Monday, April 14, 2014

Reading comprehension

The S.O. and I had a rather amusing experience on Facebook recently. We both have a tendency to clump -- to share en masse various memes, links to articles, cartoons, whatever. Like everyone else who clumps, we don't put huge amounts of thought into it. It's more like "That's a good Maddow quote. I'll share it," or "Those otters are cute." It's the type of stuff everyone passes on and almost no one pays any real attention to.

Anyway, as part of a clumping exercise the other morning, the S.O. shared a meme about every single Republican Senator voting against equal pay for women. The meme apparently referred to the Paycheck Fairness Act, a Senate bill which the Republicans have blocked debate on three times (at last count) since its original introduction. I repeat, the S.O. shared a meme, one of those e-cards with the vintage art work and a grand total of 19 words on it. Unless a meme contains an egregious error, like calling Donald Rumsfeld a draft dodger when the man is a U.S. Navy veteran, no one ever comments on them. Why bother? Was there an egregious error in the meme the S.O. shared? Well, you could quibble that voting as a bloc to prevent debate isn't exactly the same as voting against equal pay, which is the kind of hair-splitting I'd be inclined to do (I tend to obsess about precision in language). That type of quibble would also signal that you had been paying attention to the issue and had at least a minimal grasp of the facts.

That is not, however, what the troll who did decide to comment on that rather vacuous meme chose to do. Instead he started off with a thinly disguised insult -- "My father taught me the meaning of work" -- as a segue into how leftists expect people to get paid the same regardless of merit or willingness to do any work at all. This is a theme he's brought up in other threads (there's overlap between our groups of Facebook friends) and it is annoying as hell. It doesn't take a semiotics expert to interpret that particular sign. I know the meaning of work = you're a lazy bum. This was followed by a typical Obama is a hypocrite because the women in the White House earn less than the men do. The S.O. made the mistake of responding to the ad hominem attack, and I'll admit it bothered me, too, so I jumped into the discussion.

I opted to go after the hypocrisy statement as well as a rather glaring ignorance of basic American law the troll had displayed -- he said Obama could just write a law to increase wages for White House staffers. I did a careful explanation of the problems inherent in interpreting aggregate data, described how the civil service system works, acknowledged that women unfortunately are still over-represented in lower pay grades, and noted that when direct comparisons are made (every GS-7 with every other GS-7) civil service workers are paid the same regardless of gender. Being a sarcastic bitch, I also tossed out a snide comment about his High School apparently not offering Civics back in the '50s because Congress passes laws, the President signs them.

He came back with an outraged response about how dare I insult his beloved alma mater?! That's when I had to explain what sarcasm is. I wasn't insulting his school; I was insulting him. I should have known. The poor man is an engineer as well as an avowed Libertarian, two categories of human renowned for their poor sense of humor and inability to pick up on subtleties in language.

The S.O. had done another response, too, and the troll had also responded to that one. Each of his responses included an explanation of how he really hadn't meant what he'd said in his previous response, he'd actually meant something else. After about the third response, I got bored. Granted, we were forcing him to discard more and more generalities and memorized talking points and to actually get into the messy weeds of reality, but even when the troll you're arguing with is a troll you actually know in real life (as this guy is) after awhile it gets old. I told him feeding time was over and I was off to do more productive things with my time.

If I had any doubt whatsoever that at the core of every Libertarian male lies a misogynistic asshat, he removed all doubts. You could practically see the spittle on the keyboard from him ranting at the S.O. that "your wife can't read." Way to go, sexist jerk, instant dehumanization by turning me from a person to a possession.

I used to have a remarkable knack for getting people to show their true colors. It's nice to see that even in cyberspace, I've still got the touch.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review: A Bright Shining Lie

I seem to have a knack for pulling books off the library's shelves that are guaranteed to depress the hell out of me. Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam was another one. The book provides a thorough explication of just how stunningly stupid the policy-makers in Washington, D.C., can be, especially when they're relying on "intelligence" provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Of course, it doesn't help when the people in power have a vision of the United States and its place in the world that does not match up with reality.

The author, Neil Sheehan, was the New York Times reporter who broke the Pentagon Papers story. He spent several years in Vietnam, first working for UPI and later for the Times. He witnessed the initial troop build-ups and saw firsthand the disconnect between what was happening on the ground and what the policy wonks back in the Pentagon and the State Department believed. He met Lt. Col. John Paul Vann in 1962, about the same time both men arrived in the country, and came to admire Vann for his skills and dedication.

This is an interesting book in many ways. I think it would have been a very different book had Sheehan been able to complete it when he first got interested in the project. When the book was originally conceived, around the time John Paul Vann died in a helicopter crash in 1972, it probably began as a far more hagiographic work than it turned out to be. At the time of Vann’s death, he was viewed by many as being one of the few U.S. military men who actually knew what he was doing in Vietnam. Vann had tried to get through to people in power right up to the level of President Kennedy that the U.S. could never win in Vietnam if it continued with the policies it had in place. Vann had even apparently sacrificed his military career because he believed so strongly that the policies were misguided and wasting American and Vietnamese lives. Having tried and failed to get the Pentagon to see that they were being fed bad intelligence from the field, he retired from the Army after a 20-year career.

Within a few years, Vann was back in Vietnam working for the Agency for International Development advising local officials on pacification efforts, which included everything from building schools to coordinating military attacks against the Viet Minh insurgents, or, as Americans preferred to call them, the Viet Cong. When Vann returned, he discovered that everything he had warned about in 1962 – the flow of weapons from the local militia to the guerillas, the corruption of Vietnamese officials, the stupidity of the strategic hamlets program – had gotten a lot worse. The more American troops that the U.S. poured into the country, the stronger the Viet Cong became. Vann did his best with what he had, but it was a hopeless task. Sheehan makes it clear that the U.S. commander for Vietnam, William Westmoreland, was an idiot, a man who had been promoted way above his level of competency and had no intention of ever wavering from his plan to wear down North Vietnam through attrition. In reality, North Vietnam was wearing down the U.S. Vann didn’t live to see the end of the war, which was probably a kindness. By the time he died, he had succumbed to the same fantasies that drove the other Americans. He had settled on a pacification policy he was convinced would work and refused to admit that it would never be implemented.

If Sheehan had written the entire book right after Vann died, I’m not sure he would have included Vann himself as one of the bright shining lies that comprise the American experience in Vietnam. As it was, Sheehan was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1974. Sheehan’s long recuperation from the accident delayed work on A Bright Shining Lie but may have also provided more time for him to reflect on Vann’s complicated life and its many contradictions. For a man who valued honesty in intelligence gathering, analysis, and policy formation, when it came to his personal life Vann was a consummate liar. He also had a remarkably strong self-destructive streak.

Some of the less savory facts about John Paul Vann, Vietnam war hero, were actually well-known long before he died. He openly bragged about his womanizing while in Vietnam. Although he had a wife back in Colorado, he kept two Vietnamese mistresses, both of whom were considerably younger than he was. In addition to the mistresses, he had numerous casual sexual encounters with women on trips to Saigon. Today he’d probably be labeled a sex addict; in the 1960s his friends and acquaintances simply marveled at his stamina.

What Sheehan apparently did not know about Vann when he first began researching the book included the fact that many of the anecdotes Vann told about himself were actually borrowed from other people’s lives. Vann told a story about learning from an experience in Korea, for example, that had actually happened to another officer. Vann had served with distinction in Korea, but what he actually did there and what he said he did there turned out to be very different. Sheehan also did not know that many of Vann’s actions in Vietnam that appeared to be grounded in moral outrage or strong principles were simply stage dressing for Vann’s departure from the Army. While he was being held up by many as example of someone who was willing to speak truth to power at the risk of being pushed into retirement, Vann already knew he’d be retiring after he returned to the U.S.

Vann had reached the point in his career where he either had to be promoted or retire. He knew that the promotion board would have access to his full personnel jacket and would discover a morals charge against him. There was no way he’d ever be given a general’s star when he’d come close to going to prison for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old babysitter, a charge which he managed to escape by training himself to beat the polygraph test (he learned he could lie most effectively when sleep-deprived). However, if he was perceived as a contrarian, someone who would not go along just to get along, he’d be encouraged to leave instead of being asked to proceed to the next step up the career ladder. He wouldn't have to experience the humiliation of being turned down by a promotion board. Before going to Vietnam, he had already reached out to defense contractors about possible employment when he retired. His criticisms about the way the war was being handled were accurate, but whether or not he would have been quite as vocal or as tactless if he thought he had something to lose is debatable.   

Conclusions about the book? It won the 1989 Pulitzer for Nonfiction for a reason. It was meticulously researched, is quite readable, and is unremittingly depressing. It provides a plethora of details about a war we all know now was a colossal error conducted using tactics that made it unwinnable. Does anyone really need more proof that Westmoreland was an absolute ass or that the military has a bad habit of rewarding incompetent officers with commendations and promotions?

I had a few minor quibbles, of course. Sheehan mentions a Foreign Service officer, Douglas Ramsey, who was captured by the Viet Cong in January 1966. At several points, he refers to the conditions of Ramsey’s captivity but then just leaves the reader hanging as to what happened in the end. There’s no mention of when or why Ramsey was finally released. He also mentions Vann’s last minute concern that his younger mistress and his illegitimate daughter be recognized as his heirs, but then doesn’t tell us what happened to them. He obviously knew because he includes interviews with both mistresses in the sources listed for the chapters where they’re mentioned.

Would I recommend the book to other readers? Yes, if you’re interested in military history, the Vietnam War, or still more proof that the U.S. should learn to mind its own business and avoid foreign entanglements. No, if you’d prefer to remain cheerfully oblivious to the fact that more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

What's amusing me this week

The Stephen Colbert freak-out on the right. Who would have thought that the conservatives in this country would care so much about who replaces David Letterman? Based on the clips I'm seeing, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other right-wing talking heads have apparently never watched Letterman's show. They seem to think that Colbert will be bringing some radical left-wing agenda to CBS in an attempted liberal take-over of popular culture in a way that has never been seen before in the hallowed space of the Ed Sullivan Theater. From the way they're freaking out you'd think that it had been Dennis Miller sitting at that desk and bantering with Paul Shaffer for the past 20+ years. It's bizarre. Letterman has been taking shots at the conservative side of American politics for a long, long time. He was merciless in mocking George Bush, he's targeted Rush Limbaugh in the past, and he's been consistently irreverent when it comes to going after people in positions of power. In short, Colbert isn't going to be saying or doing anything that Letterman hasn't already said or done, albeit in a slightly different style.

In any case, it is definitely weird that the right-wing pundits would worry at all about who's going to host a late night television program. Why do they care? Is Rush really that insecure about his growing irrelevancy and shrinking (dying?) audience that he feels obligated to rant about Colbert? Does Hannity actually believe that Colbert succeeding Letterman is still more proof of growing decadence in American life? It's all very strange. Amusing, yes, but still strange.

Monday, April 7, 2014

While I'm on the subject of idiots

I was wandering around Facebook recently and made the mistake of dipping into the Comments thread under the graphic shown to the right. What the Maddow quote does is state the obvious: there are structural reasons why most poor people are poor. No one is poor because they want to be; they're poor because they're stuck somewhere that's hard to escape from. That's not to say it can't be done; there are exceptional people in every strata of society.

Naturally, the usual libertarian-free-market-people-are-poor-by-choice trolls came slithering out of the woodwork. We'd all be just fine if we just got rid of those pesky government regulations that are keeping us all from becoming entrepreneurs and making a fortune operating our own small businesses. And the proverbial pigs will fly. Does it ever occur to any of those people that starting a business takes money? If you're down and out to begin with, where do you get your start up funds? Doesn't matter if there's a ton of regulations or none whatsoever; if you don't have enough money to keep gas in your car or to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald's, you're not likely to have the cash to start any business other than one involving your own underpaid labor (house cleaning, childcare, detailing cars, house painting, etc.). Even there you run into the issue of working capital. The lowest upfront investment would probably be childcare, especially if you're doing it in someone else's home. Everything else you have to buy some basic equipment. Painters need ladders, a van or truck to haul them, good quality brushes, drop cloths, etc. House cleaners need vacuum cleaners, dusters, various cleaning solutions, buckets, rubber gloves. In every case, you need reliable transportation. So where is that money to get started going to come from? And who are your customers going to be?

Those quibbles aside, do these libertarian idiots actually believe that everyone in this country could actually be an independent entrepreneur? Have any of them stepped into a typical business lately? If they had, they might have noticed that there's the owner and/or manager and there are the employees who do the actual work. The people who can run a one-man operation of any sort are rather rare. If your entrepreneurial spirit cries out for you to be the next Paula Deen, you're going to need kitchen staff, wait staff, and cleaning staff -- unless, of course, you plan to be content with a neighborhood diner with an extremely limited menu and the staff consisting of yourself and maybe your spouse or kids. You have a wonderful idea for a new type of widget? If you set up any sort of manufacturing enterprise, if it takes off you're going to need employees. Where are they supposed to come from if everyone else is also being entrepreneurial and going into business for themselves?

Of course, if a person could do a little digging and find out what's going on in the lives of the trolls who are so keen on the idea of everyone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and going into business for themselves, it would no doubt turn out that the most vocal trolls are cubicle rats working for an hourly wage in the bowels of some mega-corporation. The libertarian fantasists might exhort the poor to take personal responsibility and become entrepreneurs, but it's not a path they ever plan to explore themselves. Why should they? It's so much easier to sit back, collect a paycheck, and waste time on the company's computer.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Spring in the U.P.

I'm guessing we got about 20 inches of snow dumped on us yesterday. Today is lovely, clear blue skies and a predicted high of 40-something for the next several days, so maybe that storm was Winter's last gasp. Nonetheless, I'm happy we paid the driveway plowing fee and did not have to rely on the S.O.'s POS Jeep to open the driveway.

Actually, that storm better have been Winter's last gasp. The snowbanks have gotten high enough that even the grader is having trouble pushing the snow back.

The view out the back door this morning. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

They never learn

I am busy depressing myself this week by reading Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. I'm barely one third of the way into it and must confess it's turning into a hard slog. It's remarkably depressing to read page after page describing how thoroughly government official after official, both American and Vietnamese, displayed astounding levels of incompetence and no one seemed to notice or care.

I may do a longer review once I've actually finished the book, for now suffice to say that all the same mistakes we're still making in the Middle East happened in Vietnam. We aided and abetted the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in creating recruits for the Viet Cong, we were sloppy with armament and munitions so it never took long for anything we gave to the ARVN to find its way into VC hands, and intelligence data were either cooked (wildly inflated body counts, for example) or deliberately misinterpreted.

The more I read of recent foreign policy and military history, the more I wonder just why agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency exist. If in any situation there is more than one possible explanation for anything, the CIA and NSA will consistently pick the wrong answer. If they have a choice of allies, they'll go with the most thug-like and corrupt. When they're ask to pick targets, they'll manage to kill off the local school teachers or bomb a convent full of nuns. They'll see threats where none exist and ignore ones that are real. A reader could substitute names (delete Saigon, insert Kabul) and it would read like it was reporting on events from this decade instead of 50 years ago. It really makes a person wonder just how on earth the U.S. has managed to muddle along without accidentally triggering a nuclear war or some other disaster for as long as it has.

As I've said in other posts, I'm sure both agencies have dedicated, competent employees who actually know what they're doing. In the section of the book I've finished, there is one intelligence officer mentioned who is really good at his job. Unfortunately, when he passes the information up the chain of command, no one higher up wants to hear it because it contradicts what they want to believe. So they ignore the facts and lie to the White House and the Pentagon. We all know how well that turned out.

The stupid, it burns.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Random thoughts

The S.O. coming from the woodshed about a month ago. The snow has
since melted off the trees so pruning should be easy. 
It's Saturday morning and once again I'm considering donning snowshoes, grabbing the lopping shears, and attacking the overgrown and snarled apple trees. They're kind of a mess because they're all feral and were ignored for years. Now is the time of year to do it -- the snow is more than three feet deep so it's like having a ladder without having to actually use a ladder. Then again, it is awkward maneuvering around the trees while wearing snowshoes. Only in the U.P.

Speaking of snow and apple trees, I was also thinking I should prune the dwarf Wolf River tree I planted last year. Only one problem: the tree is totally buried except for about three inches sticking out of the snow. Perhaps dwarf trees aren't such a hot idea up here after all.

The sun is shining today so I may spend the afternoon in the Woman Cave working on quilts or doing some other puttering. Or I may go down to the museum. For some reason, I just haven't felt the urge to sew as much this winter as I have in some years. Usually I'd have two quilts in progress; this year there's only one and it's going slow. Not sure why; I'll blame the long, cold winter. There were too many days when the woodstove just wasn't up to chasing the chill out of the cave. It's hard to sew when you're wearing mittens. Maybe I should jettison the computer and turn this porch into my sewing space. I'm always up a couple hours before the S.O. I could use his laptop. I'm a morning person; he's not. I'd probably get more done. For sure I'd be less likely to waste as much time as I do wandering around the murkier areas of cyberspace.

As for the museum, there's the usual cataloging and filing. It's not going to end for a long, long time. I'm almost done with the filing cabinet mess, but there's still the gazillion boxes of miscellaneous crap in the "attic" and the storage building. And I do mean crap: one of the little gems I found in the attic was a bizarre mangled papier mache model of something unidentifiable. For sure it's going on the Vappu bonfire. I also need to clean out a storage closet so the S.O. can help me put in decent shelves (the existing shelves were poorly installed, aren't deep enough, and sag) sometime next week. Lots to do, and never enough time or bodies to do it all.
Feral apple trees, March 28, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ethical qualms, moral dilemmas, counterfactuals

In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.  – John Barnes
I did a blog post the other day on one of the things we denizens of the United States seem to have gotten right: as a general rule, we don't go around trying to figure out ways to kill each based on where someone's great grandmother was born or what language some distant ancestors spoke. We've got various alliances, networks, cliques, and cults that might despise each other, but if we accuse each other of not being true Americans it's not going to be because someone's great grandparents spoke Hungarian or Tagalog when they got off the boat 100 years ago. There's a reason for this: assimilation. Some of it was voluntary, but quite a bit was forced. 

Which brings up the issue of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas. I once read a statement attributed to Lenin in which he said that in order for the end to justify the means, you have to have an end you can justify. Which strikes me as being a tad tautological, but it does make sense. If you're going to break eggs, you better be planning on ending up with an edible omelet. So today we Americans are the fortunate beneficiaries of a policies instituted decades or centuries ago that in retrospect do not seem to pass the smell test. Taking Native American kids away from their parents and shipping them off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language was barbaric. Punishing the children of immigrants for speaking Italian or German or Slovenian in an American public school was almost as cruel. People were stigmatized, treated horribly, for displaying any signs of foreignness. The end result was a populace unified by a language and common culture, but obtained at the cost of losing their past. Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  And was it necessary to use force? Would assimilation and adoption of a common language have occurred as rapidly if official policies hadn't pushed for both? Is there even a way to decide questions like that decades later?

As for counterfactuals, there is the intriguing question of whether or not assimilation, forced or otherwise, would have occurred among the non-Native groups if they had all felt like they had someplace to go back to, i.e., that there was a motherland just waiting to be reclaimed. Although some immigrants came with the intention of just working for a few years, making a fortune, and going back to the old country to buy a farm or start a business, the majority recognized this was it. There was no going back. Once they got off the boat from Europe, Africa, or Asia, most were here to stay. 

In contrast, in the Soviet Union, Stalin tried shuffling various population groups around in an attempt to Russianize everyone (which was, come to think of it, pretty bizarre, given that he wasn't Russian himself) and eliminate non-Russian languages within the borders of the Soviet Union. It didn't work. Once the Soviet Union fell, the former Soviet republics discarded using Russian as a language pretty rapidly and different ethnic groups that had been sent off to colonize in eastern Siberia started moving back to where their grandparents had lived. It's a lot easier to keep the idea of repatriation alive when you know you can walk there if you're determined enough. 

Would the Russianization have worked given a few more generations to oppress and coerce people? Again, an unanswerable question. Borders have shifted numerous times, nation-states have risen and fallen, and populations have shifted in response to wars, famines, and plagues. Some cultures and people vanish as though they had never existed; others endure.