Fuck Off and Die, 2005

As years go, 2005, you were the worst in decades. You were worse than a cash-laden frat boy high on meth at a strip club with a gun in his fist. You were worse than my burly boyfriend in prison, the one with a sadomasochistic streak and a penchant for hogtying with razor wire.

Once, when Alberto Gonzales was waterboarding me and John Ashcroft was pouring the contents of a chemical light on my scrotum while Dick Cheney questioned me, I thought, "This is so much better than 2005." Even after Condi Rice poured gravy over my head and loosed the famished german shepherd on me, I thought that.

2005 beat its children, stripped them naked and left them outside to starve in winter. 2005 kidnapped people it didn't like and boiled their hands in Uzbekistan. 2005 suspected everyone of something, and inflicted punishment just short of organ failure until they confessed. (The confessions proved false.) 2005 drowned hundreds of thousands of people. It buried thousands more in mountains of rubble, saving the cost of digging mass graves.

2005: Goodbye and good riddance.


Photos of the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans

Within a few days of the ninth ward opening up for residents to check their property and leave, A. and I went to look at the ward*. Here's a collection of pictures I shot between the ninth ward and St. Bernard Parish (about 15 blocks east of the ninth ward). The pictures were shot on Dec. 1. And, yes, the peach-colored object in the foreground of the first photo is a dildo.

COMING SOON: Photos of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

BONUS: Why did the floodwalls fail? (Hint: sea level isn't the issue.) Take a gander at the the most recent report.

UPDATE: My most recent set of Lower Ninth Ward photos is here.

*An earlier version of this post said that we overshot the 9th ward. After (finally!) finding the excellent graphic by the Times Picayune, I found that we hadn't. We were near the river, where the damage was nowhere near as bad as it was further north.


Christmas in Iraq

My cousin's Christmas email from somewhere near Mosul:
Hello, everyone!

I'm sorry I haven't sent out an e-mail in such a long time. We've been without power for long periods (over six days once), so I haven't been able to send anything.

Christmas was good. I had Staff duty on Christmas Eve. When assigned to Staff duty, you have to stay up all night. I was able to spend the night webcamming with [my wife] and her family. I was able to talk to them, then watched as they opened their presents. It was the next best thing to being there.

I slept all morning on Christmas day. I then spent the afternoon installing a generator at our barracks. We got it put in and running just after dark, so we got power just in time. My Christmas dinner was a bratwurst and red beans and rice. We did have a "traditional" dinner trucked up to us from Tal Afar, but I was too busy getting the generator running. I'm not complaining, though. I would rather have power and heat than a piece of ham or turkey.

The rainy season has finally arrived. Now the whole place is one big mud hole. It is impossible to go through the day without getting mud everywhere - clothes, boots, in the rooms, etc. Along with the rain came the mosquitoes. We're getting eaten alive, especially at night. I've been trying to get a mosquito net, but the PX in Mosul sells out almost as soon as they get them in. The temperatures are falling, we even had a spit of snow.

I've attached a photo taken while on a convoy to Bayji, located just north of Baghdad. It took us four hours each way to get there, and we had to make the trip twice in three days. This photo was taken while we were recovering a vehicle that broke down. I was providing security while the vehicle was being prepared to tow.
I'd include the picture, but it's meaningless for anyone who doesn't know him. It's of a soldier in uniform in a desert similar to the one east of L.A.

By the way, I keep posting these because they're snippets of personal life that you don't get much of in the news (for once, I'm not criticizing the news, I'm just making an observation).

I should also add that while I think this war is based on a series of lies, I do hope Iraq gets some sort of decent government in the end and citizens wind up better off. I'm just afraid that it won't happen for many years, and in the interim there will be much more internecine violence.

Top Ten Myths about Iraq

Juan Cole dispels them.


Please Retire, Trent

Oh, for a wild wish to come true....
[Trent] Lott is having a sort of revenge, forcing the Republican establishment to beg him to stay. According to Novak, "Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman pleaded with Lott last week to run again. The senator was as blunt with this emissary from President Bush as he was with me. 'Where is our vision and our agenda?' he asked. The malaise afflicting the Bush administration not only threatens a Senate seat in Mississippi but impacts Lott's decision whether to retire."
Although I prefer cream cheese with my bagel and lotts, I'll take malaise any day.


I Love My New Big Brother

A few days ago, Kevin Drum speculated that Bush™ skirted the FISA court to cover for new technology: data-mining or some such, the sort of thing John Poindexter's into. It's looking more and more like he was right. On Thursday, US News reported that the Feds monitored Muslim sites and private property, searching for nuclear material. Now, the New York Times reports a massive federal data-mining operation reminiscent of convicted felon John Poindexter's proposed Total Information Awareness program, once again demonstrating Bush™'s propensity to do whatever he wants, regardless of what, say, other branches of government think. A few highlights:
The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.
This so-called "pattern analysis" on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.
Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined.

The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many international-to-international calls are also routed through such American switches.

One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches.

The growth of that transit traffic had become a major issue for the intelligence community, officials say, because it had not been fully addressed by 1970's-era laws and regulations governing the N.S.A. Now that foreign calls were being routed through switches on American soil, some judges and law enforcement officials regarded eavesdropping on those calls as a possible violation of those decades-old restrictions, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court-approved warrants for domestic surveillance.

Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.

Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.
Or, in simpler terms, Big Brother.

Thank you, New York Times, for doing your job.


Let's Invade Iraq! and the Library!

Some people still believe that Bush™ didn't make up his mind to invade Iraq until, say, 2003. Today, we learn from former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle that the day after September 11, 2001 the Bush Administration sought broad authority to make war on whomever it liked:
On the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, the White House proposed that Congress authorize the use of military force to "deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States." Believing the scope of this language was too broad and ill defined, Congress chose instead, on Sept. 14, to authorize "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks of Sept. 11. With this language, Congress denied the president the more expansive authority he sought and insisted that his authority be used specifically against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Having been denied authority to take over the world, Bush™ then sought to make war in this country, Lincoln-style®:
Just before the Senate acted on this compromise resolution, the White House sought one last change. Literally minutes before the Senate cast its vote, the administration sought to add the words "in the United States and" after "appropriate force" in the agreed-upon text. This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas -- where we all understood he wanted authority to act -- but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens. I could see no justification for Congress to accede to this extraordinary request for additional authority. I refused.
Now given that all levels of government already have authority to, you know, arrest and shoot people under certain circumstances, seeking war powers within the United States seems an odd request. One wonders what, exactly, our Fearlesss Leader intended to do with it. I guess see who's checking out Mao's Little Red Book.*

*Not that I really think that's the reason why you'd skirt the FISA court, but in any case, turns out the Little Red Book story was a hoax. This one, however, is not.


He's Baaack

Le Savant returns....

The Real Meaning of Saturnalia Christmas

While Fox News is busy promoting the non-existent War on Christmas, we at realitique headquarters thought it fitting to point out that, like Easter, the Christmas story is fundamentally about the journey of the sun across the sky. Today, for example, is the winter solstice, the day the sun "stands still" or is "born." And if the Emperor Aurelian hadn't in 274 CE fixed the date as the 25th, today would be Christmas.

Lots of mangods (some of them explicitly sun gods) were born or reborn on this day. Beli Mawr, Mithra, Tammuz, Adonis, Baal ("lord"), Horus, Heracles and Dionysus are a few. Many mangods were born in caves, to virgins, and could look forward to a period of teaching mankind followed by a trial, death and resurrection. This usually led to a father-figure god forgiving humanity's sins.

In some cultures, this astronomical event was mythologized as a battle between light and darkness (which eventually interpenetrated the constructs of "good" and "evil"). The Hopi celebration of Soyal and the Mesopotamian ("Iraqi") celebration of Zagmuk both stress such a battle, and during the Iranian celebration of Yalda, bonfires are used to help the sun grow stronger. Shades of this conflict also appear in the Christian theological argument that Jesus' birth signalled the defeat of Satan.

Celebrating the solstice over 12 days was also popular, as the solar year was (and is) commonly divided into 12 periods. In ancient Babylon, slaves and masters exchanged places and a mock king ruled in the palace. In Italy—where Saturn had once ruled but now lay sleeping near Britain, one day to return and usher in another golden age—gifts were exchanged and a mock king, the Lord of Misrule, reigned. In Greece, the monsters of chaos were said to roam free, playing pranks.

These variations on the theme of moral license and tricksterism may have originated in older rites of human sacrifice, which along with divine births and resurrections also occurred regularly around solstices and equinoxes. In many of these traditions, the victim was allowed for a short time to do whatever he wanted to (sinning, or breaking taboos) before dying. The free-for-all Carnival, or Mardi Gras, may a variation of this, perhaps in preparation for the spring equinox.

In ancient mystery religions, such as Mithraism, adepts were taught a narrative of the religion's founder or god. Newcomers were taught the exoteric, or uninterpreted, version. But once these newcomers were initiated into the mysteries, they were often shown a dramatized version of the narrative (or "passion") and were told the symbolic meaning of it—the esoteric version. Fittingly, Jesus does this, telling the crowds parables but revealing to his followers the parables' secret meaning. Gnostics, most likely the earliest Christians (such as Paul), interpreted the gospel narrative symbolically, as being about the growth of the self*. Because they didn't misinterpret the story as being literally true, they were often initiates of other mystery religions, without conflict.

Early anti-Gnostic Christian apologists had a hard time rebutting criticism that their nascent religion was just another mangod-centered mystery religion. They argued that Satan had copied God's plan and reproduced it around the world in anticipation of Christ's birth, death and resurrection. The big difference, they said, between Christianity and pagan mystery religions surrounding man-gods, was that Christianity was based on a "real" incarnate god. To prove their point, they produced gospels written long after the birth of their religion. Then demagogic bishops sent the faithful to burn pagan and gnostic texts that promoted the spiritual, ahistorical nature of the mangods. The rest is propaganda history.

*This gnostic tradition continued in the West, undercover, as a branch of Alchemy, in which lead and gold were symbols for states of the self, not literal metals. Another form of it is still practiced in Masonry.

BONUS: The God Who Wasn't There, a movie about Christian origins (i.e. paganism, the inclusive type of religion that Christianity robbed blind for every one of its exclusive claims).

SUPER HAPPY WINTER HOLIDAY BONUS: Hitchens drips derision all over Christmas.

DISCLAIMER: I actually like Christmas—as the annual solar holiday it is.


Impeach Bush (Reprise)

There are already more reasons for impeaching Bush than I'm willing to list, but the latest is an excellent one: breaking the law. As I recall, a few years ago power-hungry Republicans were in a lather over a certain man lying under oath. That, they said, required impeachment. If it did, then so does authorizing wiretaps by executive fiat*. By the way, I'm not astonished that we haven't yet heard in the news this obvious question and answer:
Q: The FISA law allows you to start spying on somebody as long as you seek a warrent within 72 hours—and fifteen days in emergencies. If so, why did Bush need to claim the right to wiretap citizens without going through the FISA court?

A: Because he didn't want anyone to know who we were spying on or why.
This is called "abuse of office," but unlike the other abuses of office Bush has committed, this one is clear cut.

P.S. Thanks, Mistuh Preznit, for the levee dough. It's probably the only thing you've done that's good policy.

*In the initial version of this post, I accidentally used the word "caveat." Thanks, G, for the correction.

UPDATE: Larry Johnson, who knows a bit about spying, weighs in:
It appears the most likely explanation is that the Bush Administration did not want to have to tell a Federal judge that they were using information obtained from interrogations that violated the spirit and the letter of the Geneva Conventions. Instead of protecting the nation the President may be covering his derrier.



Death of an American City

The NYT editorial is here. Saving the city would cost so much less than this misguided war. We've already lost half as many Americans to Katrina as have been killed in Iraq, and one third as many as we lost on 9/11. That we lost those Americans to a preventable, mostly man-made disaster for which the Corps of Engineers was in part responsible is all the more reason to renovate the levee system. If Congress isn't willing to do that, will they help fund the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast within half a mile of the beach?


Election Patrol

My cousin's latest email:
I've just been told I will have to go out on patrol for the elections. I will leave tomorrow (12/12) and will stay gone until after the elections are over. Subsequently, I will not be able to contact you for the next several days.

If you get a moment, say a small prayer that this will go smoothly. I will e-mail you when I return. Hopefully I will have enough time to send some photos I've been wanting to e-mail, as well.

Take care, and I'll talk to you in a few days.

Gary Webb and the CIA-Contra-Cocaine Connection

Since I've made such a fuss in the past about the Washington Press Corpse, here's an excellent overview of the big story of journalist Gary Webb's career—and how the national media punished him for breaking it. (Via some big-time blogger or something.)