Monday, July 30, 2007

"Dear Senator X"

Dear Senator X:

I recently sent you an e-mail via your congressional website about U.S. involvement in Iraq. I asked whether you supported a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, or whether you supported a partial withdrawal with substantial forces left behind through the foreseeable future.

The directions on your website told me to select the topic of my e-mail from a drop-down menu, and I clicked “Iraq.” The letter I got from you did not give an answer to my question. It simply thanked me for sharing my thoughts on this topic and then went into talking points on Iraq that contained noble sentiments but remarkably few specifics.

I mention this because my neighbor also e-mailed you about Iraq. He wanted to know if multiple tours of duty were stretching our troops too thin. When he showed me the letter he received from you, we noticed that it didn’t address his question either. He compared his letter with mine, and they turned out to be identical, except for the name, address, and date.

My question is this: Does somebody actually read these e-mails, or is your website set up so that different form letters go out, depending on which topic the citizen clicks?


Raymond Snodgrass

* * * * * *

Dear Senator X:

After my earlier experience with my e-mail on Iraq, I e-mailed you at your official website with my thoughts on immigration policy. Instead of clicking the “Immigration” tab on the drop-down menu, however, I clicked “Impeachment,” just to see what would happen.

Yesterday I received your letter thanking me for sharing my thoughts on impeachment, and assuring me that this was a subject of the gravest importance to you.

Actually, I do care about impeachment, but immigration policy was the real subject of my last e-mail. Did an actual human being ever look at it? I am clicking the “Global Warming” tab with this message as an experiment. I am curious to see what will result.


Raymond Snodgrass

* * * * * *

Dear Senator X:

I believe your computerized answering system has a glitch in it, as my last e-mail to you dealt with your response to my ideas on immigration. However, I clicked the “Global Warming” tab at your website out of scientific curiosity. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find your letter in my mailbox today thanking me for sharing my thoughts on “Genetic Research and Stem Cells.” With this response, I am clicking the tab on “Gay Marriage,” and can hardly wait to see what comes back. Your letters have become one of the highlights of my day.

I must say that I admire the warm, personal touch at the end of each of your letters, where you thank me once again for taking the time to write, express the hope that I will continue to be an involved citizen, and assure me that you rely heavily on input from people like myself.


Raymond Snodgrass

* * * * * *

Dear Senator X:

My neighbor suggested that the best way to get an actual person to read an e-mail sent to Washington would be to include words and phrases that would kick the message out of the system and trigger human involvement. He thought that putting words like assassinate and president close together would probably do the trick. As you can see, I have just done that. My question about your position on the continued deployment of troops in Iraq—which is where this all began—is attached.


Raymond Snodgrass

* * * * * *

Dear Senator X:

Imagine my surprise when Secret Service agents showed up at my home only two hours after I sent my last e-mail to your website. I am presently being held in a federal detention facility, and desperately need your intervention here. I am clicking the “Request for Assistance” tab and hoping for your immediate attention.


Raymond Snodgrass

© Tony Russell, 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Congress Takes a Dive"

Of Principalities and Powers ~ “Congress Takes a Dive”

“Welcome to the U.S. Diving Championships. I’m your host, Diane Berry, and here with us today to add his unique perspective is four-time U.S. champion and sports columnist Rick Really. Rick, this shapes up to be a spectacular event, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does, Diane. Everybody has been pointing toward this one. The Republican team, which will be wearing red suits, has been taking dives for six years. The Democrats, who will wear blue, are playing catch up, but they’ve taken some incredible dives since winning a majority in both houses of Congress.”

“So we’re looking for close votes by the people who will serve as judges?”

“No question about it. At this point, Congress ranks even lower in the polls than the president, voters are depressed by how unrepresentative their “representatives” are, and turnout is on a steady decline. I look for the winner to be decided by a handful of votes among the few voters who show up.”

“Wonderful, Rick. Are there any divers we ought to keep our eyes on?”

“There sure are. In recent weeks we’ve seen some absolutely unbelievable dives taken by a group of Republican senators. They’ve been in panic mode with Mr. Bush’s unpopularity acting like a heavy anchor chained around their necks”

“Let’s take a look at some of those dives to show our viewers what you’re talking about, Rick.”

“Okay, Diane. Our first clip here is Susan Collins. After years of support for Bush’s war, she joins with Chuck Hagel in announcing here that she will back Democratic legislation ordering combat to end next spring.”

“Her timing is beautiful on that twist, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is. We’ll take a quick look here at Gordon Smith, Pete Domenici, John Warner, and Olympia Snowe, each talking about switching his or her position—and then, in most cases, ending up voting to back the president rather than support a change.
That’s a very difficult double flip technically, where the diver is actually rotating backward and forward at the same time.”

“The Republican divers look awfully impressive, Rick. How does the Democratic team match up?”

“Well, first up, take a look at Nancy Pelosi, shown here going into the tank on impeachment, immediately after being elected Speaker of the House.”

“Wow, that was mind boggling!”

“No question, Diane. But don’t think this is just a Pelosi show. The Democrats owed most of their resurgence in this last election to voters’ expectation that they would end the war in Iraq. Mr. Bush has just ignored them, as usual, and done as he pleased. There’s a simple solution: the Democrats in Congress could just refuse to vote more funds for the war. A simple majority vote. But they’ve taken a vast collective dive on the issue.”

“A collective dive?”

“You heard me right. Wait until you see this! This next clip here will knock your socks off! It’s really a stunning sight to see over two hundred Democratic members of Congress, hands joined, coming off the boards simultaneously and hitting the water without making a splash.”

“That’s fantastic! How did they do that?”

“Well, the trick is that instead of cutting off funds, they keep offering proposals to set timetables for beginning a withdrawal, modify tours of duty, and so forth, and then water them down by making them non-binding. They can’t get the votes to actually pass any of them, but they can pretend they tried to do something and then blame the Republicans for defeating the bills.”

“So the Democrats are picking up points with those dives?”

“Fewer than they expected. Republicans, on the other hand, use this trick: if the bill has no binding elements, they dismiss it as meaningless; if it has specifics, they reject it as tying the president’s hands.”

“They have beautifully controlled spin on that move, Rick.”

“They do. Their coach, Karl Rove, has made that one of his trademarks.”

“You know, watching them, I’m just amazed that these politicians do all their diving in the shallow end of the pool.”

“None of them want to get in over their heads, Diane, or go off the deep end, so they dive down here in the portion normally reserved for small children.”

“Let’s talk about the diving conditions, Rick. There have been complaints circulating that the water has been muddied.”

“You’ll get that in any political contest, Diane. The divers are not only used to it, but they actually prefer it that way. There does seem to be an abnormal amount of money being laundered in the pool, however, and that has raised concerns. Some critics have charged that it has a toxic effect on the level of democracy. But the Supreme Court just recently gave the go-ahead, saying all that corporate money was allowable, so it looks as if we’re all set to go. In fact, millions of dollars more are being pumped into the system even as we speak.”

“Does the money have any effect on the divers themselves?”

“There’s no medical evidence to that effect, Diane. People around the divers have sometimes talked about the money ‘going to their heads’ or ‘rotting their souls,’ but that’s just anecdotal. There are no double-blind studies to confirm it. As you can see in this next clip, most of them actually enjoy having so much money in the pool. Look at them wallow in it!”

© Tony Russell, 2007


Monday, July 23, 2007

"A Wonderful Assortment of Pastries"

Of Principalities and Powers ~ “A Wonderful Assortment of Pastries”

“Ace, I’ve never been so embarrassed! Your stomach kept rumbling all through dinner. I’ve heard jackhammers that made less racket!”

“I’m sorry, Patty. When the Pelosis invited us to the victory dinner, I decided to skip lunch. I figured they’d lay out a big spread, and I wanted to save a lot of room for the banquet. When we walked in and I saw everything spread out there, my mouth started to water. Then when Nancy began to take things off the table, I just couldn’t believe it. My stomach went into panic.”

“Don’t be silly, Ace. All she took off the table was the impeachment. That wasn’t even the main course.”

“You must have been too busy swapping recipes with Nancy to watch what she was doing. When she carried the impeachment back to the kitchen, all kinds of other things went with it.”

“Leave it to you to have eyes for nothing but the table. Men!”

“Well, I thought there were some things you would have liked to try, too, but she just whisked them away.”

“Like what, for instance?”

“Patty, when she took away the impeachment, the meat dishes all went too. Torture, kidnapping, illegal wiretapping, election rigging, lying to start a war… all the meaty items were there for just a minute, and then they disappeared, before I could stick a fork in them.”

“Is that what happened? Darn, I was really looking forward to trying them. I’ve heard they were the genuine article.”

“Well, I guess we’ll never know. I’m just so hungry for something substantial that I can’t wait to get home and see what’s in the fridge.”

“Ace, there is absolutely no excuse for your still being hungry. You were there when Nancy said, ‘Let them eat cake,’ and they brought out a wonderful assortment of pastries. You ate more than anybody else. I kept hoping nobody else was counting how many times you went back to the table.”

“Patty, if nobody is supposed to notice everything that went back into the kitchen, surely they can pretend they didn’t see how much cake I ate.”

“I’ll bet Nancy was counting, even if she was too polite to say anything.”

“Look, Patty, can we talk about something besides my appetite?”

“Oh, all right, Ace. Say, did you notice that pretty blue dress Monica was wearing?”

“Are you kidding? How could I miss it? It’s the same dress she was wearing a few years ago when they put her on the table to sing and dance!”

© Tony Russell, 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"The Floodwall"

Of Principalities and Powers ~ “The Floodwall”

I spent many hours during my boyhood along the Ohio River, exploring land that lay behind a floodwall. On one side of the wall was the city, busy with people and traffic; on the other side, the strange fecund world of a waste wilderness. I loved the river side of the wall—the rank vegetation, the strange fungi, the groundhog burrows, the driftwood and debris tossed up on the shore, the sheer freedom to roam. I could stand on the sandy bank of the river, watching its oily surface and an occasional barge float by, and hear, at the same time, behind me, cars and truck streaming along the avenue on the other side of the wall. Our national discussion on Iraq has that same feeling of a strict, partitioned duality.

Debate in Congress, and on corporate radio and television, has turned—albeit slowly and reluctantly—to a consideration of how we can pull ourselves out of the disaster in Iraq. Yet several things are so thoroughly taken for granted in this debate that the imperial audacity of the assumptions is well nigh invisible.

Off the top of my head, here is a list of the controlling assumptions: The assumption that the time and pace for a U.S draw down is entirely a U.S. matter. The assumption that we will leave only when western energy companies are handed the keys to the oil fields. The assumption that a large U.S. force will be permanently garrisoned in Iraq at five huge bases under construction. The assumption that, if the present government of Iraq can’t deliver, the U.S. will have to make changes in the Iraqi government. The assumption that the Iraqi police and army can be developed into an effective force responsive to U.S. priorities and loyal to U.S. aims. The assumptions that we are the “good guys” here, just trying to spread a little democracy around the world, and the “bad guys” hate freedom. The assumption that any outcome which doesn’t operate with the other prior assumptions will lead to a vast “bloodbath” and an unacceptable U.S “defeat.” The assumption that operating with these assumptions will avoid a “bloodbath” and will salvage some kind of American victory.

Those are the continuous assumptions on talk shows and in our corporate news. They are the traffic you hear on the other side when you stand on the bank of the river. And it is startling, once you focus on it, how these assumptions frame the entire official public conversation on Iraq. There is nothing else. Any “debate” revolves around details confined by those assumptions, details such as the date for starting our pullout, the timetable for the Iraqi government to sign off on our oil arrangement, and the size of the U.S. contingent which will remain behind. That’s it. There is nothing more.

In fact, it might be a healthful awareness technique to sit in front of your television, or open a news magazine, or scan the editorial page of your newspaper, with a little checklist of these assumptions, and see how many you can tick off each time Iraq comes up.

On the river side of the wall, where millions of ordinary citizens stand, is a broad stream of consciousness which challenges those assumptions at every turn. On this side of the wall is knowledge that the U.S. invaded Iraq on the basis of lies which had already been exposed as lies in Europe and on the Internet prior to the invasion. Knowledge that the invasion violated international law, basic morality, and human decency. In short, an awareness that we shouldn’t have been there to begin with, are an occupying army despised by the people we pretend to be helping (confirmed by all Iraqi polling data), and don’t belong there now.

On this side of the wall, we see transparently manipulative attempts to sell the U.S. invasion by portraying soldiers as lovable heroes, first with Jessica Lynch, then with Pat Tillman. Both stories turn out to have been sheer fabrications, with the strands of lies going right up the chain of command. There’s no question about this; documentation is readily available.

We see, too, the undemocratic control of reporting on the war. The “embedding” of reporters within U.S. forces. The prohibitions on travel. The murder of numerous reporters, photographers, and members of news teams. The withholding of images of death and suffering and destruction unless they were the result of enemy action. The return of bodies of U.S. soldiers at odd hours of the night in out of the way corners of airports. The alarming effectiveness of efforts to render this an invisible war.

On this side of the wall, we see statistics revealing that a “bloodbath” has already been drawn and is ongoing—close to 700,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the war started, the majority of them children. On this side of the wall we see that the deaths of U.S. military personnel (now nearing four thousand) are mourned, while the deaths of fifteen to twenty times as many Iraqis, most of them entirely innocent, go unlamented and unregretted.

On this side of the wall, we see the murderous ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods and towns where Shi’ites and Sunnis once lived together peaceably, and recognize that this tragedy is a direct consequence of our invasion and our policies after the invasion. We see daily reports of car bombings and suicide bombings, with ghastly carnage, all of that set into motion by our assault and occupation.

On this side of the wall, we see millions of Iraqis uprooted from their homes and set adrift as refugees, having lost nearly everything they own and everything that gave them a familiar place in the world, at the same time we claim the war is to give Iraqis a better life.

On this side of the wall, we see that the sizable U.S. forces slated to remain in Iraq after our “withdrawal” make a mockery of Iraqi sovereignty and provide an ongoing insult and provocation to Islamic believers. The claim that U.S. forces are present only to “provide security for Iraq’s fledgling democracy” is a transparent falsehood. U.S forces are there to insure American dominance over the Iraqi oil industry and to hold a powerful military threat over the heads of other nations in the region.

The huge new bases we have raced to construct in Iraq also represent a tradeoff with the bin Ladens. The U.S. closed its bases in Saudi Arabia, where Osama bin Laden and many others regarded them as an affront to the holiness of their homeland. The new bases in Iraq are to be their replacement.

On this side of the wall, we see the president of the United States asserting repeatedly that we are locked in a struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq, while our own intelligence estimates say that our primary opposition is from Iraqi nationalists resisting the occupation and from Shi’ite militia, with a small al Qaeda force far down on the list of enemies. We see the president’s absurd distortions reported as straight news, without challenge or contradiction.

On this side of the wall, we see that victory in Iraq, by any normal standard, is impossible. Powerful empires repeatedly overestimate their capacity to control the world around them. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. assault on Viet Nam, and now the U.S. invasion of Iraq, were all based on imperial hubris, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq will fail as the others failed. Placing hope on a “surge” and the development of Iraqi forces as reliable surrogates are fantasies familiar to anyone who lived through the Vietnam War.

On this side of the wall, we see that our supposed effort to “spread democracy” has been undertaken in the most undemocratic way possible, with contempt for the public will, with state-sanctioned torture and kidnappings, with secret prisons, the denial of legal representation and rights to the accused, and numerous other attacks on fundamental liberties.

We also see that the undermining of our own democracy and the loss of our own liberties are not even issues in what passes for political debate among the collection of candidates currently campaigning for president. An authentic patriot would be campaigning on an end to torture, an end to secret wiretappings, an end to wild claims of executive privilege, an end to denial of habeas corpus, and an end to imperialism. Those would be major issues in the campaign to lead a genuine democracy.

Now, why is it that the views I’ve described on the “river side” of the wall never make it into the official public discussions of policy? Some, after all, are indisputable, based on easily-found polling data, historical data, our own government’s reports, eyewitness accounts, et cetera. Some are arguable, but at least legitimate alternative views, as plausible and in accordance with the facts as the views publicly circulated. All are steeped in the love of liberty, the mistrust of rulers, and the passion for democracy that characterize our history at its best. Why are they walled off?

Beyond that, why do people who want peacefulness, wisdom, and compassion get a government that is bellicose, foolish, and unfeeling? Why is the electoral system so near-totally devoid of candidates who address our hopes and our deepest beliefs?

One world, with a division separating two viewpoints as effectively as the earthen levees and concrete barriers of the floodwall separated the worlds of my boyhood. What is the floodwall cutting through our country, separating an official public world reliant on force, lies, coercion, and manipulation on the one side from an alienated private world left adrift and unrepresented on the other? Who built the wall? How is it maintained? Why is the wall invisible?

It flabbergasts me that William Greider’s wonderful book Who Will Tell the People, which raised and addressed all of those questions, is now fifteen years old and largely forgotten. Current polling data, reported in the vaguest possible terms, says that a substantial majority of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.” That “wrong track” was Greider’s starting point in the introduction to Who Will Tell the People. Mind you, this was written in 1992!

…a climate of stagnant doubt has enveloped contemporary politics, a generalized sense of disappointment that is too diffuse and intangible to be easily confronted. The things that Americans were taught and still wish to believe about self-government…no longer seem to fit the present reality. …American democracy is in much deeper trouble than most people wish to acknowledge. …The substantive meaning of self-government has been hollowed out. What exists behind the formal shell is a systemic breakdown of the shared civic values we call democracy.

“On the wrong track” indeed! Greider’s analysis of the “floodwall” I’ve alluded to was prophetic; it is even more relevant now than the year it was written. It is an original, highly recommended study of the unraveling of our democracy, a process only accelerated by the war in Iraq and the current administration.

© Tony Russell, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

"Bootlickers and Lickspittles"

Of Principalities and Powers ~ “Bootlickers, and Lickspittles”

“What’s the matter, honey? You’ve got me worried. You look so tired all the time.”

“It’s all this fuss over the firing of federal prosecutors, Linda. Won’t it ever die down?”

“But why would you be upset, sweetheart? You didn’t get fired. The president and the attorney general are really happy with your work.”

“That’s just it, Linda. Everybody treats the attorneys who got fired as heroes because they insisted on doing what was right rather than what Karl Rove wanted. And those of us who kept our jobs are looked down on as bootlickers and lickspittles.”

“Surely people wouldn’t think that about you, darling!”

[Bitterly] “When I enter the office in the morning, it gets as quiet as a mausoleum. Suddenly everybody has to sharpen a pencil or stare at his or her computer screen. When I invite people out to lunch, they all tell me they have other commitments. I’ve been referred to as a ‘loyal Bushie’ four times this week, Linda, and it wasn’t intended as a compliment.”

“It just doesn’t seem right, darn it! You headed up President Bush’s re-election campaign in this state, you personally rounded up more than $5,000,000 for his war chest, and you were given this job to build up your résumé for a run at a seat in Congress! And now people want to sweep all that aside, just because you’re loyal?”

“It’s not just that, Linda. You remember those three staff attorneys who resigned when I wouldn’t pursue that bribery investigation with the defense contractor? They’ve all been subpoenaed by the Senate. And I know those three. They’re going to go in there and claim that I dropped the investigation because the House members involved were Republicans and the election was just a few months away.”

“But that’s not true, is it?”

“Of course not. It’s just that I was so busy trying to find voter fraud by the Democrats that I didn’t have time to devote to another major case.”

“Why couldn’t they see that, honey? Why do people always put the worst interpretation on perfectly reasonable acts? It must be partisan politics. I’ll bet all three of them are Democrats!”

“Unfortunately, that’s the bad part. Two of them are registered as Independents, and the third is actually a lifelong Republican. They were career attorneys with the department, and together they had over fifty years of experience.”

“Well, see there? That’s the problem, isn’t it? They were stuck in old habits. They weren’t able to adapt to this administration’s new approaches.”

“You see that, and I see that. But 80% of the country has decided it doesn’t like those new approaches. They keep telling pollsters they think the country is on the wrong track.”

“If this is all so hard on you, honey, maybe you ought to resign.”

“I already tried, Linda. But they won’t let me. They say not only would it look bad right now, but the media would be all over me, wanting to know why I quit. Karl said he’d have the president issue a statement that he has complete confidence in me and is behind me 100%.”


“I told him he didn’t have to threaten me like that. I’d stay.”

© Tony Russell, 2007