Wednesday, August 31, 2011

O'Donnell's 15 Minutes Of Fame Is Over

Christine O'Donnell's 15 minutes of fame is officially over. Politico reports that the Tea Party darling, who deftly blew a guaranteed Republican Senate seat pick-up in Delaware last November, has been stricken from the guest list at an Iowa event being headlined by Sarah Palin, whose 15 minutes of fame has been extended but soon also will expire.

Fame, of course, can be fleeting for even the most stalwart of politicians and celebrities, but O'Donnell's flameout is a case study in what is wrong with today's GOP.

She upset longtime Congressman Mike Castle in the primary to see who would run against Democrat Chris Combs to fill Joe Biden's old Senate seat and then went on a spectacularly self-destructive spree, bloviating about the ills of masturbation and same-sex marriage (Delaware passed a pro-gay marriage ballot initiative the day she lost), hybrid mice-humans with super intelligence, and my favorite, that people should not lie to the Nazis if they knocked on your door and asked if you were hiding Anne Frank. She also displayed an amazing ignorance of the Constitution.

Despite Combs having little experience, he thumped O'Donnell, who had even less experience as well as trouble holding jobs, in the general election. But she failed to take the hint and sought a teevee contract (no go) and then penned a memwow (that has sold extremely poorly and invoked the wrath of Delaware Republican bigs for its serial lies and obfuscations).

In pink-slipping O'Donnell, Tea Party co-founder Charlie Gruschow acknowledged that she no longer was a good fit with "the movement" and that he had received a flood of angry emails from party acolytes upset that she would share the dais with the former half-term Alaska governor.

Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, Christine.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Musings On The Indefatigable 'Chuck

The American woodchuck is more properly known as the groundhog (or even more properly as Marmota monax), but by any name is a big bellied pest with an insatiable appetite for everything and anything in the backyard garden. Except perhaps for hot peppers.

Don't try telling me that they're cute. I've seen 'chucks who probably weighed as much as 30 pounds, although half that weight is the norm. Come to think of it, Norm on Cheers looked a bit like the 'chuck who used to patrol our backyard until Jack and Nicky, brother-sister chocolate Labradors, arrived on the scene.

* * * * *
So how did the Woodchuck . . . er Groundhog Day tradition get started?

Blame the Celts, who believed that animals had supernatural powers at certain times of the year and if groundhogs and bears came out of hibernation too early they would be frightened by their shadow and retreat back inside for four to six weeks.

* * * * *
We have a neighbor whom, you might say, is sometimes a little too smart for his own good.

Both his dogs have passed on. 'Chucks were digging under his garden fence and making mincemeat of his veggies. He dug a trench around the garden and laid 18 inches of fence below ground and another 18 inches above ground, but the 'chucks, despite their sizable girth, figured out how to climb over and in. Climbing over and out was harder with full bellies, but they did it.

'Chucks, for those of you who don't know, live in underground dens. These dens typically have two entrances, or an entrance and an escape exit, if you will, and our neighbor deduced that their tunnel system ran parallel to a treeline that separated his property from the folks next door.

The neighbor hatched a plan: He would light and push a gasoline-soaked rag down one hole and wait with shotgun in hand until the 'chucks bolted from the exit hole.

They did and he got them. But then he smelled wood burning and realized he had set ablaze the root system of his trees. He had plenty of garden hose to reach the 'chuck hole but it was in sections hither and yon. He raced around his house pulling and coupling hose together and finally was able to extinguish his a-little-too-smart blaze.

* * * * *
If a woodchuck could chuck wood,
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.

* * * * *
I lived on a farm for many years with an enormous unfenced garden and a seemingly endless supply of 'chucks despite the fact that our golden retrievers made great sport out of chasing down and killing them.

Their usual technique was to grab them by the neck and shake them until their necks broke, although Ruffie enjoyed repeatedly throwing them up in the air until they expired.

* * * * *
We also bred goldens at the farm and most of the pups were sold to families who would arrive in minivans that would disgorge a father, mother and two and a half children.

One such family showed up on a picture-perfect summer Saturday afternoon. They were escorted to a fenced-in area above the garden where the mother would retire with her pups after they were a couple of weeks along. There was a shed in the back of the pen where they sheltered when it rained and steps at the front so that the mother could climb in and out of the pen.

This litter was especially cute and everything was going swimmingly. A couple of pups had been sold and the last half dozen were bound to go quickly. The two and a half children were kneeling outside the fence and petting the pups, who licked their hands and faces as they whispered sotto voce "Buy me, I'm only eight hundred dollars." The father announced that the only thing to be decided was whether they would head back to suburbia with one or two pups.

"Two! Two!" the two and a half children cried in unison.

Then there was a commotion. The mother of the pups had appeared on the steps, an enormous and enormously bloody 'chuck grasped in its jaws. The mother screamed. The two and a half children screamed.

And the father said, "Maybe we'll come back some other time."

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Luckovich/Atlanta Journal Constitution

Good Night Irene. And Good Riddance.

And so Irene passes into history having been an unusual hurricane that fortunately did not live up to its potential.

Meteorologists were predicting a storm of the century, but by the time Irene hit the metropolitan New York area it more resembled, in the words of one wag, an overweight jogger. There were a number of explanations for this, but the most significant is that the storm -- while immense and a huge rainmaker that took at least 16 lives in six states -- failed to undergo an expected eyewall transformation.

Forecasters had expected that a spinning band of clouds near Irene's center, called the inner eyewall, to collapse and be replaced by an outer band that would then contract, causing the hurricane to strengthen. Irene never completed that cycle.

The fact there were "only" 16 deaths is attributable to state and local emergency preparedness plans that planned for the worst and included mandatory evacuation orders in coastal and low-lying areas. In years past, hurricanes of comparable strength would have caused many more deaths. Mass transit shutdowns and power outages -- and at one point over 9 million people were without power -- seem like a relatively small price to pay.

Most media attention was on New York City, but it got off relatively unscathed while the suburbs and New England experienced the worst flooding.

We rode out Irene at the mountain retreat. Power and Internet service was uninterrupted despite high winds and torrential rains, which gave us the opportunity to follow the storm closely. We have no television, so we went to The New York Times early and often over the weekend.

Its coverage, which included maps, graphics, photos from pros and readers alike and in-depth articles, was superb. The full-screen interactive map of Irene as she made her way up the coast was hugely informative.

The Weather Channel gets no such praise. Better safe than sorry, and all that, but it was obvious to this amateur on Friday morning that Irene was falling apart as it neared the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A conversation with a retired Air Force meteorologist whom I knew confirmed that was the case, but as late as 6 a.m. on Saturday when I departed for the mountain retreat, Al Roker and his posse were in full overhype mode.

The bottom line: It could have been worse.

Behold Farmland World


Friday, August 26, 2011

'I Have A Dream': Reflecting On The Greatest Speech In American History

Forty-eight years ago this Sunday and in weather far more auspicious than the hurricane-driven winds and rain expected to lash the nation's capital, the 34-year-old son of a Georgia preacher, his back to the Lincoln Memorial, delivered a 17-minute speech to 200,000 people gathered around the Reflecting Pool that was not just the defining moment of the civil rights movement but the greatest speech given by an American since the Gettysburg Address a century earlier. And there has been none greater since.

Dr, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, as it quickly became known, was ostensibly a call for racial equality and an end to discrimination. But it was much more than that -- like Lincoln's address a hugely transformative moment in our history that educated and inspired. Amidst the throng were my mother and father, both politically active but after that day dedicated to the civil rights movement. (I myself was driving back from the Delaware shore in my father's Plymouth Fury convertible with my girlfriend.)

The most memorable part of the speech was extemporaneous as King departed from his prepared text for a peroration he had recently included in his speeches on the theme of "I have a dream," which probably was prompted by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson's cry, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

It is tempting to say that in the nearly 50 years since the speech African Americans have made enormous strides. After all, some 73 million Americans of all colors elected the first African American president in 2008.

That is true enough. It also is true that with every succeeding generation fewer white Americans are fettered by the ball and chain of believing that blacks are inferior. And it is indisputably true that all vestiges of racial discrimination will never been wiped out.

"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment," King declared on that historic dat, yet today that urgency is a relic of a simpler time and his dream remains unfulfilled.

* * * * *

Click here for an audio recording of the speech and here for the text. And here for an architectural review of the new King Memorial on the edge of the Tidal Pool in Washington, which is scheduled to be dedicated on Sunday.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Irene: Plan For Worst, Hope For Best

Irene is now a Catagory 2 hurricane as it brushes by North Carolina's Outer Banks. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered there and elsewhere up the Atlantic Coast, but there are some indications that Irene is tracking further to the East and may begin to lose its punch when it comes on shore early on Saturday. Both are good signs, but the threat of destructive storm surges remains. As noted here, people in Irene's path should plan for the worst, especially if storm surge predictions hold true for shore communities and cities on major rivers. (That is the reason Mayor Bloomberg has ordered all New York City nursing homes to be evacuated.)

I suppose we can be thankful that the Republicans have not managed to get the National Weather Service and its National Hurricane Center despite their spotty track records. The NWS website is endlessly fascinating and one graphic in particular -- an interactive storm surge map -- is a must-see if you live in or near potentially affected areas.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Ruby Bridges, the girl in the famous Norman Rockwell painting, visited the White House last month to meet President Obama. He passes the painting going to and from the Oval Office.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fuggedabout The Mid-Atlantic Quake, Here Comes Mighty Hurricane Irene

One of my fondest childhood memories is low-crawling across the front yard of my family home with my father as Hurricane Hazel bore down on us. It was October 1954, I was seven years old and it was all a lark. Never mind that Hazel, a Category 4 monster, took 95 lives in the U.S. in an era when hazardous weather alerts were primitive and another 81 lives in Canada as a rare extratropical storm.

Then there was Hurricane Agnes in 1972, a rare June hurricane that was downgraded to a tropical storm that then proceeded to ravage the Mid-Atlantic, taking 129 lives and causing $1.7 billion in damage ($13 billion in today's dollars) and caused railroad damage so extensive that it helped lead to the creation of Conrail. I was 25 year old newspaper reporter by then and it was anything but a lark as I flew over the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area of Northeastern Pennsylvania and looked down on the destruction.

All this by way of saying that people in the Middle Atlantic are pretty much inured to hurricanes in the age of the Weather Channel. Hurricanes happen to other people in other places, notably Florida and the Gulf Coast. But Hurricane Irene, which is likely to hit the North Carolina coast on Saturday morning with Category 2 or 3 winds, could be a reminder that Mother Nature does not play favorites.

This is because Irene has all the earmarks of taking a path not dissimilar to Agnes.

That so noted, if you live in the projected path of Irene, you need to do the following immediately if not sooner:

* If you have plans to go to the beach, cancel them. Storm surges can be deadly, especially on the barrier islands of New Jersey.

* Be selective about panic shopping. Like do you really need a month's supply of toilet paper?

* Make sure your windows can be protected with blankets or sheets in the event that they blow out.

* Check your disaster supply kit. Don't have one? Assemble one. These kits typically consist of water (it's a good excuse for this guy to clean his bathtub and then fill it), non-perishable food, medications, spare batteries, candles, and stuff like a non-electric can opener (duh!).

* If the storm hits, stay away from windows, skylights and glass doors. Interior rooms are the best.

* If flooding threatens your home, turn off electricity at the main breaker.

* If you lose power, turn off major appliances (yes, including the AC) and water heater to reduce damage.

* Do not use electrical appliances. That includes your computer.

* Keep your cell phone fully charged.

* Do not behave like a stupid seven-year-old and his father and go outside even if it suddenly appears calm. This is because the eye of the hurricane may be passing over your area and winds will rapidly increase to hurricane force and will come from the opposite direction. (Trust me on this, okay?)

* Beware of lightning. This means not taking a bath or shower during the storm.

* More deaths occur after hurricanes than during them because of people anxious to get outside to survey the damage who have unexpected meetings with downed power lines and unstable trees. You have been warned.

Otherwise, have a ball.

Hurricane names rotate on seven-year cycles, but the names of especially destructive hurricanes are retired. These include Agnes (1972), Alicia (1983), Allen (1980), Allison (2001), Andrew (1992), Anita (1977), Audrey (1957), Betsey (1965), Beulah (1967),Bob (1991), Camille (1969), Carla (1961) Carmen (1974), Carol (1954), Celia (1970), Cesar (1996), Charley (2004), Cleo (1964), Connie (1955), David (1979), Dean (2007), Dennis (2005), Diana (1990), Diane (1955), Donna (1960), Dora (1964), Edna (1968), Elena (1975) Eloise (1975), Fabian (2003), Felix (2007), Fifi (1974), Flora (1963), Floyd (1999), Fran (1996), Frances (2004), Frederic (1979), Georges (1998), Gilbert (1988), Gloria (1985), Gustav (2008), Hattie (1961), Hazel (1954), Hilda (1964), Hortense (1996), Hugo (1989), Igor (2010), Ike (2008), Inez (1966), Ione (1955), Iris (2001), Isabel (2003), Isidore (2002), Ivan (2004), Janet (1955), Jeanne (2004), Joan (1988), Juan (2003), Keith (2000), Klaus (1990), Lenny (1999), Lili (2002), Luis (1995), Marilyn (1995), Michelle (2001), Mitch (1998), Noel (2007), Opal (1995), Paloma (2008), Rita (2005), Roxanne (1995), Stan (2005), Tomas (2010), and Wilma (2005). Oh, and Katrina (2005).

Republican Party Opens New Fronts In Its War On The Poor & Middle Class

To the old adage that the only things certain in life are death and taxes can now be added a third certainty: That the Republican Party always manages to outdo itself when it comes to crazy, out-of-the mainstream ideas.

How else to explain that influential members of the anti-tax party are now proposing to:

* Tax the poor because, you know, they're a bunch of loafers and need to pay their fair share, too.
* Increase payroll taxes for middle-class families earning $50,000 or more. No family making more than $106,000 would pay higher taxes

Tax cuts for the wealthy, of course, remain on the table.

The new taxes and tax increases would kick in on January 1 and replace the 4.2 percent payroll tax decrease that President Obama wants to extend for another year in an effort to keep the economy from contracting further.

The latest GOP salvo is another exercise on moving deck chairs on their
Titantic, since both proposals will not play well on Main Street and among the independent voters the party must attract in droves if it has any chance of retaking the White House and Senate.

The proposals also are a slap in the kisser for Grover Norquist, whose demands that no taxes be raised evah are sadly representative of a party for whom
ideological purity and ultimatums have replaced governance.

Asked by a reporter to comment on the proposals, the head of Americans For Tax Reform made a face and turned tail.

The proposals also presumably would be anathema for Rick Perry, the current darling of the right-wing presidential wannabe field. The Texas governor wrote in Fed Up! that making income tax constitutional through the Sixteenth Amendment has lead America on a “road to serfdom“ and the amendment should be repealed and replaced with a national sales tax or what he terms a "fair tax," which would abolish all federal personal and corporate income taxes, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, and self-employment taxes and replaces them with one simple, visible, federal retail sales tax administered primarily by the states. Oh, and Social Security and Medicare would be abolished.

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Luckovich/Atlanta Journal Constitution

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Visitors read quotes inscribed in the walls of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Libya & Iraq: A Tale Of Two Wars

There is a compulsion among analysts to compare present day wars with the wars of yore, and more often than not they get more wrong than right. That was the case with comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq and it yet again is the case with the comparisons between Iraq and Libya.

The compulsion this time around is especially strong because the aim of both wars was to take out strongmen -- in Iraq the brutal Saddam Hussein and in Libya the somewhat less despotic Moamar el-Qaddafi, the primary export of both nations is oil, and the fall of both leaders was sudden despite their claims that the enemy would be defeated even as it had taken the capital cities.

But those comparisons are in fact coincidences and the wars could not be more different with an important qualifier: What happens after Qaddafi falls is difficult to ponder, but unlike Iraq there is no occupying force as in Iraq, led alone one who so profoundly misjudged post-victory tasks and eight years on is still a presence, albeit a diminishing one, in a land where stability remains elusive.

In fact, the differences between the two wars are profound:

* The Libyan war is homegrown in its entirety and a consequence of Arab Spring movements elsewhere, although a NATO-led coalition did join the conflict one month on when it became obvious that Qaddafi's regulars and mercenaries would make mincemeat of the ragtag rebel forces.

The U.S., backed by a coalition that was shaky from the start and a shadow of the coalition in the first Gulf War, invaded Iraq on the thoroughly discredited premise that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Saddam was, in fact, a danger to no one except his own people and regional stability was not an issue.

The Libyan conflict was a civil war from the outset. The leaders of France, Britain and Italy, the other major NATO players besides the U.S., are adamant that they will not commit ground troops if rebel groups aren't able to make nice, form a stable government, divvy up oil revenues and the civil war has a second life.

The crowning irony of Iraq was that a protracted civil war grew out of the invasion because of the malfeasance of the Bush administration and pre-Surge commanders on the ground who played to the Shiite sympathies of what passed for an Iraq government. Sunni enclaves became hotbeds for Al Qaeda, something that Saddam would never have allowed.

* While not always adhered to, the goal of the Libyan rebels has been nation building and preservation of vital infrastructure like hospitals, communications networks and utilities.

The goal of the Iraqi insurgents was to impede nation building by destroying vital infrastructure, as well as Shiite places of worship.

* There is a discernible lack of triumphalism surrounding the Libyan rebels capture of Tripoli and no one expects President Obama or his European counterparts to slip on a flight suit and declare "Mission Accomplished."

That in large part is because of the triumphalism that characterized the early days of the Iraq war when the statue of Saddam fell, his sons were killed and later when Iraqis voted in their first post-Saddam election.

* The major beneficiary of the Libyan war, presuming that it comes to a quick end, are its North African neighbors and an element of regional stability not seen in the modern era.

The major beneficiary of the Iraq war has been Iran, which is hardwired to the Baghdad government and emerges from the American occupation in a far more powerful position.

But in the end the biggest difference between Libya and Iraq is because of the lessons of Iraq.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Twin sisters play at a playground in the rebel-held Libyan city of Benghazi.
Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini/AFP

A Pesky Lil' Earthquake Irene Ain't

Photograph by NOAA via AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: A History Of The Real Tibet, Not The Tibet Of Our Imaginations

Where is Tibet?

That depends upon which Tibet you are talking about. Is it the Tibet that the Chinese occupiers refer to as the Tibet Autonomous Region? Is it the larger ethnographic Tibet that share the same language? Or is it the larger still Tibet of yore that overlaps with four Chinese provinces and four other Himalayan kingdoms?

And while we're at it, was Tibet the spiritual paradise that Hollywood movies evoke before the Chinese liberation or occupation or whatever you believe it to be? Or was it a place of medieval suffering in which peasants were bound to overlords for life, as Beijing would like you to believe?

Sam Van Schaik, an English Tibetologist, does an admirable job of sorting out those questions in
Tibet: A History, a newly published book that offers a fascinating narrative on the 1,400 year history of the kingdom at the top of the world. He notes that Tibetan history is replete with saintly traditions but it also was a violent and dangerous place, as well as a highly stratified society with an aristocratic minority and peasant and nomad majority. And of course the Dalai Lamas and priests living in the extraordinary latticework of monasteries and stupas.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from
Tibet: A History is that is has not been the isolated and unchanging place of our imagination, cut off from the rest of humanity by some of the world's high mountains. In fact, Van Schaik writes, Tibet was deeply involved with other cultures throughout much of its history, underwent enormous political and religious changes, but did not coalesce into anything resembling a national identity until the 20th century.

* * * * *
As has so often been the case with emerging kingdoms, the first man to lead Tibet -- Prince Songsten Gampo, a man whose father had semi-divine status -- united the region's once nomadic warring clans in the early 7th century and began looking outward for worlds to conquer. He also looked for cultures to assimilate.

Van Schaik writes that:

"Though not without a culture of their own, the Tibetans were hungry for more. And so they learned from Nepal, India, China and Persia, adopting and combining elements from each to create a distinct culture of their own. Lhasa, the empire's capital, became the centre of these new developments."

It was early in the 8th century that the scales started to tip toward Buddhism.

It was an unlikely patron of Buddhism, Princess Jincheng, daughter of the emperor of the Chinese Tang dynasty and teenage bride of the even younger Tibetan tsenpo (emperor), who instigated the sea change that would replace clan mythologies and rituals and make that religion the defining influence of Tibetan culture.

Tibet thrived, and under the leadership of Emperor Trisong Detsen its fearsome armies soon captured the Chinese capital. Although Tibet held it only briefly, it gained control of the Silk Road and control of its lucrative trade. It would be nearly 1,000 years before China was to lord over Tibet again.

Despite brief flirtations with Islam and Christianity, Buddhism's hold on the kingdom strengthened in large part because Tibetans became convinced by missionaries of the efficacy of Buddha's teachings.

Van Schaik:

"As well as teaching that karma was the true agent of happiness and sorrow, the missionaries spoke of a state entirely beyond the cycle of rebirth . . . The worship of local deities never died out in Tibet, but Buddhism provided a significant alternative to this spirit world, a broader framework that was attractive to those who envisioned a new international role for the Tibetan empire."

By the middle of the 11th century, monasteries and monks were a common sight, but Tibetan society was again in a state of turmoil and conflicts were constantly breaking out between rival warlords. It was impossible for the heads of monasteries to avoid becoming involved in politics as they vied for patronage from the local nobility.

Then in 1240 a small Mongol army invaded and took over Tibet with little resistance.

The kingdom's new ruler was Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and already a legend in his own time. The Mongols' primary contributions to Tibet were a reinstitution of central authority and levels of taxation never before seen; Tibet in return gave their conquerers Tibetan Buddhism, which became the main religion of the Mongol court.

Mongol rule last for 114 years, the last decade of which was characterized by a drawn-out civil war, but by 1315 a political realist by the name of Jangchub Gyaltsen took over and received official recognition from the teetering Mongol empire in the form of the title Tai Situ, meaning "Great Tutor," which still survives today as the title of a high lama in the Karma Kagyu school.

Gyaltsen instituted a less harsh legal code, ignored his largely powerless in-kingdom enemies and ushered in what is referred to as Tibet's Golden Age, a 228-year period of relative tranquility and freedom from invaders.

Van Shaik writes that it was an opportune time to consolidate Tibetan knowledge:

"The thousands of Buddhist scripture translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit were brought together in great canonical collections . . . [while] new books written by Tibetan scholars elegantly summarised the great panoply of Buddhist thought and came to define the specifically 'Tibetan' form of Buddhism. The authoritative texts for Tibetan medicine were written down in the form that is still used today."

* * * * *
The end of the Golden Age was marked by the coming of the first Dalai Lama.

Ranusi, which means "protected by goats milk" for the diet his parents fed him after all of their previous children had died in childbirth, had been recognized by Gelung lamas at age three as the rebirth of a recently deceased abbot. He took lay vows and was bestowed the religious name of Sonam Gyatso, or "Ocean of Merit."

Three Dalai Lamas succeeded him, but it initially appeared that there might not be a fifth because the powerful king of Tsang province, wary of the political potency of the role, banned the Gelung monks from appointing a new one. (The Chinese occupiers have gotten around this in the present century by naming their own successor to the 14th and present Dalai Lama. He is not recognized by most Tibetans and the international community.)

The monks defied the king and named a new Dalai Lama, but he immediately had to go into hiding and did not return to public view until Mongol troops swept back into Tibet in 1641 and overwhelmed the Tsang army.

The death of the fifth Dalai Lama was kept secret for years (in all likelihood so the immense Potala Palace, the greatest emblem of Tibet, could be finished ) and the sixth Dalai Lama -- a hard-drinking womanizer and writer of love songs -- was not enthroned until 1697.

The Dzungars, a Mongolian people, invaded Tibet in 1717 and a successor seventh Dalai Lama was installed in 1721 after the armies of Kangxi, the Chinese emperor, routed the Dzungars and Tibet was once again unified

* * * * *
By 1776, the year that American colonists declared their independence from England, British influence in South Asia extended to the foothills of the Himalayas. The East India Company, which had transformed India into the crown jewel of the British empire, knew that there is tantalizing new trade opportunities in Tibet, including gold, silver, musk and, because China had refused to enter into trade agreements, an indirect source of Chinese silk.

But repeated efforts by the British were rebuffed and it wasn't until the close of the 19th century that George Nathaniel Curzon, the viceroy of India, again turned Britain's attention to Tibet. This time the reason was not trade, but the perceived Russian threat to India. Afghanistan was already a useful buffer state and Curzon saw Tibet in the same role in the strategic rivalry immortalized in Kipling's
Kim that became known as The Great Game.

For three years Curzon sent letters to the 13th Dalai Lama and for three years they were returned unopened. Curzon grew increasingly worried because of reports from his Indian spies, who were known as "pundits," that the Dalai Lama and the Czar Nicholas II were about to sign a bilateral alliance. That was far from the case, but the British press was aflame with reports to the contrary and Curzon contemplated a military advance.

In December of 1903, an expedition of 2,500 soldiers, mostly Gurkhas and Sikhs under the command of British officers, and some 10,000 porters slowly made their way into Tibet. The tiny Tibetan army was armed with only creaky matchlocks and the British encountered little resistance. The Dalai Lama had fled into Mongolia by the time they entered the gates of Lhasa.

The British occupation was short lived and the Dalai Lama returned in November 1904, ushering in a period of independence and reform that would last until the Communist government incorporated Tibet into the People's Republic of China in 1950 after negotiating an agreement with the government of the newly crowned 14th and present Dalai Lama.

After a rebellion was crushed in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he established a rival government-in-exile. Upwards of a million Tibetans died during the Great Leap Forward as political and social "reforms" were put into place, which is to say the suppression of Tibetan culture and religion, and the Chinese repeatedly put down separatist campaigns, most recently in 2008 on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

Nevertheless, Tibetans --both in Tibet and in exile -- are perhaps more conscious of their cultural identities than ever.
At the end of Tibet: A History, Van Shaik concludes that:

"What is striking here is the way that elements of Tibetan culture going back centuries . . . are being used to strengthen a sense of identity, of distinctness from Chinese culture. And in defining what it means to be Tibetan largely in contrast to what it means to be Chinese, [contemporary Tibetan] writers are attempting to transcend the old regional and religious identities determined by which part of Tibet one was born in or which religious school one supported.

"For some, independence from China is not a viable or even particularly desirable option. Others fear that, without independence, Tibet will simply disappear. What is Tibet? Surely the most important answers will be those put forward not by foreign historians or political theorists, but by Tibetans themselves."

Click here for a link to a review of The Open Road: The Global
Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Cartoon du Jour

Matt Davies/Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Gila Bend, Arizona -- 1945)
Photograph by Wim Wenders
Hat tip to Woods' Lot

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fracking: A Tale Of Two States

The states of Pennsylvania and New York share more than a common border. Areas of both lie atop an immense shale formation and energy companies are hard at work extracting natural gas from the formation through the use of a controversial method known as fracking, which is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Yet despite the potential risks, Pennsylvania regulatory and environmental authorities who answer to Governor Tom Corbitt have been notably lax in monitoring fracking operations and it was in part the considerable campaign contribution largesse of the energy companies that the conservative, slavishly pro-business Republican was elected last November.

Meanwhile, across the border in New York, regulatory and environmental authorities who answer to Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo have been more hands on and there has been a de facto moratorium on drilling while these authorities carry out an extensive review the efficacy of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, which is the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemical into shale to release trapped gas.

New York state's attorney general recently sent subpoenas to four energy companies as part of an investigation into whether they have accurately described to investors for long-term prospects for their wells. State pension funds are heavily invested in the companies, and if they improperly reported to investors how their wells were likely to perform, there could be repercussions for the state’s financial portfolio.
Natural gas drilling has been a boon to both states because it is providing jobs amidst high unemployment and an economic downturn and a boon for communities and owners of the small farms on which most fracking operations are located. Cuomo, in fact, is urging that the moratorium be lifted.

The companies assert that fracking is safe, but a series of articles in The New York Times by reporter Ian Urbina reveal that there are manifold dangers and at least one case where well water was contaminated by toxic wastes from fracking.

The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot News and Philadelphia Daily News reporter-blogger Will Bunch also have reported extensively on the incestuous relationship between the companies and Corbitt, who in one of his first acts as governor lifted a moratorium on fracking in state parks and forests ordered by his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, and has resisted levying higher taxes and drilling fees on the companies, which pay astonishing little.

More than 15,000 wells are planned for the Delaware River watershed, which supplies drinking water to more than seven million New York City residents and millions more in upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Nancy Wake (1913-2011)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Photograph by Vassil Donvel/EPA

Friday, August 19, 2011

Your Week In Republican Politics: If You Plant Ice You're Going To Harvest Wind

With all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil hurtling down on Wile E. Coyote, it has dawned on Karl Rove and what is left of the mainstream Republican leadership that unless Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann can be muscled aside, President Obama could cakewalk to a second term despite a sucky economy.
Even if Mitt Romney, the one-time putative front runner, grows a spine and begins acting presidential, he will remain unacceptable to the Tea Party cum Christianist base, which leaves who?

Paul Ryan or Chris Christie, that's who.

Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, probably has the chops for the job even if his conservative credentials are not a solid as Perry or Bachmann, but his signal accomplishment was an unmitigated disaster: A Reverse Robin Hood Plan to reduce the budget deficit by taking from the middle class and poor and giving to the rich while deregulating Wall Street. This fiscal lunacy led directly to the loss of a once solid Republican House seat in a special election and could still be trouble for Republicans whose disdain for the Have Nots isn't playing well with senior citizens and the disabled.

New Jersey Governor Christie's signal accomplishment is to ram a fiscal austerity plan through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but he is short on experience and his health is bound to be a major issue since he suffers frequent asthma attacks and seems to be one meatball hoagie away from exploding.

Can you say Newt Gingrich? No? Well, there's always Rudy Giuliani.

* * * * *
A disconnection between the mouth and the brain is a common ailment among politicians -- especially those with an eye on the Oval Office. Rank hypocrisy runs a close second and Perry is no exception in both cases.

After a gaffe filled week which resulted, among other things, included an apology for threatening bodily harm to the "treasonous" Federal Reserve chairman, the current darling of the Republican presidential field appeared to be on his guard, but then let slip the loudest of all the right-wing Republican dog whistles: Barack Obama is not sufficiently patriotic even if, gosh darn it, he may have been born in the good old U.S. of A.

This from a man whose own patriotism is highly questionable because he has often threatened to get Texas to secede from the union.

* * * * *
In retrospect, there may have been no more successful federal government initiative over the last 40 years than cleaning up the environment. The skies over American cities are clearer, rivers and lakes are cleaner, toxic agricultural runoff has decreased and polluters are regulated. Well, at least to an extent.

It was a Republican president by the name of Richard Nixon who got the ball rolling with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the year that the first Earth Day was celebrated, but now as with so many other things many of the GOP presidential wannabes want to roll back the clock.

Yes, Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich, among others, reiterated this week that they want to return to the bad old days by halting all EPA regulation for the implausible reason that the economy will improve if polluters are allowed to dirty things up. Maybe jobs or something will be created because of all the messes that would have to be cleaned up.

Besides being lousy economic and social policy, padlocking the EPA flies in the face of a public, most Republican voters included, who are concerned about clean air and water and believe the EPA is fulfilling its mandate. Heck, even the Roberts Supreme Court has validated that mandate in recent rulings.

Then there's the party's stand on global warming. Sigh.

* * * * *
Christie is joined by two other Republican governors -- Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio -- in trying to balance state budgets on the backs of unionized state employees. Yeah, like teachers and in some instances policemen and firefighters.

The results have been mixed, but it is fair to say that Republicans in the Cheesehead and Buckeye states rue the day they decided that kneecapping public employes by curtailing their collective bargaining rights was good politics.

In Wisconsin, that effort led to an unprecedented series of recall elections. When the dust had settled this week from the last of those elections, Republican control of the state Senate had shrunken to a single seat and Walker may still face a recall effort.

Meanwhile, in Ohio Kasich and Republican legislative leaders with an eye on their political futures said this week that they will offer changes in the state's tough collective bargaining law to keep a repeal measure off of the November ballot.

* * * * *
Finally, a pertinent factoid: The Gallup Presidential Tracking Poll is the Rock of Gibraltar of political polls and has been since FDR's first term.

Lest some Republicans become smug about their chances of retaking the White House, every president beginning with Truman and excepting only Eisenhower has had lower Gallup ratings than Obama, many considerably lower.

Cartoon du Jour

Steve Kelley/New Orleans Times Picayune

Meanwhile, Back At The Forgotten War

The civil war in Libya has slipped from the headlines and the debate about whether American participation in the NATO mission is justified, let alone whether Congress should have been consulted, has subsided. But against formidable odds, the ragtag group of rebels has been making steady gains against the loyalists and mercenaries fighting for Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In their most dramatic success to date, rebels fighters this week gained control of the oil refinery in Zawiyah, a mere 25 miles from the capital city of Tripoli, and are advancing into other parts of the strategic port city. The refinery is the only one still functioning in Libra and apparently is undamaged, meaning the rebels could tap into it while cutting off supplies to the capitol.

Capture of a key cog in the Qaddafi infrastructure represents a potentially decisive turning point in a six-month war during which the Libyan strongman has defied international sanctions and repeatedly rejected calls to leave power despite defections by members of his inner circle and the deaths of two of his sons in bombing raids. Meanwhile, NBC News reports that Qaddafi and what remains of his family may be going into exile, perhaps in Tunisia, in the next several days.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where uprisings have led to the overthrow of autocrats, or in Syria where a government crackdown on protesters has left hundreds dead, Libya has been wracked by what has become a war of attrition, one in which NATO airstrikes and the use of U.S. Predator drones have been key to every rebel advance.

Should the improbable become reality and Qaddafi is driven from power, it is far from clear that the rebels can form a cohesive government because they have been wracked by internal dissension and few have any civil experience.

Photograph by Reuters

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Photograph by Maurizio Gambarini/EPA

Thursday, August 18, 2011

When Politics Turn Toxic: Why 2012 Is Like 1972 & History Will Repeat Itself

I have written early and often that the Tea Party will be a flash in the pan and its toxic brand of politics will never appeal to a larger constituency while at the same time dragging the Republican Party further into the electoral wilderness.

Several recent polls make my point: The Tea Party's negatives have more than doubled -- in one poll from 18 to 40 percent in 14 months. In another, voters were asked their opinion of 24 groups and the Tea Party polled worse than "Muslims" and "atheists," two oft-vilified groups.

As David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, two academics who have closely studied voting trends note, the Tea Party's fall from grace is occurring during an era when the voters are becoming more conservative and share some of the Tea Party's views, most prominently smaller government. But when these academics peeled a few layers off of the Tea Party onion, they confirmed what some of us already knew: The Tea Party is not made up of nonpartisan political neophytes angered by tough economic times but are highly partisan Republicans who have an active loathing for government, blacks and immigrants, as well as denying women reproductive and other rights.

This in a nutshell describes the Republican base in 2011 and, as I also have written early and often, the primary reason why the GOP is likely to lose ground in Congress in 2012 as well as cede a second term to Barack Obama unless it nominates someone palatable to the mainstream voter.

A secondary reason is that while religion is an important part of many voters' lives, they are troubled by the mix of politics and religion espoused by Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who inject God -- that is their God, not yours or mine if we are not rock-ribbed Christianists -- into their policy pronouncements.

Campbell and Putnam also draw an important historic comparison.

The last time a fringe group exerted substantial influence over a major political party was in 1972 when the anti-Vietnam War movement rallied beyond George McGovern over Hubert Humphrey, Henry M. Jackson and Edmund Muskie, all of whom could have beaten Richard Nixon.

I remember the 1972 campaign well and Election Night in particular. It was obvious early on that despite Nixon's unpopularity -- he had reneged on his promise to end the war and there were the first stirrings of the Watergate scandal that would abort his second term -- that he would win in a landslide. I woke up the next morning and despite having a world-class hangover immediately understood why McGovern had been thrashed. Like the Tea Party, his supporters refused to dial back on their stridency and cool their rhetoric even if the face of probable defeat.

And so 40 years later history is repeating itself.


Need further evidence that the Tea Party brand has become tarnished?

Take Christine O'Donnell's new memoir and Sarah Palin's new documentary. Both are duds.

According to a number of Republican leaders and even her own campaign workers, Troublemaker: Let's Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again is a tissue of fabrications and lies, two traits that were on display during O'Donnell's dizzying crash-and-burn campaign, which opened with a flourish when she upended long-time U.S. Representative Mike Castle and then got throttled by a Democratic mediocrity in the November 2010 election, turning a sure-fire Republican keep into a Democratic gain.

Then there is The Undefeated, a documentary on the life and times of the half-term Alaska governor that while not exactly a tissue of fabrications and lies is reminiscent of a Communist propaganda film for all that it leaves out. It was a flop at movie houses, taking in a measly $25,000 on its opening weekend in Los Angeles, and is headed for pay-for-view purgatory.

Cartoon du Jour

Ben Sargent/Universal Press Syndicate

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Iowa Is Sarah Palin's Waterloo

Sarah Palin has always been a little too smart for her own good, which is to say that she believes that she has more on the ball than anyone else when it comes to making the decisions that determine the course of her political career.

This explains why she openly resented the handlers dispatched by the people running John McCain's 2008 campaign to help manage her end of things. This explains why she has persisted in surrounding herself with sycophants and not professionals who are not afraid to talk back to her as she has zigzagged toward deciding whether to join the 2012 fray. And this explains why she is on her way to becoming the answer to a trivia question, as one wag put it recently, as the leaders of the field of declared Republican presidential candidates steal a march on her.

There is always the possibility that in Palin's heart of hearts, or whatever beats inside her chest, she never intended to seek the Republican nomination but would milk the speculation for all that it was worth -- which is to say add to the millions she has made peddling vapid autobiographies and through television appearances.
But that scenario does not take into account Palin's Alaska-sized ego, and a more likely scenario is that she would wait in the wings as the Republican field slugged it out through the summer Iowa mini-campaign and then enter the fray as the candidate who would bring order out of chaos.

But a funny thing happened on the road to the Hawkeye State and beyond: Rick Perry threw his hat in the ring.

The Texas governor is Palin's worst nightmare in several respects. His cred with the party's fundamentalist base is rock solid and he doesn't have to pander to it like Palin, unlike Palin he is not a quitter, and unlike Palin he is able to articulate policy positions no matter how extreme while not shying away from the tough questions that the mainstream occasionally throws between the softballs.

Palin, of course, has a seemingly unlimited capacity to say outrageous things while blindering herself to larger realities.

She let loose a humdinger while hanging out with the goats and folks at the Iowa State Fair last week in accusing the news media of failing to give voters a fuller picture of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and that is why voters chose he and Joe Biden.

The truth, of course, is that Obama was an open book while Palin hid from the news media at virtually every turn, which nevertheless fawned on her and to this day remains uncurious regarding some of the mysteries surrounding her.

Sarah Palin will be missed by her small but devoted constituency, while what passes for a Republican mainstream will breathe a huge sigh of relief that there is one less wingnut in the race. And turn their attention to sticking pins in Michele Bachmann voodoo dolls.
Photograph by Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Five Questions The GOP Can't Answer

The president at a town hall meeting in Minnesota
As I noted here, the Republicans who show up at Iowa's quadrennial straw polls and caucuses are about as representative of American voters in general as two-headed cows are representative of cows in general. Furthermore, only two of the six candidates who have won the straw poll in the last 20 years have become the Republican nominee, and the record of caucus winners is similarly scanty.

And so after two weeks of campaigning and debating in the Hawkeye State, Tim Pawlenty goes home with his too-moderate tail between his legs, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, their tails intact, Bible thump fearlessly ahead, while Mitt Romney, the one man with a decent chance of toppling Barack Obama, proves yet again that he has no tail.

As I have written many times since the landmark 2008 election, the Republicans' penchant for self destruction seems boundless, and I saw nothing in Iowa to indicate that they have a clue about how to take back the White House when they have the best opportunity to do so since 1980. This is because today's GOP is more interested in tearing down America than rebuilding it.

That, in so many words, will be Obama's message as he heads out into the hustings for a series of town hall meetings in the coming weeks, and there are five questions he will ask over the over than the Republican's can't answer:

First, how can you stimulate a moribund economy by spending less?

Second, how can you create jobs without providing the stimulus to do so?

Third, how can you ask middle-class taxpayers to do their fair share when the wealthiest Americans aren't doing theirs?

Fourth, how can you assure future generations that the federal safety net will be reasonably intact when the GOP keeps trying to dismantle it?

And fifth, how can America became great again not by uniting but by dividing?

These questions spell trouble for the GOP congressional leadership and for Bachmann and Perry.

Whatever answers that the Republicans might cobble together will not be reassuring to the tens of millions of voters who don't happen to be Iowa Republicans. And while depressed about the economy and disenchanted with Obama are not about to lip lock with a congressional leadership whose tool of choice is dynamite and front-running president wannables who ask us to believe in miracles, or in the case of Romney hope that they'll ignore the fact that he hasn't taken a stand on anything of substance in the last five years.
Photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Monday, August 15, 2011

High Expectations, Promises Unfulfilled: Why We Are Disappointed With Obama

I'll begin this essay by declaring that it is my view that President Obama has not been the major disappointment that has left many liberals and blacks shaking their heads. I'll also note that given the watershed 2008 election and the eight dark years before it, our expectations for the next four were bound to be much too high.

Yet I share some of that sense of disappointment.

While acknowledging the realities of the time in which Obama governs -- an economic crisis that was inherited and a Republican opposition that has been determinedly obstructionist while not so subtly questioning his ability to lead as well as suggesting his patriotism is lacking because, you know, blacks are less patriotic, I have struggled over this long, hot summer to put my finger on the root of the malaise that threatens to overshadow the Obama administration's considerable accomplishments.

What I keep coming back to is this: Even though Obama was been a consummate insider and a magna cum laude graduate of the brass knuckles school of Chicago politics, he campaigned as an outsider that would shake up Washington but Washington shook him up instead.

Some examples:

* Obama chose many of the very same insiders who were asleep at wheel or looked the other way as the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse were sewn. Mind you that outsiders would not have had the experience of insiders, but they would have been possessed with an insight that most of the insiders clearly lacked.

* Obama has played much too nice with the Republicans. Presidents lead by example and Obama's legendary cool has been salutatory. But it became obvious within hours after his inauguration that endless negotiating with an opposition that would not hesitate to bring down the government -- and has twice nearly done so this year alone -- was a zero-sum game. Besides which, voters had given him majorities in both houses.

* Obama, in part because of the opposition, has been content (that perhaps is not the right word) with a half a loaf when a whole loaf was called for. The passage of a sweeping health-care reform law is the signal accomplish of his first term, but it omitted key provisions in the original draft. Ditto with the economic stimulus.

* Obama has equivocated on the war in Afghanistan. Despite taking out Osama bin Laden, as well as being far more decisive on national security issues than Republicans have given him credit for, he has been reluctant to come to terms with the obvious: The U.S.-led NATO coalition cannot "win" in Afghanistan in the conventional sense and it is long past time to get the hell out. Ditto with Iraq.

* Obama has been an admirable communicator who has been compared to FDR in some respects, and his public addresses at key junctures of his presidency have been masterful and elucidating. But he has been unable to articulate an effective alternative to the Republican narrative. FDR did and it worked.

* Obama's inability to articulate that alternative is because he has either lost sight of who he is or never really knew in the first place. Labels can be too simplistic, but is he a liberal? If so, why has he governed like a moderate and sometimes spoken like a conservative? Perhaps because he has tried to please both sides -- or all sides -- too much of the time.

* Obama has been suckered by Republicans on the greatest challenge of his presidency. That is jobs creation in the face of mounting economic inequality. The economy will not begin to recover until millions more Americans can return to work, but they have been largely forgotten because of the Republican mantra that government spending must be cut, whereas an increase in spending is what is badly needed.

* Obama issued go-free cards to Bush administration torture regime perpetrators. His rationale in not ordering the Justice Department to investigate these evildoers is understandable if vexsome. He did not want to begin his presidency with Republicans screaming blue-blooded murder over what they would view as political prosecutions, but they screamed anyway about practically everything else.

If you are among the minority of voters who believed in 2008 that a maverick has-been from Arizona and a wingnut from Alaska were preferable to a fresh face from Illinois and a running mate with outstanding foreign policy credentials, then you not only expected the Democratic challenger to be a disappointment but hoped that it would be.

But it is probable that few of the nearly 70 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama have not been disappointed as I have to an extent and others have to a great extent.

Is it possible that Obama has simply lost his mojo and no longer believes in what he thought he stood for? Or perhaps that audacity of hope stuff was . . . just stuff?
New York Times photograph