Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: Meet Me, With Great Music & Food, To Boot

If you live in the Greater Philadelphia-Baltimore Co-Prosperity Sphere and have some time to kill on Sunday (September 28), here's a special event for you: I will be signing copies of There's A House In The Land, my just-published saga of the 1970s, beginning at 1pm and again at 8pm at the Blue Crab Grill in Suburban Plaza, a mere two miles from Interstate 95 in Newark, Delaware.

The event also will feature a reunion of Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice, a psychedelic-tinged band with a song from which I stole a lyric for the title of the book.  And the Blue Crab has a wonderful menu of seafood and other delectables to die for. 
In addition to copies of There's A House and The Bottom of the Fox, my previous opus, Snakegrinder CDs and commemorative postcards will be for sale.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Memo To Christie Fans: Fugeddabout Bridgegate, It's The Economy, Stupid

There has been much happy talk among Republicans hoping for -- no, make that desperate for -- a moderate nominee to take on Hillary Clinton in 2016 since federal investigators have been unable to link New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Bridgegate, the public-safety mess resulting from the closing of several lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in retaliation for the mayor of that fair burg not backing the governor in his re-election bid.  The feds say their probe is "very much ongoing," but barring a key aide who might flip and provide the smoking gun prosecutors have lacked, Christie is likely to skate.
But the jubilation is misplaced because even with the obstacle of a criminal indictment removed and his well-known penchant for bullying and political revenge-seeking like Bridgegate put aside, Christie arguably has an even bigger problem: He has trashed New Jersey's economy, in large part because of cooking the books and a co-mingling of official businesses and GOP favoritism extraordinary even in a state where the official motto might as well be "Pay to Play."
Not only can Christie not point to economic success back home as did then-Texas Governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000, but his opponents in the grueling GOP primary season and presidential election can note that New Jersey's credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie's watch -- more than under any governor in the state's history. 
In the eighth downgrading earlier this month, Standard & Poors belabored the obvious in stating that "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance . . . New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state's unfunded actuarial accrued liability."
Translation: Borrowers will impose even higher interest rates on a state under the budgetary gun when they lend it money to finance schools, which already are underfunded, and fix roads and bridges, which are a mess.
It gets worse: Since Christie took office in January 2010,  private-sector job creation in New Jersey has increased by only 3.8 percent -- tied for second worst in the nation with the basket case known as Mississippi. 
The New Jersey job growth rate is far more anemic than in Indiana (led by potential GOP presidential contender Mike Pence), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), Texas (Rick Perry), Wisconsin (Scott Walker), and Ohio (John Kasich), and all five of those states have unemployment rates lower than the Garden State's 6.6 percent, which is half a percent higher than the national average.
My blogger friend Will Bunch nails it when he calls what Christie has done over the last five years a political Ponzi scheme in which money, tax breaks and other perks have been steered to his Republican cronies and other friends, all at the expense of New Jersey's suffering middle class and Mississippi-caliber poor.
To wit: 
* Christie ripped off hundreds of millions of dollars originally designated for a badly-need commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan to pay for the state's collapsing infrastructure, primarily the decrepit Pulaski Skyway, the main connector to the Holland Tunnel, which is on the verge of literally collapsing.
* The city of Hoboken was denied Superstorm Sandy relief money because its mayor would not role over when Christie tried to ram an immense condominium and business park development down her throat that was backed by influential Republicans.
* He paid for a Sandy-related tourism campaign with federal dough while doling out the bulk of Sandy funds allocated to the state to friends and supporters.   The neediest storm victims got little or nothing.
* He named a close ally to head the dysfunctional Port Authority with no experience, but the contract did enrich his law firm. 
Christie has a steep enough mountain to climb in seeking the nomination because he is not deemed conservative enough by the purists who have hijacked the Republican Party (among his cardinal sins was appointing a judge who happened to be Muslim), so his dismal, corruption-studded performance in managing New Jersey is a huge liability.
As GOP strategist Keith Appell said, "The economy is always the biggest issue . . . because the first question people ask is, 'What can you do for me? And this goes directly to their wallet or purse."
Which, blogger Dick Polman notes, is a lot more important than whether they've ever crossed the George Washington Bridge.
ABC News photograph

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pondering The Obamalypse & Other Musings On The Autumnal Equinox

The eve of the first day of autumn at the mountain retreat began with a stroll to the road and our mailbox under a sunlit canopy of leaves just beginning to turn to the sublime reds, oranges, yellows and browns of the season.  The mailbox disgorged a phone bill, the new issue of Vanity Fair ("Hell in the Ebola Hot Zone!"), several advertising circulars and some dragon smoke.  Alas, as I walked back to the house, my mind was not on the foliage, although I did pause long enough to notice that the maples are likely to be especially brilliant in the coming weeks.  Instead, I pondered what a mess the world seems to have become. 

Yes, there's always some stickiness or other going on somewhere or another, hemorrhagic African viruses included, but in the words of Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, a Great Unraveling is underway, a mash-up of tragedies representative of the devolution of the world order, chief among them -- until the next outrage comes big footing in -- the beheading of two journalists and an aid worker murdered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and America's resultant return to war.
I do not necessarily disagree with Cohen, but it is a law of nature that shite rolls downhill and a law of our times that at the bottom of the hill sits the White House and Barack Obama, who is either doing the best he can to lead a planet being especially unruly, or is a Hamlet-esque procrastinator, or if you are one of the too many people taking the especially uncharitable right-wingnut view, responsible for the whole bloody mess.  An Obamalypse is at hand, they claim.  A clever turn of phrase, which unfortunately has, if not the ring of truth, a wee tinkle of it.

In my view, bad stuff is always happening, it's just that a lot more bad stuff is happening on Obama's shift, but it has been a terrific opportunity for the right-wingnut media to trot out Fall of the Roman Empire analogies even if such analogies are factually bereft, and most ridiculous of all, accusations from the equally reprehensible hard left that Obama is returning us to the outrages of the Bush-Cheney era.

* * * * *
Word is that the coming winter will be severe, which would make two in a row and two too many. The evidence for this foreboding isn't exactly scientific.  After all, no one would compare the Old Farmer's Almanac with the National Weather Service, although come to think about it, the Weather Service does seem to get it wrong an awful lot.  (Blame Obama.)
My own view is that the winter to come will be pretty much normal, and I base that prognostication on perhaps the most reliable year in-year out predictors: The hummingbirds who migrate each spring to the mountain retreat and return to tropical climes in the fall.  They know what kind of weather is in the offing, and based on their departure date this year -- that day when their tiny tummies are filled to bursting with flower nectar and sugar water from our feeders -- the winter will be nothing to sweat.
* * * * *
The big story hereabouts is not the fate of the Western World or the possible severity of the winter, but the assassination of a Pennsylvania state trooper and wounding of another trooper by a 31-year-old gun nut survivalist coward whose idea of a good time is dressing like a Serbian soldier.
The young man, armed with an AK-47 and other deadly weapons, remains inconveniently at large somewhere in the extensive woodlands hereabouts some nine days after picking off the troopers under the cover of darkness as they changed shifts at a state police barracks.  This has pretty much brought the region to a halt and is raising heck with the tourist business, forcing the closure of schools and incurring the harsh glare of the national media, which has belabored the obvious in declaring that the area where the coward lives "has seen better days."  (Blame Obama.)
The news media is up to it's usual name game bull in calling the guy everything other than what he is -- a terror-freaking-ist, because he is an American and doesn't wear funny clothes and worship a false God.  That noted, I have a modest suggestion for how to end this drama appropriate to the violence that has come to characterize American society: Deputize people who own AK-47s and other assault weapons, of which there are said to be many in the hood, and send them into the woods to track down the coward.  
* * * * *
If you've read this far, you may still have a brain cell or two stuck on the opening paragraph of these musings and are wondering what the heck dragon smoke is.
It is just what the name implies -- smoke for a dragon; you know, the stuff it blows out of its nostrils to scare off chivalrous knights who are trying to rescue damsels in distress, and stuff like that.  In this case, the dragon is part of the fuzzy troupe accompanying a hard-working ventriloquist who is stopping over at the mountain retreat amidst a nine-month tour that will take him to schools and youth groups in a good many states.  He is bringing much needed laughter to kids and a rare moment for teachers and other grown ups to forget about the mess Obama has made of things.
IMAGE: "The Return of the Herd" (1565) by Peter Breugel the Elder

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rave Reviews For 'There's A House In The Land'

Intrepid crew of the Zytax Zymo prepares to embark 
from the farm (Memorial Day, 1977)
My new book, There's a House in the Land (Where A Band Can Take A Stand) is getting rave reviews.  A sample:

If you can imagine the smooth wry blending of The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Swiss Family Robinson then you know in a nutshell what you are about to experience when you take on There's a House in the Land.

Veteran wordsmith Shaun Mullen's many gifts -- his wonderful way with words, fantastic attention to detail and crisp breezy analyze-as-you-go style that is uniquely his own all work together to inform and entertain his reader with a veritable blizzard of images and impressions creating a tapestry, a collage of colors bright and dark, of feelings elevating and depressing, that is fluid, fast paced and possessed of a wonderful range of polarity from har-dee-har-har ribaldry to eye moistening poignancy.

It is page after page of never-a-dull-moment documentation of an era in our history that is resurrected (or should I say exhumed?) with an unabashed self-effacing honesty that most any other writer would be reluctant to reveal.

The book's beauty is that it is a composite, a cross cut, an intense study of the doings, the exploits, the escapades, the shenanigans, the labors and the passions of a bruised and battered generation outraged by its government and traumatized by its war; the time of the quest for a new definition of freedom: freedom from and freedom to "be me," set against the backdrop of the drug culture which his true-life characters immerse themselves in with a hedonistic if not joyful abandon while remaining fully functional and creatively, responsibly and industriously providing for their own upkeep all along the way.

To those who are old enough to appreciate those times, please read this book.  You'll be glad that you did.  To those who are too young to appreciate those times, please read this book.  You'll be glad that you did.

This is a literary banquet that will stick to your ribs and is as American as strawberry rhubarb pie.

More reviews here.  And if you haven't already anted up for a copy of There's A House, it's available in both trade paperback and Kindle editions.
Photograph by the author

Thursday, September 11, 2014

We're Addicted To War & Other Key Takeaways From Obama's ISIS Address

President Obama has been fairly sparing in his prerogative of pre-empting prime-time television to address the nation over the last five and a half years, but last night's address was a doozy.  Here are the big takeaways:
(1.) Hard to believe, but Barack Obama may be best remembered not as the president who rescued the economy and then provided millions of Americans access to decent health care, but as starting a war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take a generation to fight.
(2.) The war will be unlike any other.  Comparisons to World War II, let alone the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, do not begin to describe a conflict based on Whack-a-Mole air strikes backed by the marginally competent ground forces of Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria.
(3.) The air war in Libya didn't work.  Why should this one?
(4.) Not only will ISIS not be a pushover, it has learned well from the mistakes of Al Qaeda.  It has deep pockets, a vast arsenal (much of it captured U.S.-supplied weapons), friends in high places who are supposed to be America's allies, and is social-media savvy.
(5.) The conflict may well come to be known as the War of the Drone.  The Obama administration has conducted about 120 deadly drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, more than in terrorist hotbeds of Pakistan in the last year, and the morality of the use of the lethal weapons may suddenly and regrettably become a non-issue.
(6.) American combat arms will be stretched so thin -- and intelligence on the ground is so poor -- that it is possible Al Qaeda will have breathing room unprecedented since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington 13 unlucky years ago today.
(7.) The war will effectively erase the border between Iraq and Syria and further blur the relationship between the U.S. and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who lest we forget has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people.
(8.) Obama called Iraq a "dumb" war at its outset in 2003, but the war he christened last night has aspects uncomfortably similar to Iraq, notably vague but unsubstantiated threats to the homeland that in the case of Saddam Hussein were proven to be utterly false.
(9.) The war clich├ęs are flying fast and furious, but none is more apt than the fact no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  And that once a war is started, a strategy (to the extent has Obama outlined one) can be impossible to control.
(10.) Unlike George Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, let alone FDR after Pearl Harbor, there is support among most Americans for going after the enemy while most of them disapprove of  the president's leadership.

(11.) The war is likely to be a wash on the campaign trail this fall, and it difficult to see how the conflict will change the likely outcome: a continuing and comfortable Republican majority in the House, a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate, and gridlock all around.  But all bets are off for the big dance in 2016.
(12.) Obama avoided sticky constitutional questions.  But because of his own weak standing with the public and obdurate Republicans, some of whom have repeatedly goaded Obama to escalate military operations against ISIS, he must seek congressional approval for the war before casualties start mounting.

(13.) The Iraq war has cost more than $1 trillion and severely burdened the U.S.  The new conflict will further divert money and attention from crying domestic needs, including education, continued health-care reform, mass transit and other infrastructure improvements and, yes, immigration reform.

(14.) Killing anti-American sentiment abroad will prove to be far more difficult than killing terrorists and their leaders.

(15.) When will the U.S. stop its endless projection of the use of military force?  It has not happened in my long lifetime, and I conclude yet again that absent a viable anti-war movement, war will be a central theme of 21st century America.
Photograph from The Telegraph (UK)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Is President Obama Being Judged Too Harshly On Foreign Policy?

In the ceaseless sturm und drang over Barack Obama's foreign policy and the U.S.'s response to the many conflicts abroad, two important questions are not being asked: Isn't the world different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago, and isn't it unfair to judge the president without taking that into account?
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because while the U.S. remains the sole superpower (with China coming up fast in your rear view mirror), the greatest threats to the homeland and America's global predominance come less from Putin's Russia, although it has an uncomfortable resemblance these days to the former Soviet Union at its most bellicose, but from the rise of the Islamic State and a resurgent Al Qaeda. 
And I have little doubt that Obama's foreign policy legacy will improve with age because history has a way of smoothing out the bumps that occupy our attention in a 24/7 news world.
No, because Obama's foreign policy shortcomings cannot be overlooked even when you consider his enormous domestic achievements -- the significance of which grow larger by the day -- of expanding affordable health-care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while slowing runaway costs.  Oh, and rescuing the economy. 
These shortcomings cannot be balanced out even when you consider five years of unrelenting Republican obstructionism, including cries that the sky is falling whenever Obama has sought to use diplomacy to engage Iran and other mortal enemies of the Dr. Strangelove wing of the GOP, as well as unfair criticism over his reluctance to commit to specific courses of action on occasions when his administration is moving with appropriate caution.
But the fact is, while Obama won the historic 2008 presidential election in part by promising to spare the U.S. future wars and end ongoing ones, he could well leave office with the homeland in more danger than it was at the merciful conclusion of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. After all, there is now a cross-border caliphate in the Middle East that, in the words of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, represents "an imminent threat to every interest we have," while students of history recognize that Putin's nationalistic blood thirst for annexation and conquest was the key ingredient in starting two world wars.
* * * * *
Alas, once the fancy rhetoric is stripped away, Obama's foreign policy is something akin to Don't Do Stupid Stuff.

That, in principle, is just fine considering the predilection for the Bush administration, led by a man of limited intelligence, to do stupid stuff.  At the top of the list is, of course, the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, which was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history after the Big Muddy, while starving the nascent war in Afghanistan and hunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to feed the fool's errand in Iraq. 
The Bush administration's blindered policy on Iran seemed calculated to fail, it's policy toward Pakistan was schizophrenic, while its obsessive unilateralism, mated with a grotesque reliance on torture, sowed deep distrust and antagonism throughout much of the world.  Obama, who in comparison is no dummy, ended one war and is ending another.  And in the service of not doing Stupid Stuff, his policy toward Iran, built on a mix of economic sanctions and efforts to sew mutual trust, has been comparatively successful, although events out of the president's control have fostered the two nations' strange bedfellows relationship in fighting ISIS.  
But the Obama administration also has failed when it comes to containing Pakistan's well-practiced penchant for undermining American interests in Afghanistan and the region at large.  The president's failure to do more than repeatedly draw lines in the sand in Syria is pathetic, at this point, while his efforts (more or less in tandem with NATO) to contain Putin's overreaching in Crimea and Ukraine verges on the tragicomic since economic sanctions are not putting the Russian bear back in its box, and at this point I've run out of fingers and toes to count the number of ceasefires. 
Is Obama too reluctant too often to commit to a specific course of action?  Would having an Obama Doctrine, a clear foreign policy strategy that goes beyond not doing Stupid Stuff, help?
While I applaud Obama's stay cool demeanor and pragmatism, his under-appreciated efforts to scale back unrealistic American ambitions abroad and the quality of his advisers, including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, I believe that having a clear strategy would at least be a reference point even at this late date in his turn at the plate. 
Yet such a strategy almost inevitably would be at odds with the president's vow to not start new wars.  This means that he may well serve out his last term not as the global leader in foreign affairs but as a victim twice over: Of having scant foreign policy experience before being elected, and inheriting the most important job in the world at a time when in which any foreign policy that falls short of being willing to engage in large-scale armed conflict -- which happened to be the lynchpin of the Bush Doctrine-- is futile.
Photography by Doug Mills/The New York Times