Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il Is Dead

Kim Jong Il, the totalitarian dictator of North Korea, is dead at the age of 69 (coincidentally, the same age as Usama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi when we shuffled off their mortal coils). 

The only remaining country that still exemplifies the grey-on-grey, brutally repressive, Stalinist regime of the cult of personality is the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea.  (Notice that the adjective ‘Stalinist’ technically removes for the sake of competition the weaker dictatorships of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, and Iran; Iraq is no longer in contention; and there still remains Belarus and several of the ‘Stans’ from the former Soviet empire, but they would all be fighting over second place anyway.)

The dynastic ruler since 1994 when he inherited his position from his father Kim Il Sung, who was uniquely responsible for the Korean War, Kim Jong Il extended his state-wide megalomania to a tragically absurd degree.  Whenever his name was mentioned in print, it had to be in bold type and had to include at least one honorific title.  Kim-watchers have collected some 54 of them, including ‘Dear Leader’ (his most commonly known here in the West), ‘Great Leader’ (typically reserved for his father but used for the last several years), ‘Sun of the Communist Future’, ‘Ever Victorious, Iron-Willed Commander’, ‘The Great Sun of Life’, ‘Glorious General, Who Descended from Heaven’, ‘Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary, Comradely Love’, and one of my favourites, ‘Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have’.

The official state hagiographies include such items as his birth being on Mount Paekdu, the highest point in Korea (as opposed to near Khabarovsk in 1941, where his father was a Soviet battalion commander at the time) and was accompanied by an announcement by a swallow, a double rainbow, and the appearance of a new star in the heavens.  He began to walk at three weeks and speak at eight weeks.  He would frequently lecture, correct and criticise his teachers (though in actuality much of his early education was in China, and he spent some time at the University of Malta learning foreign languages under the protection of the Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, also a loyal friend of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi).  Other claims include his invention of the hamburger, playing golf with a score of 38 under par in his first attempt (with 11 holes-in-one) before becoming bored of it, and bowling a perfect score of 300 his first time out.  And he had no need to defecate.

This official worship of the North Korean leader (like his father before him) is exemplified by video scenes of the shock expressed by the people at his passing, as provided here by Reuters.  I am first struck by several scenes being caught by film crews who had the extreme good fortune of being in place to observe the reactions of the people when they were first told of the news.  Another scene shows how mourners express their grief while lined up in formation before one of Kim’s shrines (if this were Israel they would probably rend their garments in unison), followed by the commentator, his voice devoid of whimsy, shifting to a drama academy (the actor here is actually quite impressive, but I was focused on the gentleman behind him, in a morbidly fascinating state of catatonia).  It strains the limits of irony to consider how all this occurs in a political philosophy that is officially atheist.

This unalloyed satisfaction at the passing of one of the world’s most pathological dictators is tempered by the facts surrounding the extreme deterioration of the country, which had received necessary outside aid from the Communist world to sustain the dictatorship until the collapse of the Soviet empire and the change of the Chinese economy.  A series of massive floods “of biblical proportions” devastated the country in the mid-1990s, but the inability of the North to function on its own meant that it has never been able to recover.  Estimates are that up to 3.5 million of 22 million people have starved as a result, with the national radio broadcasting recipes for cooking grass, if any can be still found on the increasingly barren landscape, also stripped of trees for fuel.  A satellite photo of the Korean peninsula is highly illustrative of the comparison between the North and South, with only the capitol of Pyongyang barely showing up in an economically Stygian darkness.

The only part of the society that still functions to any degree of success is the military.  Under Kim’s policy of ‘Songun’, or ‘military first’, it receives adequate rations from foreign aid, and this has helped the regime keep its protector in primary place.  In turn, North Korea has plowed whatever economic capability it has left into developing a nuclear weapons capability.  This still primitive yet adequate enough industry, coupled with cooperation with such countries as Pakistan and Iran, is still working on a missile delivery system, but this is still enough to blackmail the outside world into providing more aid to support the regime.  In exchange for promises to curtail its nuclear power (and weapons-grade nuclear material enhancement) industry, in 1995 President Clinton agreed to supply crude oil to the North, paid for out of the US defense budget, as reported by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.  Later, President George W Bush sought to cut back on aid in an effort to effect some control over negotiations in the Chinese-brokered ‘six party talks’ but was unsuccessful.  The North was at the same time building a nuclear reactor in Syria, and “not for peaceful purposes”, until it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007.  In contrast, the Obama administration has removed the DPRK from the list of "specially designated countries" that have shown a tendency to "promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members".

Kim Jong Il’s death sees that his chosen successor of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, takes place without the long period of preparation that was planned.  The newest Kim is not solidified into place, and it is thought that he shares power with his uncle (Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law) Chang Sung Taek, who serves as either regent and/or competitor, as well as his aunt (Kim Jong Il's sister, Chang's wife) Kim Kyong Hui, both of whom having done penance about ten years ago by being politically ostracised but now brought home in recent years.  Nevertheless, the North can still buy time and play the outside world to its satisfaction, realising that the American public is weary, whether for good or ill, of large military efforts in this latest war with Islamic Supremacists, and the irony is not lost on the fact that Kim Jong Il’s death coincides with the last American soldier departing from Iraq.  The DPRK regime knows that Obama in particular will avoid confrontation at any cost.  China is the North’s closest ally (if such a term can be used) but it is fearful of the enormous dislocation that a North Korean collapse will entail.  There is a large population of ethnic Koreans in Manchuria across the border from Korea, and Chinese culture regards them in somewhat the same light that some here in the West still regard the Jews (or perhaps Gypsies might be a better model) and does not relish a flood of starving Korean refugees across the Yalu River.  South Korea has been closely studying the German reunification as a model since it started in 1989, but a North Korean collapse would be expected to be a problem several magnitudes greater.

Yet we still expect to gut the US military budget in a scramble for another amorphous 'peace dividend' from cutting back our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to help pay for massive stimulus inputs into our economy from which the military did not benefit.  This is still a very dangerous world indeed, and we still need to contend with a belligerent Iran, a tenuous Pakistan, and the possible collapse of the Euro, just to name a few, in addition to the problem of North Korea.  We are whistling past the graveyard if we continue to ignore these very real possibilities.

[Full disclosure: I trained with a mobile unit of the South Korean (Republic of Korea/ROK) Army in-country many years ago, and my last foreign assignment was as a US 7th Fleet liaison to the ROK Marines.]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Obama at Osawatomie: Pale Comparison

The stage was set at Osawatomie, Kansas last week for a presidential address on the economy, but not just any address.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, during a star gig on “Meet The Press” in late November, had dutifully cast the appeal for Obama to channel the Progressive side of Theodore Roosevelt and mirabile dictu, the White House produced the speech, wrestled the enormous logistic requirements into place, notified the usual suspects in the MSM, and set the stage for this major presidential address in a small remote town of 4400, all in the space of a week.  Even the most credulous among us would be forgiven of suspecting that Doris was a shill to spread the Word.

The connection of the great TR to the small town is its historical value as the site of his “New Nationalism” speech delivered in 1910 (in case the media didn’t catch on to the connection, the White House pumped sunshine into any outlet available).  Obama, with his handlers and handmaidens, thus continue the deliberate habit of trying to link him to other presidents of no little accomplishment, such as Garry Wills worshipful attempt to link him to Lincoln, or the cover story in Time equating him to FDR, or his attempt to replicate the campaign of Truman against a ‘Do-Nothing Congress’ (even one that for the first two years was entirely run by Democrats).

And others are cheerleaders and sheepherders, such as Robert Reich in his declaration that this is Obama’s “most important economic speech of his presidency” and, in case you don’t catch on by the end of the article, “It lays out the basis for what could be the platform Obama will run on in 2012 – increasing taxes on the rich, investing in the rest us [sic], requiring corporations and Wall Street banks that reap benefits from being in America create [sic] good jobs for Americans, and protecting our democracy from being corrupted by money – a new New Nationalism.”  This is in line as a corollary to the praises of the Sophisticati about the "greatest race speech ever": Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech in March 2008.  (Here we can apply the Rule of the Broadway Musical -- if you are singing the tunes you heard the night before when showering the next morning, the show is a hit.  Can anyone recite at will a line from the speech?  There is nothing remotely approaching anything that Martin Luther King said.)  These sycophants at least provide fodder for footnotes in the next edition of Frank J Fleming's satire of Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything.

Obama’s run in 2008 was a transcendent appeal to ‘hope and change’, and he ran an emotional appeal to voters with such gauzy declarations as “We are the people we have been waiting for” – whatever that means – as well as promises that oceans would recede and we would care for the sick (comments delivered with “profound humility”).  He was able to steamroll the Republicans, and the Clinton Democrats too, of course, with only occasional slips, like wanting to “fundamentally transform America”.  (Really?  Are we that bad?)  The voters now have seen the change that he has wrought, and most particularly the change that he hasn’t, like failing in improving the economy or even mitigating its further fall.  After three years, even the most die-hard of his apologists recognise that blaming George W Bush for everything only goes so far, and we are past even that.  Other promises he simply had to abandon as quickly as possible, like a “net spending cut”.  But now he shifts into the offensive.

Obama’s forced connection to Teddy Roosevelt tries to play to what remains of the popular notion of the hero of San Juan Hill and his presidency, but it is instead to a snapshot of a different period, when he had moved on from the days of “If an American is to amount to anything he must rely upon himself, and not upon the State; he must take pride in his own work, instead of sitting idle to envy the luck of others.”  Colonel Roosevelt (as he preferred to be called then) had retired in 1909 from his time as President but chaffed at the difficulties of his successor, William Howard Taft.  The Osawatomie speech was Roosevelt’s most radical, proclaiming his eventual shift from the Republicans of the time to the Progressive (‘Bull Moose’) Party, and Roosevelt intoned its purpose: “To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”  (Left unsaid is the fact that by the election of 1912, Teddy was already souring on the pace and direction of the Progressive Party.)  Obama’s heavy-handed symbolism in his oration relies on continuing to forge a philosophical link from this speech to the Occupy Wall Street movement without having to say as much, all connected to a long run-up to battle the expected Republican challenger in 2012 – Mitt Romney, rich businessman.  Thus, this is the opening salvo of the Obama campaign, and introduces his campaign themes.  (One other historical link for which I pray is that Roosevelt – who I genuinely admire even considering these otherwise unique political circumstances – went on to lose the next election while tearing apart his own party.)

Obama’s speech is a compilation of liberal bromides, one after another, listed out in serial severity after the predictable and familiar collection of his standard shtick of introductory comments.  One departure was a slip at the very beginning (perhaps he was distracted from his teleprompter): “Well, it is great to be back in the state of Tex – (laughter) – state of Kansas.”  (Mr President, is that the 56th or 57th state?)  If Rick Perry had said that, it would still be the topic of conversation throughout the media.  But then that’s to be expected.

For example, there is one particularly telling passage: “I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own.  I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.”  Again, noble sounding words, but do we truly negate individualism in favour of the collective approach?  Who picks the team?  What constitutes a fair shot?  How much is a fair share, and for whom?  What are the rules, and who writes them?  This is one and the same with the old phrase of ‘that guy is a real team player’.  Depending on who says it, it easily translates into ‘he does exactly what I tell him to do’. 

Michael Barone explains it well as always:

Democrats like to think of themselves as the party of smart people. And over the last four years we have heard countless encomiums, and not just from Democrats, of the intellect and perceptiveness of Barack Obama. But a reading of the text of Obama’s December 6 speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, billed as one of his big speeches of the year, shows him to be something like the opposite.
Even by the standards of campaign rhetoric, this is a shockingly shoddy piece of work. You can start with his intellectually indefensible caricature of Republican philosophy: “We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” Or his simple factual inaccuracy: “The wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century.” Or his infantile economic analysis, blaming job losses on the invention of the automated teller machine (they’ve been around for more than four decades, Mr. President, and we’ve had lots of job growth during that time) and the Internet.
Obama carries on this blithe indifference to facts, such as when he is dismissive of a market economy:
Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
But it did work. It worked under Coolidge, it worked under Kennedy, it worked under Reagan and Bush the younger.  At the state level, it has worked there too, like under Pataki in New York and Perry in Texas.  The periods of reduction of taxes necessitated turn-around times that were tough, and that is where Obama has his focus, but the freedom of the market catches on and accelerates to the better, until it is acted upon by an outside force (which is the case in any economy), such as the New Deal or the recent bursting of the housing bubble.

Democrats continue to bemoan the ‘Crony Capitalism’ of Wall Street, even though the Democrats receive the lion’s share of political contributions from the major ‘special interests’ such as unions.  The direct influence of the White House and the Democrats into such failed enterprises as Solyndra, despite the Cassandra protests within the administration, yields to my mind a more likely term of Crony Socialism.  Dr Krauthammer weighs in as well:

A country spending twice as much per capita on education as it did in 1970 with zero effect on test scores is not underinvesting in education. It’s mis-investing. As for federally directed spending on innovation – like Solyndra? Ethanol? The preposterously subsidized, flammable Chevy Volt?
Our current economic distress is attributable to myriad causes: globalization, expensive high-tech medicine, a huge debt burden, a burst housing bubble largely driven by precisely the egalitarian impulse that Obama is promoting (government aggressively pushing “affordable housing” that turned out to be disastrously unaffordable), an aging population straining the social safety net. Yes, growing inequality is a problem throughout the Western world. But Obama’s pretense that it is the root cause of this sick economy is ridiculous. . . .
In Kansas, Obama lamented that millions “are now forced to take their children to food banks.” You have to admire the audacity. That’s the kind of damning observation the opposition brings up when you’ve been in office three years. Yet Obama summoned it to make the case for his reelection!
Why? Because, you see, he bears no responsibility for the current economic distress. It’s the rich. And, like Horatius at the bridge, Obama stands with the American masses against the soulless plutocrats.
This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez.
Obama conveniently ignores some salient differences between the Progressives of Roosevelt’s era and the self-titled Progressives of today, and academics aren’t leaping for a chance to explain.  Among other things, Roosevelt and his followers were exceptionally pro-American (as in American Exceptionalism), supportive of the military and the family, strict constructionalists in both the Congress and the courts, stewards of the environment to our benefit, in favour of an active foreign policy, and pro-gun ownership.  Their calls then for government intervention into Wall Street were based on the fact that there were no real controls at all at the time, nor was there an income tax or any safety net for the poor.

One can use another historical tie to Osawatomie other than the attempt to link Obama to Theodore Roosevelt: it was also the site of a pre-Civil War battle in 'Bleeding Kansas', involving John Brown.  This is the same John Brown who would kill his opponents by hacking them to death with a broadsword.  This forced comparison to TR would seem to me to be a verbal equivalent directed against the audience.

Obama is lining up his forces for the attack that we know is coming.  He cannot run on his record nor can he run on his policies.  You hear nothing of them in his campaign ads, nor will you.

That’s all he has.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Richmond Tea Party Audit is Whistleblower Response by City Bureaucrats

The Tea Party of Richmond, Virginia has claimed that a city audit of the group is a case of harassment, after the Tea party claimed unfair treatment in contrast to Occupy Richmond demonstrations.

The Tea Party has recently taken the city to task by filing an invoice for some $8500, which constitutes a return payment of the various permits and fees that the city charged for a series of annual one-day rallies over the last three years.   Tea Party spokesman Colleen Owens cited the fact that the Occupy Richmond group had been camping out in the same park for almost two weeks, until cleared out on 31 October, without being charged any fees at all.  In fact, the city has provided sanitation and other services to the protestors at taxpayers’ expense.

The occupation costs the city $17,640, primarily for police and public works overtime costs, according to a city accounting based on a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the AP.
The costs did not include a subsequent occupation on the lawn of the mayor’s neighbor.
Owens and others have also cited the clear preference by some mayors and city officials for the Occupation movement, including supportive speeches given by Richmond mayor Dwight Jones at the Occupy site in Kanawah Plaza, and statements that he supports the movement since he is a product of the civil rights era.  Other examples of unfair treatment by mayors and city officials have been shown by statements of political solidarity in places such as Portland and Eugene in Oregon and Los Angeles.

After the city refused to pay the invoice, it then called for a tax audit of the local Tea Party, as the group had not paid “excise taxes for admissions, lodging, and meals”.  Owens said the audit was in retaliation for publicity about the city’s double standard, though a city spokesman claimed that the audit was a mere coincidence, since other groups have received the same audit.  Owens also stated that the city office already knew that the Tea Party does not generate any revenue from admissions, lodging, and meals, and was exempt from the requirements.  Owens’ statement said in part: “This audit is an obvious attempt to intimidate and harass us for standing up against the unfair treatment and discrimination against our Tea Party.”

What particularly strikes me is the brazen arrogance of the city bureaucrats, with the attitude that they can get away with such parochial political discrimination.