TCJ Reviews “Year of Loving Dangerously”

History has been made! The Comics Journal has just given me my first ever positive review. Here’s a peek:

At first blush, I was tempted to think the book lacks thematic unity, a literary value much fancied by critics. If you wanted to write — to create — a story about sex as a means of survival, you might entitle the story The Year of Loving Dangerously. But you wouldn’t include the balloon bombing or road trip episodes: They have nothing to do with sex as a survival technique. But those two seeming extraneous events do pertain to unmitigated candor and to Rall’s conviction that autobiography should not spare its subject, its author. One must include everything, warts (so to speak) and all. And so Rall includes the wart plus evidence of his youthful stupidity. The book’s unity, then, is as exemplar of its genre.

Is this book worth reading? Yes, assuredly. Rall’s is an engaging story, gripping and suspenseful. His predicament is bleak; his solution is startlingly unconventional but, given the circumstances, entirely logical. And his deployment of the resources of his medium is exemplary. Rall may think of the book as “a metaphor for the insecurity of capitalism,” but his readers are likely to think of it as a metaphor for how to survive by the exercise of human ingenuity untrammeled by the niceties of polite society.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Obama’s Katrina

<i>The President Can’t Lead. So He Should Quit.</i>

British Petroleum isn’t dithering. Yes, it’s been five weeks since the most devastating oil spill in U.S. history. But it’s probably impossible to fix.

The company’s execs just look calm. Deep inside, they’re roiling with anguish. Keeping it low-key is how Brits roll. Especially when they’ve got something to hide.

Talk about something to hide. Talk about tacky: a new BP document has come to light. It is a smoking gun: to save a few bucks BP executives decided to go with a cheaper, riskier well casing at its doomed Deepwater Horizon platform—one without a redundant safety system that might have prevented the explosion and subsequent spill. Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas at Austin told The New York Times that BP’s choice was “without a doubt a riskier way to go.”

So here we are. And millions of fish and dolphins and pelicans aren’t.

Why hasn’t President Obama acted like one—a president, that is? Why hasn’t he seized BP’s assets? Obama’s torturers at Gitmo and Bagram are winding up 15-year-old Taliban teenagers and taxi drivers. Why aren’t BP’s execs learning the finer points of electrodes and nipple clamps?

The damage caused by BP’s negligence is incalculable. Experts who talked to National Geographic magazine say the pressure at 5,000 feet below sea level is so high that the well under BP’s doomed Deepwater Horizon platform will gush oil until it bleeds out. That could take years.

“You’re talking about a reservoir that could have tens of millions of barrels in it,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” said Matthew Simmons, retired chair of the energy-industry investment banking firm Simmons & Company International. Ideas like jamming the leaking pipe with golf balls and other debris are a “joke,” he added.

By the way, a Purdue engineering professor called before Congress now estimates the flow rate at 95,000 barrels, or 4 million gallons, of crude oil a day—20 times the company’s official claim. If oil continues to contaminate the Gulf at that rate, by the end of July this BP spill will become the worst oil disaster ever. The previous record was set by Iraq in 1991, which deliberately dumped 336 million gallons into the Persian Gulf to slow down U.S. invasion forces during the Gulf War. Twelve years later, almost all of the Saudi coastline, including its marshes and mudflats, was devoid of life.

“It was amazing to stand there and look across what used to be a [Saudi] salt marsh and it was all dead—not even a live crab,” Miles Hayes, co-founder of the consulting firm Research Planning, Inc. and one of those who studied the spill’s aftermath, recalled.

Lovely.

So this is Obama’s Katrina. Or his second: he still hasn’t done much to help those who lost their jobs or to create new ones. Technically, he also inherited Bush’s Katrina—he hasn’t helped the 2005 flood victims on the Gulf Coast either.

What’s different this time is that people are pissed. Not fake pissed, like the Tea Partiers who think he’s a socialist (now wouldn’t that be nice!) because of his lame healthcare package. They’re actually, seriously, this-time-we-mean-it pissed. Because, get-the-guvmint-outta-my-life rhetoric aside, Americans expect their government to do something when something this big and this stupid happens. They have that right. Taxes ought to accomplish something other than killing Iraqis and Afghans.

So where is Obama?

Stuck changing planes on his way to Clueistan, evidently.

“We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and this job is complete,” Obama told workers at Solyndra Inc., a solar panel manufacturer near San Francisco. If the experts are right that 12 years won’t make a dent in a spill this size, Barack’s going to be a busy guy after he retires.

“The spill in the Gulf, which is heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources,” he argued.

Voilà! That’s the extent of Obama’s response to Deepsix Horizon: talking about alternative energy.

Reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and transitioning to solar, wind and other clean sources of energy is long overdue. But that would/will take decades. We don’t have years. To update Keynes in an age of global warming and mass species extinctions: In the short run, we are all dead. We need radical cuts in energy consumption to slow down the rate of acceleration of global warming: at least 75 percent, according to most climatologists. Although 100 percent may not be enough.

Not that Obama is even trying. His new 2012 budget calls for a mere $6 billion increase—the same amount we spend to kill Iraqis and Afghans for three weeks—for subsidies to companies trying to develop greener fuels. From 2002 to 2008, while gas prices and profits were skyrocketing, Big Oil received $72 billion in your taxdollars. A preemptive bailout, I assume.

Obama’s efforts on automobile fuel efficiency have been equally lackluster. He has signed a law requiring cars and light trucks to get at least 34 miles per gallon by the year 2016. By 2016, industry analysts say, cars would have been getting 40 mpg anyway.

If Obama were half as hopey changey as he claimed during the campaign, BP’s North American operations would now be U.S. government property, nationalized in order to compensate the fishermen and other injured parties in the Gulf. If he had an ounce of toughness he would require that every car sold in the U.S. beginning in 2011 be a hybrid. Sales of SUVs and light trucks would be banned; existing models would have to be retired from U.S. roadways within two years. All offshore drilling would be prohibited. (Yes, gas prices would rise: about three to four cents a gallon over the next ten to fifteen years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Whatever.)

He could do other things. The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq caused a huge leap in oil prices. Bring them home. Solar panels should be mass produced by government-owned and operated factories and distributed at federally subsidized prices to homeowners and developers. The wind power and geothermal industries could be radically expanded with the two billion dollars a week we’d save by ending the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Obama can’t lead. He’s in the pocket of Big Oil. In fact, he’s making things worse: even after the spill began in the Gulf, his Department of Energy was still issuing new offshore drilling permits!

Resign, Mr. President. You won’t be missed.

(Ted Rall is the author of the upcoming “The Anti-American Manifesto,” to be published in September by Seven Stories Press. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

Afghanistan Update

I’m leaving for Afghanistan the second week of August. I have three goals:

1. Go to Taloqan in Takhar Province, to revisit the place where I spent much of the fall of 2001 during the battle of Kunduz. I’ll try to track down my fixer and his family to see how they’re doing (and give them some money) and see how things have changed during the last nine years of America’s longest war. Taloqan has changed hands several times recently between forces loyal to the central government and the Taliban.

2. Visit the site of the construction of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. This is supposed to be north of Herat. TAP is one of the most underreported stories of the last decade.

3. Travel to the remote western deserts near the Iranian border where U.S. forces and reporters rarely venture or report from. I will stay with local families to see how life is going for them.

And of course I’ll be working on a book for Farrar, Strauss & Giroux’s Hill & Wang imprint.

I will also be filing a daily cartoon blog about my observations and experiences along the way.

We’ll be “in country” one month—that’s the limit set by most media outlets for reporters covering rural Afghanistan, and with good reason. It’s a hard place to travel, not just from a security standpoint but also because of the harsh climate and poor food and lodging, not to mention lack of basic infrastructure (running water and electricity).

You can follow our route on the attached map. We’ll fly into Dushanbe, Tajikistan, obtain permission from the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enter the restricted 100-kilometer zone along the southern border with Afghanistan, then drive overland to Taloqan, and head west and then south before crossing the border into Iran.

We’ve purchased our Aeroflot flights to Dubai, ongoing via the tiny Somon Air (two planes!) to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. So we’re applying for visas from Tajikistan. We have also applied for media visas for Iran. Since we’ll end up in western Afghanistan, it makes sense to drive to Teheran and catch a flight to Europe from there. Hopefully we’ll be able to get these without any problem, but we won’t know for 25 days, according to the Iranian Interest Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. We’re also applying for Turkmen visas to allow for the possibility that we can’t exit through Iran.

Ah, yes. “We”?

Going along will be two of America’s most gifted cartoonists, Matt Bors and Steven Cloud. Matt Bors (www.mattbors.com), is a brilliant editorial cartoonist I signed for syndication at United Feature Syndicate. Steven Cloud (www.stevencloud.com) is currently on hiatus from his amazing “Boy on a Stick and Slither” webcomic; hopefully, he will start doing cartoons again in the near future. This will be Matt’s first trip outside the United States. Hell-o, diarrhea! Steven caught the Central Asian travel bug last year when he drove a car in a charity rally from eastern Europe to Mongolia via, among other places, Kazakhstan and Russia.

More updates when there’s something to say. Wish us luck!

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Holiday in the Sun

Travel Planning for Afghanistan

How are things going in Afghanistan? The best way to find out is to go see for yourself. I’m doing that this August.

You can tell a lot even before you go. I’m in the planning stages: reserving flights, applying for visas, buying equipment.

“Whatever you do,” a friend emailed me from Kabul, “don’t fly into the Kabul airport.” He wasn’t worried that my flight would get shot down by one of Reagan’s leftover Stinger missiles—although there’s a risk of that. (In order to improve the odds, pilots corkscrew in and out.)

His concern is corrupt cops. “[Afghan president Hamid] Karzai’s policemen are crazy,” my normally taciturn buddy, who works for an NGO, elaborated. “They’ll hold you up at gunpoint right in the airport.”

One option is to hitch a flight on a military transport to the former Soviet airbase north of town at Bagram, now a U.S. torture facility being expanded by the Obama Administration in order to accommodate detainees being transferred from Guantánamo. But I’m an old-fashioned journalist. War reporters shouldn’t tag along with soldiers.

So I’m not flying into Kabul. Which works out, since getting to my destination—Taloqan, in Takhar province near the Tajik border—would have required traveling north toward Mazar-e-Sharif from Kabul. Among the highlights of the Kabul-Mazar road are landslides and a trek through the war-scarred Soviet-era Salong Tunnel. It also offers an assortment of thugs both political (Taliban) and apolitical (bandits).

To avoid corrupt airport cops and the dicey north-south highway, I’ll fly into Dushanbe, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Tajikistan. This means spending an extra $800 on airfare, not to mention chancing travel on one of Tajikistan Airlines’ aging Tupolev 154s. It takes a full day to drive from Dushanbe to the Afghan border on mostly unpaved roads.

But I’ll be stuck in Dushanbe for two or three days waiting for government permits. You can’t travel to the special “security zone” along the border with Afghanistan without a permission document issued by the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When I met the minister in 2001, I asked him whether treating the 100-kilometer zone like no-man’s land sent an unfriendly message to the Afghans. He laughed. “Afghanistan,” he said, “is our very difficult neighbor. If they behave better, so will we.” The policy remains in place.

No journalist operating in a war zone is safe without a fixer. Things you can easily do yourself back home can be impossible in the Fourth World. A fixer makes things happen: government permits, cars and drivers, places to stay. I’ve accumulated a set of fixers throughout Central and South Asia over the years.

But it’s hard to arrange a fixer in advance in Afghanistan. There’s hardly any mail, telephone service or electricity outside Kabul, much less email. I’ll probably have to just show up, then hire people as I travel.

Nevertheless, I contacted another Kabul-based Friend of Rall about lining up fixers for the regions I plan to visit: Takhar, which I mentioned above, Kunduz, then northern Afghanistan en route to and around Heart (near the Turkmen and Iranian borders), and finally Nimruz province.

There’s heavy fighting in Kunduz. The Taliban recently beheaded four guards working for U.S. forces near Herat. In Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz, suicide bombers just took out the governor’s compound.

“No one wants to go where you’re going,” my friend informed me.

The average salary in Afghanistan is $30 per month.

“I pay $150 a day,” I replied.

“I know a guy. But he’s a whiner. He’ll complain about it the whole time. And you’ll have to promise a death bonus to his wife if something happens.”

Communications are a challenge. I want to file a daily cartoon blog. I can scan a drawn cartoon into my laptop, assuming it doesn’t get stolen by some greedy border guard. But how will I access the Internet?

I can rent a satellite phone and use dial-up. It won’t be fast; at 9600 bps it takes an hour to send one a simple black and white cartoon. And it won’t be easy. Dial-up lines drop. In 2001, when I paid $7 a minute for satellite service, I cried when that happened. The search for power will be endless. Solar panels, car batteries, renting a generator for an hour, whatever it takes to feed greedy phones and laptops.

I’m not complaining. I’m just saying.

Afghans are allowed to complain. They live there.

Of course, the biggest inconvenience is danger.

Everyone worries about me. “Keep your head down.” “Come back alive.” “Don’t get killed.”

They’re sweet and loving sentiments. But they’re also kind of funny. Most of my friends still think of Afghanistan as the Good War, the one that had something—they’re not sure what—to do with 9/11. They think we’re there to help the Afghans. They think the carnage is in Iraq; actually, it’s more dangerous for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

If the Afghanistan War is going so well, why is everyone so worried?

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Publishers, Heal Thyselves

Seven Suggestions for Newspapers

I’m on the road. On May 3rd I gave a talk at Wright State University. I showed my political cartoons, excerpts from graphic novels past and future, and something new I’ve been working on the last couple of years: two-minute-long animations for the Web.

But no one wanted to talk about comics. The first audience question was: “How can we save newspapers?”

That happens a lot nowadays. Never mind cartoons; people want to save the papers the cartoons run in (and, increasingly, used to run in). The Q&A session following my April 28th appearance at Philadelphia’s Pen and Pencil Club was dominated by the same “are papers doomed?” question. The thing is, the Pen and Pencil is the oldest press club in America. The audience included reporters and editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. I should have been asking them about the future of media. Then again, their minds were preoccupied. Both papers had just been sold to a new owner no one knew much about.

This newspapers-in-trouble thing is weird. Tens of millions of Americans still want them enough to pay for them. Yet circulation and revenues keep plunging. Normally, when demand exists for a product, it is possible to sell it at a profit. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that poor management is at least partly to blame for the industry’s problems.

I tell my audiences: If I knew the answer to saving the newspaper business, I wouldn’t be talking to them. I’d be hanging out with Rupert and the other press barons, billing them millions for my sage advice. I certainly wouldn’t be watching my income plunge as my workload expands.

I don’t have answers. But I do have thoughts.

Here they are:

Embrace The New Yorker Theory. I hate The New Yorker. I hate its tone, I hate its attitude, I even hate its font. I can’t stand the cartoons. But I read the magazine anyway. Not because I’m a masochist. Because I live in New York, I’m a media person, and if I don’t read The New Yorker I’ll look stupid at parties. When you’re competing for reader dollars against millions of websites and thousands of publications, you need to become like The New Yorker: so essential that people will buy your product, not because they like it, but because they have to.

Assume smart readers. Editors think readers are dumb. They say so in private. And they make it clear by what they’re doing to newspapers: shorter stories, less coverage of international news, obsessive celebrity gossip, bland opinion pages, boring features. But editors are wrong. Anyone who seeks out and pays for a newspaper in 2010 is curious and intelligent by definition. Newspaper buyers are looking for challenging, deep analysis, not newsbytes that mimic the Internet (which they get for free anyway). Unfortunately, they’re not finding it. Which brings us to…

More analysis, less news. The evening newspaper and network TV nightly news are dinosaurs. Whether you read it online, on your iPhone, or heard it on the radio or from a coworker, by the time you get home from work you already know about the coup in Kyrgyzstan and who won the game. What you need now is someone to tell what it all means. Who is the new Kyrgyz president? How will the coup affect the war on terror? How do the playoffs look now?

With one exception, newspapers should stop trying to break news. They shouldn’t even summarize it. Papers can’t compete with online news sites. They should publish a daily version of what Time or Newsweek could be if they weren’t lame: lengthy analyses, complete with colorful charts and graphs, along with opinions all across the political spectrum.

In a way, this is the hardest advice for papers to follow. They’re set up to break stories and to confirm other outlets’ stories. For a forward-looking paper, out-of-work magazine feature writers might be a better fit than retooling someone who has been working the city hall beat.

The exception? Investigative journalism. Few online sites have the money or time to invest in unmasking the mayor as the corrupt bastard we all know he is. When written well, an exposé can be as riveting as a Robert Ludlum novel.

Stop sucking. Newspaper circulation began falling decades before anyone heard of HTML. The reason is simple: they got boring. Compare today’s paper with an issue from the 1940s, when the industry was at the top of its game. The differences are striking: lively prose, nice mix of high (in-depth analysis) and low (tons of comics and columns). Indian newspapers, still growing as the Web spreads in that country, even deploy cartoonists to illustrate news, thus jazzing up what would otherwise be merely another car crash story. Internet news and opinion sites have learned that people prefer brash, edgy and opinionated to bland and “safe.” (Actually, “safe” is dangerous. It’s a recipe for bankruptcy.)

Stop giving it away. It ought to go without saying that giving away content for free online was an obviously stupid idea when newspapers started it a decade ago. Inexplicably, they’re still at it. Stop it, idiots!

Charge more. As Peter Osnos writes in The Atlantic, the English-language paper Americans buy overseas offers a model for the future: when advertising dries up, charge readers more. “There is relatively little advertising in the [International Herald-Tribune], even less of course than before the crash. But there has never been all that much advertising. The key to revenue is a high cover price,” Osnos says. “In Italy, the daily costs €2.50 (about $3.40), and prices elsewhere are comparable.” Sound like a lot? Cigarettes are ten bucks a pack in Manhattan. “A newspaper specifically shaped for an audience of ‘elite’ readers,” as Osnos describes the IHT, should be able to charge four bucks. “It is eighteen pages of quality news and analysis, with extensive business coverage and enough cultural and sports news to be comprehensive rather than overwhelming.”

Sit tight. The buzzword de l’année is “curate.” Americans, especially those older ones who spend long hours at work and with family, will become increasingly disillusioned with the spin and disinformation that passes for news online and on a thousand channels. Soon they will yearn for someone to figure out what’s important, package it into a digestible format, and deliver it to them—i.e., to “curate” the news. And they’ll pay.

Oh, how they’ll pay.

Of course, it might take 10 or 20 years for people to decide that they’d rather have their news spoon-fed to them than to sift through crap online. But what else do newspaper publishers and editors have to do?

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Coulda, Shoulda, Wouldn’tve

What Disasters Are We Creating Now?

No one could have known.

That’s what they always say after a disaster. Well, it’s what the establishment—a good ’60s word, let’s bring it back!—says. “No one could have known” is the perfect excuse. Don’t blame us, we did the best we could, but we’re not clairvoyant.

But it’s rarely true. Most of the time, the people in charge—the people responsible for what went wrong—were warned in advance. They simply chose to ignore the warnings.

Why? In the case of government officials and corporate executives, it’s typically because acting on such warnings would cost them money. Sometimes it’s because the man or woman who predicts the mayhem about to unfold doesn’t have the status, title or connections to make themselves heard.

Mostly it’s because scum rises to the top.

After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.”

“That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight,” Chertoff said.

It didn’t surprise everyone. “We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane” on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said the same week.

I had attended a journalists’ convention in New Orleans a few years before that. Probably half the New Orleans residents I met asked me to write about the “big one” that was sure to devastate their city someday.

Except for those who later claimed that nobody could have known, everybody knew.

Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial analyst, has a book out (title: “No One Would Listen”) detailing the eight years he spent trying to convince the SEC to go after Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for the disappearance of $65 billion.

The financial collapse that began in the fall of 2008 was attributable to the burst of the housing bubble, fiscal shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the longstanding practice of allowing investment banks to hire and fire rating agencies. Economists, corporate insiders, and journalists had repeatedly warned about these problems since at least 2004. They were ignored, even ridiculed by those who claimed a “new paradigm” was in effect in the U.S. economy.

From the lack of WMDs in Iraq (Scott Ritter knew) to the losing quagmire in Afghanistan (I knew) to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia (inspectors knew), nearly every calamity you can think of could have been avoided. All the idiots in charge had to do was listen to the smart people who weren’t.

Adam Cohen writes in The New York Times: “Predictions of disaster have always been ignored—that is why there is a Cassandra myth—but it is hard to think of a time when so many major warned-against calamities have occurred in such quick succession. The next time someone is inclined to hold hearings on a disaster, they should go beyond asking why particular warnings were ignored and ask why well-founded warnings are so often ignored.”

Cohen answers his own question, citing four causes for institutional resistance to doing the right/smart thing before it’s too late: ideology (reflexive thinking), change would threaten the powers-that-be, inertia, and incompetence.

No doubt, those factors all play a role. I’d like to add another: the fear to speak truth to power, which is intimately coupled with powers that tell truth to shut up.

In my long work history it was a rare workplace where management sought out new ideas, much less criticism. It was rarer still that a contrarian voice was rewarded, much less heeded. We see the same thing in politics. Those who speak up are smacked down.

All too often, bosses and officials are insecure. Worried more about losing face than doing a good job, they instinctively reject anyone and anything who threatens their prestige. Better to lose a war than to lose face.

The problem is systemic. As long as business schools crank out automatons and companies are willing to hire them, as long as voters reward the smarmiest and godliest over the straight-talkers, as long as playing it safe (i.e. boring) is valued more than taking chances, our society is going to keep screwing up. And it’ll all be perfectly avoidable.

Look around today. What are we being warned about? Which smart people are we ignoring? They’re everywhere. Let’s start with the economists who warn that the U.S. economy is at the end of its rope, that the federal government can’t keep increasing the deficit, that underpaying workers as the rich gets richer is a recipe for collapse and revolution.

For my money, the fact that we are ignoring the thousands of scientists who warn of rising floodwaters due to global warming, dust storms and mass famine due to excessive cultivation and overpopulation, and untold damage to our ecosystem as thousands of species go extinct, proves a terrible point: As a society, we are nearly as stupid as our bosses and public officials.

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Tea Party: Why the Right Doesn’t Get It

Larry Elder, a black conservative columnist and Tea Party speaker, has a piece out this week titled “Tea Party: Why the Left Doesn’t Get It.”

Setting aside the question of why any African-American would vote Republican (did any Jews vote for the Nazis?), Elder’s column unintentionally reveals the intellectual inconsistency of the Tea Party.

For liberals the Ur question about the Tea Party concerns the timing of its origin: February 2009. Where, they ask, were these self-declared deficit hawks when Bush and his Republican Congress turned Clinton’s budget surplus into record deficits? Where were these advocates of small government when Bush hired the biggest roster of federal employees in history and created a new federal department—the Department of Homeland Security—that became a national laughingstock due to its incompetence? Where were these Constitutional purists when Bush suspended habeas corpus, built concentration camps and signed off on torture?

“As to Bush’s non-defense, non-homeland security domestic spending, [right-wing] people did complain—lots of them and frequently,” Elder points out.

And he’s right. There was grumbling. I remember.

But there weren’t anti-Bush rallies, much less scary guys showing up at presidential appearances brandishing automatic weapons. Under Bush, of course, said scary guys would have been declared “enemy combatants” and tortured into psychosis like Jose Padilla.

“Better late than never,” Elder lamely retorts.

Another right-wing columnist, Jonah Goldberg, goes so far as to call the Tea Party “a delayed Bush backlash.”

But 57 percent of Tea Partiers say they like Bush. Huh.

On most of the policies Tea Partiers claim to deplore—deficit spending, expansive government, the bank bailouts—Obama is identical to Bush. The only difference between the two men is the color of their skin. Which makes lefties think anti-Obama racism is the Tea Party’s true driving force.

As Paul Butler wrote in the New York Times: “No student of American history would be surprised to learn that when the United States elects its first non-white president, a strong anti-government movement rises up.”

“Slanderous hogwash,” Goldberg calls the charge that the Tea Party is motivated by racism.

If not racism, then what?

Stupidity. Or at least intellectual dishonesty.

Elder’s qualifier that righties didn’t like “Bush’s non-defense, non-homeland security domestic spending” is revealing. Bush’s two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy will account for a staggering 70 percent of the federal deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (Obama’s bailouts will cost five percent.)

Either you’re against deficits, or you’re not. Making an exception for optional military spending—neither the Afghan nor the Iraq war was necessary—is like saying you adore sharks except for all the sharp teeth.

My leftie friends find the Tea Party frustrating. They applaud Tea Partiers’ distrust of government, their willingness to take to the streets to express their grievances. If only the Left had their energy!

Progressives also find much to like in Tea Partiers’ calls for a return to core values embodied by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But only in theory.

The Tea Party’s selective Chinese-menu style approach to constitutional purity and small government is appalling. They’re loud and proud when it comes to the right to own guns, yet oppose or remain silent when it comes to the right of gays to sleep with whomever they want-and marry him. They decry government intrusion in the form of healthcare reform, but have nothing to say about the fact that the NSA is listening to their phone calls and reading their email. They complain about illegal immigrants but not about the corporations that hire them. And what should be more terrifying to opponents of big guvmint than reserving the right—as Bush did and Obama does—to assassinate American citizens just for fun? (The Tea Party is silent on this too.)

If the Tea Party is to emerge as a potent force in American politics, it will need to develop a coherent platform with broad appeal across class, party and racial lines. An appeal to fiscal sanity, constitutional freedoms and a government that keeps out of our bedrooms could form the foundation of a new majority. Otherwise, the Tea Party will be remembered as the latest incarnation of the nativist white wing of the GOP (c.f. “angry white males” circa 1995).

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Free the Troops

The Case for Professionalizing the U.S. Military

The number of new U.S. Army recruits who are high-school dropouts soared during the Bush years, peaking at 29.3 percent in 2007. The economic collapse made life easier for military recruiters. “Only” 17 percent of soldiers who joined in 2008 failed to graduate from high school. But high unemployment hasn’t resulted in enough new high-quality soldiers and sailors.

Recruit quality is important. Uneducated or incapable soldiers are less likely to do well operating high-tech equipment. And they’re more likely to do stupid things, like beating up, robbing and raping civilians in U.S.-occupied territories.

The U.S. military is bigger than ever. But it’s becoming dumber. It’s also getting meaner: in 2008 one in five recruits received a “morals waiver” because they had a criminal record, including felonies. “The main reason for the decline in standards is the war in Iraq and its onerous ‘operations tempo’—soldiers going back for third and fourth tours of duty, with no end in sight,” reported Slate’s Fred Kaplan in 2008.

As if that weren’t bad enough, America’s armed services are losing their smartest officers faster than ever. After graduating from West Point, cadets must serve five years. More high-caliber officers are choosing not to reenlist than at any time since the Vietnam War: 44 percent in 2006, up from 18 percent in 2003. Some analysts blame the endless wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

There isn’t much glory in shooting up buses and taxis at checkpoints in the hot dust of Central Asia and the Middle East. And it doesn’t help that, yellow-ribbon magnets aside, the United States of America doesn’t give a damn about its veterans. Whereas other countries treat their warriors like heroes, providing them with free housing and other benefits, the U.S. uses up and discards them like tissue paper. “Veterans make up almost a quarter of the homeless population in the United States,” reports CNN. “The government says there are as many as 200,000 homeless veterans; the majority served in the Vietnam War. Some served in Korea or even World War II. About 2,000 served in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Higher salaries would increase the military’s applicant pool and thus the quality and quantity of enlistees. But no one ever talks about the most obvious way to professionalize the U.S. military: treat servicemen and servicewomen like professionals.

Consider my experience.

Motivated by curiosity, contrarian rebellion and the loss of my full scholarship due to the Reagan budget cuts, I went down to my local Army recruiting station during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I thought perhaps there was some way to finance the remainder of my education by doing military service. The recruiter set up an appointment for me to take an aptitude test.

Then the phone calls began. They were excited. Apparently I had gotten a perfect score. This didn’t happen often.

Which didn’t surprise me. Two things leapt out at me when I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. First: it was appallingly easy. I was an AP student; I hadn’t seen material so simple since elementary school. Second: the other guys taking the test were dolts. Where did they find such losers? Even my school’s shop classes didn’t feature such a sad collection of yahoos, misfits and morons.

Allowing for the obvious seduce-and-destroy tactics of Army recruiters, I did believe that they wanted me more than the average schlub who took the ASVAB. I was a straight-A student. All my test scores were in the top percentile, including a perfect score on the math SAT. I’d gotten into Columbia University’s engineering program. I knew I was a catch.

I went in to talk.

One recruiter handed me a brochure. One of the photos showed a German village. “You’ll probably be sent to Germany,” he said. Probably.

“Can you put that in writing?”

Of course not. You go where they send you. That’s the Army way. The military way. But look at it from the viewpoint of an 18-year-old. I had options! I could stay in school, take out student loans, earn a degree and get recruited by some deep-pocketed defense contractor. A deep-pocketed defense contractor that couldn’t make me pack up and ship off to, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. A deep-pocketed defense contractor whose job I could quit just like that.

I was drawing cartoons and doing reporting for my campus newspaper.

“You’ll almost certainly end up as a military journalist,” the other recruiter said. “Stars and Stripes. Would you like that?”

Well, shucks and golly gee, why not? I’d be another Bill Mauldin! “Will you guarantee that?” I asked.

Nope. You do what they assign you to do. Where they tell you to do it. For as long as they want you to do it.

“Can I put in a request for the kind of job I’d prefer?” I asked. “Or for where I’d like to be stationed?”

There was a pause. The two men glanced at each other. I noticed a smirk, ever so slight, on one of their faces. As I knew it would be, the answer was a lie:

“Well, um, sure, I suppose we could submit your preferences,” the liar-recruiter lied.

“No reason why not,” the other one chimed in.

They only had one real carrot: the college tuition program. I was looking at paying $13,000 a year in tuition and fees. They were offering $4,000 a year for one term of enlistment. Actually, “up to $4,000.”

If the military wants to attract smart young men and women like I used to be, with high test scores and clean criminal records, they’re going to have to start treating recruits like employees, not slaves or indentured servants. Fix enlistment terms, abolish both the current “stop-loss” rule scheduled to end next year and commit never to start a new one. Let people choose their jobs. (They can request one now. That’s not enough.) Let people decide where they want to serve. If a brilliant recruit doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan, why not let her serve elsewhere? The intelligent, independent thinkers a 21st century military needs demand and deserve the same respect they would enjoy in the private sector.

What about war? Shouldn’t a president be able to send troops wherever he wants, consent be damned?

No.

When the public supports a war, there are plenty of volunteers and enlisted men and women ready to go and fight. If there aren’t enough people willing to go, there isn’t enough political will to win. No one should be asked to fight—or die—for a cause they don’t believe in.

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL