Contradiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about our presence in Iraq lately, and the … vigorous debate over the meaning and purpose of that presence. One sees, on the hawkish side of things, a common conceit that critics of administration policy want, deep down, for us to lose in the Middle East and get our asses kicked back across the Atlantic.

I’ve been thinking about that, and this is my feeling.

I want us to win in Iraq. I want to see a liberal democracy in place there, I want Iraq to overcome the challenge of unifying multiple ethnic and sectarian differences in a diverse state that Iraqis can be proud of, and I want that new state to be a stabilizing and improving influence throughout the region. I want us to help Afghanistan and Liberia to similar successes.

I also want it to be remembered that the Bush administration has done a damn poor job with this noble crusade — that they have, at various points, completely neglected to fund followup efforts in Afghanistan, sold out our Kurdish allies for Turkish help which wasn’t even forthcoming, inflated evidence, deliberately antagonized allies, wreaked havoc on what few international institutions we have, based a chaotic excuse for a reconstruction plan on the say-so of some berserk think tanks citing Iraqi exiles with glaring biases and vested interests, and throughout it all kept the American people in the dark, without ever even acknowledging the fact that the American public has an interest and a right to know what its government is doing and plans to do.

These are not always easy positions to reconcile. It’s hard to know how to feel when the government persists in doing the right thing the wrong way. We’re the goddamn United States of America. We can do better than this.

Originally published on LiveJournal

(Ed. note 5/29/21: Even more than the rest of my writings about Iraq, this is embarrassingly neoliberal in retrospect, but I feel like intellectual honesty demands its preservation.  It was 2003, I was an Ivy-League-educated 27-year-old, failures of perspective were perhaps predictable.)

Recall nonsense

The deeper we get into this recall nonsense, the more annoyed I get at section 11322 of the Elections Code. It’s the section that provides for the election of a replacement.

See, to my mind, a recall should be a mechanism to get rid of a bad official, not to call a do-over of the election. A recall election should, therefore, simply take the official out of office, and he or she should be replaced in the normal way. In this case, the lieutenant governor should take office. That’s what the lieutenant governor is for.

But instead, we’ve given ourselves a situation where anyone with enough cash can force a do-over (let’s face it, you can get enough Californians to equal 12 percent of the last election’s turnout to sign anything if you take enough time), we’ve done it on terms where the official subject to recall faces a more difficult standard than the original election, the state gets to shoulder the cost of a special election at a time when our budget is in shambles, and we’ve now seen a world where Larry Flynt is a gubernatorial candidate. It ain’t right.

Besides, the current state of affairs promotes a distasteful level of game-playing, where the Democrats hesitate to advance a candidate lest a viable Democrat tempt voters to vote for the recall. This is not how elections should be, damn it.

Originally published on LiveJournal

My Life Among the Bourgeoisie

Palo Alto seduces with fragrance. Wherever you go, there’s some sort of comfortably affluent smell, insinuating itself into your brainstem to reassure you that the world is fine and clean and good.

It makes one want to shop. Not so much as an orgy of acquisition, but as a way to suck in the reassuring aura of prosperity.

I was in Palo Alto yesterday to run an assortment of errands, and the day was filled with moments that ought to be shared.

To begin with, I found a barber shop that does beard trims. You can’t get anyone to actually shave you anymore, but a few places will do trims. I needed one; my facial hair is vagrant and tends to curl weirdly and give the impression of normal behavior until I touch it, at which point it becomes horribly lopsided. I recommend the trim highly; I didn’t realize such virtuosity with a trimmer was possible.

After the trim, I stopped at the 7-Eleven to get a drink. As I was pondering the coolers, I noticed a pair of administrative-looking women (business clothes, but not too high-powered-looking) standing next to me, with Slurpees in their hands, getting forties out of the beer case. I thought, beer? At ten-thirty in the morning? Then I thought, beer and Slurpees? That’s a weird combo.

They left, I got my soda, I left, and all was revealed. Outside the 7-Eleven, I discovered that in fact, they had not had Slurpees, but empty Slurpee cups. They were opening their malt liquor, putting the can into the Slurpee cup, and putting on a lid and straw. I can only assume they were headed back to work, where they could cheerfully sip their Colt .45 with no one the wiser. I wish I’d thought of that when I still wanted to conceal alcohol in public once in a while. Me and Jamba Juice could have had a whole different kind of relationship.

So then I went to the Stanford shopping center, where I kicked a pigeon. You know how pigeons tend to run away from you in a sort of sassy and insulting manner, like you’re barely worth concerning themselves with? Well, whenever pigeons are particularly lackadaisical about scuttling away from me, I usually take a half-hearted kick at one, just to put the fear of man into ’em. Apparently the Stanford pigeons, lulled by the fumes of bourgeois living, are so lazy that I was able to tag one with the tip of my shoe. It fluttered away, unhurt but offended. You’re edible, buddy; get with the program!

While I was there, I flipped through the Williams-Sonoma book on risotto and reflected that risotto is sort of comfort food for the upwardly mobile. It’s fatty, starchy, and salty, but it’s also a little pricey, it benefits from quality ingredients, it’s sort of labor-intensive, it’s mildly ethnic, and it’s slightly challenging to get right. All the sorts of qualities that Williams-Sonoma customers just aren’t getting from their Kraft macaroni and cheese. (Don’t mind me; I just reread Bobos in Paradise, and the consumption habits of the educated elite are on my mind.)

Then I drove home, and there was a teenager on a skateboard in Atherton wearing a full-length fur coat.

I have no clever analysis for that one.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Crackpot Historical Theory #38

This morning I was musing on the fact that American foreign policy is often overshadowed by an almost visceral fear of an Other, who is considered to be uncivilized, unpredictable, and dangerous, if not outright evil. This Other is usually defined ethnically — the Red Menace, the Yellow Peril, the Muslim Fanatic (yes, two of the three are technically philosophies or religions, but the popular construction of them usually came down to Slavs and Arabs).

It struck me that during the modern era, a major (perhaps the major) way that we have incorporated the Other into the Us is through war. By struggling with an enemy to the utmost, we somehow come to accept them. So WWI brought Germany into the fold (during that war, we called Germans “Huns” and other things which implies a barbarian horde, as opposed to WWII’s “Jerries”. This also explains in part why we interned Japanese and not Germans; Germany had already become part of Us, if a part with which we had serious conflicts). WWII brought in Southern Europe and, to a certain extent, Japan. The Cold War brought in the Russians and other Slavs. Korea and Vietnam didn’t work on this level, I think because those wars were not followed through to the bitter end. On a mythic level, they never ended.

So I wonder if this war we’re in now, a war fought to the collapse of one side unlike Gulf War I, will be sufficient to bring the Arab world into the American Us.

On a side note, this theory also explains why we never get along with the French: we haven’t fought against them since before independence.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Food Review: Mulligan’s

2650 Broadway
Redwood City

It turns out to be very difficult to review a bacon cheeseburger. It’s hard to pick what distinguishes a particular bacon cheeseburger from the many I’ve had in the past. However, I discovered this after I’d already ordered my meal at Mulligan’s, so I’d best make my best effort nonetheless.

They make a good bacon cheeseburger at Mulligan’s. It’s got a good heft to it. The bacon is good and thick. They cook it medium rare when you order it medium-rare. The beef is good quality and well-seasoned. They put mushrooms on mine; I’m not clear on whether that’s standard. Indeed, I wish they hadn’t. The mushrooms added unnecessary moisture to an already juicy burger. The wetness was in fact my only real complaint; I like a juicy burger, but I prefer not to be juggling napkins while I’m eating because my food is oozing onto my hand and I can’t put the burger down because the plate is covered in drippings. I think the mayonnaise was a contributor here as well. I like mayo on burgers sometimes, but mayo’s main value in sandwiches is as a moistener, and this burger was in no need of extra moisture.

I ordered a side salad. It was unexciting — green lettuce with some tomato and cucumber and a watery Italian dressing — but I don’t expect salad perfection from a bar/restaurant with seven TVs of football on.

Jen ordered the French dip. She said it was pretty good; the beef was not at all gristly, and they toasted the bun, which was a nice touch. However, Mulligan’s is one of the places where they put cheese and onion on a French dip, which Jen thinks makes the sandwich bitter and interferes with the true French dip experience.

She got fries as a side; I wish I’d followed her lead. The fries were crispy but not overdone — very tasty. A little salty, perhaps.

Each entry was, as I recall, $7.95, with the side included. On the whole, it was a reasonably good dining experience. There are a lot of places you can get decent bar-style food for eight bucks, but Mulligan’s is as good as most of them, and if the urge strikes while you’re in Redwood City, there’s no reason not to stop in.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Food Review: US Chinese Food

2490 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA

I have a taste for bad Americanized Chinese food. I credit it to the year when a New Haven hole in the wall called Main Garden was my source for several meals every week. As such, I tend to hunt down low-end Chinese food wherever I go, in hopes of finding food both tasty, ample, and dirt, dirt cheap.

US Chinese Food isn’t a bad entry in the field. It’s a cheery, brightly-lit place as steam table cafeteria-style restaurants go; it lacks the plasticized aura of Mr. Chau’s (a local Chinese fast food chain, for those outside the Peninsula area). A combination plate, which includes an entree and either chow mein or fried rice (or half and half), is $3.95. The service is friendly and quick, and the food is pretty fresh for steam table food (they do one thing I haven’t seen before: they wrap half of each large tray in plastic wrap, thus staving off the inevitable drying out).

I had beef broccoli this time out. It was good, but not exceptional. The beef was fine; not delicious, but not rubbery or unappetizing. The broccoli was surprisingly fresh-tasting. Most steam table beef broccoli has been steamed to within an inch of its life, and this entry was actually firm and crunchy. I would have been a bit happier with this development if they’d used less stem; fresh crunchy florets are great, but you want broccoli stem a little more thoroughly cooked. The sauce was OK. Sweet and unassertive.

I got half and half for my starches. The chow mein was good — greasy, but that’s to be expected. My only complaint is that the noodles were a little…institutional. They were square, and a little doughy. Very filling. The fried rice was mediocre; nothing was specifically bad, but there was a flavor to it that just didn’t seem right. (It’s surprising to me that relatively few restaurants around here make good fried rice. Gin Mon back in Belmont made a darn good fried rice, and I’ve been to a couple places up in SF that were good, but a good fried rice seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Safeway used to make a decent pork fried rice, but these days they only seem to have chicken fried rice, which is not as good.)

Jen got the General Chicken (one of the peculiarities of modern Chinese food is that there seems to have been a consensus, at least here in the Bay Area, to drop the whole debate about how to spell Tso/Tsao/Cho/Mo/whatever and just call the spicy-sweet fried chicken bits dish General Chicken. Better than Default Chicken, I guess). The general consensus is that it was pretty good. Not very spicy, and probably would be better if it were fresher; this tends to be generally true of fried chicken dishes in steam table restaurants. Jen agreed that the starches were unexciting; the square noodles seemed to bug her more.

Still, when all is said and done, it’s a decent Chinese lunch for 4 bucks a head, and the portions are quite hefty. They don’t take credit cards, but they have an in-house ATM. They have tables in the store if you want to eat in, and they have parking in back. I suspect I’ll be going back the next time I get the yen for a big mess of cheap Chinese.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Rebuilding America’s Defenses

So this morning I was reading William Safire rant about how France and Turkey will pay, I tell you, pay, and I was reminded of something I intended to note a while ago.

Recently I read “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”, a 2000 defense review which has been cited as the neocons’ blueprint to world domination. It isn’t, really; it’s a right-leaning defense review, and doesn’t really provide any evidence (well, new evidence, anyway) that the neocons are tyrants in the making. It does, however, suggest that Rumsfeld may be a cleverer SOB than I realized.

See, one of the points that the document makes (and, I think, validly) is that our troop disposition is obsolete. A massive buildup in Germany makes sense if you expect to fight in Germany and Poland, or maybe as far south as Czechoslovakia. It doesn’t make sense when most of your recent and projected deployments are in the Balkans and the Middle East; in the post-Cold War world, bases in southeastern Europe would make much more sense.

Now we return to the period just before the war, when, among other appalling lapses of tact, Rumsfeld threatened to “punish Germany” by withdrawing our military presence and the massive economic force it represents.

At the time, it seemed petulant and dumb. It’s stupid to make major national security decisions in order to spite sovereign allied nations because they don’t jump to when the Oval Office says hop. But if you were looking to move those troops southeast in the first place, taking advantage of a diplomatic break to do things which would have caused a diplomatic crisis anyway seems a pretty clever thing to do.

It also makes you think that Bulgaria standing with the US and UK during the Security Council flap might be about more than a matter of principle.

And it makes me wonder what else Rumsfeld might be up to with some of the other seemingly boneheaded things he’s said.

Food Review: Tacos El Grullense

El Camino Real at James
Redwood City

Tacos El Grullense is a small, scuzzy-looking taco stand near the Redwood City Caltrain station. In accordance with the Law of Taco Stands, therefore, it has really good food.

The menu is simple: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas pretty much exhaust the options. Lest you think you’re in some sort of downscale Taco Bell, however, they offer many of the more exotic Mexican meats — sesos, tripas, and the like. (That’s brains and intestines, for the non-Spanish-speaking readers)

Jen got three beef tacos, for a dollar each. They were small, maybe three inches across, but the price was right, and I’m told they were excellent.

I got a torta, for $3.75. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches — not entirely unlike a taco on a grilled roll rather than a tortilla. They’re really good; tortas have become my measure of a Mexican place in the last few years. This may shed light on why I don’t like Chevy’s; they don’t have ’em.

The Tacos El Grullense torta is really, really good. The roll is a nice hefty round number, probably a good six inches across, grilled to just the right point between crispness and chewiness. The onions, lettuce and tomato are nice and fresh. And the beef is superb. Seasoned and grilled to perfection, and chopped coarsely. The salsa is excellent, too; hot enough to leave a low burn in your mouth, but not hot enough to make you stop eating.

Unusually for a torta, it doesn’t come with sour cream or guacamole. I was a little disappointed at first, but it does make the dish healthier, and I didn’t miss the fatty goo when all was said and done. The only real downside is that the beef is chopped small enough that some is prone to fall out; a saucier torta avoids that.

On the whole, however, I was mightily pleased. Good Mexican food for less than five bucks including drinks (sodas are a dollar each), close to home. I’ll definitely be going back to try some different dishes and different meats.

Probably the carnitas, though.

Originally published on LiveJournal

day one

For a while yesterday, I was becoming qualifiedly pro-war. I think that once hostilities have started, the best outcome I can hope for as an internationalist American is a short war with as few casualties as possible and a just peace, and I think that working to put forward that position is more realistic — and ultimately more helpful — than taking a flat anti-war position after there are already troops on the ground.

I’m having trouble sustaining this position while watching news footage of what we’re doing to Baghdad. It looks like half the city is on fire. It’s like the Oakland firestorm and 9/11 rolled into one with anti-aircraft fire and no end in sight. And it’s distinctly different watching these things when I know that the people causing them are acting on my behalf.

Maybe it’ll emerge that everything I’m seeing is a legitimate military target and everyone who’s dying is a combatant, but right now I feel like maybe I should be up in San Francisco pissing off commuters with the rest.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Why Republican Wars Don’t Help the Economy

OK, so I promised by implication that I would eventually explain my theory that only wars run by Democrats can help the US economy. So here we go.

Before I begin, I should note that this is not particularly an argument for or against the war du jour; do not take it as such. Well, I suppose it would be something of a refutation of the argument that invading Iraq will fix the economy, but no one seems to be seriously arguing that.

So the issue is the interplay between taxes, government spending, and deficits. To briefly and simplistically review the macroeconomics: low taxes are good for the economy, because when people have more money, they spend more and invest more. Government spending is good for the economy because it either employs contractors, pays vendors, or puts money into the hands of consumers which they can then spend. Deficits are bad for the economy, because they flood the debt market, raising interest rates and making it harder to raise capital. We have big economic arguments about these things because people can’t agree on which one of the three is best to address in times of trouble. Democrats tend to favor government spending, as that’s what they tend to be big on anyway; Republicans call for tax cuts, as that’s their metier.

Now, war is a boon to the economy (aside from the labor shortage thing I discussed before) mainly as a source of government spending. War materiel needs purchasing; someone needs to be employed to supply it.

When Democrats get involved in a war, they usually have brought on line all the government spending that is politically feasible at that time. A war induces them to put more resources into the one area of government expenditure they tend to underfund, and opens the door to higher levels of spending than would usually be possible. Thus, war allows a Democratic administration to do even more of what they’re good at, economy-booster-wise.

A Republican administration, however, is usually very far from exhausting its possible spending venues when war breaks out, and generally defense is well-funded under Republicans anyway. Extra appropriations are not as great. Essentially, a war compels a Republican administration to start employing a Democratic strategy, but they don’t like it and aren’t good at it. The conflict of policy between small government and big guns leads to deficit spending rather than raised taxes. Debt, unfortunately, is harder to reverse than a tax hike.

At the end of the day, Democrats are just better than Republicans at spending money. If it was possible to win wars by cutting taxes, no doubt Republican wars would all trigger booms.

Originally published on LiveJournal