidence of his having signed shipping permits dated with the phrase “In the year of our lord, Christ.” As Chris Rodda promptly and succinctly pointed out, however, the documents in question were pre-printed forms prepared by the Dutch government, which was not separate from the Dutch Reformed Church, rather than the US government.

Beck’s standard approach to virtually any topic is to take any issue, whether a thing he favors or a straw-man iteration of something he opposes, and weaving around it a tangle of saccharine uber-patriotism, Leave-It-To-Beaver family values, and New World Order conspiracy theory, in which the latter imperils the former. He describes the federal government and the progressive movement as an enormous conspiracy dedicated to the repression of individual rights and the American way of life, staging a coup (referring to the 2008 presidential election, in which conservatives were sharply defeated) or ‘soft revolution,’ and amassing an army. He is essentially taking a large page out of Joe McCarthy’s “creeping communists” playbook and adding to it the ‘black helicopter’ antigovernment paranoia of the militia movement of the 1990s. He further accuses the left wing of preparing for mass violence. There is a black sort of irony in how much of Beck’s own fearmongering consists of allegations that the federal government is using fear tactics to further the progressive agenda. He has yet, to my knowledge, to comment on the Bush administration’s chronic and Machiavellian abuse of the Homeland Security “terror alert system” for political ends, including raising the warning level around election time or when the administration was having PR difficulties on other fronts.

In effect, he is working off the old ‘rights of the freeborn American’ idiom that has been kicked around the political sphere for two centuries, starting with a mythical golden age in which a Christian republic of happy freeholders basked in the glow of the free market, ruled over lightly by a limited federal government. What brought an end to these good old days—not that they ever actually existed—was supposedly creeping increases in government power, heavier taxes, and the evolution of the modern federal government from it’s 18th-century form, in a supposedly slow but steady march of big-government liberalism. This false continuity makes sense to people who only see history in black and white, but doesn’t even attempt to account for issues such as the legal status of slavery (more precisely, how could an ideal society embrace slavery as a fact of cold economics), the Industrial Revolution, evolutions in finance, the klepto-capitalist government from 1870 until 1930, and so on. It makes for a depressing story, a legacy of decline and defeat to rival that of Tolkien’s Sons of Feanor in the Silmarillion, or the humiliations of Israel in the Old Testament, but there always lingers the promise of eventual revenge and redemption.

As for Beck’s own particular interpretation of the ‘freeborn American’ idiom, religious scholar Joanna Brooks suspects that much of Beck’s almost religious reverence for the Founding Fathers and their era is an outgrowth of his newfound Mormon faith, where in her words, “reverence for the founders and the United States Constitution as divinely inspired are often-declared elements of orthodox belief.” At least one Mormon President claimed to have experienced divine visions including the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Beck quite obviously doesn’t know his history very well—in fact, one of the major sources of his gratuitous factual errors is his partnership with David Barton, a controversial pseudo-historian, evangelical preacher, Republican political consultant, and textbook consultant to both the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Texas State Board of Education. Mr. Barton is an ardent advocate of Biblical government of the United States, to the extent of excluding non-Christians from public office, and argues that the traditional “separation of church and state” aspired to in the US is a myth built from false pretenses. The latter assertion was, unfortunately, included in a core textbook provided to JROTC students.

Mr. Beck is also conspicuous for embracing antigovernment conspiracy theories of the sort beloved by the 1990s “tin-foil hat” sector. In addition to alleging that the federal government is out to get him, personally, Mr. Beck has repeatedly insisted that that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running concentration camps in the continental united states (even after he was thoroughly spindled by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman on the subject). Beck subsequently denied ever having mentioned FEMA, even though he was videotaped talking about the concentration camp issue on an episode of Fox & Friends.

In some ways, Beck also mirrors Stephen Colbert’s character on the Colbert Report, which presents the odd situation of Beck, a real person, being more off-the-wall than Colbert’s stage character pretends to be.

The significant difference is that while the worst damage Colbert has done is to conservatives who took too long to realize he was parodying them, not joining them, Beck has inspired people with short tempers and poor judgment to commit violent acts. As one example, an avowed Beck fan, Byron Williams of Oakland, California, in July 2010 engaged the California Highway Patrol in a gun battle in which two police officers were seriously injured. As it turned out, Beck had spent much of the previous several weeks ranting about the Tides Foundation, a harmless social justice nonprofit, and casting it as the nexus of a vast conspiracy of Beck’s enemies. Mr. Williams explained that listening to Beck had enraged him to the extent that he was attempting to start a revolution, and that the ACLU and the Tides Foundation were his targets.

As usual, Beck reacts to such criticism with his usual gormless and glib “who, me?” defense, and then goes right back to waving the same red flag in front of the bull. Despite the overtly political and heavily partisan nature of his programming, Beck has disingenuously claimed that his business is entertainment rather than the news, in an attempt to disassociate from the actions he quite plainly inspired. The extent to which Beck is responsible for their actions despite his own thinly-veiled advocacy of violence is starting to look like an increasingly valid legal question.

So to sum up, Beck and Spode have the following in common:

• A belief that modern society is sick and weak, and in need of rescue.
• Some really bizarre ideas about the proper order of human society, be they the proper agricultural economy of Wales or the role of the federal government in economics and religion.
• A belief that strongmen and motivated followers can effect change.
• Unabashed contempt for anyone who disagrees with them (c.f the title on the book cover above).
• Histrionic public speaking, and gross delusions of how many people are actually in the audience.
• A propensity to erratic behavior, and sweating.
• Outspoken interests in maintaining law and order, even though they also propose overthrowing or replacing the established order.
• A few embarrassing secrets. Please not that I am not equating being a Mormon with being a lingerie merchant, but it is quite likely that his following among evangelical Christians would shrink if his “heretical” Mormon religion were more widely known.
• A sense of messianic destiny, whether for themselves or for their movement.
• Horrible dress sense.

If there is one way in which Spode thoroughly outshines Beck, it is in having at least some intellectual respect for his audience. While Spode lays out his “worked out scientifically” platitudes, Beck reacts with a nauseatingly glib “who, me?” when called on the carpet, even when he’s not flatly denying that he said what he is caught on video as having said. Beck, it seems, simply doesn’t think his audience is smart enough to pick up flat-out lies and contradictions.

I can therefore assure you that it has all been scientifically worked out—that Glenn Beck is the United States’ own Roderick Spode. As with most American things appear when compared to their British counterparts, they are bigger, richer, louder, and cruder.

What makes the odious Spode more tolerable than the odious Beck, of course, is that the former is a fictional character, while Mr. Beck exists in this universe, which means we are unfortunately stuck with him. To be more precise, Mr. Beck’s corporeal form exists in this universe, but quite where his strange little mind is at any given time is…well, that is a damn good question, but it’s almost certainly not the same reality in which we live.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jah Wobble's "Memoirs of a Geezer" (book review)

Jah Wobble, one of the most amazing musicians to come out of the United Kingdom in the last thirty years, has recently had his autobiography released in the United States. I managed to get a copy, found it was “a cracking good read” as they said in a bygone era, and decided to post this review in an attempt to get more people to read it, not least because I think many of you would enjoy his music if you heard it.

To give you a brief synopsis of Jah Wobble’s life, John Wardle was born in the grim postwar environment of Stepney, East London in the year 1958. He grew up in a working-class family and was working irregularly as a laborer until music and luck changed his life. He was a friend of two members of the Sex Pistols when the punk rock fad broke in 1977, and in fact his “Jah Wobble” nickname was given him by John Simon Ritchie, generally known as Sid Vicious, as a drunken mangling of “John Wardle.”

In 1979, having played bass for maybe a month, his childhood friend, drinking buddy, and fellow troublemaker John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon recruited Wobble into his new post-Sex Pistols art-rock band, Public Image Ltd., the infamous “PiL.” From PiL’s first record, Metal Box, and Wobble’s subsequent departure, it was a short step to making a record with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit of the German band Can, playing on reggae songs, and cranking out a series of increasingly jaw-dropping solo albums.

All told, Wobble went from being a non-player to a name-dropped pro in virtually no time at all, and by the mid-1980s, had produced twelve records in eight years. Then, burned out on the financial chicanery of the music business, with a wife and daughter to support, and increasingly befuddled by drug and alcohol problems, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got a day job. For most musicians, that’s where the music ends—they get “real jobs,” write off their chances of ever doing a world tour, and leave the stage and studio behind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once pontificated that “There are no second acts in American lives. Wobble’s a Brit, so he’s allowed a second act if he wants one.

The first thing Wobble did after turning his back on the music industry was to sell his bass and put the money through his wife's mail-slot while he went off to get sober. The second thing he did was get a job. His ‘straight jobs’ lasted several years and included stints as a truck driver, warehouse manager (fired for punching out the owner’s obnoxious son), and a term on the London Underground which has attained near-legendary status. He worked day shifts and night shifts and played in bands with friends in his off-time.

In 1988, a sober and divorced Wobble fought his way back into the music business on a full-time basis with Without Judgment, a powerful live album mostly recorded on his vacation time from the London Underground. With a lot of work and a lot of luck, he embarked on what was almost an entirely new career at the head of the globe-trotting Invaders of the Heart, the ensemble he would captain for about eight years.

Following that, he started his own record label 30 Hertz Records, released two albums of poetry set to music (The Inspiration of William Blake and The Celtic Poets, both of which I consider essential listening), a requiem mass, a string quartet, collaborations with Laotian and Chinese musicians, remarried, released at least one album per year for fifteen years, had two sons. In 1999 sadly, the Wardle family was eventually forced to move out of his beloved East London, squeezed out between gentrification driven by New Labor and the ethnic ghettos. In 2010, now based in the north of England, Jah Wobble is still at the top of his game and hunting down new challenges with the intensity of Blake’s burning-eyed tiger of the night.

Where Memoirs Of A Geezer is a world-beater is that the geezer himself gives you a fearless moral inventory (to use his own phrase), well-laced with sarcasm and dry wit, of who he is, where he comes from, and all the wheres, whos, and whyfores of his life.

Some of the story is not what one would expect. Wobble is, if nothing else, a man who keeps himself in tune with his surroundings, and he writes extensively about the context in which he moves. The first third of the book includes a detailed discussion of Wobble’s family, the harsh life of postwar Britain (wartime food rationing only ended in the UK in 1954), how Blitz-ruins still littered the city blocks, his struggles in a Catholic school where corporal punishment was more common than pencils, the punks-vs.-teddy boys brawls, police corruption and abuse, and the generally miserable life of working-class youth. The later chapters include a scrutiny of the economic and cultural changes in his beloved East London borough, including the influx of Bangladeshis, violent Islam, the crack epidemic that began in 1992, and so on. This is the sort of detail that doesn’t make it into most books about musicians.

It’s just plain fun to read, in a way that doesn’t depend on the reader admiring the subject. You can easily imagine being parked next to Wobble in a pub somewhere, as he tosses out aphorisms, jokes, bits of pub-booth philosophy, musings about music, and stories from his past over a cup of tea (having been sober for a quarter century).

There are a few self-deprecating tales of the sort of chemically-induced excess that fuel the music industry, it is true, but Wobble puts it into a new light. As he tells it, he grew up in a working-class, East London environment where everyone drank from an early age (his Christmas encounter with a bottle of chartreuse at the age of thirteen is amusing, but rather ominous), and where people split their home lives between their flats and their pub.

Wobble is certainly a man of strongly-held opinions, and not above making a stand on principle. As with most Britons, race mattered less than class or economic standing. He didn’t like Thatcherism and its callous disdain for the working classes, or New Labor and it’s oily institutionalized greed, and he certainly doesn’t much like most “toffs” or “public-school boys,” whether politicians or Peter Gabriel, which is understandable since most of the grief in Wobble’s life, came directly or indirectly at the hands of the Old Etonian clique who dominate the UK’s leadership. He finds race and racism depressing. It must have come as quite a shock to the man who once berated white skinheads for their “Paki-bashing” to himself be assaulted and hospitalized by a mob of Bangladeshis in his own old neighborhood of Tower Hamlets twenty years later.

It is particularly refreshing to have a book written by the author as an honest and unpretentious autobiography, without heavy-handed ghost-writing or the elaborate reworking a PR machine. Wobble is perfectly capable of writing on his own—he has written book reviews for the UK’s Independent newspaper for many years, and has a BA in Humanities from Birckbeck College—and this book certainly reads like it was written by the geezer himself.

If the book has a central theme, it is “I am a geezer (a regular guy) and I come from somewhere.”

I would like to close with an observation. Wobble claims to have introduced a young Sting to reggae music in the late 70s, while working as a roadie for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, with whom the Police were touring. Their paths then diverged; Sting earned millions of dollars and global name recognition, and has sold millions of records since. Wobble, admittedly, made a living but didn’t do as well. The difference is that Sting has to play “Roxanne” every night, else the promoters or the audience will shoot him, while Wobble hasn’t had to play a song off of Metal Box in three decades.

That is a kind of freedom that most musicians would deeply appreciate.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Glenn Beck, The World's Greatest Authority on Slavery

I saw a clip on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown program last night that made me want to bang my head on the table, even though my head already hurt.

He played a clip of Glenn Beck, America’s own Roderick Spode, discussing slavery. I reproduce Beck’s monologue below under the Fair Use doctrine:

The President is exactly right when he said ’slaves sitting around the campfire didn’t know when slavery was going to end, but they knew that it would. And it took a long time to end slavery.’ yes it did. But it also took a long time to start slavery.

And it started small, and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here, and a court order there and a little regulation here and a little more regulation there. And before we knew it, America had slavery.

It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with, as an evil slave trade. The government began to regulate things because the people needed answers and needed solutions. It started in a court room then it went to the legislatures. That’s how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people, and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another, less than them. But it can be done.

I would ask you to decide, are we freeing slaves? Or are we creating slaves? That’s a question that must be answered.

Now I know from having heard Beck’s monologues, rants, sermons, and Jimmy Swaggart-style tearful breakdowns that he really just doesn’t know much about history. He’s demonstrated his remarkable gullibility and willingness to make stuff up more times than I can count. Case in point, his disingenuous claim that Thomas Jefferson intended the US to be run on Christian principles by citing one-countem-one example of a document dated "in the year of our Lord Christ.” Never mind that this document was a pre-printed form issued by the Dutch government, not the United States, and which Jefferson merely filled in.

As a side note, one would think that a nation run with Biblical law and Protestant customs well in mind would have had a rather more ‘old-fashioned’ take on one Joseph Smith, founder of Beck’s own Mormon religion. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in the sense of John Calvin’s regime in Geneva, under whose authority the philosopher and astronomer Michael Servetus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1553.

Still, this comment about slavery really pushes the envelope—but then again, when you’re in the middle of a midterm election season that many conservatives see as a war for the preservation of civilization, and if you want to keep your audience well-fed on populist bile, and if you’re really just not that bright to begin with, you have to be able to take any topic and relate it back to conservative talking points. It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with history, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, you name it.

In typical Beck fashion, he manages to avoid any specifics—he speaks of court orders and the like. What court orders? Without data, it’s just hot air from another right-wing blowhard. Then again, most if not all of what Beck says, week in and week out, probably can’t survive facts.

The fact is, slavery is a result of the free market. More precisely, it is the product of what we today would consider to be a part of the free market, since the concept of the free market didn’t really exist in the modern sense in the early 17th Century.

Many of the colonies that later became the United States were the result of land grants by European governments, made to aristocrats, speculators, and other parties (what we might term venture capitalists), by which the rulers hoped to turn a profit from all this trackless wilderness. William Penn, for example, was given what is now Pennsylvania (and much else besides) as repayment of a 16,000-pound debt floated to Charles II, the perpetually profligate king of England. Never mind that Penn didn’t want land, he wanted cash, and had no idea at first what to do with the land.

The point was simple—give someone land, charge him with the responsibility for populating it and making it productive, and then get some tax revenue out of it. Welcome to capitalism, even when it was cameralism or mercantilism.

Most of the Hudson River valley in New York State, for example, was originally settled under the Dutch government of New Amsterdam, and was divided into vast ‘patroonships,’ where absentee landlords rented land out to tenant farmers on terms only slightly better than serfdom (for example, the tenants could only bring complaints against landlords in the courts run by the landlords). Many of these quasi-feudal landlords’ rights lingered on well after the American Revolution, until the Anti-Rent movement of the 1840s. Some of these estates were immense almost beyond belief—the “Manor of Rensselaerswyck” covered almost all of present-day Albany and Rensselaer counties and parts of present-day Columbia and Greene counties.

Good arable land was perhaps cheaper than at any time in history; Charles II, James II, William III, Anne, and George I all handed out vast tracts without a second thought, and often without even knowing where the borders were. Many of the colonies were originally chartered to extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In some areas, such as New England, land could be had in freehold simply by building a house on it and filling out the appropriate paperwork, provided you had all the livestock, tools, seed, and other necessities for making a go of farming. One bad crop, though, and you would probably have to sell your land and continue as a tenant or hired hand.

The major problem was labor. Colonial America was chronically short of manpower, since most of the potentially valuable land was trackless wilderness inhabited only by Native Americans. Whether you are growing sugar cane or tobacco, or growing foodstuffs rather than cash crops, you need people to do the work and extract the valuable stuff from the land. Without workers, land was worthless, and each worker represented an investment. This was a time period when “human resources” would have meant something rather different to what it means now.

Workers—slaves, freeholders, hired hands, or indentured servants—were industrial capital, the equivalent of manufacturing equipment or the tractors and combine harvesters on an agribusiness facility (after all, a 16,000-acre tract of land, staffed by 150 people from veterinarians to mechanics, with an operating budget in the millions of dollars and owned by a Delaware corporation can hardly be called a farm without laughing).

As bad as things were in Europe for many in the lower social classes, in the absence of a motivator like ready plunder (the Spanish colonies) or religious fervor (the Pilgrims) it is a tough prospect to encourage hundreds of people to pack up and move to a wilderness on the other side of the planet, likely never to see home again. It’s also expensive to ship them and all the necessary equipment across the Atlantic, so establishing a colony was a major undertaking, usually underwritten by stocks or bonds sold in London or Amsterdam.

Indentured servants were an attempt to recruit manpower for the nascent agribusinesses of the New World, and something over half of the immigrants to the English New World between 1650 and 1750 were indentured servants. In theory, a plucky young volunteer from Dorset or Lincolnshire would sign up, sail across the sea, work on a plantation for some years in order to pay off the cost of his trip, and muster out with enough savings to set up on his own freehold. Unfortunately, the prospect of selling oneself into a life of unremitting toil to pay off your sea passage’s cost never recruited as many willing hands as the venture capitalists of the 17th and 18th Centuries had hoped, and certainly nowhere near enough to keep up with the demand for tobacco, the fortune-making boom product of the English New World’s agribusiness.

A finite supply of labor meant that the supply of commodities was limited—if you have X field hands, you can only grow Y tobacco—which thus limited the amount of tobacco you could sell and the amount of money you could make. Expanding production meant expanding the labor force.

Slave labor had been an option in the New World for centuries—the Spanish and Portuguese dominions had been shipping Africans to the Caribbean since the early 16th Century, within decades of Columbus’ first voyage. British and French colonies in the Caribbean had followed suit in the late 17th Century, when establishing sugar plantations on islands such as Jamaica, which was essentially one immense sugar plantation by 1700. The first slaves to be shipped to Virginia arrived in 1619, the year before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The London business community had been waist-deep in the slave trade since the 1570s, but by 1700 the London Exchange saw sufficient potential revenue in a monopoly of the slave trade that gaining control over the asiento, or the official contract to supply slave labor to the Spanish New World, became a major policy goal of the English government. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (known in most of the English-speaking world at the time, and to two centuries worth of beleaguered high school students, as Queen Anne’s War) granted the asiento to the United Kingdom, who promptly turned it over to the South Sea Company, a London-based corporation, most of whose stockholders and directors were members of Parliament or otherwise creatures of the British establishment.

This accomplishment was actually one of the biggest and most remarkable financial shenanigans in history The British government (no longer English, the Act of Union with Scotland having been passed in 1707) took advantage of the historically fuzzy line between the British government and the financial community to create the South Sea Company in 1711, as part of an elaborate scheme to bankroll the national debt and keep the nearly bankrupt government afloat during wartime. The Lord Treasurer Robert Harley and a number of other government officials, acting in what was officially their private capacities as businessmen in the London Exchange, chartered the company, sold stock, and used the proceeds to buy up 11.7 million pounds sterling worth of the government’s debts, keeping the government solvent for the last several years of the war. Once the war was won and Spain signed over the Asiento to the government, the government promptly signed the Asiento over to the South Sea Company. The effect is similar to, say, the US Secretary of the Treasury or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve conniving with Wall Street to buy up federal bonds during the occupation of Iraq and receiving in exchange a monopoly on the Iraqi oil industry.

Starting in 1714, cheap slaves became readily available in the English New World in unprecedented numbers—an estimated 645,000 people over a century’s time. While slaves were present in all of the English colonies, their greatest impact was the southern colonies, where they flooded the labor market and contributed to the rapid increase of the plantation system, which grew as fast as slaves could be shipped and land could be cleared. Plantations sprouted like toadstools between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains before the American Revolution, and spread to the Mississippi and beyond in the half-century after independence, all built overwhelmingly by slave labor, and at tremendous profit.

Slavery meant not just cheap and readily available labor, but labor that was more easily controlled than a group of indentured servants who remembered what life was like in Dorset or Lincolnshire, and who insisted on having personal freedoms and legal rights. Indentured servants, after all, had a notorious habit of pulling up stakes and moving out to the fringe of settlement to start out on their own, understood the concept of a legal contract, and could only be pushed so far.

A slave could be fed the worst food capable of sustaining life, could be beaten nearly to death as punishment, or sold on a whim—in other words, slaves could be subjected to the sort of treatment that no European would put up with. As a simple contrast, the Rensselaers of the Hudson Valley depended on private courts and legal arm-twisting to control their tenants, while slaves in the Carolinas or Virginia could simply be beaten or tortured, or (more rarely) hanged as an example. Hanging slaves in other than extreme circumstances was generally seen as wasteful, akin to shooting a valuable and healthy horse, which is why punishment usually stopped short of death or crippling injury.

By introducing chattel slavery into the economy, the slaveholders created a permanent underclass of biped humanoid who was in many respects outside the definition of ‘human being,’ a legal distinction supported by theological and philosophical sophistry (c.f. the Aristotelian hair-splitting of the Valladolid Controversy), embraced by the financial world because it was useful. Slaves were property except when it suited their masters to claim them as human beings. For example, witness the Three-Fifths Compromise in the United States Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for electoral purposes, thus granting the southern states an artificially inflated congressional delegation, which was dominated by the slave-owning interests until the Civil War.

Slavery, which was never as prominent in the colonies north of Virginia, died out in the northern colonies shortly after the American Revolution. Even where it wasn’t abolished by popular vote, it faded into extinction because it wasn’t economically viable in a region unsuitable to cash-crop monoculture, and where the main economic sectors were logging, shipping, quarrying, fishing and whaling, and manufactures, which were unsuitable for slave labor.

At the other end of the seaboard, however, the southern ‘plantocracy’ had a good racket going and knew it—with a permanent, cheap (slaves cost money, but did not have to be paid) and tightly-controlled labor force and a near monopoly on several sought-after commodities, such as tobacco, indigo, and of course cotton, they buttressed their financial interests with an enormous legal and regulatory infrastructure dedicated to keeping slaves in their place (literally). State and federal laws were rammed through by slaveowner-dominated legislatures, ultimately culminating in the odious Dred Scott decision, arguably the nadir of American jurisprudence.

In other words, the plantocracy used the ‘freedoms’ won in the Revolution to keep another class of people in chattel slavery, essentially using government to support and maintain their economic arrangements.

The worse part is that the United States was one of the last countries in what 19th-Century Europeans would have considered the ‘civilized’ world to abolish slavery, and the second to last in the Western Hemisphere. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in all Britain’s colonies and possessions in 1807, and abolished slavery itself in 1833. France abolished slavery in 1848. The former Spanish colonies abolished the practice during their wars of independence from Spain. Tsar Alexander II freed the Russian peasantry from serfdom in 1861. Brazil held out until 1888.

Mr. Beck, all of this sounds a lot like series of calculated policy decisions made by educated businessmen who had their eyes firmly on the bottom line, and who knew full well what they were doing and why. How exactly is this not evil?

What regulations are we talking about? The colonists and the Old World didn’t ship free Africans here only to enslave them later. They were slaves when they got on the boat in Africa. They were slaves when they got off the boat in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, or Portsmouth, and they were slaves when white colonists bought them for a labor force. That sounds evil from the get-go.

Slavery was the answer to a labor shortage experienced by colonial agribusiness. That’s an answer. That might not be the answer Glenn Beck likes, but at least it has the benefit of being a documentable truth.

The long and short of it, Mr. Beck, is that the analogues of the free market and capitalism from three centuries ago are what brought slavery to North America in the first place, not your boogeyman of government regulation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Offshore Drilling a Legitimate Enterprise?

Offshore oil drilling has, in the last two years, attracted more attention from the general United States public than it has had at any point in its history. Even before the April 20, 2010 disaster that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drill rig and unleashed a torrent of crude oil into the waters and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling had developed into a significant battleground issue with economic, cultural, and political dimension.

Depending on one’s point of view, offshore drilling is a necessary evil, a legitimate exploitation of natural resources, a second-best option forced on the oil and gas industry by excessive regulation of possible onshore oilfields, or a dangerous process justified only by profit and the US’s dependence on petroleum.

The dispute over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska has recurred in Congress every few years since drilling was first proposed in 1977, and was a major rallying point for liberals after the Bush administration endorsed the idea in 2005. The chant of “Drill, baby, drill,” first heard at the 2008 Republican National Convention, likewise served as a rallying cry for conservatives during the latter part of the 2008 election and on through the first years of the Obama administration, right up until the news of the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit the world news on the morning of April 21, 2010.

This public tumult comes at a time when offshore drilling has, for all its hazards, become a vital part of the United States’ energy economy. A steadily increasing percentage of domestically-produced oil and natural gas comes from offshore sources: in 2009, 31% of the nation’s domestically-produced crude oil and 11% of its domestically-produced natural gas came from offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Data gathered by NOAA and MMS accounts for 3,858 oil platforms in just two of the “planning areas” in US waters in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2009 Minerals Management Service report, “proved reserves in the Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are estimated to be 20.30 billion barrels of oil and 183.7 trillion cubic feet of gas from 1,229 proved fields,” or roughly twice as much oil and seven times as much natural gas as the Prudhoe Bay cornucopia on the northern shores of Alaska was estimated to contain when that oilfield was first developed in the 1960s.

The complexity of offshore drilling has also grown immensely in the last several decades. In 1983, the deepest offshore well in the world was drilled in 760 feet of water, 13 miles off the coast of San Pedro, CA. A quarter century later, dozens of new wells are being installed each year in deep-sea locations (1 to 1.5 miles deep) and much further offshore; depths that were once extraordinary are now perforce normal. In 2009 alone, over three hundred new production wells were drilled in US waters in the Gulf, and nearly two-thirds of the active oil leases in the Gulf are in water more than 1,000 feet deep.

These deepwater locations are comparable to the one that blew out in April 2010 –designated MC 252-- during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, since most of them are being installed in the same oil and gas bearing geological formations. The deeper the water and the deeper the drilling, the more complex, expensive, and dangerous the operation becomes. Somewhat ironically, the last well the Horizon had completed prior to beginning the fateful one was the deepest well yet drilled at the time, a whopping 30,918 feet into the seabed under 4,132 feet of water.

The reason drilling in such difficult or sensitive areas has increased so dramatically is simple. The global oil economy is rapidly approaching “Hubbert’s peak,” a phenomenon first predicted by the scientist M. King Hubbert in 1956 and commonly known as “peak oil.” While new oil and gas resources can still be found, much of the accessible oil – the “reserves” or “proven reserves” in industry and governmental language-- has been consumed or is currently being extracted. In order to expand production or to replace wellfields that have ceased producing worthwhile quantities of oil and gas, the petroleum industry has to look to other sources, and what is left is more difficult and expensive to get. The days when a wildcatter in Texas or Wyoming could find vast new oilfields simply by looking for oil sheens on creeks are long gone. In many cases ‘new’ sources such as those in ANWR or the tar sands of western Canada have been known about for decades, but the cost/benefit balance that would render them profitable didn’t work out until oil became more scarce, driving up the worth of a resource that in earlier decades was of negligible value and making it cost-effective to exploit the resource.

On June 4, Sarah Palin complained on her Facebook page that “Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country's energy needs, but your [referring to ‘radical environmentalists’] protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It's catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proves it." This allegation is simply not true. What is true, though, is that most of the allegedly “safer” areas are already producing, already exhausted, or are too inaccessible, small, or difficult to be worthwhile. Most of them aren’t actually any safer, when all things considered.

The dilemma of whether to drill in ANWR or the ocean is a complex one. In either case, there is the potential for irreversible destruction of the environment—neither area is truly ‘safer’ than the other. Each area is home to numerous rare species of animal and plant life, who would be trampled and poisoned.

Other concerns include possible incompatibilities with other uses of the areas. The Gulf of Mexico, for example, is both a major commercial fishing area and crosshatched with scores of shipping lanes, and freighter captains enjoy navigating hundred-thousand-ton cargo ships through an obstacle course of oil platforms about as much as fishermen enjoy pulling up nets full of oil-poisoned shrimp.

Drilling in the ANWR or other remote areas is also not much simpler or cheaper than drilling in mile-deep water tens or hundreds of miles out to sea, or for that matter, not much easier than drilling at the South Pole. Consider the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, where a massive infrastructure of roads, pipelines, well complexes, oil storage facilities, supertankers, and company towns had to be constructed in a bitterly hostile arctic environment in order to extract the oil and get it to market. The 800-mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System alone cost $8 billion. All of this infrastructure is extremely expensive to operate and maintain. There is even a television show about the truck drivers who regularly ferry supplies north across the ice and tundra. The truth is that as profitable as it has proven, Prudhoe Bay wasn’t considered economically worthwhile until the gasoline shortages of the early 1970s drove petroleum prices up sharply.

The oil industry routinely weighs the costs of a offshore drilling against on-shore drilling, based on the amount and quality of oil and gas that could be extracted, and the cost to get it out of the ground and onto the market. A fifth-generation mobile drill rig such as the Deepwater Horizon—built at the cost of half a billion dollars, and with a billing rate of nearly half a million dollars a day for the rig, her crew, and all the support ships and other necessities—is a major item on any budget sheet. Add to that against the costs of having to fit out another arctic oilfield on the scale of Prudhoe Bay. BP is, in fact, contemplating exactly such a project, involving constructing an artificial island in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska.

Offshore drilling is an intrinsically dangerous and environmentally risky process. It can be done safely, if the proper safeguards are in place to prevent spills or to clean up pollution before it does too much damage. The problem is that the equipment and infrastructure to cope with oil pollution on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon’s simply does not exist. While a great deal of thought and effort has been put into devices such as blowout preventers and “Christmas trees,” which are intended to prevent spills, it is surprising to see how little the art and science of cleaning a spill up has advanced since the late 1960s, when the primary source of spills were leaks from ships in harbors rather than the relatively few and comparatively small offshore drilling and production rigs in use at the time. Despite the media attention given to “magic boxes,” “top hats,” and similar devices used in attempts to shut off the flow of oil and gas from the well, the primary tools for cleaning up spilled oil are still containment booms, skimmers, pumps, and brute manpower, and they are wholly inadequate for combating spills of the current magnitude.

Congressman John Culbertson of Texas described the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a ‘statistical anomaly’ in a June 18 open letter to President Obama, in which he protested the federal government reinstating its off-again, on-again moratorium on new offshore drilling. In one sense he is correct—only one of the thousands of wells in the Gulf blew out. On the other hand, consider the amount of damage this one well has done, the inability of BP and the federal government to cope with the disaster, and the amount of destruction that even three or four more blowouts of the same size could wreak.

In the long run, however, the choice between wildlife preserve and ocean will ultimately disappear, once scarcity and the inevitable depletion of existing oilfields has driven the cost of oil up and availability down. The situation will change from an either/or decision to a both/and situation, in which the US is forced by economic necessity to drill everywhere there is oil, regardless of the increasing costs to extract it.

Prudhoe Bay is estimated to be four-fifths depleted. Unless the US can reduce its dependence on petroleum, it will ultimately face the need to drill in both areas regardless of cost and consequences, simply because it cannot do without the oil. Bearing that sad truth in mind, the nation should seriously attempt on a large scale what has been often talked about over the last twenty years, but towards which nothing has been done—developing renewable energy sources and reducing the need for fossil fuels.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Some thoughts on Proposition 8 and gay marriage

Most of you have by now read about the August 4, 2010 decision on Perry v. Schwarzenegger, more commonly known as “The Proposition 8 case.” I am pleased to say I quietly rejoiced at Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision, and (rather foolishly) stayed up late into the night reading his 138-page findings. This made the following workday a little challenging.

Proposition 8 was a bad bit of law that should never have been passed in the first place, and which got as far as it did only because of a moral panic created in the last weeks of the 2008 election season by wealthy conservative religious groups, including the strange bedfellows of fundamentalist Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, who poured millions of dollars in from outside California to buy ad time and influence the state’s voters. It is, simply put, a mean, selfish, and vindictive attempt to take away a right, enjoyed from birth by everyone else, that a community long denied that right had recently gained after an exhausting struggle. It is also a conscious attempt to establish prejudice and discrimination in the law before which all humans are supposed to be equal.

It is also an outstanding object lesson in why some things are, in a sense, too important to be put to a vote. It sounds counterintuitive in a republic in which the popular vote is often seen as the ultimate expression of the peoples’ will and the country’s values. The popular vote is not perfect, nor is any other part of our electoral system. Some rights are, however, so important that they cannot and should not be subject to the variable whims of the electorate—for example, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment, and so on. The people should no more be able to vote away their own inalienable rights (or anyone else’s, for that matter) than they should be able to vote themselves ten feet tall and purple. In fact, most of our system of government is constructed as a system of checks and balances, such as judicial review, which are intended to put the brakes on popular enthusiasms, an intent that predates even the Constitution itself (c.f John Locke and Edmund Burke).

As an analogy, consider the hypothetical situation in which white Southerners (for example) had at some time in the past sponsored an amendment to the US Constitution that defined human beings as including white people only. They could quite easily have done this, as it would have reflected widespread popular sentiment at the time. The Commonwealth of Virginia, for that matter, for many years had invasive genealogical criteria for determining the race of an individual in support of laws against interracial marriage.

Referenda such as Proposition 8 are in a sense even more troublesome than simple elections, because they circumvent many of the other balancing organs of government. In this instance, a process that was originally intended to give people more of a direct voice in government was used by to strip part of the population of their existing civil rights and impose discrimination based on simple prejudice.

“Animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate," as Judge Walker wrote. In condensed language, “prejudice doesn’t make good law.”

That’s exactly the issue here. The law. Not religion. Not popular prejudice. Not rumor. Not some half-mythical rose-colored view of the United States’ past as a continent-spanning Mayberry.

When you strip away all the religion, the histrionics, and the flag-waving paeans to American culture and pare the matter of gay marriage down to the issue that really matters—equal protection under the law—what becomes clear is that there is no adequate explanation for why gay men and women should NOT be allowed to marry, any more than there was any adequate explanation for bans on interracial marriage. “Civil unions,” for their part, fail the equality test.

Marriage is, as far as federal, state, and local government goes, strictly a matter of civil law disposing a contract between two people. That’s strictly it. Legal rights. Leviticus is nowhere to be found in a court of law.

The Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Southern Baptist Convention, the conservative Islamic community, and the Hasidic Jews don’t have to marry homosexuals in their rites if they don’t want to, because they’re not the government and they don’t (and shouldn’t) deal in civil rights. Personally, I am of the opinion that any church that involves itself in politics should lose its tax-exempt status. Religion isn’t the government’s business (at least, it isn’t until someone gets violent about it, at which point the ghost of Matthew Shepherd will rise again). That’s the flip side of the separation of church and state—religion is to be protected from the government as much as the government needs to be separate from religion.

More to the point, if you’re interesting in marrying another man, you’re probably not likely to belong to one of those religious groups that so vituperatively disapproves of the practice in the first place, rendering the point of the objection moot.

Anyways, the dramatis personae in Perry v Schwarzenegger:

Plaintiffs (people bringing the suit): Kristin Perry, Sandra Steir, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, two couples who were denied marriage licenses because they were intent on same-sex marriages.

Proponents aka the Defendants (supporters of Proposition 8) included the official proponents of Proposition 8, organized as a group named Protect Marriage. Oddly, although the suit itself named Governor Schwarzenegger and a number of other state government officials (in their capacities as heads of state agencies) as defendants, California’s Attorney General, Jerry Brown, declined to defend Proposition 8 because in his office’s view the amendment violated the state constitution. None of the other state officials named in the suit lifted a finger to defend the amendment, which is probably a good metric for how much official support Proposition 8 ever enjoyed in government. The result was that Protect Marriage, an intervening defendant (someone not named in the suit but who asserts a right to participate in the trial process because it involves them) wound up as the sole defenders of the Proposition 8 amendment—which in my opinion is only as it should be. Proposition 8 was their baby—they should defend it.

It was, on the face of it, the proponents’ fight to lose, which they did in a most spectacular fashion. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the case is how it highlighted the intellectual bankruptcy of the Proposition 8 supporters, who offered no hard evidence, no real experts, no data, and no first-person testimonials from people affected by the issues at hand. As the proponents learned to their humiliation, prejudice will only get you so far. A court of law is not like an election. Every statement and fact is ruthlessly scrutinized and tested to the breaking point, so while it is easy to splash anti-gay falsehoods all over the commercial breaks in the 6 o’clock news, it is a different matter to attempt the same wholesale slander and demagoguery in a courtroom.

The plaintiff’s lawyers amassed a mountain of evidence to support their case, with nine expert witnesses and seven lay witnesses, addressing everything from economics to history, psychology, and the prejudices and obstacles encountered in everyday life as a gay person.

The proponents of Proposition 8 called only two witnesses during the entire process, and both of those received short shrift from the judge because they had no evidence for their testimony. Judge Walker singled out David Blankenhorn of the Institute of American Values for some particularly scathing criticism, finding that Blankenhorn “lacks the qualifications to offer opinion testimony and, in any event, failed to provide cogent testimony in support of proponents’ factual assertions,” and that Blankenhorn’s testimony “should be given essentially no weight.”

One would assume that in a case of this magnitude, the proponents would have called out their biggest guns and leading intellectual lights, men of the caliber of William F. Buckley or William Jennings Bryan, who understand law and society and who can have an informed discussion on the great issues of the day. Such brains were nowhere to be found on the proponents' side-- in the case of a cause as odious as Proposition 8, maybe they don't exist. Instead, with nobody in their camp to call upon but (apparently) a clutch of bigots and dupes, the proponents brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight.

Several of the expert witnesses the proponents deposed before the trial began subsequently refused to testify in support of the proponents’ case. The plaintiffs promptly entered these witnesses’ depositions as evidence on the plaintiffs’ behalf, since their testimony appeared to support the plaintiffs’ case better than the proponents’.

The high (or low, depending on whose side you’re on) point of the trial was when the plaintiffs called Mr. Hak-Shing William Tam, one of the proponents and an organizer of Protect Marriage, as an adverse witness. Mr. Tam, who is secretary of the America Return to God Prayer Movement, a fundamentalist Christian organization, did a spectacular job of showing himself to be an uneducated, theocratic bigot who could point to nothing more specific than “the Internet” as a source for his statements linking homosexuality to child molestation, polygamy, incest, and Satanism. Satanism is obviously a major theme of concern in civil rights. Consider it this way: Mr. Tam is one of the heavy lifters behind Proposition 8, but he is such a blatantly ungrounded religious fanatic that not even the proponents' lawyers wanted him to testify on behalf of Proposition 8.

In other words, the proponents got pwned, and pwned so thoroughly and dramatically that reading Judge Walker’s decision actually made me laugh out loud.

In the end, the proponents failed to prove that gay marriage caused any significant harm, while the plaintiffs proved that forbidding gay marriage was first, discrimination, and second, inflicted social, economic, and other harms on the people involved, and that it therefore violated the California State Constitution.

If you ask me, the good guys won this one.