Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Andy Borowitz

The New Yorker

 By Andy Borowitz , 05:56 P.M.

LONDON (The Borowitz Report)—The theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking angered supporters of Donald J. Trump on Monday by responding to a question about the billionaire with a baffling array of long words.

Speaking to a television interviewer in London, Hawking called Trump "a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator," a statement that many Trump supporters believed was intentionally designed to confuse them.

Moments after Hawking made the remark, Google reported a sharp increase in searches for the terms "demagogue," "denominator," and "Stephen Hawking."

"For a so-called genius, this was an epic fail," Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said. "If Professor Hawking wants to do some damage, maybe he should try talking in English next time."


Donald Trump aids and abets violence.

- An American Story

Something to Know - 31 May

Stuart Carlson

Being a bit weary of the noise from the campaigns, maybe its good to take a break.   This story from the Guardian is basically a collection of a White House photographer's body of selected work of the images of President Obama in office.  They are nothing more than the personality and style of a person doing his job and a camera recording it for us to see.  It is probably best viewed if you click on the link:


Pete Souza: photographing the real Barack Obama

Over two historic terms, official White House photographer Pete Souza has chronicled the most intimate, candid and comical moments of Barack Obama's presidency


Sunday 29 May 2016 09.00 EDT


It was a tale of two Americas. In Las Vegas the casinos were humming with a hell-yes tide that was about to sweep the manic Donald Trump to his most pumped-up victory yet. In Washington DC, civilisation still existed. In the week Trump's xenophobic bid to be the Republican presidential candidate began to look unstoppable, the man whose Americanness he has questioned was meeting 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin. In Pete Souza's official White House photograph of their get-together, President Barack Obama cracks a delicious smile as the first lady dances with McLaurin, who was invited to visit the White House in recognition of community work she has done for decades in the US capital. The meeting was also a celebration of Black History Month – and Souza's picture manages to be both intimate and historic. Here are three African Americans in the White House. The room they are in – the Blue Room – is opulently decorated with gold stars, Empire-style furniture, and a portrait of some grand national father who holds a white handkerchief in his white hand.

Feb 2016 Watching the first lady dance with 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin in the Blue Room of the White House
This is just one in a stream of vividly human and often funny photographs – released not just through White House press office, but on Flickr and Instagram – in which Souza has documented moments of the Obama administration that will never be forgotten. These photographs are precious historical documents. Critics from left and right blame the two-term presidency of this evidently intelligent and decent man for everything from the failure to close Guantánamo Bay (he's still trying) to a continuing economic malaise that has fuelled what is shaping up to be the most extremist presidential election since 1860. Yet Souza's photographs tell a different story – and the one that matters. Obama accomplished the impossible and made the White House an African American home for eight years.
Nov 2009 Obama jokes with staff before the Summit of the Americas in Singapore
 Nov 2009 – Obama jokes with staff before the Summit of the Americas in Singapore

If the image ofMcLaurin – who was born in 1909, a time when the civil war was still a living memory for many Americans – visiting the first black US president does not communicate the soft power of the Obama age, consider some of Souza's other pictures. In 2012, he photographed Obama bowing to let five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia feel his head. The boy had told Obama: "I want to know if my hair is just like yours." The president had replied: "Touch it, dude!"

May 2009 Jacob ­Philadelphia asked Obama if his hair was like his, so the most powerful man in the world bowed to a child
 May 2009 – Jacob ­Philadelphia asked Obama if his hair was like his, so the most powerful man in the world bowed to a child

Jacob Philadelphia is just one in a long line of African American children who have met Obama in the White House, in encounters that have been touchingly, spontaneously, comically captured by Souza's camera.

In a moving monochrome image, Souza showed three-year-old Clark Reynolds looking up in awe as Obama touches him on the cheek. The photograph is taken from child height and brilliantly captures a child's-eye view of the president. We only see Obama's hand caressing Clark's face. Unlike the ones in all paintings and photographs of all previous presidents, it is not a white hand. How can anyone say that means nothing? Young Clark Reynolds evidently thinks it means something, and so does Souza, whose photography has perhaps become more lyrical, more poignant over Obama's final year in office.

Feb 2016 Obama touches the face of three-year-old Clark Reynolds, in one of Souza's most moving photographs
 Feb 2016 – Obama touches the face of three-year-old Clark Reynolds, in one of Souza's most moving photographs

Not every delightfully warm and human moment recorded in Souza's White House pictures is a chapter in history, of course. A lot of the time, he simply captures Obama's sense of fun and quick-witted social grace. There is a great image of the president pretending to be caught in an invisible web, thrown by a boy in a Spider-Man costume. In another lovely moment, the president demonstrates his best dad moves backstage before his daughter's dance recital. A more reflective portrait captures the tensions and secrets of power, as Obama isreflected in a White House mirror, finger to his lips, deep in a conspiratorial conversation.

April 2011 Souza captures Obama at the heart of events, perhaps feeling the burden of his job
 April 2011 – Souza captures Obama at the heart of events, perhaps feeling the burden of his job

What made Souza such an ideal day-to-day chronicler of Obama's presidency? The answer is surprising. Before he recorded the White House life of America's first black president, Souza did the same job for the first Hollywood actor to rule from the Oval Office. From 1983 to 1989, he was Ronald Reagan's official photographer. Perhaps his most famous picture of that era shows Ronald and Nancy Reagan meeting Michael Jackson, who is wearing a spangly military-style jacket. Reagan looks understandably confused – is this the king of pop or the commander of the Star Wars defence programme?

Nov 2005 A young Obama ascends the Capitol steps

There may be more connecting Reagan and Obama than at first appears – and Souza can see it all. Both are great communicators. Neither let the pomp of office turn them into a stuffed shirt. Reagan, like Obama, had a human touch, a capacity to relate to people. Simply being human is a rare gift among modern politicians. Seeming relaxed in office is even rarer. Reagan was famously so laid-back that he could joke about nuclear war. He may have terrified peace activists, but the American public took confidence from the ease he projected.

Jan 2009 Humour, love and friendship – the Obamas share a joke in a lift on inauguration night
 Jan 2009 – Humour, love and friendship – the Obamas share a joke in a lift on inauguration night

Obama, too, projects absolute ease in the presidency. It is not a love of power. Souza's photographs never show him looking arrogant, or distant, or dangerous. In these pictures, he always seems both happy and modest in his office: a photograph of him fist-bumping a cleaner in a government building quietly captures his sense of the larger realities of inequality that will go on beyond his eight-year presidency.

Reports on Souza's photographs tend to repeat over and over again that they show how "cool" this president is, but that word means nothing. These images tell the true story of a presidency that words have failed. After all the hate, anger, birther theories, leftist critiques, rightist critiques, and even the liberal white awe of a "cool" black dude vanishes into the babble of the past, Souza's photographs will tell the story of a leader who was calm under fire, unfazed by office, unquenchably human, and who showed the way for all the kids who passed through his Oval Office, and millions more, to be good people, good Americans, and good citizens of the world. Will we miss the man in these pictures? Hell, yes.

The president jostles with congressmen during a basketball game at the White House

Above: Oct 2009 – The president jostles with congressmen during a basketball game at the White House. Below: March 2008 – Running down the White House's East Colonnade with Bo, the family dog.

Running down the White House's East Colonnade with Bo, the family dog
The Obamas' loving relationship is a very important part of their global popularity and this moment of private tenderness, taken by Souza during a public appearance captures it. They are sharing their feelings as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches.

Above: March 2015 – The Obamas share an intimate moment as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Below: June 2013 – Obama shows his best dad moves backstage at one of Sasha's dance recitals.

Obama shows off his dance moves as he and Michelle wait backstage during his daughter Sasha's dance recital.
This is the photograph that defines Obama's agile personality and his rapport with kids, as he spontaneously plays the villain to a three-year-old Spiderman.

Above: Oct 2012 – The president shows his fun side, playing the villain to a three-year-old Spiderman. Below: August 2013 – Obama and the first lady on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Souza's eye perfectly mirrors Obama's ability to move between social ease and absolute seriousness: here, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the ghosts of Lincoln and Martin Luther King cheer the Obamas into history.
Obama hugs his daughter Sasha during a visit to Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa

Above: June 2013 – Obama hugs his daughter Sasha during a visit to Nelson Mandela's former prison cell in South Africa. Below: July 2012 – For one small child, the Oval Office becomes a playground and the president a playmate.

Children are also very good at destroying the formality of even the most hallowed people and places. Here the Oval Office becomes a playground and the president a playmate.
It's nearly time to say goodbye, as Obama waits pensively to make a public appearance during his last months in office.

Above: May 2016 – The president waits pensively before a public speech.

All photographs © Pete Souza/The White House


Donald Trump aids and abets violence.

- An American Story

Monday, May 30, 2016

Something to Know - Memorial Day 2016

Please observe "A Minute of Silence at 3pm" Today

Endless war: Trump and the fantasy of cost-free conflict

As America marks Memorial Day, politicians should spare us the saber-rattling and reserve some space for silence


Jack Satan's the greatest of gods

And Hell is the best of abodes.

'Tis reached through the Valley of Clods

By seventy beautiful roads.

Ambrose Bierce, from A Sole Survivor

Memorial Day is upon us, our 15th since the dawning of the Era of the AUMF, and you'd think smart people would have learned a few things by now. Is it a war yet? Or still the same damn movie that's been playing in America since 2001, that revenge-and-war-porn blockbuster where the USA kicks some serious bad-guy ass. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria and on it rolls like a 15-year-old beater with 200,000 miles on the engine and balding tires, "it" being the AUMF, the Authorization to Use Military Force of 14 September 2001.

All these years later it's worth revisiting this document, the act of Congress whereby President George W Bush was empowered to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

What a long, strange trip it's been, and all on the same set of wheels. Granted, we did get an upgrade with AUMF 2.0, the Iraq invasion authorization of 2002, but they're basically one and the same model. How many of us are still driving the same car we had in the early aughts? But like siblings handing down the family junker, Bush drove that AUMF hard for eight years and passed it on to Obama, who promised to end two wars and will probably leave us with three. Come next January he'll be handing the keys to the next in line, and off we'll go with a brand new driver at the wheel.

This trip we're on, awhile back it started looking like a closed loop more than anything resembling progress from point A to point B. Invasions, occupations, air campaigns and blizzards of drones have led to levels of chaos that only madmen and prophets could have imagined when all this started. Just two of this season's presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul – seriously questioned the the hard-military tactics of the past 15 years. Everybody else seems to be running around in a 2002 time warp, back when deploying the world's most powerful military was supposed to bring peace and democracy to a maddeningly conflicted region. Gas on the fire. It failed, and a lot of people died. In this, the fourth presidential election of the Era of the AUMF, the debate hasn't been about war per se – whether it's necessary, whether it's an effective means to an end – but rather, a difference of degree: will we have more of the same, or much, much more of the same?

The times are such that fantasy war-mongering is solidly mainstream. We've seen candidates call for a new campaign of "shock and awe" (Kasich), for carpet-bombing and making the desert glow (Cruz), for "bomb[ing] the shit out of them" (Trump), for waterboarding "and a hell of a lot worse" (Trump again), and for pre-emptive strikes and massive troop deployments (Jeb). One candidate purchased a handgun as "the last line of defense between Isis and my family" (Rubio), and the likely Democratic nominee includes "the nail-eaters – McChrystal, Petraeus, Keane" among her preferred military advisers, and supports "intensification and acceleration" of US military efforts in Iraq and Syria. Yes, America has many enemies who heartily hate our guts and would do us every harm they're able to inflict, but the failures of hard power over the past 15 years seem utterly lost on our political class. After the Paris attacks last December, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard suggested that a force of 50,000 US troops deployed to Syria, supported by air power, would crush Isis in short order, leading to the liberation of Fallujah, Mosul, and other Isis strongholds. "I don't think there's much in the way of unanticipated side-effects that are going to be bad there," opined Kristol – funny guy! – who back in 2002 said that removing Saddam Hussein "could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy".

 The Republican primary campaign proved that fantasy war-mongering is now solidly mainstream. Photograph: Cristobal Herrera/EPA
It makes you wonder: are these people stupid? Are we? Is this the politics we deserve? "Stupidity is the American disease," said Norman Mailer, though maybe it's not so much stupidity as fantasy, a determinedly infantile notion of what it means to go to war. Americans like the idea of breaking heads and drawing blood, but the burden of actual war? Not so much. And so the politicians pander, and we're more than willing to be pandered to. No appreciable bump in the tax rate, no mass mobilization, no call for sacrifice from the general population. Even our vocabulary slides toward the soothing and anodyne. Collateral damage, alternative set of procedures, detainees, these are practically mental pillows by now. Extraordinary rendition instead of kidnapping; targeted killings for presidentially ordered assassinations; intensification for escalation. The term "base" is out, "counter fire complex" in – that's the name for the physical place where all those troops who don't constitute boots on the ground are currently quartered in Iraq.

"I would listen to the generals," Trump said in one debate as he called for deploying 30,000 troops to Syria. I would say: screw that. How about we listen to the sergeants, lieutenants and captains who wore those boots on the ground the past 15 years? The ones who are out, who are now free to speak their minds and have no stake in the business-as-usual business of American war; no sergeant or junior officer is angling for a lucrative post-military career sitting on defense industry boards or yakking for cable news. On a fall night in Austin last year I listened to one of these former sergeants – infantry, two tours in Iraq – tell me: Sure, we can invade Syria and whip Isis's butt. Just make sure we go in with four or five hundred thousand troops, and plan on keeping at least 200,000 there for the next, say, 15 or 20 years. And we'd better commit to massive investment in the infrastructure, schools, the legal system, to keep Isis or something like it from coming back. Oh, and we'll have to bring back the draft, that's what it'll take to keep an army that big over there. And raise taxes to pay for it, including healthcare for all the fucked-up people who'll be coming home. We can beat Isis, sure. But not the way those guys –he nodded at the TV, where one of the circus-style debates was going on – are talking about.


In the beginning it was known as "Decoration Day". The call went out in May 1868 to decorate the graves of the civil war dead "with the choicest flowers of springtime", formalizing a practice that had cropped up in the north and south even as the war was being fought. But the scale of death was such that scattered local gestures no longer sufficed. A national observance was needed, a collective acknowledgment of just how profoundly devastating the war had been, and over time, as the tradition took hold, the holiday came to be known as Memorial Day.

Back in April 1861, a very young Ambrose Bierce was the second man in Elkhart County, Indiana, to enlist in the Union army. Eventually he would be known as "Bitter Bierce", but in 1861 he was just an aloof, touchy kid with some smatters of education and not a clue that the country was about to turn into a charnel house. Then again, no one did; the industrial slaughter of the civil war was something new under the sun, and Bierce survived some of the worst of it. He fought at Shiloh, where more Americans died in two days of battle than in the revolutionary war, the war of 1812, and the Mexican war combined. At Stones River, he and his company fought for a crucial three-foot rise of ground so bloody that it became known as Hell's Half-Acre. Chickamauga was bloodier still; after the first day of battle, thousands of wounded stranded between the lines either died of exposure in the freezing cold or roasted alive in the brushfires that sprung up across the battlefield, their screams and wails carrying far in the frigid mountain air.

 The gateway to the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the bloodiest battle of the American civil war, pictured in July 1863. Photograph: Timothy H O'Sullivan/Getty Images
"A night of waking," as Bierce tersely described it years later. The sheer volume and accuracy of ordnance made this a new kind of war, a machine for pulping acres of human flesh. Regardless of who was winning or losing, shock-and-awe was the common experience of both sides; Confederate and Union soldiers alike could hardly believe the things they were doing and having done to them, and when Bierce turned to the writer's trade after the war, some fundamental rigor or just plain contrariness wouldn't let him portray his war in conventionally heroic terms. In his hands, sentimentality and melodrama became foils for twisted jokes. Glory was ambiguous at best, a stale notion that barely hinted at the suicidal nature of valor in this kind of war. A wicked gift for honesty served up the eternal clash between duty and the survival instinct, as when, early in the war, Bierce and his fellow rookies come across a group of Union dead:

How repulsive they looked with their blood-smears, their blank, staring eyes, their teeth uncovered by contraction of the lips! The frost had begun already to whiten their deranged clothing. We were as patriotic as ever, but we did not wish to be that way.

And again, when he encounters a woman on the boat ferrying him and his platoon to the Shiloh killing fields:

She was a fine creature, this woman; somebody's wife. Her mission, as she understood it, was to inspire the failing heart with courage; and when she selected mine I felt less flattered by her preference than astonished by her penetration. How did she learn?

Black humor sits alongside mordantly cool accounts of battles, wounds, horrors, absurd and tragic turns of luck. There are lots of ghosts in Bierce's work, a menagerie of spirits and bugaboos as well as hauntings of the more prosaic sort, people detached in one way or another from themselves – amnesiacs, hallucinators, somnambulists, time trippers. People missing some part of their souls. Often Bierce writes of the fatal, or nearly so, shock, the twist that flips conventional wisdom on its back and shows reality to be much darker and crueler than we want to believe. It's hard not to read the war into much of Bierce's writing, even when the subject is ostensibly otherwise. He was the first American writer of note to experience modern warfare, war as mass-produced death, and the first to try for words that would be true to the experience. He charted this new terrain, and it's in Bierce that we find the original experience that all subsequent American war writers would grapple with. Hemingway and Dos Passos in the first world war; Mailer, Heller, Jones and Vonnegut in the second world war; O'Brien, Herr and Marlantes in Vietnam: they're all heritors of Bierce.

It's not decorative, what these writers were going for. They weren't trying to write fancy, or entertain, or preach a sermon; they weren't writing to serve a political cause, at least not in any immediate sense. One suspects that on some level they didn't have a choice, as if they realized they would never know any peace in themselves unless they found a way of writing that, if it couldn't make sense of their war, at least respected it. Words that represented the experience for what it was, without illusion or fantasy. Words that would resist the eternal American genius for cheapening and dumbing down.

 The Vietnam war: for Donald Trump not unlike the trauma of risking venereal disease while sleeping around in his bachelor days. Photograph: Horst Faas/AP
Trump has said he "will be so good at the military, your head will spin". Sure, how hard can it be? This rich man's son who was never in the military, who in fact used student deferments (four) and a case of heel spurs to avoid Vietnam. He did, however, attend a military-style prep school in his teens, and therefore "always felt that I was in the military", while sleeping around during his bachelor days, risking venereal disease, was "scary, like Vietnam" and "my personal Vietnam". Senator John McCain, former combat naval aviator who nearly died in service and was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years, repeatedly refusing offers of early release in order to stay with his comrades, is not, according to Trump, much of a soldier, whereas he, Trump, according to Trump, is the "most militaristic man in the room" whose yet-unspecified plans for taking on Isis would draw the approval of such lions as General Douglas MacArthur and General George Patton. And so on.

Could it be that Trump is giving voice to the inner life of a large portion of the US male population (and how much of the female as well)? Which might explain his appeal: he is the bog monster of the American id, rising out of the masturbatory muck of our military fantasies in which the manly man slays his enemies and laughs at the lamentations of their women. So easy to be the hero in your wet dreams, your shooter games, your securely located war rooms stocked with emergency rations and the external defibrillator. This sort of unhinged fantasizing has been the defining pattern of the Era of Endless War, in which people – old men, for the most part, a good number of them rich – who never experienced war – who in their youth ran as fast from it as they could – send young men and women – most of them middle- and working-class – across oceans to fight wars based on half-facts, cooked intelligence, and magical thinking on the grand geopolitical scale. Surely it's no coincidence that the Era of the AUMF, the Era of Endless War, is also the Golden Era of the Chickenhawk. We keep electing leaders who, on the most basic experiential level, literally have no idea what they're doing.

Maybe they get away with it because we the people who keep voting them into office don't know anything about war ourselves. We know the fantasy version, the movie version, but only that 1% of the nation – and their families – who have fought the wars truly know the hardship involved. For the rest of us, no sacrifice has been called for: none. No draft. No war tax (but huge deficits), and here it bears noting that the top tax rate during the second world war was 90%. No rationing, the very mention of which is good for a laugh. Rationing? That was never part of the discussion. But those years when US soldiers were piling sandbags into their thin-skinned Humvees and welding scrap metal on to the sides also happened to coincide with the heyday of the Hummer here at home. Where I live in Dallas, you couldn't drive a couple of blocks without passing one of those beasts, 8,600 hulking pounds of chrome and steel. Or for a really good laugh, how about this: gas rationing. If it's really about the oil, we could support the troops by driving less, walking more. Or suppose it's not about the oil at all, but about our freedoms, our values, our very way of life – that it's truly "a clash of civilizations", in the words of Senator Rubio. If that's the case, if this is what we truly believe, then our politicians should call for, and we should accept no less than, full-scale mobilization: a draft, confiscatory tax rates, rationing.

Some 3.5 million Americans fought in the civil war, out of a population of 31 million. For years the number killed in action was estimated at 620,000, though recent scholarship suggests a significantly higher figure, from a low of 650,000 to a high of 850,000. In any case, it's clear that the vast majority of American families had, as we say these days, skin in the game. The war was real; having loved ones at risk made it real. Many saw battles being fought in their literal backyards. Lincoln himself watched the fighting from the DC ramparts, saw men shot and killed. The lived reality of the thing was so brutally direct that it would be more than 50 years before the US embarked on another major war. To be sure, there was the brief Spanish-American war in 1898, and a three-year native insurgency in the Philippines, and various forays around the Caribbean and Central America, but the trauma of the civil war cut so deep and raw that the generation that fought it was largely cured of war. Our own generation's appetite seems steadily robust even as we approach the 15th anniversary of the AUMF, which, given the circumstances, makes sense. As long as we're cocooned in our comfortable homeland fantasy of war, one can safely predict a long and successful run for the Era of the Chickenhawk.


 Ambrose Bierce spent a day in 1913 sitting under the blazing sun at Shiloh where he had fought 50 years before. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Bierce survived his own war, barely. Two weeks after writing to a friend "my turn will come", and one day before his 22nd birthday, he was shot in the head near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. The sniper's ball broke his skull "like a walnut", penetrating the left temple, fracturing the temporal lobe and doglegging down and around behind his left ear, where it stayed. Head shots in that era were almost always fatal, but Bierce survived not only the initial wound, but an awful two-day train ride on an open flatcar to an army hospital in Chattanooga.

He recovered, more or less. Not the easiest personality to begin with, Bierce showed no appreciable mellowing from his war experience. His life is an ugly litany of feuds, ruptures, lawsuits, friends betrayed or abandoned, epic temper tantrums and equally epic funks. He was a lousy husband – cold, critical, philandering – and essentially abandoned his wife after 17 years of marriage. His older son shot himself dead at age 16, and the younger drank himself to death in his 20s; for his own part, Bierce maintained a lifelong obsession with suicide. In October 1913, after a distinguished, contentious 50-year career that had made him one of the most famous and hated men in America, Bierce left Washington DC and headed for Mexico, intending to join, or report on – it was never quite clear – Pancho Villa's revolutionary army. En route, dressing every day entirely in black, he paid final visits to the battlefields of his youth, hiking for miles in the Indian summer heat around Orchard Knob, Missionary Ridge, Hell's Half-Acre. For one whole day at Shiloh he sat by himself in the blazing sun. In November he crossed from Laredo into Mexico, and was never heard from again, an exit dramatic enough to inspire a bestselling novel by Carlos Fuentes, The Old Gringo, and a movie adaptation of the same name starring Gregory Peck.

Late in life, Bierce described his military service in these terms:

It was once my fortune to command a company of soldiers – real soldiers. Not professional life-long fighters, the product of European militarism – just plain, ordinary American volunteer soldiers, who loved their country and fought for it with never a thought of grabbing it for themselves; that is a trick which the survivors were taught later by gentlemen desiring their votes.

About those gentlemen – and women – desiring votes: since when did it become not just acceptable but required for politicians to hold forth on Memorial Day? Who gave them permission to speak for the violently dead? Come Monday we'll be up to our ears in some of the emptiest, most self-serving dreck ever to ripple the atmosphere, the standard war-fantasy talk of American politics along with televangelist-style purlings about heroes, freedoms, the supreme sacrifice. Trump will tell us how much he loves the veterans, and how much they love him back. Down-ticket pols will re-terrorize and titillate voters with tough talk about Isis. Hemingway, for one, had no use for this kind of guff, as shown in a famous passage from A Farewell to Arms:

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of the places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Here's a proposition: we stand a better chance of understanding something of ourselves and our wars if we tune out the politicians, for one day at least, and turn our attention to a certain kind of writer: namely, the man or woman who experiences war firsthand, then devotes heart and soul to finding correct words, the true words, for describing the reality of the thing. Crazy, right? Maybe you think I've been smoking that weird Texas dope? The very idea, ignoring Hillary and Trump and instead reading a poem by Brian Turner or Kevin Powers, or a passage from Youngblood or Fobbit or Green on Blue. But a country going on its 15th year of war would seem obliged to use every tool at hand for making sense of its situation. And if looking at poems and novels seems like a radical act, that in itself might be a clue to the problem.

Or how about silence? In an era where language has proved so susceptible to abuse, maybe the sanest thing we can do is reserve some space for silence. The National Moment of Remembrance Act puts this notion into law, encouraging a minute of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day. At least then we would be spared someone trying to sell us something – appliances, a political agenda, a war – for as long as the silence lasted, and that alone seems like a mercy. It's hard to hijack silence, and maybe that's the point. One thinks of Ambrose Bierce sitting all day in the sun at Shiloh, an old man, his war long past, biding silently with his ghosts.

More from Ben Fountain:

The phony in American politics: how voters turn into suckers

American crossroads: Reagan, Trump and the devil down south

American exceptionalism: the great game and the noble way

Donald Trump aids and abets violence.

- An American Story

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Something to Know - 29 May

Steve Breen

This article from today's NY Times is very closely related to the global drought issues, and brings to mind what we in California are experiencing.   Vietnam has suffered from the heavy-handed policies from a central government that is not listening to the concerns of environmentalists.   Getting all the water to produce an exaggerated rice harvest has resulted in sea water encroaching up the damned rivers to kill the crops and all related plants.   Does this bring to mind a pea-brained blowhard coming to our state of California and vowing to open up the flood gates to unleash all the water?   Poor Donny....he's as dumb as the Communist Party Central Planners of Vietnam:

Drought and 'Rice First' Policy Imperil Vietnamese Farmers



SOC TRANG, Vietnam — When the rice shoots began to wither on Lam Thi Loi's farm in the heart of the Mekong Delta, a usually verdant region ofVietnam, she faced a hard choice: Let them die in the parched earth, or pump salty water from the river to give them a chance.

Like many seasoned farmers here, she risked the saline water. The crop perished within days.

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam's premier rice growing region, is suffering its worst drought since French colonial administrators began recording statistics in 1926. Giant cracks, some a foot deep, gouge the hard earth; brown stalks of dead rice litter the fields; and the dryness is so severe even the pests lie shriveled on the ground.

"I've been planting rice since I was 13, and I have never seen anything like this," Ms. Loi, 38, said as she sat in her neat living room. "In February I got one bag of rice. Last year we harvested 1.4 tons."

The increasingly dramatic effect of El Niño, the weather phenomenon that causes excessive heat and reduced rainfall in Southeast Asia, is the prime reason for the crop failures in the delta, scientists say. But it is not the only one.









Phnom Penh

Ho Chi Minh City

Gulf of


South China Sea



150 Miles

By The New York Times

The Communist government's insistence that farmers grow three rice crops a year, instead of the traditional one or two, has depleted the soil of nutrients, exacerbating the impact of the drought, they say.

And water from the sea has invaded the lower reaches of the Mekong River, which is more shallow than usual, sweeping saline water farther up the delta than ever before and wiping out rice fields.

All 13 provinces in the delta, home to 17 million people, or one-fifth of Vietnam's population, are suffering from salt water in agricultural lands, the government said. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development reported in March that 200,000 households experienced serious water shortages, and that the number was rising.

Saline water has long been invading the delta, but because of the drought there is not enough fresh water in the river and its distributaries to dilute the seawater. The salt is having a more deleterious impact, the scientists say.

The rice crop crisis has highlighted the need for the government to adjust its heavy emphasis on rice growing, and to encourage shrimp farming as a more profitable and practical substitute, said Nguyen Huu Thien, a consultant with the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"Vietnam is the second-biggest rice exporter after Thailand," Mr. Thien said, referring to the Southeast Asian region. "But there is no glory in that because the farmers are not thriving, and there is a lot of migration out of the delta."

The government is stuck on a "rice first" policy that harks back to the 1970s, after the Communist victory in the Vietnam War, when the people were hungry and the country was isolated, bereft of trading partners and without a manufacturing sector.

In those days, the government mobilized work teams to construct earthen dikes along major canals in the delta to keep the salt water out and to foster better conditions for rice growing, said Timothy Gorman, a researcher on the delta at Cornell University.

Government-financed sluice gates were built in the 1990s, he said. By 2001, some farmers were so fed up with the efforts to hold back the salt water that they attacked the sluice gates and destroyed them, making way for the cultivation of tiger prawns in the western part of the delta.

Many farmers know the saline water is good for producing shrimp, Mr. Gorman said, but while they get subsidies for rice, they are not encouraged to switch to shrimp.

Huynh Anh Dung's rice crop in Soc Trang Province in the Mekong Delta was destroyed by drought.CreditThe New York Times

The construction of hydropower dams upstream from the delta, and dams in China's southern province of Yunnan, are adding to the woes.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Mekong River Commission warned against the building of 11 dams in Laos and Cambodia because they would trap valuable sediment and stop it from reaching the delta. The report was ignored, two of the dams are under construction, and the rest are scheduled to go ahead.

In a rare concession to Vietnam, the Chinese released water from dams in Yunnan Province in March, but the flow was too small to make a difference to the failing rice crops, the Vietnamese authorities said.

Resentment toward the government is rising among the villagers.

The provincial authorities kept them in the dark, residents said. In October, the water level in the vast Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, which feeds into the Mekong River, was perilously low.

Two other big reservoirs of water in the Vietnamese provinces of An Giang and Dong Thap that help soak the rice fields were also at extremely low levels.

Ms. Loi said she had not been warned. She went ahead, plowing and planting. She has lost more than $1,000 on seeds, fertilizers and labor, she said.

Yet when she attended a meeting called recently by district officials to discuss the problems, the villagers were met with scorn, she said. "They offered me only $120," she said. "It is nothing. We have no right to negotiate with them. They said the farmers don't know anything. But we do know our business."

On the banks of the river two hours away, a more prosperous rice farmer, Huynh Anh Dung, 34, presides over six acres of land, his share of a vast property founded by his grandfather nearly 100 years ago.

When his rice crop failed in February because of salty water, he decided to forsake a third crop. He knew it was folly to try again.

"A friend had a machine that measures the salt in the water," he said. "There was 4.8 parts per thousand. Anything over two parts per thousand kills the plants."


Some farmers have fled to Ho Chi Minh City to find work, leaving villages with only half their population.

In some towns and villages, farmers like Mr. Dung have comfortable homes with polished wood furniture, televisions, motorbikes for getting around on the roads and outboard motor boats on the rivers. A mildly sweet iced tea, with crushed ice, is served as a welcoming drink to visitors.

Mr. Dung is staying put, tethered to his ancestral lands. He had saved enough money from past crops that he did not need part-time work. His uncle had started growing organic bitter melons on a portion of land on the family farm, a project that was doing well.

On a recent morning, he hired a worker to dig shallow trenches in the fields so that when the rains finally arrive the salt now embedded in the earth will run away more quickly.

The signs of well-being will not last, said Mr. Thien, who was one of the authors of the 2010 report on the dams. With so many dams coming on line upstream, the lack of sediment will eventually kill the delta, leaving it a wasteland in the next 100 years or so.

"The impact of the dams will be irreversible," he said.

Mr. Dung could not see so far into the future. As he contemplated the salt damage, and his scorched earth, thunder rumbled in the distance. Gray clouds hung overhead, the first in six months. "I hope it rains," he said.


Donald Trump aids and abets violence.

- An American Story

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Something to Know - 28 May

Lalo Alcaraz

Hector Tobar used to write for the LA Times, until they down-sized and got rid of a lot of good writers.  He teaches up in Oregon now, but maintains a good perspective of Los Angeles, especially from the Latin American point of view.   He points out that many of the migrating immigrants first come to California, and get prepped and frustrated, then move to other states to live their "dream", or something like that.   I think you might enjoy this article.

California's Midlife Crisis

Los Angeles — MY hometown looks sleek and Scandinavian in car commercials. In a perpetual loop of old cable television movie reruns, our freeways are wide and open and uncluttered, our palm trees remain untainted by graffiti, and the friendly, sun-tanned officers of the Los Angeles Police Department never have a misplaced hair in their crew cuts.

The real Los Angeles is gray and beaten down, an older man trying to fit into a younger body. We Angelenos are reminded of this when we drive down roads that have been repaved and retrofitted for a half-century or longer. To enter my local freeway, I cross a bridge built in 1940, past a crumbling concrete railing that has been struck so often by speeding Edsels, Ramblers and Explorers that it looks like a relic from a World War II battle.

The median age in metropolitan Los Angeles is 35, so we're on the cusp of middle age. Once famous for our mellow and licentious vibe, we've become an irascible lot. We see order breaking down at that most sacred of Los Angeles meeting points: the four-way stop. It's more common than ever to see some harried commuter slip past without waiting his turn. It makes me want to scream.

No wonder we're feeling the pressure. By some estimates, California now includes the three most densely populated metro areas in the United States: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.

It is in this vexed state that California is preparing to vote in a June election, the first time a presidential primary here has received so much attention since Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy fought it out in 1968.

We're looking for a savior to rescue us from our midlife crisis. Already, our existential angst has led us to some bad decisions. We gave the world the political career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilding graduate of Muscle Beach. He was Ronald Reagan on steroids — in part, literally — and the more conservative among us voted him into office so that he'd "kick butt" on budgets. These days, he shills for a video game.

"See that actor pretending to be a general," I tell my kids when a Mobile Strike commercial comes on, the Terminator dressed in epaulets. "He was governor of California!"

The median age in the Golden State is also 35, but nearly half the state's likely voters are 55 or older. Many have thus lived long enough to see several cycles of boom and bust: from deindustrialization to dot-coms, from white flight to black flight, from the Great Real Estate Bust of 2008 to the hipsterati gentrification scourge of the present day.

Sadly, even the booms don't bring us much joy any more. As I write, unemployment is way down and property values are up, yet across the social spectrum everyone is stressed out. Immigrant laborers live with low wages and the possibility of being deported. The middle class feels pushed out by impossible housing costs. And the rich are mad at the rest of us simply because we're so many, and we keep getting in their way.

This election season, we have new political suitors trying to tap into our stress-induced anger.

Donald J. Trump is promising to chauffeur us in luxury to a simpler, whiter time — one focus group recently compared Mr. Trump to a Porsche. Bernie Sanders, with his tousled white hair and socialist message, reminds us of California's tie-dyed past. I can imagine him driving me to Big Sur in a Volkswagen bus.

In the semi-gentrified barrio near my home, there's a local artist trying to drum up Latino support for Senator Sanders. He's making "Viva Bernie" signs, silk-screened, just like in the '60s.

Recent polls have Latinos starting to drift toward the Bern in the Democratic primary. They've voted for an old white guy before. In the last election for governor, Latinos voted by a nearly three to one margin for Jerry Brown — he'd been governor in the '70s and '80s, they figured he could run things decently and rescue public education from a budgetary cliff.

This November, Latinos will be looking for someone to beat back the xenophobic entertainer who now has a lock on the Republican nomination. For that reason, they'll vote for Hillary Clinton in droves if she's the nominee.

Latinos are now a plurality in California. But even many of them feel the Golden State is just too much. Young Latino families have started moving away, founding new barrios and soccer leagues in North Carolina and Georgia, joining a new exodus. Since about 1995, net migration into California has reversed.

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These days, we're exporting blue-capped Dodger fans to other cities: I see them on television at Dodger away games in Denver, Washington and other places, a boisterous bunch who are often louder than fans for the home team. Angelenos now go to New York City to relax. We get to get out of our cars when we're there. The whole Manhattan vibe is more orderly, less frenzied.

I even get the impression that the rest of the country now finds Californians more obnoxious than New Yorkers. In Oregon, where I teach, people blame us for an increase in bicycle accidents.

Back home in our empty nest, as the Golden State drifts toward its golden years, we know that just staying safe and keeping things semi-together is achievement enough. With age has come wisdom, and we've reached a kind of acceptance with things that made us angry. Once or twice in our youth some of us rioted, and some voted for initiatives against immigrants and gay marriage.

As stressed out as we Californians are, we won't be doing anything that self-destructive this election year.

Héctor Tobar, the author of "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free," teaches writing at the University of Oregon and is a contributing opinion writer.


Donald Trump aids and abets violence.

- An American Story