Showing posts with label war on terror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label war on terror. Show all posts

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Year of Leaking Dangerously

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all. - Joseph Heller; Catch-22
Edward Snowden didn't tell us anything most of us didn't already sorta-kinda know, but instead just confirmed our creepy totalitarian state surveillance nightmares. Wait, no, actually he made them a bit scarier by exposing the corporate complicity giving the whole thing a fascist twist. Similarly, the character of Yosarian lying in the hospital bed at the outset of Catch-22 had already experienced holding another Snowden in his arms. This one spilled his guts too, literally onto the floor forcing Yossarian to confront his own mortality and the realization that death can, and will, take any of us, at any time, anywhere, and that survival is made all the harder by the catch-22s thrown up to block and muddy our path.

Both Snowdens just passed on information which is meaningless in itself yet has value; in fact it is the most valuable thing in the world to governments, corporations and us because of what we can do with it. However, our brains, as our bodies, are all different and subject to manipulation due to freezes, failures and farts. Vituperative voices will try to convince us everything's okay as it's only metadata their gathering about us, there's only a few thousand pedophiles with top-level security clearance to your kids' Facebook feed, everyone's doing it and you know, it was only Iran they launched the cyber weapon Stuxnet against. Turn off your TV, disconnect your internet and lobotomize your smartphone cause you won't find the true meaning of Edward Snowden's revelations to the world on any propaganda screen. All you've got to do is open a book, or just talk to an old lady, to figure out Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing. What? Don't have the time or the attention span? Who's this 'they'? No worries as in this case it's so simple all you'll need is the Cliff's notes version of the major themes of Catch-22: the concept of Catch-22, the distortion of justice, the influence of greed, and the issue of personal integrity.
"All my options are bad" - Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden's caught in a sorta catch-22 though it's starting to look more like a no-win situation after watching the US order their western European 'partners' to close their airspace to Evo Morales' presidential jet after receiving some, um, bad information that Snowden was on board. He may have been granted asylum in quite a few of the countries he applied to but he had to be in the granting country for them to consider his request which is difficult, er, impossible if you're stuck in passportless limbo in transit at an airport in Moscow. In the book, Yossarian is introduced to the concept of catch-22 by Doc Daneeka who explains the problem, or catch, involved in requesting a psych evaluation which Yossarian hoped would find them unfit to fly dangerous missions:
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch", Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.
They've had each of us by the balls like this at some point, trapped in a bureaucratic black hole, looping around a Möbius strip application process or stymied by the slave labour internship motto: you can’t get hired unless you have experience; but you can’t get experience unless you’re hired.  Now we're all supposedly caught in one, er make that two or three, in which we seem to be damned if we do and damned if we don't: the new security versus liberty balance that needs to be struck thanks to the Information, the global war on terror (I know, it's not called that anymore and that it has become the global war on you), and economic austerity. All three are examples that governments and their corporate cronies are presenting as catch-22s that their wisdom will guide us through but are nothing but false choices forcing us into vicious circles.
"Most people prefer to believe that their leaders are just and fair, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because once a citizen acknowledges that the government under which he lives is lying and corrupt, the citizen has to choose what he or she will do about it. To take action in the face of corrupt government entails risks of harm to life and loved ones. To choose to do nothing is to surrender one's self-image of standing for principles. Most people do not have the courage to face that choice. Hence, most propaganda is not designed to fool the critical thinker but only to give moral cowards an excuse not to think at all." - Michael Rivero
You can watch then-senator Biden debate president Obama on government surveillance but it's probably more illustrative to watch the the present double good duckspeaker in chief debate his candidate self from 2007 regarding the security versus liberty balancing act:


Thanks O, you almost convinced me that I didn't have to haul out the old Ben Franklin "[t]hey who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety", but not quite. Still, if you're an Obamabot or a terrorism fearmongerer, cognitive dissonance won't allow you to see the danger the slide from freedom to security, ever accelerating post 9/11, poses to us. They don't seem to have a problem with giving General Keith Alexander, who seems to have mistaken 1984 for an instruction manual instead of a warning, near complete control over their information lives and Strangelovian powers to wage cyberwarfare. Americans celebrate the Fourth of July without a Fourth (or Fifth) Amendment, air travellers the world over submit themselves to ever greater humiliations, home school advocates are classified as potential domestic terrorists by the DHS and now we know that everything we say, type and text is being gobbled up for analysis in the hope of finding the next Paul Revere, er, I mean terrorist.

Oh, speaking of traitorous heroes, Obama sure loves using the 1917 Espionage Act, a measure intended to prevent anti-war speech during WWI by treating it as sedition (note to Pelosi, Boehner et al. the word you're looking for is there in the act, sedition, not treason). Edward Snowden became the eighth to be charged under the act under Obama, double the number of times it was used by all his predecessors. Defenders of surveillance overreach invariably trot out the "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to worry about" canard. If you, as an individual, non-threatening person, have nothing to hide then, yes, they’re probably right, until they're wrong, you personally may have nothing to fear. But those people who do put their heads above the parapet on your behalf, they will be the ones that feel the heat…It’s not about your personal privacy, it’s about the privacy of those who would stand up and fight for you.
"It has been the one song of those who thirst after absolute power that the interest of the state requires that its affairs should be conducted in secret… But the more such arguments disguise themselves under the mask of public welfare, the more oppressive is the slavery to which they will lead… Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace." - Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus
Ah, where would America be without the global war on terror now approaching it's twelfth anniversary. Without it they'd never be able to justify the imbalance of having an economy that produces about 20% of the world's GDP while their bloated defense budget forces them to maintain a 40-50% of global military spending. Yeah, they spend more on defense than the next 13 nations combined. The non-stop invocation of the word terrorist has not only brewed up an alphabet stew of new freedom protecting acronyms but also given us a whole new dictionary to interpret the altered bearings of our moral compass: wars of choice, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention, disposition matrix, black sites, signature strikes, they all sound nearly benign. It's all forced on us, a catch-22: we love our freedom, they hate our freedoms and will do anything to take them away, so we allow our freedoms and theirs to be taken away to wage a war to stop them from taking away what we've already given away. Or something like that. Yet the very policies of aggression and militarism justified in the name of combatting terrorism are creating the terrorists those policies are designed to combat. It is not their hatred but ours, US policy and aggression in the Muslim world, that creates terrorists as shown in the American government's own 2004 report. Indeed, the American government has been providing arms, money and logistical support to Al Qaeda in Syria, Libya, Mali, Bosnia and related Muslim terrorists in Chechnya, Iran, and many other countries. What's that you say? It goes back even further, like this:
Did you hear the one about the Harvard economics professors whose research found a close correlation between high levels of public debt and slow economic growth? No? Oh, boy, it's a doozy of a joke. How does it go, um, let's see, ok, so Rogoff and Reinhart do their research, economic research that is, and then wrote a paper, an economics paper you know, and governments around the world used their findings, economic findings believe it or not, to lend the cover of  intellectual rigor to justify their policies, yep, economic policies, which have caused untold, immeasurable damage to lives around the world leaving millions worse off, or you know, deader than they needed to be thanks to class war weapons of austerity such as the sequester in the US, the fantastical belief in a magical creature known as the confidence fairy or even an oxymoron as blatant as the UK's expansionary fiscal contraction. What? You don't get it? Well, let me explain. First, economics is a joke, a fraudulent pseudoscience dreamed up to justify class warfare, a war in which the punchline is a catch-22 designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, well, poorer.

How did it work? Easy. You see, though the whole kerfuffle is being sold as a simple Excel spreadsheet error, the truth is it isn't a bug but a feature. It works a little like the whole WMD thing in Iraq: you dream up a plan that seems suspiciously like a modern day Crusade and then come up with a whole bunch of reasons to put it into action, throw them at the wall by having your media stooges, er, Judith Millers, pound the drums of war and see which ones stick. You remember, right? Niger uranium forgeries courtesy of the Italian military intelligence SISMI (another oxymoron?), aluminum tubes for enrichment and a dosier sexed up by a lap dog ally to fit Americas claims which all lead to 16 words and a million or so casualties. The same playbook was used for austerity. In both cases we're seemingly left in a catch-22, one designed to find scapegoat for a manufactured crisis to enrich those at the top and control, crush or kill those down below. Ah, sweet confirmation bias, what havoc will you wreak next?
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." - Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail
One of the most amusing aspects of the Edward Snowden saga was the reaction, indignation and mocked the irony and hypocrisy of seeking help from countries known more for their repressive regimes than civil liberty protections. Secretary of State John Kerry wondered "if Snowden chose Russia or China for assistance because they are such bastions of Internet freedom?", Dick Cheney was "deeply suspicious obviously because he went to China" while freedom fries TV taunted him with "I don’t remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks running off to China". Unless your deaf you should be able to pick up the echoes of the McArthyite red baiting techniques described in Heller's Catch-22 and understand why our modern Snowden chose to get out of Dodge before the sheriff showed up.
consternation to the fact that he chose to flee the idyllic paradise of Hawaii and protection of American law for first Hong Kong and then Moscow. They

The perfect foil to our Snowden is Heller's Clevinger, who trained with Yossarian at cadet school. A gangling, scholarship prize-winning, petition signing, discussion group attending, committee organizing Harvard undergraduate certain to go far in the academic world: "In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains...In short he was a dope". In describing Snowden, our fourth estate, those who should serve as a check on power but instead are subservient to them, having found they couldn't refute the message have gone after the messenger just as they did with Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and everyone else the public needs to know are guilty. Anyway, thanks to our distract-at-any-cost press we know Snowden seems handsome to both the Chinese public and Russian spies, is obviously weird as well as a grandiose narcissist, wasn't very neighbourly, didn't visit his mother enough and was a high school dropout who couldn't even make it through community college. Oh where would the world be without the infinite wisdom of the likes of Megan McArdle, Jeffrey Toobin and David Brooks? That's right, maybe debating the legitimacy of surveillance programs, their creepy government/corporate ties and the secrecy surrounding them instead of playing at armchair psychologist in order to incriminate a man before he's even had a trial.

In our catch-22 world, Snowden, like Clevinger, is guilty, otherwise he wouldn't be accused, of what it doesn't matter. Both men pointed out problems hoping for improvement, but Clevinger didn't understand that tripping while marching to class would bring accusations of "breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assault, indiscriminate behavior, mopery, high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, listening to classical music, and so on" while Snowden knew the price of exposing his superiors errors. Bradley Manning, found guilty by his president before his trial, waited over a thousand days  for his trial, nine months of which he was forced to withstand torture in order to break his will. Clevinger faced a trial in which his accuser, Lieutenant Scheisskopf, was not only prosecutor, defender and one of the judges but also earned a promotion to colonel during the proceedings. Manning's is little different. Make no mistake, Snowden's civilian status wouldn't make a difference, neither would have alerting his authorities through the 'proper channels', one need look no further than the example of another NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake and the persecution he has endured.

Finally, the key word has been whispered, whistleblower. There will never be a concensus opinion as to whether or not the term applies to Snowden, in fact there will never be an agreement on what constitutes a whistleblower. To my mind it is someone who releases materials or information that is of greater value to the public than the value of keeping it secret while the definition in the law refers to someone who "reasonably believes" he or she is disclosing a violation of law or rule or gross mismanagement, gross waste or abuse of authority. Snowden pulled the curtain back on the panopticon surveillance methods that contravene the protections of the Fourth Amendment which affirms "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Thanks to a judicially created exception to the ammendment in 1989 and the necessities of perpetual war, the definition of what is reasonable has been lost forever.

However, it is a moot point. In America, legal justifications can be invented to start wars, torture, kidnap and kill at will in order to keep war criminals walking the streets, laws and court ruling are made to protect corporations from charges of fraud, mislabeling, side effects, accidental death, destroying the food chain or blowing up the financial world, or failing that, those same corporations can just pay a fine and deny responsibility for defrauding millions while earning billions or aiding drug lords and terrorists. However, if you're an intelligence worker you were left out of the fig leaf of protection proffered by last year’s Whistleblower’s Protection Enhancement Act. Likewise, intelligence workers were excluded from whistle blower protections offered to military contract employees under the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Meanwhile, So, faced with the information he had, Snowden was left with the choice of saying nothing or reporting the abuses to his superior at Booz Allen and crossing his fingers he wouldn't get fired. Kinda sounds like a catch-22 again, doesn't it?

The noose is tightening around the neck of freedom yet its incremental nature has us all playing the part of boiling frogs (I think that's what you call a mixed metaphor). Even as the heat has been turned up recently with new revelations coming daily of IRS targeting of special groups, reporters being hounded, Americans being monitored and now even the whole world, most seem happy slowly cooking to death blissfully unaware of what is happening. If the US government wants to spy on someone they must ask permission from the court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a court made up of 11 judges appointed by one man without oversight or confirmation. When that man is an ideologue such as John Roberts, well, you get a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp as the only possible check on the Panopticon denies a whopping .03% of requests, 11 of over 33,900. Here we'd do well to remember poor Clevinger as once you're a suspect, well, they'll find something, "[t]he case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with."

Sure, the majority of even Americans see Snowden as a whistleblower, the world is more informed thanks to his bravery but unless you're a pro-Israeli lobbyist, the security state will punish you to send a clear message that government codes of conduct supercede those quaint moral ones. When trillions of new pages are classified each year and millions have security clearance (about 4.8 million potential Snowdens) under an administration intent on waging another war, this one on leakers (notice the parallel creepiness of Obama's the Insider Threats program and Captain Black’s "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade" in Catch-22), you have a recipe for confrontation. Whether it leads to a world heralded by today's mainstream media in which even journalism becomes a punishable crime or we wake up to the threat and heed the words of a real journalism, Edward R. Murrow, "[w]e must not confuse dissent with disloyalty" is shaping up to be the ideological battle of our time.
"When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy." - Yossarian
It's the cancerous influence of greed that makes the whole thing tick and so once again we not only need to look at the avarice displayed in Catch-22 to get a better idea of what's going on but the disease of esurience plaguing modern society. Marx called them rentier capitalists which sounds a bit too French so modern economists call them rent-seekers but are more easily understood by the monikers given to them by Adam Smith: indolent maggots, moocher-elites and parasites. The Wall Street code word would be extractionists but no matter the label, their rise to dominance clearly marked the transition from industrial capitalism in which production was reliant on extracting profit from labour to financial capitalism which is entirely reliant on squeezing profit out of existing assets. Heller's Milo Minderbender, the embodiment of modern business with no allegiance to any country, person or principle unless it pays him, represents the extreme out of control nature of capitalism in a catch-22 world where profit trumps ideology. The other characters' acceptance of and support for his M & M Enterprises mirrors modern society's moral complacency regarding sustaining power and gaining profit at the expense of the individual.

Much as the main function of the war on terror is to produce more terrorists to justify more war, the security state has become a self-perpetuating machine to substantiate the need for ever greater surveillance with the end result of both being less freedoms for most and greater profits for the few. What else can they do with all the data but hire more people to analyze it and discover the data set is broad but shallow which will necessitate gathering even more data. Why do you think they're building a facility able to store 20 terabytes a minute and capable of storing 5 zettabytes, about 5 years of global Internet traffic. A near forgotten element of the Snowden affair is the exposure of the links between the public and private sphere. Sure, we've known of the dangers of the military industrial complex since at least 1961, the same year Catch-22 was published, thanks to Eisenhower's prescient warning but have sat back and watched the privatization of war reach ever more dangerous extremes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, we should be shocked at the close and still growing relationship between the NSA and Silicon Valley, a relationship that sees the same information, our information, feed the two-headed monster for government surveillance purposes and private business so as to stimulate desires and sell goods and services. The military industrial complex has morphed into the corporate military technological complex.

Thus far we've turned a blind eye to private mercenaries such as Blackwater, or should I say Xe, no wait, I think it's Academi now I think (it's so complicated avoiding prosecution!), Halliburton and DynCorp gorge from the public trough afforded by perpetual war as it's only about killing brown people in faraway lands. Now we know that we are in the sites of companies like Booz Allen just one of hundreds of private contractors employing over half a million people with the same access as Snowden. Oh, each of them are making six figure salaries to spy on you at your cost. In the fiscal year ended in March 2013, Booz Allen Hamilton, majority-owned by the nefarious private equity Carlyle Group (even the neoliberal apologist Economist agrees!), reported $5.76 billion in revenue, 99% of which came from government contracts. In fact, along with companies such as Science Applications International Corp, CACI and BAE Systems, private contractors suck up about 70% of the $75 billion US intelligence budget, a budget that has ballooned since 9/11, growing 250% between 2000 and 2010. Oh, and just like every other sector of the economy, that money isn't trickling down to you and me but to those who get to ride the revolving door. Again Booz Allen is the perfect example as the former director of US national intelligence John "Mike McConnell is now a Booz Allen vice-president while his successor in the director's chair is James Clapper, a former Booz Allen executive. Just like the banking, energy, agriculture, you name it sector, the same story can be told over and over again.

Just as we at first cheered Milo Minderbender's seemingly harmless profiteering at the expense of the ridiculous bureaucracy that perpetuates war, many would (and probably still do) defend such privatization as beneficial, perhaps even paraphrasing Milo's catchphrase claim that "everyone has a share" with something along the lines of "a rising tide lifts all boats". Much as the one time president of General Motors when asked if he could make a decision that would adversely affect his former company during the confirmation hearings for his nomination as Secretary of Defense answered affirmatively but added he could not conceive of such a situation "because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa", Milo believed "[w]hat's good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country". While this may have had a grain of truth in the productive phase of capitalism, the casino style financialization of the economy destroys wealth for all but the few and eventually begins to cannibalize itself. A cash-strapped Milo winds up contracting the Germans to bomb his own squadron resulting in the death and wounding of many men; a cash-strapped financial sector blew up the economy and blackmailed the public to bail them out, exploding national deficits which was then used as an excuse for austerity programs resulting in the death and suffering of many.

Um, where was I? Right, Snowden. Well, those who hadn't noticed that our wealth is being bled for the benefit of the few in a bottom-up transfusion before Edward shone his spotlight are more likely than not still in the dark. As Yossarian watched Catch-22's Snowden bleed to death he could do little more that say "there, there" as the morphine supply in the bomber's first-aid kit had been absconded by Milo for sale on the black market. Milo sold the squadrons parachutes and we sacrifice our social safety net. Even after Milo seemed to have gone too far, with American newspapers and congressmen denouncing the German bombing, all he had to do was open his books and show what a wonderful profit he made. Just as bankers and other members of today's elite, he gets away scot-free, keeps his ill-gotten gains and all is forgiven.
"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases."- George Orwell; Reflections on Gandhi
Finally we get around to the final issue of personal integrity. Throughout most of the novel, (spoiler alert, go read the damn thing already!), before we have redefined Snowden's secret through Yossarian's conversion, self-preservation at all costs seems to be his paramount concern. Just as he knows the number of missions he'll need to complete will always be increased by his superior Colonel Cathcart until he winds up dead, we also know our freedoms will be diminished one by one until they are all gone. Yossarian's increasingly damaging acts of sabotage and disobedience make it clear to Cathcart he won't be promoted as long as Yossarian is around, and worse, the more he gets away with, the more hope he gives to the less powerful: "Say, if they do let you (Yossarian) get away with it (not flying missions), they'll have to let the rest of us get away with it, won't they?...I hope you do get away with it". Likewise, our Ellsbergs, Mannings, Schwartzes and Snowdens commit acts on our behalf that not only expose the wrongdoings of our leaders but also raise our hopes.
 
Ultimately, Yossarian is offered a choice between saving himself but having to lie about his experiences of war and saving his squadron by facing a court martial. His concern for others creates a new catch-22 as the secret hidden in the entrails of Snowden finally becomes clear: life is not worth living without a moral concern for others, but this moral concern endangers one's own life. In a way, Edward Snowden has helped show us that as a society we are being offered a similar choice: to continue on our path accepting (or, as ever, denying) a life of diminished freedoms in exchange for safety or to risk our comforts in search of something better. Every day that we accept what is being done to us we choose to save ourselves while leaving everyone else out to dry. Yossarian's choice of a third option, desertion, makes him an anti-hero, but his intent is made clear when he says "I'm not running away from my responsibilities. I'm running to them. There's nothing negative about running away to save my life".

We never learn if Yossarian ever makes it to Sweden but he left the army a free man. Our Snowden may never make it to Venezuela and has been stuck in a Russian airport for weeks but at least he's a free man. There comes a moment in Catch-22 when both the reader and Yossarian come to feel shame for our amused tolerance of the evil characters and indifference to what is occurring, first laughing at the absurdities then looking back in horror at what we laughed at. Patriots are those who protect us from governments which only feel the need to be "the least untruthful". If the very definition of treason and/or espionage involves the participants interaction with an enemy, then just who is the enemy with whom Snowden interacted? In this case it is everyone that is being spied on. We are the official enemy of the Corporate Controlled Government. Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing. It is this simple, and this terrible. Catch-22 means whatever they want it to mean and it's no longer a laughing matter.

H/T to my wife for remembering random snippets of reality!

And a few more random quotes:
"The important thing is to keep them pledging," he explained to his cohorts. "It doesn't matter whether they mean it or not. That's why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what 'pledge' and 'allegiance' mean." - Joseph Heller; Catch-22
 "The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government." - Thomas Paine
"This is the truth. You should decide whether we need to be doing this." - Edward Snowden

"Remember this, take it to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation All the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it" - Mark Twain; The Czar's Soliloquy, 1905.

"I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors," - Jeremy Hammond

"The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair." - H.L. Mencken

"We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world." - Aaron Swartz

"In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People." - Eugene Debs; Voices of a People's History of the United States

"I want people to see the truth, because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public." - Bradley Manning

"Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up." - Joseph Heller; Catch-22

Saturday, February 2, 2013

XLVII - Brothers in Arms

After falling one game short last year, the Harbaugh brothers will become the first brothers to coach against each other in the Super Bowl. Jim's San Francisco 49ers will take on John's Baltimore Ravens in the Superdome in New Orleans February 3rd, 2013 so the game has been given various monickers on the theme: the Har Bowl, Harbaugh Bowl and the Super Baugh. Having grown up in Canada I was inundated with American culture of which the NFL is as integral a part as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and peanut butter. Despite being thousands of miles away I still get a monthly hankering for a Big Mac and Coke, make sure there's a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard and find a way to watch American football most every Sunday from September to February. I've watched games from the Hilton in Sana'a, playoff games at a TGIF in Quito and Super Bowls on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, in smoky bars from Madrid to Cracow and even from poolside in Varadero, Cuba. The game is larger than life much like America itself yet it's hard not to notice the dark clouds forming. Disease is causing worrying cracks to appear on the surface and in the infrastructure of players' brains and America itself which are seen as behavioral problems but are indicative of a deeper psychological illness threatening to bring both the game and the nation crashing down.

First Quarter - Season Review

While my team predictions for the year proved once again that I'm a much better annotator/commentator than prognosticator, I was quite prescient in choosing the rookie quarterback theme for my preseason post. Along with the Broncos riding the right arm of Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson's stunning return to form for the Vikings leading both teams to the playoffs, the rookie quintet were the story of the year as they might be the best QB draft class since 1983. If Brandon Weeden weren't a rookie QB about to turn 30, his year would have held more promise, but as usual, the Browns are probably stuck with something shy of mediocrity. Ryan Tannehill may not have had the impact of the big three, but he still provided hope that #17, the 17th QB to start since Dan Marino retired from the Dolphins in 1999, will be around awhile and lead the team to the playoffs someday.

The big three rookies QBs were, simply put, amazing. No, electrifying. Wait, not quite. Prodigious, spectacular and wondrous. No one was too surprised by Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (RG3), the numbers one and two picks in the draft for the Colts and Redskins respectively, but the Seahawks' Russell Wilson came out of nowhere. Seattle coach Pete Carroll's decision to go with the 5'10" Wilson, picked five spots after a punter in the 3rd round, over Matt Flynn, a guy they paid millions for in the off-season, turned out to be the coaching decision of the year. A 26/10 TD-to-Int ratio (+16, a rookie record and TD tally tying Peyton Manning's rookie record), four more TDs on the ground and a 100 QB rating helped lift his team to the playoffs where they won the wildcard game and lost a heartbreaking comeback thriller to the Falcons. Having grown up in the west, I was forced to watch Seattle games more afternoons than I care to remember which is why they became known to me as the Shithawks. Watching Wilson this year has me rethinking that name.

The losing side in Wilson's wildcard win was RG3's Washington Redskins. I got to see a few of his games last year including a week 17 playoff-clinching victory over the Cowboys in which he humiliated Dallas on one leg. Over the course of the year he threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 815 yards and seven more scores. He just looked so in control of every situation, always seeming to know he had an extra gear to outrun a pass rusher or the arm strength to get the ball past a defender. Well, he did. We'll have to wait until after surgery to find out if Mike Shanahan's decision to allow him to play hurt, and then blaming a doctor, has any long term effects. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck's Colts seemed to be out of it when their head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia at the start of the year. Well, that went into remission and by the time he got back for the last game of the year, his rookie QB had guided his team to the playoffs. He completely turned around a 2-14 team as his rookie record 4,375 passing yards helped the Colts to an 11-5 finish. Clearly, it's a tough year to pick the offensive rookie of the year.

Elsewhere in the league, JJ Watt was dominant on D for the Texans, helping Houston deep into the playoffs and will win the defensive player of the year award. As mentioned, the Broncos and Vikings exceeded expectations meaning Peyton will be league  MVP and AP or All-Day, AKA the Purple Jesus will be offensive player of the year. Or vice-versa. Manning's Broncos won 11 straight at one point on the strength of his 4,659/37/11 (yards/TD/int) season after sitting out an entire year and having four neck surgeries while Peterson fell 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record, tackled just short on the one year anniversary of surgery for his torn ACL in the second final play of the final game to finish with 2,097 yards. The over-priced and hyped Detroit Lions crashed and burned  but Megatron, WR Calvin Johnson, soared, breaking the single season reception yardage mark with 1,964 but won't get MVP consideration as much of it is seen as having been in garbage time.

The Eagles did the opposite of soaring in Philadelphia leading to coach Andy Reid being fired and then hired by the Kansas City Chiefs almost immediately. As my buddy texted, I wish I could screw up so bad and still get a job so fast. The Falcons once again dominated in the regular season while the Saints couldn't without Sean Payton. The Bengals looked less like the Bungles in making the playoffs while their AFC North rival Steelers fell to mediocrity. Both the Giants and Bears seemed headed for the playoffs only for the wheels to come off late while the Packers went the other way, starting slow and finishing strong. And my Cowboys? Well, at least they're not as bad as the Jaguars or Chiefs but once again couldn't finish the season and didn't make the playoff.

Second Quarter - "It's war. They're out there to kill you, so I'm out there to kill them. ... I'm a soldier."
      - Then 20-year-old Kellen Winslow, former 1st round pick, current free agent TE

Of course none of the previously mentioned QBs will take the field in this year's Super Bowl. Nor will there be a Brees, Brady, Rogers or another Manning, names conventional wisdom held you needed on your roster for success in today's pass-happy NFL, but Flacco and Kaepernick instead. The former, Joe, who may have the strongest arm in the league and is the only quarterback to bring his team to the playoffs in his first five seasons, winning at least a game in each, will lead the Ravens against the later, Colin, a second year dual threat monster thrust into starting duty midway through the season after starter Alex Smith went down to injury. Even though Niners' coach Harbaugh's decision to stick with Kaepernick after Smith's recovery despite having led his team to a 6-2 record was the key decision to get his team to the big game and the fact the league is now ruled by the QB position, it will be the defenses that will most likely determine the winner come Sunday.

The Niners have arguably the best defense in football while it seems the Ravens have been a perennial defensive powerhouse. San Francisco was the number two defense in points allowed this year and are led by pass rushing DE Aldon Smith (league leading and most by any player since the NFL started tracking in 1982 35.5 sacks over the last two years), run stopping DE Justin Smith, a strong secondary which includes Carlos Rogers and two first team All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Meanwhile, the Ravens defense disappointed most of the year. After being a top ten defense for more than a decade they fell to 17th in yards allowed but much of the blame for that stat was how long they were kept on the field this year - 1,342 plays so far this season, including the playoffs, the most for any team dating back to 2001, with the Super Bowl winning 2011 Giants being the only other team with more than 1,300. The aging group is still anchored by run-stuffing DE Haloti Ngata, S Ed Reed whose eight career post-season interceptions is one short of the record, LB Terrell Suggs with a couple of playoff sacks showing he's recovered from injury, and of course MLB Ray Lewis.

Deservedly, Lewis will be one of the big stories this Super Bowl as he tries to follow up his 2000 Super Bowl win and go out in style by winning his second as he retires after the game. After recovering from the awful sounding torn triceps suffered October 14th (perhaps using the banned substance IGF-1, a compound found in deer antlers that reportedly stimulates muscle growth), he's been his dominant self registering the most tackles in the playoffs, 44. Like it or not, he's the face of the Ravens and maybe even the game regardless of how much eye black he applies. His introduction dance may annoy most, his "no weapons" post-Bronco victory interview may have confused everyone, and his god's plan speeches and constant prayer antics may make Tim Tebow look like an atheist, but there's no denying his talent as his 13 Pro Bowls and two defensive player of the year awards attest. He's never fully explained his role in the murder that occurred during Super Bowl week in Atlanta before their victory 13 years ago. We'll probably never know why the victim's blood was found in his limo or why he fled the scene but all is forgiven as he's born again. He epitomizes the confused Christian, mixing metaphors of sports, religion and war. Not only did he once describe himself as a warrior he was given a real purple heart from a soldier wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom, aka Operation Perpetual War and will be sure to be praying before, during and after the game with the cameras following his every move.

"In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line."

While these words were spoken by George Carlin less than a quarter century ago, war metaphors in sports have been around as long as sport itself as throughout history sport and militarism have been inseparable. Achilles held funeral games in honor of his friend Patroclus; the ancient Olympics featured races in full armor to build up speed and stamina for military purposes, the marathon is named for the 42.195 km run from Marathon to Athens made by a messenger to warn of Persian attack; Waterloo was won, the Duke of Wellington famously remarked, on the rugby fields of Eton; Walter Camp, the father of American football, spoke of football teams as "armies," of the kicking game as "artillery work," and of coaching as "generalship." While American football's rounder, more foot friendly cousin, football, may have led to an actual war, no other sport is as entwined with the military as what Europeans would call handegg. The Army and Navy college football teams were traditional powers for much of the 20th century while the "flying wedge", a formation in which large numbers of offensive players charged as a unit against a similarly arranged defense (resulting in quite a few on field deaths), was devised by Lorin Deland in 1892 after studying Napoleon's military campaigns.

The biggest contribution of today's NFL to war is the power of propaganda. One would have to excuse an outsider looking in on the game for mixing up the game with a military recruitment video. From the presentation of the flag to the air force fly over to the singing of the national anthem (Alicia Keys tries to avoid the Christina Aguilera disaster), the players, crowd and viewers are whipped into a jingoistic frenzy before the game has even begun. At some point the audience will be reminded that the game is being beamed by satellite to their brave troops protecting American freedom at home by occupying abroad in 175 countries and aboard Navy ships at sea. Don't forget about the barrage of commercials throughout the game promoting the US Navy as a "Global Force for Good", the Marine Corp "defending the American way of life or the US Army's ad inviting the unwitting to try on "the jersey of the greatest team on Earth".

Don't forget the "Salute to Service" campaign conceived to "strengthen the relationship between NFL teams and the military community" in which teams wear decals on their helmets with the insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces. You couldn't miss the not-so-subtle switch from the pink to camo as the NFL went from breast cancer awareness month to celebrating Veterans Day by branding goal post wraps and pylons with camouflage ribbon decals, wall banners and the words Salute to Service written in the back of the end zone (Except for Washington and Kansas City that is, you know the whole cultural sensitivity thing, the US military having massacred many a Redskin and Chief). Well, at least you can get cool gloves to play war games while playing football! Now that "valor knows no gender" and women will be allowed in combat roles instead of just victims of rape maybe next year they'll go with pink camo.

The commentary of military and football analysts and the methods deployed to illustrate football and war became indistinguishable during Super Bowl XXV, played January 27th, 1991, just days after the beginning of the coalition bombing in Gulf War I. Whitney Houston's rendition of the the Star Spangled Banner that year, which hit the pop charts and turned her into a hero, was interspersed with several shots of flag-and-sign-waving fans, many of them homemade red, white, and blue posters announcing "America's Best Citizens Support our G.I.s," "God Bless America," and "Go USA," literally signs of support for the war. There were also dissolves to soldiers on the field, including a close-up of an African-American marine and tracking shots of several rows of enlisted men and women on the field holding the flags of various coalition countries. The Disney-themed New Kids on the Block half time show was preceded and followed by Peter Jennings news segments reassuring the public the Patriot missiles were intercepting SCUDS, the untested troops were ready for the still vaunted Republican Guard and that "Yes, men and women in the war zone have been able to see the first half" followed by a cut to a shot of Whitney overlayed with "The Gulf War: Super Bowl".

Is it "hopelessly Chomskian" to think the timing of the initial air strikes on Afghanistan after 9/11, about a half-hour before kickoff of Sunday's early games October 7th, was more than a coincidence? The New York Times wrote that news of the strikes "came on a pristine fall Sunday, 'a perfect day for football,' as the announcers like to say, just as many people were sitting down in front of their television sets for their weekly dose of gridiron glory." New York Senator Chuck Schumer had just suggested moving the Super Bowl to Giants Stadium stating "I can think of no better way to send a message to the terrorists". The games weren't preempted by war coverage, why would they be? Millions of red-blooded Americans parked in front of their propaganda screens with testosterone pumping could prove they supported the troops by watching Dubya's speech, a little network anchor commentary, and have the coverage get back to the Colts and Patriots on CBS or the Vikings and Saints on Fox, missing only a minute and 26 seconds of the latter game.

Imagine the power this drumbeat has, so powerful it convinced former Cardinal Pro Bowl linebacker Pat Tillman to walk away from the millions and glory of the NFL to enlist to defend his country first in the occupation of Iraq then be redeployed to get murdered by his own side in Afghanistan. Only America could turn his death into a recruitment moment. In life he opined to a friend "I don't want them to parade me through the streets" but in death, despite his opposition to Dubya and the Iraq war which he called "illegal as hell" and an act of "imperial whim", that's exactly what they've done. Following the Jessica Lynch script, a GI Joe story was concocted for the original report of Tillman's death as the puppet masters realize the initial bogus story carries vastly more weight in public opinion than the eventual corrective.

Halftime - Of Instant Replay and Beyonce (hey, it's better than a souffle baked by Timothy McVeigh)

Though a primitive version was used by the CBC during a hockey game in 1955, true instant replay didn't come to sport and the world until December 7th, 1963 when CBS Sports Director Tony Verna rigged up a 1200 pound machine to perform the Instantaneous Time Travel to the Past via Videotape magic for what else, an Army-Navy college football game. Try to imagine watching a game today without it. You can only fill the voids in play with so many cheerleader shots and endless chatter. Additionally, it has become a fundamental part of the rules of the game as replay reviews popped up over 26 years ago, coaches challenges began in 1999 and have spread to other sports from the NBA to the NHL and tennis. Ironically, or not, live TV in the US also died with football thanks to the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII when Justin Timberlake whipped out Janet Jackson's right tit sparking nipplegate. Sure, 111 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl last year, but 3 million more were watching when Madonna performed at halftime.

The shows the thing with which to eat that wing. The game is in fact secondary for the majority of the 110+ million viewers. Many are watching hoping to see Beyonce's breast. The halftime show has come a long way from the days of  marching bands, Up With People and Andy Williams when it wasn't a laser-targeted, sponsored ray gun of corporate synergy. Michael, that other ever-slightly-more-famous Jackson's 1993 performance is held to be the greatest of all time; weird to think just a few months later the thought of Michael surrounded by so many children would take on such a different meaning. It could be the Super Bowl party they came for; at an average of 17 people, they're usually pretty lively. It's only fitting that while being fed a steady diet of commercials for junk food Americans will consume 1,200 calories each on Sunday scarfing down 1.23 billion chicken wing, 11.2 million pounds of potato chips, 8.2 million pounds of tortilla chips, 4.3 million pounds of pretzels, 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, 2.5 million pounds of nuts and 69.6 million pounds of avocados. To wash it down they'll drink 50 million cases of beer, unfortunately 94% of it will be Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller Lite or Natural Light which demonstrates more than anything how culturally closed and corporate controlled America remains.

Oh, and we best not forget the commercials. While the world ridicules America for its obsession with a game no one else cares about, they can't help fixate on the other evil they always complain about; the consumerism as reflected in the importance of the ads. The world won't notice who won the game, but they'll all remember the next spot featuring a mini Darth Vader using the force. At a new record average cost of $3.8 million per 30 seconds of air time, companies better make sure they're good. In 1967, that same amount of money would've bought 101 ads as they went for only $37,500 a pop for Super Bowl I. While the basics of sex, celebrity and satiety haven't changed since Edward Bernays invented modern public relations, the media used to propagate the propaganda has. I'll be watching the game from my laptop while millions will be watching on a tablet, a 'smart' phone or some such mobile device. More importantly to the marketers, many actually think they'll get more enjoyment out of the game by paying less attention to it, falling prey to the multi-tasking illusion by tweeting and texting and liking and sharing on Facebook and Twitter. What's that? You say there's a game on? Oh yeah...

3rd Quarter - Offensively speaking

I don't think the San Francisco 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl if their starting quarterback hadn't been injured. QB Alex Smith was leading the league in completion percentage and had his team at 6-2, not to mention having taken the team to the NFC final the year before, when he suffered a concussion during a tie with the St. Louis Rams. While his replacement Colin Kaepernick didn't look great finishing off the game, he blew away the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football the next week and when Smith was ready to return the following week he was out of a starting job. The unwritten rule is that you don't lose your job to injury but just ask Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady how that worked out for them. Kaepernick isn't Tom Brady, in fact, he might be better. While it's too early to say, the divisional win over the Packers where he set a record for rushing yards by any player, QB, RB, whatever, with 181 and scored four TDs, two through the air and two on the ground, all part of 579 yards of offense and 45 points was enough to prove the possibility. A physical freak with a cannon for an arm and the foot speed to run past defensive backs he gives the Niners a chance to blow away the Ravens.

If Colin Kaepernick is flash, Baltimore Raven QB Joe Flacco is, well, whatever the opposite of flash is. Joe Cool just seems to do the job as evidenced by his record six road playoff wins in his five year career. Year in, year out you know what you'll get, 3,600-3,800 yards, 20-25 TDs and only 10-12 ints. Until this year it also meant always coming up a bit short. After losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship last year thanks to a dropped TD then a missed chip shot field goal, it looked like the Ravens were set to fall this year to the 9 1/2 point favorite Denver Broncos in the divisional round. Yet somehow, inexplicably, with the Ravens down by a touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts left and the ball on their own 30-yard line, WR Jacoby Jones was allowed to run past two defenders as cornerback Tony Carter failed to jam him and safety Rahim Moore didn't play deep enough. Flacco flung a pass beyond the awkwardly falling and flailing Moore, who had taken a poor angle, dropping it into Jones' arms who scored untouched. The Ravens went on to win in double OT after having beaten Luck's Colts the week before and then beating Tom Brady's Patriots two weeks ago in the AFC Championship avenging the previous year's defeat. Suddenly, the Ravens appear to be a team of destiny.

Overall, there wasn't much to separate the two offenses during the regular season with the Ravens ranking 10th with 398 points scored and the Niners a single point behind in 11th. Niners' starting running back Frank Gore is no slouch as he runs powerfully and is hard to take down while super speedy rookie LaMichael James can break a big run anytime, but I'd have to give the edge to the Ravens as Ray Rice may be the best all-round back in the league and Bernard Pierce has just gotten better all year and is averaging over 75 yards over his last five games. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has finally fulfilled his first round draft pick promise for the Niners this year and can look across the field at future hall of famer Randy Moss. They've also got one of the best tight ends in the league in Vernon Davis and a decent #2 in Delanie Walker. Yet they don't quite add up to the balance the Ravens pass catchers possess. WR Torrey Smith is an outside burner who's always a threat to score a couple of long TDs while Anquin Boldin provides the sure hands and experience of one of the best possession receivers in the game. Surprisingly, TE Dennis Pitta actually had more receiving yards than Davis this year plus they've got #2 Ed Dickson.

Both offensive lines are among the best in the league but the Niners three first round draft picks give them a slight edge in the, ahem, battle of the trenches. While Flacco has ridden a wave to this point I think it's Kapernick's game to win or lose. He's a rookie for all intents and purposes with only nine career starts (including playoffs) under his belt. If Ed Reed or Ray Lewis get in his head or under his skin early he could get the jitters on the big stage. The flip side is his near-unlimited upside; if he gets hot, he'll be impossible to stop. Special teams could play a role as well as the Ravens boast what was by this measure the third best unit in the league but gave up a 104-yard kickoff and a 90-yard punt return against the Broncos. They also have Jacoby Jones, the hero of that same Bronco game, who brought back two kickoffs longer than 105-yards this year. Finally, the Ravens are more comfortable with it all coming down to a last second field goal as two of the past 11 Super Bowls have as they'll field undrafted rookie Justin Tucker who replaced last season's goat Billy Cundiff. Tucker only went 30-of-33 and nailed the 47-yard game winner against the Patriots. Meanwhile, David Akers inexplicably went from setting an NFL record for made field goals in 2011 to missing 10 of 19 from 40 yards or further this year and made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. What about cheerleaders? Who's got the edge? Judge for yourself.

4th Quarter - A Level Playing Field?

Having such a short span of attention, the population has all but forgotten how the season began with replacement refs, the real ones having been locked out by the owners. It was real enough at the time though as not only did the games lack rhythm, dragging on interminably with the bumbling replacement zebras, they actually managed to influence the outcome of games. Refs are those guys we love to hate until they're gone as without them the rules get forgotten, twisted or misinterpreted and without those rules the game loses meaning and there's no point in playing. Even with the refs back it's becoming clear that the rules have changed forever for the NFL no matter how much they try to change the rules in the NFL just as the rules of the world have been warped with time meaning there's no return to the idyllic 1950's.

A run of high profile NFL player suicides the past couple years have shaken most of the remaining few out of their ignorance of the dangers of the game. In May, former Charger Junior Seau, a retired sure-to-be-hall of famer, shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. Though he left no note, it eerily mimicked Duane Duerson's suicide but he left a note asking that his brain be studied for trauma. Seau's family donated his brain tissue for study and the results showed he was suffering from CTE, the most terrifying letters for any player, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as did Duerson. Seau's family is suing, accusing the NFL of "deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries." They're not alone as 3,800 more players are involved in legal action as well. Even more frightening was the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in which he shot his girlfriend and then drove to the Kansas City Chiefs stadium to kill himself in front of his coach and staff. At just 25 he was already showing signs of brain damage. The NFL's response a few years ago was to deny any link but they've been forced to come around and have made some rule changes regarding helmet-to-helmet hits and concussion protocols in a vain attempt to protect players' lives. All these rules do is confuse the players, who are trained to destroy the enemy and who know that admitting one can't play is weakness, weakness that may cost them their job.

Who else would the NFL partner up with to 'solve' this problem than the military? Makes perfect sense in that both institutions are suffering from a rash of suicides as military suicides now far exceed combat deaths, recording almost one a day for a total of 349 last year, up from 301 the previous year and compared to 295 deaths in Afghanistan in 2012. Military grade Kevlar has been added to the player padding in a sport that developed in an era before 300+ pound men could run sub 5 second 40-yard dashes and linebackers running in 4.4 smash full speed into returners moving at 4.3. Much as soldiers don't develop problems from one shock but the repetitive nature of the brutality they're exposed to, the danger to NFL players is being shown to not come from isolated concussions but the cumulative effect of thousands of sub-concussive hits. If we support our team while this massacre is occurring how are we any better than the hypocrites who claim to support the troops by waving flags. In both cases we are at best complicit, at worst, the cause. No fans, no game.

The standard line of defense at this point is to claim that players, just like soldiers, know what they're getting into and enter voluntarily with the bonus that NFL players get paid millions to do what they love. This is the standard American excuse for everything, it's 2013, the information is there, if they don't know they're putting their lives at risk it's their own fault. This is as absurd as war apologists who disregard the constant stream of patriotism inspiring propaganda and fear mongering from a never-ending carousel of menacing enemies: Communists, Terrorists, Latin American Tyrants, Saddam, Iranian Mullahs and Secretive Dictators oh my! It's worse than free-marketers arguing consumers make rational choices in a world designed to feed as much choice influencing advertizing into our brains as possible. The NFL may be ignoring a helmet solution offered by the Swedes yet ironically it hasn't ignored the Swedish economic model which would benefit America and much of the west. Yes, the NFL's revenue sharing and salary caps make it a socialist paradise.

One could say America itself is committing suicide. No, I'm not referring to the proliferation of guns, loose laws and lack of psychological support leading to all the mass murders. The root cause of nearly all her problems is the inequality, social and financial, that has exploded over the past 30 years. While the NFL has done everything it can to maintain a level playing field among the teams to ensure a competitive product, Sunday will see the fifth different winner over the last five years (compare that with the English Premiership or the Spanish Liga), and thus success, America has done the opposite. The now-accepted mythology of job creators and trickle down economics has seen the country become more unequal than much of Latin America and yes, even that empire whose decline that of  America's is always compared to, the Roman. "So what?" Ayn Rand would ask. Well, a little study, or just a reading of The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always do Better by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett would tell you that once a country has reached a certain economic level, the more unequal a society is in terms of wealth, the more problems it will have in nearly every part of society: child mortality, mental health, drug use, educational achievement, teenage births, imprisonment, obesity and most importantly for our purposes today, violence and lack of social mobility.

The simple reason more unequal societies suffer from higher rates of all sorts of violent crime from homicide to rape and child abuse is that increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status in the evolutionary game. In such societies one doesn't need to take numerous knocks to the noggin for their brains to suffer the ill effects of the hormone cortisol which floods the brain when we feel threatened, helpless and stressed while simultaneously not benefiting from the reward chemical, dopamine, which helps with memory, attention and problem solving that we get when we feel happy and confident. As inequality rises so does the rigidity of social structure, most easily measured by intra-generational income mobility; those with rich parents are more likely to become rich and of course the poor remain poor generation after generation. Paradoxically, children in more unequal societies report higher future aspirations while facing a world in which they have less opportunity probably due to the fact their career choices are dominated by star-struck ideas of financial success coming with images of instant wealth or the glamor of celebrity, images the NFL and the Super Bowl do their best to promote.

Of course most of these kids will never become Beyonce or Colin Kaepernick, thus the military may indeed be the only career option for those for whom there are few better opportunities. For such enlistees, military service can open opportunities that would not otherwise be available. Once they've signed up, those of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be assigned to combat roles within the military than those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, becoming in effect, cannon fodder. Oh, many will dream of football glory until their dreams die sometime in high school or maybe even college, by which time their brains will have taken such a beating they'll be much more likely to suffer from a variety of ailments from memory loss, aggression, confusion, depression, vertigo, disorientation, headaches, poor judgment, slowed muscular movements, staggered gait, impeded speech, tremors, deafness and finally dementia. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, has even recently been linked with ALS. As CTE can only be diagnosed after death, it's hard to tell how early it can set it. The earliest known football case to date was a 17-year-old.

President Obama recently weighed in on the issue saying, "If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football" but luckily for him, he probably wouldn't have to make that choice. Mary Ann Easterling, wife of Ray Easterling who committed suicide last year, said that her husband felt “used,” and that if he could go back, he wouldn’t have played. At the very least, Obama's son wouldn't have to rely on the scholarship that is the only ticket to college which could offer any chance of future success for students from low income families. Student loans you say? Yeah, right. The NFL and its guaranteed contracts is the lottery ticket out for the economically disadvantaged. It's no coincidence that blacks are disproportionately represented among the poor and the NFL (67%). Seeing as more income and wealth is concentrated at the top than any time since records have been available (1913 thanks to federal income tax), and the divide is widening as 93% of new income is flowing to the 1%, no wonder more and more people, players and non-players, are turning to god and Vegas.

Overtime - Wide right?

Any Super Bowl party worth its salt will feature some kind of square board where wagers on the score will be laid. For the serious gambler though, or the desperate indebted student hoping to pay next semester's tuition, there's no better place to be than Las Vegas for the Super Bowl. The prop bet has evolved from the benign, heads or tails for the coin flip, to the tedious, such as the length of the national anthem or Beyonce's hair style or outfit color to the ludicrous, Ray Lewis tackles in XLVII versus Ray Lewis in XXXV or Kaepernick versus Steve Young in XXIX. About the only one I'd want any action on is the over/under on how many times Ray Lewis will mention god/lord if he is interviewed after the game. It's set at a ridiculously low three when I'd be tempted to bet over at ten - take the free money and go all in on over. After all, we're talking about a country where 27% of the people believe god "plays a role in determining which team wins" sporting events. Just another anomaly that non-Americans will shake their heads at in disbelief, just like the rise in belief in creationism along with its teaching in schools and museums devoted to it or their refusal to accept scientific evidence no matter how hot it gets. Unfortunately, it's more than a bug in the system, it's a feature.

As America lurches from crisis to crisis, their responses, from war to bank bailouts and doubling down on the carbon economy, may seem irrational to an impartial observer as they aggravate instead of solve the problems but are simply part of a natural pattern. Civilizations tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. As collapse becomes palpable, societies in distress retreat into what anthropologists call "crisis cults." Witness the reaction of gun freaks to mass-murders as they clutch the Second Amendment tighter and demand more guns to stop the killing; the attempt to put an end to financial crisis by further enriching those institutions which created the problem while impoverishing the engine, the middle class, that could return economic health; dealing with having been led into war on false grounds by expanding conflicts and further empowering those same positions to determine who lives or dies without oversight; convincing people that torture is justified by glorifying such atrocity in Hollywood blockbusters. The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

No Super Bowl has yet been decided in overtime. The closest finish was the famous "wide right" Giants victory over the Bills in XXV, 20-19. Baltimore (as in Colts) beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V 16-13 on a field goal with 5 seconds to play, while the Patriots did the same to the Panthers with 4 seconds left to win 32-29 in XXXVIII. Adam Vinitieri also won it for the Patriots as time expired in XXXVI against the Rams making the final 20-17. In XXXIV Tennessee Titans' Kevin Dyson was memorably stopped a yard short from scoring a touchdown which would have tied the game with a conversion, the Rams won 23-16. Hoping for such an ending as exciting, I'll once again do my best to ignore the risks the players are subjecting themselves to but it'll be hard to ignore the flyovers (at a cost of half a million to the taxpayer), shots of genuflecting players, recruitment ads and shout outs to the troops who are risking the same degenerative brain disease as the players on the field as roadside explosions injure the brain the same way as explosive tackles. I doubt this year's match up will provide us with the first extra period as I've got a feeling Kaepernick and the Niners may blow the Ravens out. Yet, I've always been a fan of the black swan, the fat tail and maybe a little divine intervention, so I'm taking the Ravens, in OT, 26-23.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

It's Not The End Of The World

Whether by rapture, nature, or computer there have been countless predictions of the end of the world over the past three millennia. These harbingers of doom have had many sources, from scripture to soothsayers, but all have been shown to be nothing but conjecture as the world has continued to revolve, the sun to shine and man to (de)evolve. Unless you've been living under a rock, don't get out to see movies nor have a Facebook wall to tell you, you probably heard something about the Maya calendar ending on December 21, 2012 augering the end of the world. Meanwhile, after a temporary break to obsess about the fact that they like to own a lot of guns so they can kill each other and anyone else they feel like, America's propaganda machine will go back to heralding the financial end of the world, the fiscal cliff. Like all good myths, both harbingers of doom freely mix fact and fiction to produce a potent brew believable enough to intoxicate the masses while ensuring the real moral of the story and a chunk of change will be lost in the panic to the propagandists.

Many Romans believed 634 BCE would bring the end based on a story in which twelve eagles, each representing ten years, revealed the lifespan of Rome to Romulus. Most religions have their own eschatological doctrines but it's the crazy Christians who have the longest list of false prophets. Harold Camping was simply the latest in a long line Christards to predict the end such as Paul the Apostle, Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours. Perhaps tired of just killing infidel Muslims in the Crusades, even Pope Innocent III got into the act by adding 666 to the year Islam was founded to determine the world would end in 1284. Theology and astronomy have always been a toxic mix, but when Johannes Stoeffler used them to predict a worldwide flood he convinced many to move to higher ground and invest in boats before February 1, 1524. As many as 100,000 'Millerites' were moved enough by William Miller's preaching of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 to sell all their belongings. Like Camping, when the world woke up the next day to normality, Miller just moved his date back; his followers were so fervent they went on to form the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

Sowing panic in the markets has always been an easy way to make a mint for some and to steer economic policy for others. Stories of the so-called fiscal cliff are another textbook example. Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s riders and messengers were able to get news of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a full day in advance of the government’s own news carriers. As the story goes, Nathan convinced the rubes he had knowledge of Napoleon's victory by selling heavily on the English stock market. When panic ensued, Rothschild had his agents snap up stocks for pennies on the pound, entrenching the family banking dynasty. Many claim the Panic of 1907, the United States' first modern financial crisis, was engineered by JP Morgan to implement certain financial regulations and ultimately the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Newspaper reports of the days ahead of the panic seem almost comical in their propagandizing prose describing the health of the financial market only to be proven completely wrong when the crash led to a drop of 21% in commodity prices, a 47% spike in bankruptcies and a rise in unemployment from 2.8 to 8%. Lucky these things could never happen today!

A simple connection can be made between today's supposed harbingers of apocalypse, the end of the Maya Calendar and the US fiscal cliff: both are completely made up and being used for gain by the mythology makers of our day. The Maya understand 17 different calendars, some of them accurately charting time over more than ten million years. The one causing all the hub-bub is the Long Count which is an astronomical calendar based on the cycle of Pleiades used to track longer periods of time. Just as with other calendars, the end of the old signals the start of the next. Americans on the other hand created the fictitious fiscal cliff just last summer when the federal debt level was about to hit the imaginary debt ceiling. Imaginary in that a limit that can be extended is not a limit but a gimick which in this case proved a useful opportunity for fearmongers. As a deal couldn't be struck, an agreement was reached for automatic spending cuts to kick in come the end of 2012 thus the name fiscal cliff was coined to scare the people into believing cuts need to be made to avert financial disaster in the new year. However, just as we can go out and buy a new calendar, the US government has the power to simply go out and 'buy' more dollars whenever they need to.

The reason it's so important for the elite to sow fear among the infotariat is that both imaginary apocalypse makers are in fact opportunities to reshape the world we live in. The current Long Count cycle finished December 21st when it reached the end of the 13th b'ak'tun which themselves are made up of 20 k'atun cycles composed of 20 tun each of which last for 18 winal cycles that are about a year long. The end of the Long Count has nothing to do with death but everything to do with rebirth. The true meaning is transformation not conflagration. According to the correlation between the Long Count and Western calendars accepted by the great majority of Maya researchers, the starting-point of the just ended Long Count cycle is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE. This date marks the creation of the world of human beings according to the Maya, the last great transition.

Coincidentally, we are told by textbooks that civilization began around 3,000 BCE in Mesopotamia as the Sumerians simultaneously developed all the traits of high civilization: the wheel, metallurgy, astrology, astronomy, calendars, taxation, bookkeeping, an organized priesthood and of course written texts. Ancient Egypt as we know it came into being with the union of Upper and Lower Egypt and the start of the First Dynasty under Menes somewhere around 3100 B.C. Should we go on about the significance of that time? Stonehenge has been dated to around 3000 B.C. It was also around 3100 B.C that stone circle building and other types of megalithic structures were being built throughout Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. Newgrange, the large passage-grave in Ireland, is generally dated to about 3200 B.C. More? Civilization is said to have begun in China around 3000 B.C. with the emergence of the Yang-Shao culture. All very important, but not as big as what it all brought about. Yep, the whole system of modern slavery. Debt.

Even before there was money, there was debt. The arrival of civilization, agriculture and all its benefits also brought the plague of credit. The ancients learned to control it through systems such as the Jubilee, but in modern times we have forgotten the lessons of the past and let it become the system for the powerful to control wealth and therefore society. Nowhere has done a better job than America where the debt figures boggle the mind. Credit card debt has lagged since the financial crisis and sits a bit under a trillion but student loan debt has more than made up for the slack, powering past the trillion mark last year helping push consumer debt to $2.7 trillion. Total household debt is over $13 trillion, just a couple of trillion shy of total yearly economic output. But we better be sure not to mix these figures with the 'real' problem facing America, the federal debt. 

Yes, like the rogue planet Nibiru predicted by the Mayans, serious people are warning us the federal debt will obliterate us all. Wait? What's that? The Mayans never said anything about Nibiru? It was just dreamed up in 1976 by Zecharia Sitchin in his book "The Twelfth Planet" using his own unique translation of Sumerian cuneiform to identify a planet, Nibiru, orbiting the sun every 3,600 years? Then several years later, Nancy Lieder, a self-described psychic, announced that the aliens she claimed to channel had warned her this planet would collide with Earth in 2003? After a collision-free year, the date was moved back to 2012, where it was linked to the close of the Mayan long-count period? So, it's just a mixture of science fiction and psychics? Wait. Science fiction and psychics sounds suspiciously close to the definition of economics to me. 

Even though they agree on about 99% of things, Democrats and Republicans still manage to come to loggerheads often enough to make for good kabuki theater. Last year's debt ceiling fiasco not only cost the US it's AAA credit rating but also set the cuts and tax increases to go off around the end of the year. The name 'fiscal cliff' is an inapt metaphor for many reasons, but the $500 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts represent about 4% of the US economy and would probably push the US into recession. It's a hodgepodge of policy decisions that Congress has made, or better said, not made, over the past two years, piled onto a single deadline. It's not a cliff but self-induced austerity crisis, theater designed to pressure policy makers into a deal such as the grand bargain whose ultimate goal is to dismantle social security and medicare while continuing at least a portion of the tax cuts for the rich. Despite the many other problems that exist, the added bonus of this approaching apocalypse has been that it has completely paralyzed the lame duck Congress and the status quo usually benefits one group, the plutocrats.

The simplest option is to do nothing and go over the 'cliff' but this is unlikely to happen as not only does it harm everyone but it hits the rich, the military and corporations disproportionately. While it would cut defense spending and allow taxes on the rich to return to Clinton era levels, it also would see benefits cut and taxes for all others rise as well. Additionally, with the debt ceiling fast approaching again, some kind of deal will avert the next crisis. However, the tax hikes and spending cuts are spread over two years so there isn't really any urgency. Another possible scenario is to just kick the can further down the road by simply extending the deadline by a year or two. This is what policy makers usually do from climate change to war related troop draw-downs, so don't be surprised. Finally, some kind of deal may be reached, ranging from some kind of small deal in which some tax cuts are allowed to expire along with some spending cuts to the plutocrat preferred 'grand bargain'. The media is undoubtedly pushing this as their overlords will be better able to disguise the savage cuts to the social safety net among all the other hoopla of a deal within the framework of the Simpson-Bowles plan, or the Domenici-Rivlin plan.


A healthy democracy would use this moment to its advantage by diagnosing the disease and taking its medicine. A rotten one will use it to make things worse for most while benefiting the few. Sequestration will see a range of spending cuts across the board (ie. defense and non-defense) in discretionary spending as mandated by the debt ceiling compromise, the Budget Control Act of 2011. Cutting doctors pay and unemployment insurance at a time of record low employment don't sound too bright but slicing a portion of the $300 million a day to fight an unwinnable war in Afghanistan sounds pretty good, but unfortunately war costs are exempt. Speaking of the unemployed, maybe increasing taxes on the 'job-creators' isn't such a bad idea. The secret is the rich aren't creating jobs at all but stealing them. Only 3.6% of the top 0.1% income earners are entrepreneurs, the majority rely on extracting rents from the rest of us. Their tax rates have fallen while the working class are paying more via payroll taxes. The other supposed engine of job creation, corporations, have done a pretty good job of avoiding paying their fair share as well. Just as the top 1% of breathing people have taken 93% of income growth since 2008, corporate non-breathing people saw their profits quickly rebound following the downturn to the point where their profits are at a record level when compared to the whole economy. Charts? You want graphs? Well, here's a few:

The Real Cliff - Employment has fallen and can't get up!
Surprisingly, cutting top marginal tax rates increases the income share of the rich!
The slow shift in tax burden from non-breathing 'people' to working class people
You might say the crisis was pretty good for corporations
The term 'fiscal cliff' was coined by none other than Ben Bernanke. You may remember him from such heists as the 2008 bank bailouts (TARP) when he helped Hank Paulsen bully Congress into handing over $700 billion to the banksters. That $700 billion sure is a familiar sounding number, isn't it? Well it should be seeing as it the amount of 'forced' austerity being brought about by bailing out banks, something that research shows predictably happens. An IMF paper showed bailouts lead to austerity. That IMF paper examined 42 banking crises between 1970 and 2007 but there's evidence all around us today from the UK to Spain and Greece. It's all so sickeningly predictable. Whatever you want to call them, the elite, oligarchs, plutocrats, Bilderbergs, they behave just like the borg from Star Trek TNG, methodically extracting all the wealth they can before moving on to the next source. The last forty-odd years were spent laying the groundwork for the biggest transfer of wealth from the bottom up the world has ever seen; the tax burden has been shifted away from the rich and corporations onto the backs of the working class, 'think tanks', 'research centers' and Faux News were created to tell the people this is normal, unions were devastated, consumerism as self-actualization became the mantra, corporations were turned into people and rewarded for shipping jobs overseas to the lowest wage countries they could find. Uh, I could go on but I already have.

Sadly, much like the end of the Long Count Mayan cycle, the fiscal cliff is being sold as disaster instead of an opportunity. The cult leaders aren't named Jones, Hubbard, Koresh, or Jouret nor were they dressed in flowing robes but garbed instead in suits and named Rand, Greenspan, Friedman and Hayek. Worse, their preachings aren't responsible for the deaths of tens or hundreds but thousands, millions and possibly eventually billions. We get to see their converts every day in our classrooms, on the streets and most often, on the TV where a parade of hucksters trying to convince us the debt was caused by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and needs fixing before anything else. The propaganda becomes transparent when you consider a group such as Fix the Debt, which is the loudest of the fearmongers, is composed of CEOs with ties to 43 companies with over $43 billion in defense contracts. They're strangely silent about the fact that the debt is largely due to the recession, the two Bush tax cuts while paying for two wars which have caused defense spending to double since 2001 putting US military spending equivalent to the next 26 nations combined.

It's telling that as the 21st of December neared more effort was expended dispelling the Mayan apocalypse myths than extolling the possibilities that a new era of peace and unity could bring. Bolivian president Evo Morales marked the winter solstace and auspicious calendar date by extending an open invitation to the world to celebrate "the end of the Macha and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood, it is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism." Similarly, as we near the so-called fiscal cliff, more energy is being expended to convince us the end is near if we don't make fixes which will exacerbate the problems rather than solve them. Every challenge we've faced this millennium has been made worse: 9/11 led us into a never ending global war on terror, climate change has brought an endless parade of broken promises and conferences, financial crisis a perpetual bailout for the perpetrators and sellout of the people. No, just as December 21st wasn't the end of the world, the fiscal cliff won't bring about the apocalypse but the majority of us would be better off if we turn off the current disastrous path.
Update Jan.22 -