Monday, March 26, 2007

The "Pull out of DC" email

I keep getting this stupid email:
There has been a monthly average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theatre of operations during the last 22 months, and a total of 2,112 deaths. That gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.

The firearm death rate in Washington D.C. is 80.6 per 100,000 persons for the same period. That means that you are about 25% more likely to be shot and killed in the U.S. Capital than you are in Iraq.

Conclusion: The U.S. should pull out of Washington
Maybe people think this is funny. Maybe they give a little laugh and say, "Gee. Sure is dangerous in the old chocolate city. Thank goodness I live in Baltimore." Or they shake their heads and say, "Wow, guns sure are dangerous. We should get rid of them."

More often, I get this email from some gun nut or other who uses it to buttress their argument that D.C.'s gun ban has actually caused an increase in violence (demonstrably untrue).

Most commonly, though, this comes from some chucklehead who's trying to make the point that the Iraq conflict is the least dangerous military engagement in US history (actually true in terms of death, less so in outright casualties), and we should therefore stop our fatuous whining about it, roll up our sleeves and get in there and finish the job (whatever job that might be--no one seems to have a coherent answer for that question).

Well, I finally got tired of it when I got the email from my Mom. Mom's a progressive, but she can be a little credulous about things that come in through her email.

This email isn't glib and funny. It's venal and factually wrong. It is a perfect case-in-point example of rightwing mendacity. A lie, I say. At some point, someone purposefully put this little turd into circulation to make a point (any one of several tired points the right likes to harp on). This is not "an important conclusion." It is a bunch of crap.

Fortunately, we have a very fine myth-busting tool available to us thanks to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index (warning: .pdf). That Index, updated and released every week, can tell you almost everything you need to know about what it's possible to know about Iraq.

That Index, and a little internet research into DC crime statistics and population, give you everything you need to disprove this bullshit quote. But looking into it all is a pain in the butt (which is what the sender is counting on).

Well, I've taken all the work out of it for you. I've even done the math.

If you're guilty of passing along that nice little piece of garbage, you owe it to everyone you've sent it to to send them this (all page numbers refer to the Index):

First of all, the quote gives an overall death figure but then uses it to claim firearm deaths. You can't actually determine "firearm" deaths from anything the US military gives out. Plus, there are so many other sources of hostile death in Iraq that it seems silly to limit yourself. Is it any more vicious to be intentionally killed with an IED than it is with a Kalashnikov (or, for DC purposes, a Glock 9)? But that's fine: it's easier (and logical) to compare overall homicide statistics with overall hostile-action deaths. DC doesn't break out its firearm crime, either.

The information in the quote is also out of date (as people keep getting killed). The close-to-current death toll is well over 2,112. And the average troop strength over the last 22 months is a bit lower than 160,000.

Actual US troop strength per month is 145,000 for the last 22 months. (p.21) Over the past 22 months, there have been 1,562 total casualties for US forces in Iraq. Of those, 191 died from non-hostile causes, leaving 1,371 total deaths due to hostile action (p.8). This is off a little bit, because the report is only current through March 21. But it's more than half of what the email claims, while troop numbers remained proportionately higher. So that actually helps Mr. Free Republic.

At an average of 62.3 deaths per month, that's roughly 43 per 100 thousand -- less than the 60 per 100k Mr. Freep claims. Wow! It's even safer in Iraq than we thought!

In 2006, there were 196 homicides (of all kinds) in Washington, D.C.; 198 in 2005. That's according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

According to the US Census Bureau, DC's estimated 2005 population was 550, 521. They lost 3.8% of their population over the previous 5 years. Assuming that trend continued in 2006, the 2006 DC population was about 546,337. So the average population over 2005-6 should be about 548,429. That's roughly 40 homicides per 100,000 people per year, or 3.34 per month.

3.3 per 100k per month in Washington. 43 per 100k per month in Iraq. Well, I've never been very good at math, but I think 43 > 3.3. Right?

Comparing hostile-action deaths in Iraq to homicides in DC, Iraq is about 13 times more dangerous than DC. Or, in the language of the email, you're over a thousand percent more likely to be killed in Iraq.

But the comparison is even more full of bullshit than it seems at first blush. For the DC statistics, we looked at all homicides. Because DC isn't at war, that accounts for all wrongful deaths in the District of Colombia. But when we looked at Iraq, we only looked at US military deaths due to "hostile action." We didn't even consider that Iraqi military and police killed, by month for the last 22 months, averaged 189. Per month. (p. 11) So if you're an Iraqi policeman, Iraq is about 57 times more dangerous than Washington D.C.

Or the average of 2,871 Iraqi civilians killed per month during 2006 (p.13). That's almost as many as the death toll on September 11. Actually, it's more as if Saudi Arabians killed 2,871 Americans every month for at least one year. Or perhaps if they killed Canadians, instead. Since Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

So I hope we can can sacrifice this stupid email to the recycle bin. It's flat-out wrong. But that hasn't kept it from popping up repeatedly. It's even made it on to the TeeVee (OK, Fox). And when you started sending it to my mother, you pissed me right off.

Anyway, the actual conclusion (the email-author's logic) is that we should invade DC. Don't think I haven't thought about it...

Friday, March 9, 2007

Is it still us, or is it you and me?

Over at Corrente, ddjango posted up a few important paragraphs about race and the American left. This is a deeply important discussion to have -- one that we shouldn't stop having even though there's a terrible lot on our plates these days. To my thinking, the effectiveness of the left can only be judged by the world our efforts either create or fail to create. In Mt. Blackmore: The Future of America?, ddjango raises an exuberant call for a grand memorial to black Americans who fought (and fight) for equality in a land that claims to value it. In the middle of the piece is this paragraph:
I recently in these pages decried what I have seen as a chasm between the white male-dominated Left and other politically leftist groups. ... Perhaps advocating integration and unity is not such a good idea, because the strength and power of the non-white-male left might be forced to compromise beliefs and programs/policies that are essential to a radical revolution. Barak Obama, I venture, is an exceptionally noticeable result of such integration. Colin Powell and Condi “They Named a Damn Oil Tanker After Me” Rice are the most egregious and nauseating outcomes.

This is the Big Issue, as far as I'm concerned, that the left in the United States has been unable to resolve since its inception. Whether you find that birth in the abolitionist movement or the labor movement or the suffrage struggle or the farm workers struggles or the civil rights era or women's liberation or the fight for gay rights, the question has always been, "How much can a member of the ruling elite, that is, white males, be counted upon to further the struggle of those outside that demographic?" Can we credibly work together? Or is there something innately limiting about a "movement" dominated by a group of people who have a choice about it?

Is there strength in separatism of some amount? The answer would seem to be an unequivocal "yes." No recent struggle for equality in American society would have begun or succeeded without the exclusive impetus of the group oppressed. Blacks, women, gays, latinos, workers. Of the major social upheavals of the last 150 years, I believe you can only make a case for abolition being dominated from the beginning by members of the majority. And my history may be fuzzy on that. (Note: I'm not saying freedmen or escaped slaves were not a part of the genesis; I'm only saying that it was a white movement in structure and majority from the beginning.)

But the question I raised (or tried to, in my roundabout, overly wordy way) in the "comments" section is, "Can we work together?" ddjango's position seems to be that no progressive effort will ever be progressive enough, so long as it is dominated by white males. Now, I'm not totally convinced that the progressive movement in America is essentially white-male. But that might be because I am one. This likely looks a lot different to anyone who isn't me. So that's why I responded and that's why I'm posting.

Surely, no matter what you think about the respective role of white-male and non-(white male) leftists, in the end we're stronger together than we are apart. Unless you believe that no matter what we do together, it will unavoidably fail to meet the requirements of a truly Liberal Society. I posed a lot of questions to ddjango in my comments (I don't know if they'll make it to post--I've been blocked by Corrente before), and I encourage you to go look at the Corrente post and think it through. But to me, the most crucial one is this:
What does a more perfect future look like to you, so that a white male leftist would be incapable of advocating for it at all?
So what of it, people? What are your thoughts on this, most important meta-question of the Progressive Left?

Thursday, March 8, 2007


I started this post a few weeks ago but haven't been in the mood to finish it. I don't have the energy to polish it up right now -- maybe I'll unpack some of the thoughts in it more in the coming weeks. Here's the fit and start:

It is snowing gently here in Portland. Millions of flakes are floating slowly out of a pewter Sunday morning sky. Of course each of them is unique. Our parents teach us that is so, almost from the moment we can comprehend. But frankly, no matter how unique it may be, not one of those flakes is significant. Only when they come in the millions of millions and all at once is the world forced to take notice. Usually, the same is true of people. No matter how "unique" you might feel yourself to be, really you don't matter. But some matter, more than most.

I recently finished reading a couple of books about one man who mattered more than most: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence's account of the Arab Revolt against Turkey during the first World War and A Prince of Our Disorder, a biography of Lawrence by John E. Mack. Both would "make serious inroads on a lifetime," as G.B. Shaw said. Lawrence's work is an epic, probably wholly unique in English literature. Had he survived the attack of the whale and been of a literary mind, Ahab may have written something similar and of similar length. Mack's is an exacting investigation of the life of a wholly unique individual.

Both books reaffirm heroism as a concept. I offer them here to help hold the line against the incredible proliferation of "heroes" in our world since 9/11. Firefighter? Hero. Policeman? Hero. Soldier? Hero. Automatically and without question. Fighting cancer? Hero. A child fighting cancer? Double-plus hero. We're so deep in everyday "heroes," we hardly know what a real hero is anymore.

There's a narrow ledge to walk here. Perhaps I've already plunged off it. But I dare to assert that simply serving in uniform, even serving under fire -- even being wounded by the enemy -- does not a hero make. Let me be very clear: I am in no way denigrating or devaluing the service of those both brave and unlucky to come home wounded, or not to come home at all. Their willingness or code-fulfillment is the personification of honor. Rather, I am trying to recoup the title of "Hero" from the merely honorable or brave or stalwart or exceptional.

Of course this is all part of our failure of language. As media become faster and our notice has become a dearer commodity, language has taken shortcuts to our attention. Steadily we have stripped words of their individual meaning and promulgated a vocabulary of mere synonyms, where everything means roughly the same thing, and therefore means hardly anything at all. I'd like to rescue "hero" from the pile.
Men need heroes in order to transcend the limitations and disappointments they experience in their everyday lives. Heroes embody ideals and values shared in the culture, ready examples with whom the rest of us may identify. But the creation of heroes depends upon the compliance of history, the coming together of special events and situations with unusual men or women who take hold of these circumstances, force upon them their own actions and personalities, and transform them along the lines of their own dreams. Mack, p. 217
Heroes are "everyday" in the sense that we need to see ourselves in them. But they are also something far more. Like Ahab, they possess the "global brain." There is something of the ubermensch about them. And they act grandly, to take hold of the events of an age and shape them. This is the model that Bush self-elects. This is the Rumsfeldian ideal. Of course, both men fell far short in reality--both innately and through performance. This is the language their idolaters invoke, however. Unfortunately for us (and for them), the epic hero is impotent against the modern world.

The last time this kind of a hero made sense was in the ante-bellum Union. After the Civil War, the epic heroic ideal began to lose currency in America. In WWI this hero died in France. And in Vietnam, this hero began to die in Dixie. It is a lingering death, but death it remains. What Charles Frazier termed "the metal face of the age" is too impersonal, too indiscriminate for such parade-ground heroes. What we learned at Antietam and Ypres and Hiroshima is that simple bigness, bare valor and feat-of-arms is the province of comic books when it comes to heroes.
If people bring so much courage into this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of those you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. A Farewell to Arms.
Death is coming. Fatalism like this isn't just for the battlefield anymore, as terrorism proves. Our modern world, the world we've made, requires something more from a hero than "heroics." The events of that September caused people to cast about quickly for heroes--prominent people to reflect us back to us but magnified and triumphant. So we quickly cast ourselves some heroes from old, 19th-century molds. But they were empty vessels. Not only were they not up to the challenges of the age, but they lacked some deeply essential qualities. If the battlefield is my block, then everyone on it is heroic -- but obviously not. Take events in your hands, yes. Rise above the run of people, yes. But there must be something deeper, more empathic, more aware.
One little-known member of the Arab Bureau said of Lawrence, 'What he hid, I believe, and still believe, was a tender reverence for human life which his duty as a soldier compelled him to violate, and so he was always stressed by inner conflict.' But it is this conflict about human life, the inability to justify killing, the self-consciousness, guilt and exaggerated responsibility-taking that make Lawrence, a valued example for the twelfth century, a contemporary hero. Mack, p. 218
This deep ambivalence to the theater of heroism and abiding empathy for people is the ingredient missing in our current talk of heroes. True greatness, today, must transcend inward not outward. This is what I find so thoroughly lacking in our leaders, and missing from the commercial heroes of the nightly news. A hero, a 21st century hero, must marry the broad vision to human love.

Take that definition of "hero" and you quickly wipe out the run-of-the-mill "everyday heroes." They aren't. They're necessary and thank goodness we have them. They save lives and they make an important difference. They can be wonderful examples to emulate. They're worth holding in the spotlight for our admiration and praise. But they aren't heroes. Boy, could we use a hero right about now.

Perhaps this standard is impossibly high. Perhaps we've even outstripped heroes of Lawrence's type. In his essay, Our Leadership Vacuum, which I panned, perhaps what Edgar Allen Beem is actually wincing over is the age of the antihero. We can know everything. We know Lawrence suffered from deep depression after the war and that his sexuality was stunted. But we learn this years later. Today we find out about one candidate's unpaid parking tickets from 20 years ago. No one can fly too high. We know everything; perhaps we've lost something. I blasted Beem because I believe that in our world, incremental change is still change. Perhaps because we've confined ourselves mostly to the margins, true heroic opportunity is rare. But people still need heroes.
In his essay 'T.E. Lawrence: the Problem of Heroism,' Irving Howe has written: 'The hero as he appears in the tangle of modern life is a man struggling with a vision he can neither realize nor abandon, 'a man with a load on his mind.'' Howe also points out: 'What finally draws one to Lawrence, making him seem not merely an exceptional figure, but a representative man of our century, is his courage and vulnerability in bearing the burden of consciousness.' Lawrence is, in Howe's phrase, 'a prince of our disorder' (which will recall the words of Lunt's Bedouin host: 'Of all the men I have ever met he was the greatest Prince'). Mack, p.218
Truthfully, we do have heroes. And we have them human: Cesar Chavez. Nelson Mandela. Lech Walesa. Corazon Aquino. It seems to me that these people come closer to 'bearing the burden of consciousness' because the choices they made steered away from the barrel of a gun, in spite of the deep temptation the gun must have held for them. When you hear about a hero on TeeVee, think of these people instead and reserve the word for people like them. People who, more than being physically courageous, take the world in hand and try to stand between it and those who fall behind. People whose deep sense of personal responsibility makes every bomb and bullet of their own a wound to themselves. That is why they matter more than most.
"I am not a very tractable person or much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world. I loved him for himself, and also because there seemed to be reborn in him all the lost friends of my youth." John Buchan

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Secret

This book recently showed up in my house. That means money was spent on it (not my own, of which there is precious little and more on that in a moment). We all get pulled by shiny things from time to time. So often on closer look, the shine fades. Personally, I'm a sucker for the latest motorcycle magazine, any "special issue" of Fine Homebuilding and the occasional lottery ticket. Embedded in that grab is the idea that whatever I just dropped my cash on is somehow going to improve my life. How often does that pan out?

I was not surprised, then, to hear from the secret "Secret" buyer a bit of buyer's remorse. Not just the simple, "eh, it wasn't that good," but rather more like, "what a load of crap!" No kidding. Oprah's plugging it, though, so there must be something there, right?

Well, no, actually.

I was going to write a little blog about the "culture of Oprah" but I soon discovered that Peter Birkenhead of had already done so, and done so much better than I would. In fact, a bunch of people have noted the venal (if not actually depraved) culture-of-Oprah that seems to embody our whole American tapestry right now. I'd like specifically to tip my hat to Chris Floyd of Empire Burlesque, whose ideas on the Salon piece I'm pretty much stealing, right down to the photo.

The thing about Oprah that has always bugged me is that no matter what, the second you criticize her someone is bound to say, "But she's done so much good."

Birkenhead's response: "Has Oprah ever done anything that didn't leave people with mixed feelings? And at what point do we stop feeling like we have to take the good with the craven when it comes to Oprah, and the culture she's helped to create?"

Why craven, you ask?
Because, with survivors of Auschwitz still alive, Oprah writes this about "The Secret" on her Web site, "the energy you put into the world -- both good and bad -- is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day." "Venality," because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought." "Venality," because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts."
So that's the problem! Not that I was out of work for three months, that I haven't had health care for three years and that I spend too much money keeping my car on the road and food in my (ever expanding) belly. I've been blocking. Well thank goodness I haven't been thinking about genocide. I just need to start believing (in wealth, in happiness and success in Iraq). Great strategy.

"The Secret" is garbage. But it is a kind of garbage that infuses our culture bottom to (more recently) top.
It's a culture where superstition is "spirituality," illiteracy is "authenticity," and schoolmarm moralism is "character." It's a culture where people apologize by saying, "I'm sorry you took offense at what I said," and forgive by saying, "I'm not angry at you anymore, I'm grateful to you for teaching me not to trust shitheads like you."
Why bother pointing all this out? As Birkenhead and Floyd and now myself say, because she's Oprah. Better name recognition than Nelson Mandela, reaches more people than Bill O'Reilly. She's a movement. She creates best-sellers with a whisper and builds vastly expensive finishing schools in South Africa with a wave of her hand. Birkenhead: "The things that Oprah does, like promoting "The Secret," can seem deceptively trivial, but it's precisely because they're silly that we should be concerned about their promotion by someone who is deadly earnest and deeply trusted by millions of people."

Go read Birkenhead's piece on Salon. And stop by Empire Burlesque. Good stuff there.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Logjam, not a Vacuum

This week's Forecaster features a column by Edgar Allen Beem, Our Leadership Vacuum. Beem's column, "The Universal Notebook," runs every week. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes not. Like most (but not all) columnists, he's pretty lazy in his thinking. Even when I agree with his conclusions I'm often not altogether charmed by his logic or evidence. This week's column was particularly lazy, however.

As the title suggests, Beem feels there's no real leadership in Portland. He longs for the days when "things got done." Usually, things got done because the guys in charge not only had all the money, they owned all the real estate and basically ran the city. Things have changed. I agree. But what set me off was Beem's targeting of "Generation x" types and their assumed lack of big picture vision:
...all those progressive neighborhood activists who have assumed power can’t seem to get much accomplished.
...And the GenXers who have stepped into the leadership void just seem to lack the big picture, focusing on narrow, do-able, short-term goals with the best of intentions and mixed results.
Not to mention (and by that I mean, specifically to mention) the lazy equation of Barak Obama with George Bush:
I wish I could say I see hope on the horizon, but I don’t. Barak Obama? Come on, all the guy’s done so far is get elected. Like George W. Bush, he’s just a blank slate upon whom people project their desires.
So I dashed off a response to the Forecaster. I barely scratched the surface of what I could have hit on. Nevertheless, for your reading pleasure (with fun links added):

There are so many red-herrings, misleading assumptions and fuzzy thoughts in Edgar Allen Beem's notebook of 2/28 that I hardly know where to start. So, like Beem, I'll just wade right in.

Beem assumes there is no leadership because there are no leaders. Starting here leaves you nowhere to go but down and that, predictably, is where he heads. The trouble with this premise is that Beem's idea of a leader is really the definition of a philanthropist with a civic bent. Well what do you know? All those wealthy Boomers that have come to Maine over the past 30 years just don't want to give their money away. Beem nods cursorily in that direction, but his real shots he saves for the younger generation (of which I am proudly a part).

Contrary to Beem's assertion, we have a "big picture" vision that we deeply desire to implement: We see a city of reduced car traffic, with greater and more convenient public transportation. A city that is not just walk-able but actually walk-ing, with vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods and an accessible city government. A picture of a new, greener future that is available to all citizens, regardless of their income or socio-economic status. A city better connected to the Mid-coast, Southern Maine and Boston with improved rail service. A sea-going city bound more closely with the Northeast's greatest trading partner: Canada and its maritime provinces. A city of immigrants, newcomers and native Mainers. A city with strong schools and the outstanding business opportunities that come with a ready, willing and educated workforce. A true 21st century model.

But the moment someone comes up with a sensible, albeit unorthodox idea, people of Beem's ilk and generation pop up to shoot it down. Witness the efforts of Marcos Miller and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization to promote that vision with respect to the City's transportation plan. When people weren't actively denigrating their ideas, the City was burying the process and eliminating public participation.

This same ineffectual group of individuals (citizens and councilors alike) consistently stands in the way of the big picture vision of Portland's younger generation. The "narrow, do-able, short-term goals" Beem sees so fit to denigrate are not stand-alone initiatives. They are part and parcel of the bigger vision: incremental victories that we somehow manage to slip past the wall of muffle-headed, business-as-usual types like Mr. Beem. But more is coming. In the very paper that carries Beem's sad lament, we read of a new push for accountability in the Mayoral office and a drastic restructuring of city government put forward by these allegedly short-sighted enfants dans les bois.

"[A]ll those progressive neighborhood activists who have assumed power can't seem to get much accomplished." Let's look as one of the little things they've done: the revocation of the formula business ban and the formation of a committee to examine the issue. The ban, which Beem rightly labels "ill-conceived," was railroaded through before the last election by the retreating baby-boom old guard, which declined to study the issue at all, winged it completely and missed badly.

Sometimes you have to go backward before you can go forward. It has scarcely been three months since Donoghue and Marshall were inaugurated to the city council. That's barely enough time to come to grips with the mess of Portland government, much less reverse its course. Ask yourself, Mr. Beem, who is standing in the way of these "activists in power" (all two of them)? I have a generational mirror here if you need it.

Beem wants leaders with "vision and clout." Obviously, the vision is there. Apparently what Beem means by "clout" is "cash." The people with cash in this city are, paradoxically, the ones who lack vision. Well, "generation X" has the vision. As for the cash, all I can say is give us time. Lenny Nelson inherited a lot of money and made a lot more—but not by the age of 30. The same goes for the Paysons, Porteouses and Baxters of the world. In the meantime, I suggest that the Baby Boomers get out their checkbooks and get out of the way. "It's been decades," says Beem. Your generation has been in the driver's seat, Mr. Beem. Let someone else have a chance. Get your energy behind them and let them lead.

And while you're at it, you might want to leave comparing Obama with Bush for political smear campaigns. Neither Bush nor Obama is a "blank slate." Bush is the scion and torchbearer of a morally vacant political philosophy that has destroyed our army and bankrupted our nation. The truth was there to be seen from the beginning but the facile compliance of "journalists" like Beem (though perhaps not Beem) permitted the incurious to see what they wanted to see. Obama, although he exhibits a disturbing willingness to accommodate the once-loyal opposition, is an even more richly rendered page. His political record echoes JFK's, but without wealth and influence of the Kennedy political machine, with better grades and a traceable track-record of legislation in the public interest.

The real "root of our leadership problem" is not the lack of viable options. Rather it is the opaque fog of the lapdog press that cloaks all candidates in a veil of sameness. I suggest that rather than whining about a "lack of leadership" Beem might start by exhibiting a little of his own. If a "long leaderless decline" is to be averted, the press must play a far more active role. Find the truth and report it. Don't just take dictation. Or, in Beem's case, don't just whine. Do a little thinking before you put fingertip to keyboard.