Sunday, February 26, 2006

Self-gratification (part whatever)

MAOTE: Oh, we're doing this self-interview thing again?

ME: Seem to be. Why not? Are you objectively pro-terrorism or something?

MAOTE: No, dude, it's just, at a time when your comment response is at an all time ebb and you can't even get someone to yell at you, much less think about anything you say seriously over in Glenn Greenwald's comment threads, you're going back to this? As I recollect, this posting technique has been called everything from 'massively egotistical' to 'outright and uneasily masturbatory' by those who don't like you much...

ME: They're just jealous they didn't think of it first.

MAOTE: Dude, you didn't think of it either, you totally stole it from THE COMMITMENTS.

ME: Whatever. Ask me some leading questions, monkey boy.

MAOTE: Yeah, okay, okay... so, what's been going on lately in your real life? Anything cool?

ME: Cool? Ahhh... hmm. Well, you know my old gaming buddy from up North, Nate, just visited last week for four or five days...

MAOTE: The one with all the emailed trash talk about how nobody could ever beat him in SCRABBLE?

ME: Yeah, among other things.

MAOTE: So, did you beat him at Scrabble?

ME: We played him twice. In the first game, SuperGirlfriend like hammered him by 60 points. In the second game, I totally crushed him.

MAOTE: Totally crushed him?

ME: Oh, absolutely.

MAOTE: By how many points?

ME: Well... it doesn't really matter how many points, what's important is, I destroyed him. See, my opening move, I played my entire tray with 'garbled', which was good for 27 points plus the 50 point bonus. So, BOOM!, I was off at supersonic speed.

MAOTE: Man, that's a great start for Scrabble. I'll bet he never managed to make that up.

ME: Well, he played out his entire tray in his following move and he had a 'z' so he did make it up a bit. In fact, he led slightly for most of the game, by a few points.

MAOTE: But then...

ME: He got stuck with a 'q' at the end of the game and lost a lot of points. He kept trying to bluff me in his closing turn, putting out ridiculous crap like 'Quie' and 'Qua' and like that, huffing that 'well, he KNEW that was in the dictionary', but it's like, there aren't any more letters in the bag and I've played out everything I had, so it's his last turn, of course I'm going to challenge anything he puts down! And he had nothin'. So he had to take off the 'q' and 'u' points and that gave me the edge.

MAOTE: So you crushed him by what, ten, 12 points?

ME: Okay, 3 points, but still, which column did it end up in for me? Thrill Of Victory, or Agony of Defeat? That's what I say.

MAOTE: I see your point, but you know you totally date yourself with references like that, right?

ME: Shut up. I kicked his ass. I kicked his ass over and over again at HeroClix, too.

MAOTE: Which he'd never played before, and anyway, you will only play by your own House Rules, so, yeah, I'd think you'd have an advantage there.

ME: Bite me. Let's see, what else is going on... SuperAdorable Kid has a bad cough and a fever, so SuperGirlfriend and I are a little stressed out over that. I'm getting hired on permanent at this horrible temp assignment...

MAOTE: The one where you help people out with their Flexible Spending Accounts?

ME: Yeah. I hate those people.

MAOTE: Just because they're all affluent haters who are trying to cheat on their taxes?

ME: Not all of them, but... yeah... look. I got a call from this woman in California who works for one of our major corporate clients. She had put $5000 aside... the legal annual maximum... for dependent care, and she'd never set up an account before, and she wanted to know how she got the money back.

MAOTE: Typical call?

ME: Well, we get that a lot, people who are using an FSA for the first time and aren't sure how they go about it... which strikes me as insane, or at least, pretty foolish, that they'd get into this kind of deal in the first place without fully understanding what they are doing, and then wait until they've had all the money taken out of their paycheck for a year before they try to get some straight answers. But, anyway, I told her about how she'd fill out a claim form and send in her day care receipts, and she was all like 'well, my childcare provider doesn't give receipts, it's a private individual', and I said "okay, that's fine, just have your provider sign the affidavit regarding how much they charged you" and she was like sounding all puzzled now, but then she said "so, okay, we just put down our expenses for taking care of the children while I'm at work, and I have my husband sign it..."

MAOTE: Whoa. Her husband is staying home and watching the kids?

ME: Yeah. It's very MR. MOM, I guess. Which is cool and all, but...

MAOTE: Wait. The dependent care FSA... that's for working parents who have to pay for daycare, right? I mean... if one of the parents isn't working, and is staying home to take care of the kids...

ME: Then they don't qualify, right. I mean, my head was spinning. I've never had a call like that before. So I finally understand what she's saying, and I'm like "uh, well, this is just for working parents who have to pay for daycare... if your husband... you know, one of the parents in the household... is staying home to take care of your kids, then that doesn't qualify."

MAOTE: And she took that well?

ME: Well, if by 'she took that well' you mean 'she went off like a minor character bitten by a RAGE infected monkey in 28 DAYS LATER', yeah, she took it well. She started ranting and screaming about how they'd set this money aside because she and her husband were both supposed to be working but she'd gotten a much better job offer unexpectedly so he'd stayed home instead and this was HER money and there was no way I was just going to keep it and she wasn't going to accept that there was no way to get it back...

MAOTE: Five thousand bucks. ::whistles:: Man, that's gotta hurt.

ME: Yeah, but you know, she's a moron. I mean, well, she's a textbook fool, anyway... she gets into this thing without really knowing what she's doing, doesn't pay any attention to it all year, makes decisions that will completely screw her, and then goes off on me when she finds out the consequences of her own appallingly idiotic choices...

MAOTE: Did she seem, like, stupid?

ME: No, she was clearly intelligent, and given who she worked for and her general attitude of 'you can't do this to me, it is very important that I get my way in this and it is inevitable that eventually you will capitulate to my whims', she must have been in management or working on an executive level. But she didn't have the vaguest clue what she'd done.

MAOTE: Let me get this straight. They'd figured they would need daycare, so they set aside all the money they could to be reimbursed for it.

ME: $5,000, the legal maximum per year the IRS allows you to deduct from your taxes for daycare expenses, if you are a working parent. Yeah.

MAOTE: So then she gets a MUCH better job than anyone expected, and hubby decides to give up HIS job and just stay home and take care of the kids...

ME: An admirable decision. I wish more parents could afford to have one of them stay home and raise their kids, instead of sending them off to untrained, mostly unlicensed, semi professional strangers for most of every weekday.

MAOTE: Well... at that point, was she still locked into the program, or...?

ME: No, you can always go to your HR department and explain circumstances like that, and they will usually let you out of the FSA. I imagine she didn't even think about it, or, if she did, she just figured 'what the hell, we can use the tax deduction' and just stuck with it... which is another indication of how much money she must have been making. These people who set aside $5,000 out of their salary for day care, and another $5,000 for health care....


ME: Yeah. They do that, and then they file one claim a year, usually in late November or December, to clean the accounts out, so they can go on vacation or Christmas shop with the money. These people are clearly making a great deal more money than I ever will, and they mostly look at an FSA as a way for them to knock their reportable income down, maybe get into a lower tax bracket.

MAOTE: So, she really went off on you?

ME: Yeah. It was like, there was just this arrogant disbelief, coupled with absolute outrage, that I wasn't helping her find some way around the rules so she could get the money back. Like I was some obstinate bank teller trying to keep her from cleaning out a savings account with some irritating rules technicality. She was going "okay, look, this is my money, I put it in this account for a specific reason and my circumstances changed, I understand that, but there is no way I'm losing this money because of that, that is ridiculous, now tell me what I have to do to get it back".

MAOTE: And there was nothing...?

ME: Nothing legal. She and her husband hadn't paid out anything for daycare over the last year. They had no legitimate expenses that could be reimbursed from the account. She'd already admitted that to me. They did not qualify for the tax break, and the money they had set aside was going to be forfeit. It's like, you put aside $5,000 a year for your commuter expenses, because you know you always spend at least that much taking the train to and from work every year. Fine. But then, at the start of the year, your company says "guess what, we're going to let you work from home from now on". Which is great, everybody wants to work from home, you're fine with that... but either you never think about the commuter account, paying no attention to the walloping deduction that shows on every pay stub...

MAOTE: That seems unlikely.

ME: Yeah, it does, or, more likely, you're aware of it, kind of, in the background, but you're thinking "well, at the end of the year I'll just file a claim and get it back and I could sure use the tax break anyway".

MAOTE: But at the end of the year, you're looking at the claim form and it's dawning on you that, hmmm, maybe, if you sign this the way it is, someone out there could interpret that as tax fraud...

ME: Yeah. Or, at the very least, you're thinking as you read this over 'gee, this doesn't fit my circumstances, I don't have any receipts or ticket stubs or anything, hmmm, there must be a way around this'. So you call your benefits administrator and say 'hey, here's the deal, so how can I do this, can I just claim, like, my normal driving expenses to the store or to church or to my mother's place on Sunday, I mean, that's basically the same thing, right, or, if it's not, what can I claim, because I have all this money in the account and it's my money, I earned it, so what do I do to get it back'...

MAOTE: And this snotty guy on the phone says "Well, you didn't have any commuter expenses because you didn't commute to work all year, so you can't get the money back."

ME: There you go.

MAOTE: And she went ballistic?

ME: She MIRVed on re-entry. She was going to take out half a dozen cities the way she was going off. "This is my money I earned this money there is no way I'm losing this money you cannot keep my money now tell me how I get it back!" She got pretty shrill.

MAOTE: Was there anything she could have done?

ME: She could have forged the claim form. We'll pay out a dependent care claim without documentation if the provider signs the affidavit on it stating that they attest under penalties of perjury that they provided daycare services on the dates stated above and charged the amounts stated above, etc, etc. But we need the provider's Tax ID number, if they are a professional day care, or their Social Security number, if they are a private individual. So it's trackable, and the IRS really does monitor and audit people who have these kinds of accounts, so it's very risky to do that... and she had to know that. She didn't want that kind of grief. What she wanted was for me to tell her the back up plan that she was sure must be out there for people like her... people who put the money aside into the FSA, but then don't actually have the FSA. She was sure that there must be a way for her to just withdraw the money with no penalty. She simply took it for granted that, yeah, she'd been told it was a use it or lose it account, but this was $5,000 of her money, and nobody was actually going to make her forfeit it just because, you know, she'd made a little mistake...

MAOTE: But...

ME: They will. Oh my God. Are you kidding? Employers love idiots like her. Five thousand smackers in that account she couldn't pull out because she had no reimbursable expenses? Five thousand bucks that is forfeit to the company? Shit, they probably gave her a framed certificate for being Dimwit of the Year.

MAOTE: And you get a lot of calls like that?

ME: Oh yeah, especially towards the close of the claim year. I got a call this last week from a guy who was all outraged because we hadn't paid his claim for some expensive prescriptions. So I check in our claims processing system and it got turned down for 'this requires a doctor's letter of medical necessity'. So I ask him, 'what are you trying to claim for'. And he will not tell me what the prescription is for, he just keeps repeating "it is for a legitimate prescription medication" and finally I pull up the original claim in our imaging system and I'm like "Okay, this is for Rogaine, dude". And he's going "Well, it's a legitimate prescription medication!"

MAOTE: He can't get reimbursed for Rogaine?

ME: Hell, no, not any more than you can get reimbursed for a boob job. It's a cosmetic product; the IRS is not going to give you a tax break because chicks won't date you when you're bald. Don't be stupid.

MAOTE: Did you tell him that?

ME: I wish to Christ I could. We have to be very pleasant and very professional with these people, and a lot of them just need a shot of plain old fashioned straight talking, like, "Bitch, you set aside a lot of money for daycare and then you didn't spend any money on day care, so shut the fuck up" or, "Look, buddy, the IRS doesn't care if you're a Baldo Calrissian and you can't get any trim because of it."

MAOTE: So what did you tell him?

ME: I told him that if he could get his doctor to write a letter of medical necessity for the product, then we could reimburse for it.

MAOTE: Would that have worked?

ME: Absolutely, but there isn't a doctor on the planet, I mean, not even Dr. Nick Riviera would write an lmn for Rogaine. What is he going to put in it? "My patient the bald motherfucker here needs to take Rogaine or the cute young thang who answers the phone at his advertising firm won't blow him in the back seat of his Lotus any more?" Please. And he knew it, too; the minute I said that, he was like "Well, I can't get that." But then he's off to the next thing.

MAOTE: Which is?

ME: "Well, I never had any trouble getting this reimbursed before, I've had the flex spending account for years and you've always reimbursed me for this before, when did this change?"

MAOTE: And you told him...?

ME: This is another one of those where we can't say what we long to say, which is "Hey, Mr. Wax On-Wax Off, nobody here, not even the Latvian guy who puts the lunch trays through the steam sterilizer down in the cafeteria, gives a shit how many times some idiot paid your non-reimbursable cosmetic snake oil prescription before this. That was then, this is now. It's not reimbursable without a letter of medical necessity. Get one or shut the hell up."

MAOTE: But you found a way to express that to him.

ME: Yeah, I said it more nicely. And then he's off to, you know, his last point, which is "well, this is a huge problem then, because this has always been reimbursed before and I spend a lot of money on this product and I set aside a large amount of money to be reimbursed and I need to get this money back".

MAOTE: Uh huh. So, again... he's screwed...

ME: Yeah, and he knew it. Okay? He knew what was going on, or he wouldn't have been so coy about telling me it was Rogaine. He knows this stuff isn't reimbursable, he knows that, assuming we actually have paid for it in the past, he's been getting over and screwing the system, he knows that this does not actually qualify for tax credit. There isn't an affluent bald guy on the planet who hasn't looked into whether or not they can get a deduction for Rogaine, and who hasn't been told 'no, it's not eligible'. And they buy it anyway, because, indeed, the hot receptionist at the office absolutely will not swab your pipes for you if you look like Jason Alexander but aren't on TV. But somehow, they want their vanity to be tax deductible, and, well, it just isn't. And he knows it isn't, and he's been getting away with it, and now he's screwed.

MAOTE: But this is a huge problem, and you have to do something about it.

ME: Oh, yeah. And, you know, I wrote a long entry a while back about the Somebody Else's Problem Syndrome, and how the world would be a better place if we didn't insist on trying to see everything that way, but instead tried to help people out when we could. But things like this, when people made a really moronic mistake, and they know it, and I know it, and they know I know it, and the consequences of their mistake aren't life threatening or even particularly damaging, it's just, you know, a little humiliating for them to have to accept they're going to lose this money... honestly, I have no sympathy. It is not my problem, it is their problem. And it's not up to me to solve it for them, there really isn't any way to solve it for them.

MAOTE: Well, you could process a claim for them and send the money back.

ME: Sure. Without adequate documentation? Yeah, I could. And I would probably get away with it, since we are so badly organized where I work and no one has time to go through every account and check everything we do, and they only really catch mistakes if someone complains about something later, and who's going to complain that you helped them get their money back when they know they didn't deserve it?

MAOTE: But you won't, because...?

ME: Several reasons. First, I could get caught and I might get disciplined, or even fired. I don't need that, I don't know these people. If I'm going to risk that for someone, it needs to be for someone I genuinely think is getting screwed unfairly by the system. If you have an autistic kid and our claims department won't sign off on releasing $5,000 for some unconventional therapy, yeah, I'm your guy. I'll get that claim reprocessed for you. I've done that for people in that specific circumstance in the past. And I've helped out other people who were being screwed by technicalities in the system that I didn't think were right.

MAOTE: So, it's essentially just, who kisses your ass and who doesn't, that you make these decisions based on?

ME: Well, I won't deny that that's part of it... you come at me with a big Leanna Helmsley "It Is Very Very Important That My Will Not Be Thwarted In The Most Minor Manner" attitude and you'll be lucky if I tell you your account balance. But that's actually just a small part of it. I've had participants start out screaming at me, and found out eventually that I'm the fourth person they've talked to that day who isn't helping them, and they have a kid in the hospital, or their husband just died and they don't know how to deal with it or get access to his account, or something, and I'll still help them. But here's the most important thing -- the IRS does audit these accounts. Are you kidding me? Five thousand, maybe ten thousand tax free dollars? And if the IRS audits you, your paperwork better be in order. I'm not doing anyone any favors by releasing their money to them if they don't have a legitimate claim... they'd better have a pretty overwhelming need for me to do that.

MAOTE: So these people with the autistic kid... aren't you screwing them, if they get audited?

ME: No, in those cases it's usually just, they got a letter of medical necessity for the procedure, or the special school tuition, and it is reimbursable, but the claims department is dicking around with vague technicalities in the wording of the lmn. At least, that's what it was in both cases I can think of... almost literally, in one case, an 'i' hadn't been dotted and a 't' hadn't been crossed. But you're talking to these people on the phone and they are in agony. I mean, they have an autistic kid, and they are never going to have a spare cent to spend on anything else in their lives, ever... and we're giving them shit about their FSA? They're jumping through all the hoops, getting the paperwork in, and these are the people that the tax break is actually meant to help. I mean, this is one of those cases where I really do think, it's their money, let's get it back to them.

MAOTE: But the ones who are pretty obviously just trying to screw the system? And who won't even kiss your ass while they do it?

ME: Fuck them. And the clueless ones who sign up for the FSA without knowing what they're doing. Or the ones who make really idiotic mistakes with their claim forms, like forgetting to sign it, and then get pissy with me over it. "Well, can't you just sign it for me right now? You're talking to me on the phone." And when you say no, they have to sign the form themselves and send it in, then they get all aggrieved and sulky and say "Okay, well how long is this going to take now, we don't start all over again, do we?" and, yes, of course we start all over again, but guess what, jerk off, I didn't make you forget to sign your claim form. So shut the fuck up.

MAOTE: So they are hiring you permanently to take calls like this all the time?

ME: Yeah, that's the plan.

MAOTE: Okay. So... how did it eventually go with the daycare bitch, and the Rogaine cretin?

ME: Oh, they eventually demanded to speak to a supervisor.

MAOTE: So you transferred them...?

ME: When I have especially assholey customers on the line, and they ask to speak to a supervisor, I look around and see who is at their desk, and who isn't. And then I transfer the jerk I'm talking to over to whichever supervisor isn't at their desk right that minute, so they go into voicemail.

MAOTE: Niiiiiiice.

ME: Yeah, I like it.

MAOTE: You realize Gandalf is reading this right now and fuming about how that's really unprofessional and wrong and you're the reason why we outsource all our call center jobs and the inevitable crash of American civilization is all your fault.

ME: I hope the fucker has an FSA and I hope to GOD he calls me sometime. I'm sure he's the kind of dipshit who can't fill out his claim form right.

MAOTE: Maybe he's the Rogaine guy.

ME: Could be, I guess. He strikes me as the type who would go prematurely bald and then not be able to deal with it. But you know what's really pissing him off is that he knows he can't even post a comment to this entry about this, because I won't let it through.

MAOTE: Yeah, you've got that big vein throbbing in his forehead right now, no doubt.

ME: Well, I hope he doesn't stroke out or anything, I don't need the bad karma.

MAOTE: Speaking of Gandalf... the comment moderation seems to have had a really chilling effect on the discussion levels here. Does that bother you?

ME: I don't know that it's had that much of an effect. I still have the same commenters; occasionally, I even have someone new show up. It seems to be pretty much business as usual... I just have the kind of control over the threads that keeps trolls from even bothering to make an effort. That's fine with me. It's not like I'd be getting Glenn Greenwald type responses if I killed the comment moderation. And I do like the control. So, you know... honestly, I think he did me a favor, making me put it back up.

MAOTE: And do you find the general lack of attention you get over here frustrating?

ME: Oh, sure. It bothers me sometimes. But there are a lot of people out there who write well and get little attention. I'm sure they all think the same thing I do... 'man, if Digby or the Poor Man or Kevin Drum or Brad DeLong posted exactly the same thing that I just posted, people would be linking to it from all over the world and they'd get awards and 400 comments'. And I think, just like everyone else, that if I could just get Glenn Greenwald or Atrios or even John Rogers to plug my blog a little, I'd get some monster traffic'. And sure, it's all about attention; I'd like a little more of it... especially since, yes, I really do think my stuff is as well written and as interesting and entertaining as the stuff on a lot of those better known blogs. But, ultimately... I write for me, and if I have a few other readers out there who like my stuff, that's fine, too.

MAOTE: Why does what you just said strike me as a tremendous rationalization?

ME: See "BIG CHILL, Jeff Goldblum dialogue".

MAOTE: Man, he did get all the good dialogue in that movie, didn't he?

ME: Well, William Hurt got some good lines, too. "You're so linear. Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you."

MAOTE: Yeah. The self centered asshole and the nutless wonder got all the good lines.

ME: The nutless wonder wound up with Meg Tilly, too. What kind of message does this send to the young impressionable males in the audience? Get your balls shot off and push drugs, and you too can end up with the sexually voracious Asian hottie? It's madness.

MAOTE: Still, it was Kevin Costner's greatest movie ever.

ME: Well, yeah. Although I do like NO WAY OUT.

MAOTE: You just like the scene where Sean Young takes her fur coat off in the hallway.

ME: It's a good scene, but, no, I like a lot of stuff about that movie... great performances from Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton, Howard Duff, George Dzunda... even Sean Young showed us some acting chops, although her character was torturously stupid. Jason Bernard, Fred Dalton Thompson... it's all good. And it's one of the very few movies I've seen as an adult that had a vital plot twist in it I genuinely did not see coming three reels away.

MAOTE: It's pretty homophobic, though.

ME: Yeah... it's a Red baiting, 'oh the Commies are evil' flick, too. Still, it's an excellent thriller and I enjoy it... it's the only good thing Roger Donaldson has ever directed.

MAOTE: And on that, I think breakfast is ready, so...

ME: Yeah, screw this noise.

MAOTE: Which pretty much sums up how your entire audience feels about these entries, I'm sure.

ME: Yeah, yeah. Pass me the cinammon rolls, schmuck.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

One world

Over at Steve Clemons' blog, we find the following entry, which about half way down starts talking about an interesting subject I haven't seen any discussion on elsewhere:

Let's jump out of terror-watch mode for a moment though and consider another interesting race -- that for Secretary General of the United Nations.

Interestingly, a name that appears on every serious list as a potential successor to Kofi Annan, whose term ends on December 31st of this year, is Prince Zeid Raed al-Hussein of Jordan.

Richard Holbrooke identifies Prince Zeid as a "dark horse" candidate for the UN Secretary General job, but he has a major ally working quietly (believe it or not) on his behalf: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

Reading it all is a good idea; I have no idea who Clemons is (found the site from Talking Points Memo), and, well, in interests of further full disclosure, no idea who several of the other people named in the story are, either. But what I find interesting about it right now is what Clemons says a bit further on:

Zeid is a Muslim and descends from the royal line of princes and kings who claim direct descendency from Muhammad.

I agree with John Bolton that merit should dictate who takes the helm as UN Secretary General, but I find myself also agreeing with him that elevating someone like Zeid to the position of Secretary General might send a number of constructive signals to the Muslim -- that they matter and have leaders engaged in constructive stake-holding in the global system.

John Bolton is, to all reports (and I grant you, everything I've read about him has been through a left wing filter) an avid neocon and one of Bush/Cheney's made men... and he's not renowned as having a particularly subtle diplomatic mind. The idea that he, and the people behind him, are trying to appease the international Muslim community by putting an Islamic Prince from Jordan in charge of the United Nations just rings hollow to me.

On the other hand, Karl Rove is always looking for more red meat to feed to the conservative base, and those whackos already hate the United Nations. Putting a Muslim into the Secretary-General's chair -- especially a titled Prince whose full name includes the magic two syllables, 'Hussein' -- strikes me as a positively wonderful way to whip the mouth breathers out there into a frenzy.

The term of the current U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, ends on December 31, 2006. An open campaign to seat a Muslim Prince of Jordan named (among other things) Hussein as a run up to our mid term elections... I don't know. Seems like an excellent fear mongering prospect to me.

Are the Republicans planning to make withdrawal from the United Nations a key issue in the mid terms?

It's not as far fetched as you might think. Every existent domestic issue is killing them; from disaster relief to the economy to homefront covert surveillance programs gone sour to Medicare D, there's just no relief in sight anywhere for the Tribe of the Elephant. And with the various criminal prosecutions involving Republican lobbyists and Republican elected officials gaining momentum, and continuing to be perceived (despite the conservative propaganda's frenzied efforts otherwise) as a mainly or entirely Republican scandal, the 'Pubs have to be desperately looking for an issue that they can use to both distract and mobilize the electorate. And historically, isolationism has always played well to Americans in times of world crisis; several American Presidents have been elected, or re-elected, on the campaign promise that they would keep us out of a war that was largely perceived by the contemporary American electorate as 'none of our business'.

It's important to understand that if this is the plan, Bush and his party will be careful not to refer to any furor for withdrawal from the U.N. as 'isolationism'. This phrase is, historically, viewed as a pejorative one, generally used by avid militarists to discredit anyone who opposes their proposed policies. Dubya has already laid well precedented groundwork for this use of the term in his latest State of the Union address, warning Americans away from the temptations of isolationism. Yet by manipulating the United Nations selection process for a new Secretary-General, he can have his cake and eat it too -- he can whip up an isolationist frenzy among the half of the voting public the Republicans need by using the spectre of a U.N. run by someone named Prince Hussein to inflame them, and at the same time, he can continue to make the case that whoever is in charge of the United States at any given time must continue to be given free reign to muck around in the internal politics of any other sovereign nation anywhere, using any means to hand, including internationally prohibited projections of naked military might.

I'll be watching with interest to see if and when this starts becoming a talking point on the right.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Storm in a port (now updated)

I’ve had a few people ask me for my opinion regarding our Generalissimo-in-Chief ramming through an agreement to outsource management of several U.S. ports to a state owned Arabic shipping company, without any of the legally mandated review periods or even a moment of Congressional consultation.

I have a few thoughts about it, I guess. Before that, though, let’s take a look at what some of the people who get a lot more hits than I do have to say about it:

* * * *
Atrios sez:

Washington Post:

The United Arab Emirates provides docking rights for more U.S. Navy ships than any other nation in the region, Warner noted. He added: "If they say they have not been treated fairly in this, we run the risk of them pulling back some of that support at a critical time of the war."

This is precisely the point. State actors have different interests than at least the idealized view of business actors. The latter are pursuing profit, the former are pursuing a variety of interests. While in practice the world is not as neatly divided up like that as it should be, when you completely merge business deals and diplomacy you've got problems, especially when those business deals involve port security issues. Handing the keys of our ports over to a foreign government which is pursuing a variety of interests is not such a good idea, especially when that government is a hereditary oligarchy and not a liberal democracy.

* * * *

Josh Marshall notes:

Looking at the "secret agreement" the White House seems to have leaked this afternoon, here's one point that sort of stands out.

The administration did not require Dubai Ports to keep copies of business records on U.S. soil, where they would be subject to court orders. It also did not require the company to designate an American citizen to accommodate U.S. government requests. Outside legal experts said such obligations are routinely attached to U.S. approvals of foreign sales in other industries.

The failure to require the company to keep business records on US soil sounds like a pretty open invitation to flout US law as near as I can tell. Forget terrorism. This is the sort of innovative business arrangement I would think a number of Bush-affiliated American companies might want to get in on. Perhaps Halliburton could be domiciled in Houston, pay its taxes in Bermuda, do its business in Iraq and keep its business records in Jordan.

* * * *

Kevin Drum advises (it’s long, but read it all, he’s making some excellent points):


I'm still open to argument on the Dubai port deal, but this is looking more and more like a mindless feeding frenzy to me. So far, I've only heard a couple of arguments against the deal that are even colorable.

First, Atrios points out that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn't a private company, it's a state-owned company. It's one thing to have a foreign company operating some of our shipping terminals, but a foreign state?

The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business. As the Financial Times reports, state-owned companies already operate terminals in the U.S., including China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore's state-owned NOL) in Oakland. "The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments," says a British analyst. Furthermore, DPW and Singapore's state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China's Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the U.S. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world.

Second, Matt Yglesias notes that "Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt is not a sound policy as a general matter." That's an excellent point. And causing Bush some political pain is a worthy goal.

But there are limits, and encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing.

I also did a bit of Googling to find out what a few actual port operators thought of this deal last week before it turned into quite such a media circus. They seemed pretty sangune about the whole thing:

New Orleans: Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the New Orleans port, said he was surprised by the sale but not overly concerned.

Baltimore: F. Brooks Royster III, director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public marine terminals, said an infusion of money from Dubai Ports World might help the port expand. Two days later: "They’re not here to insert terrorists into the country....I don’t have a concern in that regard."

Philadelphia: William P. McLaughlin, public affairs director for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns major general-cargo terminals on the Pennsylvania side of the river, said security and other port operations issues are spelled out in the lease and should not be affected by the change.

Miami: Port of Miami-Dade executives aren't concerned. "They are not buying the Port of Miami," said Deputy Port Director Khalid Salahuddin. "They are buying part of one of the operators at the port."

Tampa: Amid growing criticism of a deal to give a United Arab Emirates company a major presence in U.S. ports, Tampa Port Authority commissioners....authorized port director Richard Wainio to sign a contract to bring the British company at the center of the controversy to Tampa to run cargo handing at the public agency's docks.... Wainio called the deal with P&O a critical step for the port and the region.

What's more, as I noted earlier, dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and U.S. customs. It also seems noteworthy that DPW's acquisition of P&O would give it control of port operations in lots of other countries besides the U.S., including P&O's home country of Great Britain, and everyone else seems to be OK with that. What do we think we know that Britain and Belgium don't?

In the end, there's nothing left to this controversy except the raw question of whether the government of the United Arab Emirates is sympathetic to international terrorism and therefore likely to implement policies that would make it easier for al-Qaeda to infiltrate ports in the U.S. — something most analysts seem to think is pretty far-fetched. God knows I wouldn't mind some congressional oversight on this question, especially if it prompted some serious action on actual port security, but if turns out that the UAE is really untrustworthy then I'd like to find someplace else for the Navy to park their ships too. The port of Dubai is the busiest port of call for the United States Navy outside the continental United States.

In the absence of serious evidence of untrustworthiness, though, I'd prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I've said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

* * * *

Glenn Greenwald mentions, in passing:

NSA scandal and Portgate - a perfect match

When this port controversy erupted yesterday, I thought that it might be prudent to wait a few days before activating the focused, state-based campaign designed to influence the NSA investigations which Jane Hamsher, John Amato and I described a couple of days ago. I originally thought that with the media attention focused for the time being on the Administration's growing port problem and seemingly intractable dispute with Congressional Republicans, it might be difficult to induce people to pay attention to the NSA scandal until the port dispute settled down a little.

But after thinking about it more and talking further with those who have begun to participate in our project, I actually think the reverse is true -- that the serious split between the Administration and their formerly compliant Congressional allies is, for many reasons, the perfect framework in which to press for real Congressional investigations into the NSA scandal. The emergence of this sharp wedge between the Congress and White House, as well as the distrust of the White House which the port controversy is generating, create the ideal groundwork for agitating for Congressional investigations.

The principal argument which has been invoked by the President's apologists for suppressing investigations -- namely, that we should blindly trust the President on national security matters and that Congress has no business investigating the President's decisions concerning the "war on terror"-- is entirely obviated by the port controversy. In response to demands for an NSA investigation, it will now ring intuitively false for any Republican Senator to claim that Congress has no role to play, or that the Administration should be trusted with no oversight, when it comes to making decisions about how to defend the nation.

* * * *

John Rogers makes some good points of his own -

Basically, if the Administration's stupid enough to be outsourcing your port security because they have a nigh religious belief in privitization that over-rides any common sense, nay, their sacred responsibility to the people who actually goddam voted for them, then the UAE company is barely any worse than any other company. It's like deciding to let your child drink bleach instead of lye.

And then I have to turn right around and disagree with Kevin Drum. Bastich. Anyway, he indicates that jumping on this story isn't the sort of engage-the-average-Muslim attitude we enlightened liberals should be encouraging. He kind of misses the point that the UAE is a monarchy -- a particularly nasty one -- and that the massive amounts of monies from this deal will go directly into their coffers. The coffers of people who literally have lunch with Osama Bin Laden. Cut up his steak, refill his glass of chianti, that sort of pally-pal.

This deal isn't going to help the economy of a bunch of swing-voter type middle class UAE citizens who will use the money to send their kids to Western colleges. This will help enrich the already insanely rich royal family in Dubai who hang with Bad Guys. I mean, if we can't set as a standard "You know what, if you hang out with Osama, you don't get to do multi-billion dollar deals in our country", where the hell is the bar for repercussions? "Okay, you can enrich yourselves at our expense even if you hang with and support Bin Laden, but if you blow him, this deal is OFF!"

* * * *

And then there’s Digby

He needs to be secretly spy on American citizens without a warrant and he needs to be able to hold them indefinitely in jail without a trial and he needs to be able to torture innocent people with impunity because we just can't be too careful after 9/11.

But there's no reason to go overboard by saying that we shouldn't outsource our port management to a company owned by a state whose leaders have been known to hang out with bin Laden.

Perhaps the best way to put this is that the administration seems to trust the leaders of the United Arab Emirates more than the US congress or the secret FISA Court.

* * * *

All right. Coming out the other side of all that, what do I think about it?
I have a couple of thoughts. First, it’s interesting to me just how carefully liberals are putting their feet down in this mess. On the one hand, the big name lefty bloggers seem very happy that Bush has stuck his head into a political cannon without realizing it; on the other hand, the last thing they want to do is seem to be opportunistic about it (that’s much too Republican/Rovian for them) and the next to last thing they want to do is to seem like they are indulging in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim hate speech, because, you know, liberals just don’t do that kind of thing. (Me, I loathed Arabic culture and much of what I knew of the Islamic religion long before 9/11 made it trendy to do so; I can recall being taken to task for some ‘hateful’ comments on the inherent violence and misogyny of the Persian Middle East that I published on an APA back in the early 90s.)

You may want to switch ‘last’ and ‘next to last’ up there from one lefty blogger to another; some will have one priority, others another. But it’s interesting to see how carefully the left is picking its way through this thing. All told, it’s not a bad thing, though, and it’s typical of the difference between right and left in this country, and showcases what the right sees (and exploits) as a fundamental lefty weakness – where the right will simply jump in howling whenever its sensibilities are affronted and its fury is provoked, the left takes the time to look things over carefully, think things through, and try to find the most reasonable approach.

What’s more interesting to me is watching Bush get locked down on his own interrogation table while his patented fear machine starts applying the electrodes to the Chief Executive’s genitalia. Bush’s regime has spent the last five years beating the terror drum, whipping their base into a frenzied froth by waving the red flag of Islamofascism at every opportunity. Now the Cheney Gang turns around and cuts a pretty typical insider deal with some of their long standing Arabic cronies, figuring what the hell, this isn’t politics, this is just business, and everyone out there should understand that and just play along… and suddenly they are caught in the gears of their own political threshing mill. The only person in North America who can’t understand the irony here is Alanis Morrisette.

What’s most interesting of all to me here, in a grim, mind numbingly tragic way, is how poorly this whole thing reflects on our culture and our nation. This is what the political faction that currently runs America chooses to get upset about? This is the issue that finally divides Bush from his base and threatens to splinter the conservative movement in America? An illegal invasion of another country doesn’t bother them; troops sent into harm’s way without proper equipment is fine; declaring American citizens enemy combatants and locking them up indefinitely without trial or access to the outside world is peachy-keen; a covert network of secret prisons on foreign soil is five by five; torturing helpless prisoners, apparently to the point of sodomizing those prisoners’ children right in front of them, is cool; exposing national security secrets for petty political gains is no problemo, dude; free speech zones are just part of the post 9/11 world, and if the President wants to illegally and secretly eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, well, that’s just hunky-dory.

But, goddam… he wants to let some Arabs run a few of our ports? Get out the rope, Cletus!

This is what the right is finally going to tar, feather, and run Bush out of town on a rail over?

For the record, I don’t think it’s a great idea to let state owned foreign companies handle any sensitive U.S. business concerns, especially those that oversee commodities coming into the country. I especially think it’s a bad idea when those state owned foreign companies have strong ties to a guy who likes to hijack our airliners and blow up our buildings with lots of us inside. If this is how international shipping is done, then I’d like to see some substantial reforms implemented to international shipping.

Nonetheless, my strongest point remains: if this is the scandal that finally brings Bush down, well, it’s a disgrace and a shame to the U.S.A.

Of course, that’s appropriate; the Bush Administration has never been anything else.

UPDATE THE FIRST (I feel like Glenn Greenwald):

Brad DeLong has an interesting Hall of Mirrors style entry on his blog, quoting from another source who is quoting from yet another source in regard to the Port deal:

Dan Drezner defends the Bush administration's willingness to allow the UAE-OWNED P&O to buy U.S. ports: the FBI and CFIUS have approved it--and they to err on the side of preventing foreigners from buying U.S. businesses where national security is concerned. This is one of the few occasions where the Bush administration appears to be on the side of the angels: :: Daniel W. Drezner :: What's the big deal about the port deal? : I can certainly see why there's some political controversy about a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates helping to run ports on the Eastern seaboard -- but after reading this Christian Science Monitor story by Alexandra Marks, I don't think there's any real basis for the kind of outrage I'm seeing....

P&O is not commenting on the political uproar over the deal. But a source within the company worries that the media and politicians are misrepresenting the arrangements. Other who work within the port communities agree. They note that P&O will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port. "I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."...

[A]ll the facts were reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) earlier in the month. People aren't upset that there's been a review -- they're upset because there's been a review and the outcome is one they disagree with on a gut level.... There's been a lot of hot air in the blogosphere on this -- and even hotter air from the United States Senate and local politicians -- but I haven't seen anything approaching a rational, reality-based argument against this deal.

* * * * *

What do I think of that? Not having any in depth knowledge of U.S. port operations, I apparently simply have to rely on the people who are declaring themselves experts all over the Internet.

In the case of the above addendum, though -- while it's an interesting point of view, and may well be accurate, still, there's part of me that's crying out "You want to trust someone who works for a public relations department?" And that's a voice I'm going to tend to listen to. I've known PR people, as well as marketing people and advertising people; they are, along with real estate lawyers, professional politicians, and drug addicts, among the least trustworthy people you are ever going to interact with in this world.

Which raises another point: while I think it was excellent journalism for Kevin Drum to Google search some quotes from various port officials in regard to this controversy, I'd be interested to know how these people vote and which parties they contribute money to in election years before I fully weigh their opinions on this. Even assuming none of them are simply saying what El Jefe wants them to say -- and El Jefe has himself quite a personality cult going, especially amongst authoritative business sorts (the types you'd expect to have positions of responsibility at large U.S. ports).

Beyond that, even if we rule out an insane "jawohl mein fuhrer!" slant to any of these various 'sangune' (sic) insights, it's still worth noting that all of these people are business folks, and their point of view is very much that of folks who pretty clearly would like to see a new customer/client/sucker with a lot of money step up to the board and slap some of it down on their square. Such people tend to view prospective customers in terms of how healthy their checkbook balance is, resolutely pushing aside any minor considerations like, you know, whether or not this increases the chances of Tampa going up in a uranium enriched fireball by a few percentage points. Such things tend to be regarded as unimportant compared to the enormous positive impact ten or twenty million development dollars is going to have on the local economic infrastructure, and people who bring up such concerns tend to be dismissed as anti-progress whiners who want to keep the local economy struggling.

All of which is to say, the folks Google-quoted by Drum are most likely blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes, and the PR person quoted by the Christian Science Monitor quoted by Dan Drezner quoted by Brad DeLong is most likely working for one of them.

So, I still think it's a bad idea to let the House of Saud rent a dock at one of our ports, or handle managing of one, or whatever the hell it is Bush is doing, and for that matter, I think it's probably a bad idea to let China do it, too. I mean, we can let ships dock at our ports without renting out the facilities to them, right?

Even if it isn't a bad idea in terms of security, it still strikes me that if there is anyone in the world we shouldn't be doing business with on straight up moral and ethical grounds, it's the House of Saud. But perhaps that's my anti-Arab prejudice showing.

UPDATE THE SECOND - Of course, I'm aware of the reason that the more rabid and zealous conservatives are upset at this business deal, while they have been largely indifferent to, or supportive of, all the other human rights violations enacted under El Jefe's watch -- conservates are deeply tribal people, who tend to regard everyone outside their 'tribe' as being somehow subhuman. To a conservative, everyone who isn't conservative is 'other' (one reason they hate American liberals so much is that conservatives are easily manipulated by patriotic buzzwords like 'American', and it offends and infuriates them that there are 'Americans' whom they not only disagree with, but whom they would actively like to see imprisoned or executed -- they would be much more comfortable in a world where every 'American' voted for Fearless Leader unanimously, hated fags, and sang, whistled, or hummed "Freedom isn't Free" in the car on the way to work in the morning).

'Others' are not entitled to the same legal protections and presumptions of civil liberties that 'real people' (i.e., conservatives) are. Everything Bush has done to date to proscribe the rights, liberties, and freedoms of various people in the world, be they Americans or non, can be (and are) perceived by conservatives as only impacting 'others'. Free speech zones, secret eavesdropping, enemy combatant status, secret prisons, torture of prisoners... this is all stuff that Bush's mindless base deeply believes will never have anything to do with them or anyone they care about. All this stuff is only to be used against 'others' -- evil foreigners or liberal 'American' traitors -- and if your conservative credentials are good enough, you needn't worry about Homeland Security knocking on your door.

So conservatives don't mind police state political policies that they feel have nothing to do with them, and they similarly don't mind Bush's rampant cronyism and the insider-trading style corruption that has defaced his administration like someone throwing acid in a crusading district attorney's face. All these financial scandals have, in the end, largely benefited rich, authoritative white guys, and right wingers, no matter how poor they are, largely revere rich authoritative white guys, and on some pre-verbal level, they have aborbed into their guts the notion that this is 'just business as usual'.

The port deal, on the other hand, pretty directly benefits goddam A-rabs, and the conservative mob has not only never been inclined to include little brown towelheads who worship some crazy camel-riding prophet within their personal tribal parameters, but lately they've had all their rich white authority figures exhorting them at length about how evil all these fucking dune coons are. The UAR is not only 'other', they are actually part of The Evil Others That Are Coming To Destroy Our Way Of Life. Bush and Co. have been playing that tune for five years now; they shouldn't be surprised when the audience continues to sing along even after they try to switch refrains, if only briefly, for the ten minutes it's going to take them to deposit a check.

Monday, February 13, 2006


First, if you haven't seen it yet, check out this fanciful movie trailer. As has been noted on other blogs but mine, it's both hilarious, and pretty brilliantly seamless on a technical level, too. Someone did a great job there.

Second, SuperGirlfriend and I saw Brokeback Mountain yesterday, and Below There Be Spoilers. So hit that expansion link at your own risk.

Without going into a long detailed review, I enjoyed Brokeback Mountain. Of the three movies I've seen that were directed by Ang Lee, this was the first one where all the talent and skill that's been imparted to him in the past was evident to me. The movie is, for the most part, a typical Hollywood grim n' gritty forbidden love/coming of age story, with all the attendant tears and pain and tediously realistic period detail you expect from that sort of thing. The only thing that makes it different is, well, the only thing that makes it different; unlike other Forbidden Love Stories, this one really is still forbidden, not just in the period in which this movie is set, but in half or more of America today.

The film is well written and well acted, and I've already noted the deft sure handedness of Lee's direction. I especially marveled at how he managed to make every interior shot ugly -- not just the po white trash farmhouses, apartments-over-laundromats, and shanty trailers where Ennis spends most of his life, but even the rather nicer, somewhat more opulent home of the rather more affluent Jack seem constrained and airless and mean looking. This is especially true in comparison with the almost unearthly beauty of the outdoor scenes. It doesn't take great powers of analysis to understand what Lee is trying to put over here -- that only in the wilderness, outside the constraints of conventional society, can Jack and Ennis find any real happiness in their lives. Still, it's a wonderfully effective visual technique.

Making this movie acceptable to conservatives wouldn't be hard; it only requires a few slight changes towards the very end. Right up to the point where Ennis gets his post card back from Jack marked 'deceased' you could leave it absolutely the same. The only modifications would have to come in how Jack dies; instead of being beaten to death by a fag-hating lynch mob (perhaps led by his crazed ogre of a father in law), one would only need to substitute him dying a painful, lonely, miserable, abandoned and disgraceful death in some charity hospital ward from AIDS. Then, when Ennis' daughter shows up in the last ten minutes of the film to invite her daddy to her wedding, and he says he'll be there and then goes sadly into his barren shanty bedroom to stare at the postcard he has of Brokeback Mountain, and Jack's old, bloody shirt, you simply have him sit down on the bed and start to quietly cry... and then have the camera pan to an open letter on the bed, where we can see the words "diagnosis: positive" and perhaps "expected prognosis: terminal in 90 days", or something similar.

See, then, despite all the hot gay cowboy sex and the couple of fleeting titty shots, conservatives would really get behind this movie. After all, It Would Be A Film That Shows The Realistic Consequences Of An Indecent Lifestyle, something right wing critics could call "...a grimly truthful, sobering wake up call to the more licentious citizenry of our great nation".

They'd like that. They'd like it even despite the fact that as far as we know, the HIV virus didn't even exist in the mid 1970s. After all, historical accuracy, and little things like 'the truth', should never be allowed to get in the way of a good sound moral lesson about the inevitable mortal consequences of buggery.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Great Outdoors

Irony can be horrifying.

We call cities 'the concrete jungle'. But I have now regarded, with gaping, awe-struck eyes, the greatest, the most dreadful, the most fearsome and formidable and redoubtable of all possible man-made wildernesses. I saw it last night, and my brain is as seared by its transcendent, terrifying splendor as if I had stared into the very eldritch, seven-horned visage of N'yaarlahotep, the Goat With A Thousand Young itself.

This uncanny nexus of fantastic contradiction is known as Outdoor World. You cannot imagine the vistas of insanity there if you have not seen them first hand. But, with trembling hand, greying follicles and bloodshot eye, I will attempt to set forth a poor, dim, vaguely etched representation of them here.

If Galactus liked to shoot him some geese or get him a fine rack of antlers in season, tromping through the interstellar hills and plains, his enormous crepe-soled purple hunting boots crackling merrily in the gas and plasma undergrowth, clad in a black and red checked cotton jacket the size of one of Jupiter's moons, a wild game license roughly as large as New Zealand pinned between his cosmic shoulderblades... well, Outdoor World would be his hunting lodge. Four stories high, 250,000 sq. ft across, this is a brobdignagian site of astonishing proportions. Support pillars shaped like redwood trunks ten feet around and forty feet high rise from floor to ceiling, cunningly shaped of pressed, dyed concrete. Dense foliage made of pressed fiberboard and shiny green plastic dapples with wildernessesque shadow the cunningly yellowed illumination thrown by the carefully hidden track lighting. A small herd of beautifully stuffed and preserved woodlands creatures populates the place, frozen into various poses of interest -- deer graze at the painted concrete floors, mighty antlered elk stand majestically atop an artificial hillock, while a young bear climbs a cement tree trunk in hopes of ambushing an unwitting mannequin dressed in L.L. Bean's finest, standing on a faux perch that brings entirely new depth to the term 'hunting blind'.

It's like wandering through a petting zoo in Hell.

Returning to the galactic hunting lodge theme, one then must mix in a ten-fold helping of the crassest merchandising imaginable, as if Galactus had gone in with Lucifer on some Mephistolean marketing scheme. Everywhere one looks one sees woodsie commodoties and outdoorsie chattels, from 30 quart peanut oil turkey fryers to five man polyster-screened expeditionary tents. There are boats of every shape and description, outdoor garb and outdoor gear, crossbows, hunting bows, steelheaded, butt-befeathered hunting shafts and crossbow bolts, guns and ammunition, footwear, hats, mittens, scarves, many pocketed trousers, jackets, shirts, and vests, all in camouflage patterns (Real Men, it seems, Don't Wear Orange In The Brush, they just suck up the occasional misdirected hunting shaft or shotgun blast in stoic, macho silence).

A children's section sports smaller versions of all the garb, along with adorable stuffed plush representations of various endangered species, presumably so little Billie and young Johanna can practice on semi-lifelike targets at home with their suction-cup tipped arrows and autofire BB rifles before they graduate to real shootin' irons somewhere around the tender age of 9.

There is even a quadrant of the enormous place dedicated to home furnishings for those raised entirely on reruns of The American Sportsman; rough-hewn wood framed chairs and sofas bedecked with cushions fancifully preprinted with bright monochrome images of deer and pumas and heavily armed men shooting at them. Most of this filled me with vague distaste, but the ceiling fan pulls that were shaped like large bore ammunition were what truly turned my feet resolutely towards the door. Yet even after that I was distracted; one lonely nook held a truly beautiful leather recliner and couch that I admired greatly, until SuperGirlfriend pointed out to me that what I had taken to be a gorgeous, somewhat barbaric looking border of large bronze rivet heads on each piece was, in fact, composed of the bottoms of shotgun shells.

To be blunt, the place freaked my ass out.

I haven't even described the mall's arcade, a section called the Big Game where one wanders down concrete paths amidst the artificial forest, bemused by recorded bird warbles and the screeching cat calls of faux puma on every side, and at intervals of every ten or twelve feet, one can pause at various stations to plug quarters into voracious slit-mouthed consoles, after which one can pick up mock hunting rifles that have been fitted out with laser-emitters, and plug away at distant tableaux of vast stuffed animals draped with LED array, or large movie screens on wich images of woodlands prey stampede, thunder, gambol, and leap in grainy, often badly spliced and not particularly well focused splendor.

Nor have I described the cross section of Americans who congregate within this bizarre temple to mercantilism and man's technological subjugation of the great outdoors. Physiques of every shape and size stroll these well enameled pathways, pausing occasionally to wistfully finger slick, polystyrene crossbow bolts or help their four year old boychild bang away earnestly at a distant stuffed moose. From the tub gutted six and a half foot family man at the ammunition counter, his goatee resembling nothing so much as a footsore, mange-stricken caterpillar wearily trudging through endless laps around his mouth, to the lean, vaguely bored looking early 20s brunette with the enigmatic phrase SamIAm tatted across her hipbone neatly framed between the lower hem of her high waisted blouse and the upper denim waistline of her low riding jeans, nearly every imaginable sort of human being was represented there, provided, of course, you are not inclined to imagine non-whites among the spectrums of humanity. And, well, unless they were well disguised, I have to say that in my opinion, SuperGirlfriend and were probably the only adults in the entire store who hadn't voted for Bush in the last two elections, perhaps several times each. (But then, we must have been well disguised, too, or I doubt we'd have escaped with our lives; Outdoor World did not exactly radiate any 'welcome, liberals!' vibes.)

This, truly, is what the Lord intended when "he said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

It was a dark and stormy day...

It was supposed to be a decent day. Yeah, we had to give the girls back to their dad today, which always sucks, and we're in the middle of thing with him where the two older girls want to live with us more than with him (one wants to stay with us full time, the other wants to stay with us 2/3s of the time) and he's fighting us on it, and it's going to be a lot of time and trouble and money.

But, still, I had a game session scheduled with SuperGirlfriend and a couple of people who responded to an ad we put up. We were both looking forward to it. Two of the people had canceled on us (actually, they were just going to blow us off and I would still be in the dark except I called them to check on Thursday and they made lame excuses about having to cancel and having lost my phone number), but we still had another guy showing up, and SuperGirlfriend and I really wanted to play.

Plus, after dropping off the kids, I was going to do some Valentine's Day shopping for SuperGirlfriend...

But, we bought Valentine's Day gifts for the kids Thursday night, and gave them to them today, and whiney sulky Super Drama Teen didn't like her stuff, and wanted to exchange it, so we took them over to Target. Now, you take SuperAdorableKid into a department store with you and you add at least 20% to your shopping duration and to your exasperation level, so I volunteered to keep her out in the car, since we had to get the kids over to their dad's place by noon. And that would have been fine, but she's restless, and likes to throw herself around and kick her feet, and at some point she must have kicked the key that SuperGirlfriend left in the ignition so we could listen to the radio, and broken something up in the lock, because when everyone got back out to the car, it wouldn't start, and the key won't slide out, either.

So, the game session is canceled, which sucks, and I probably shouldn't spend money on Valentine's Day because we need to get the car fixed, which sucks worse, and we had to call the kids' dad to come get them at the Target parking lot, which sucks even worse (although we're appreciative he showed up so fast and was kind enough to try and give us a jump, which told us it was the ignition, and not the battery) and SuperGirlfriend is off chasing around the hinterlands with her sister and her mother and her dad trying to get her car fixed, no doubt stressing out all over the place, but she made me stay home, and that sucks worst of all.

Sometimes things just don't go as planned.

Which sucks.

ADDENDUM (twenty minutes later):

Suddenly... a phone rang!

It was SuperGirlfriend. Turns out SuperAdorableKid didn't kick the key, she kicked the gear shift. We were in Reverse, which was why the car wouldn't start and the key wouldn't come out.

So... okay... all's well that ends well, I guess.

I feel like an idiot I didn't think of the gear shift, but as I am one of the few 44 year old residents of the industrialized world who has never had a driver's license, well, I don't feel like THAT much of an idiot.

I'm just glad it's working again.

I hear dumb people

Okay, let's vent.

Latest on the hit parade of Stupid Participant Tricks at work: Bitching Because Nobody Notified You Your Claim Was Denied.

Here's how that goes:

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Uh... hi... yeah... I sent in a... a... reimbursement... thing...

ME: A claim?

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Yeah, a reimbursement claim, that's it... for my 2005 account... back in... I don't know... August...

ME: [keyboard clicking briskly] I show we received a claim from you on December 12, 2005.

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Yeah, okay, that's when I sent it... I... um... well... I haven't received any payment or... heard anything and... I... well... [trails off vaguely]

ME: [click click click click] Ah. Okay. Your claim was denied.


ME: [continuing to click away] I'm checking, one second please... ah. Here we go. You failed to sign the claim form.


ME: You failed to submit any documentation with your claim form.


ME: You failed to submit a claim form with your documentation.


ME: Your documentation was insufficient, your employer does not accept canceled checks as sufficient proof of payment.

Or, etc, etc, etc

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Well, I'm sure I signed the claim form/I know I sent in a claim form/I know I sent in my documentation/Last year I didn't have to sign my claim form/send in a claim form/submit any documentation/canceled checks were fine!

ME: I sincerely apologize, but I'm looking at the file you submitted and there is no claim form/the signature line at the bottom of the claim form is blank/we only received your claim form without anything further/if your claim was processed erroneously last year I am sorry but you will need to submit a properly filled out claim form and acceptable documentation this year.

STUPID PARTICIPANT [realizing he/she is beaten, switching tracks] Okay, but I am very upset that I was not notified about this. I sent in this claim form back in August!

ME: ...December...

STUPID PARTICIPANT: ...and I've been sitting here waiting for my check and nobody got in touch with me, I was not notified that there were errors in my submission, this is MY money, why didn't anyone tell me this?

ME: I apologize, sir/madam. Our processing department normally notifies participants via email of any denial codes.

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Well I didn't get any email! I'm very upset about this! I'm very displeased! This is terrible service! WHY WASN'T I NOTIFIED OF THIS?

ME: I'm very sorry you didn't receive our emailed notice of denial, sir/ma'am. If you will send in a signed claim form/acceptable documentation for your claim, we will be happy to reprocess it.

STUPID PARTICIPANT: Well, how long will THAT take?

Okay, folks, gather 'round. Although I cannot explain this to participants on the phone bluntly enough to get it through their slope browed slackjawed pinheads, because that would be bad customer service, I'm going to lay it all out for you here.

(1) You can call us before you submit your claim form and ask us questions about how to fill it out, and what documentation is acceptable to your employer. People do it. All the time. And we will look it all up and tell you whether your employer requires Explanations of Benefits, whether they will accept a canceled check as proof of payment for dependent care, and we will remind you, generally, to sign your claim form. If you don't want to be bothered because you're sure that something as simple as filing your claim for reimbursement from your tax free health care account, which is regulated by the IRS, whose rules never ever ever change, is a piece of cake and you know the drill perfectly, well, that's on you, bitch.

(2) You can call us a few days after you fax your claim in, or a week or so after you mail it, just to make sure we got it and that all the pages are there. This is a GOOD idea. Wise people do it often.

If, on the other hand, you stuff your claim form into your fax machine and/or mailbox and then don't bother to follow up on it for several months, well, you're an idiot. As you have so cogently noted, over and over again, it's YOUR money.

Now, as to specifically why we do not make more than a token effort (emails of notification) to advise you when your claim is denied, well --

(a) We don't have time and it isn't our job. I take calls all day. On a slow day I may occasionally have two minutes between calls, once in a while. I never have time to make outgoing calls, and my supervisor never authorizes me time off the queue to make outgoing calls. If my supervisor authorized other reps to take time off the queue to make outgoing calls, those of us dealing with the proportionally increased call volume would wait until our first break rolled around, and then we would lynch the bitch.

The claims processing department doesn't take calls, and they don't have time to make calls telling you your claim has been denied, either. Why? Because although it is impossible for you to emotionally accept or believe this, YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY PARTICIPANT IN AN FSA AND YOUR CLAIM IS NOT THE ONLY ONE HERE. We have literally millions of claims sitting in queues over in the processing department. Our processors have a certain (high) quota of claims they have to get through every day, or they get fired. And that's just how that works.

(b) We wouldn't want to call you and tell you your claim was denied, even if we had time. Why? Because you're a bunch of stupid sulky whiney pissy baby-brats and you'll argue with us about it and we don't need it. It's very annoying to have you tell us over and over again that we can't do this (we can) and it's your money (it isn't; you put it aside in a tax free account and you don't get it back until you jump through all the hoops and you signed a piece of paper when you set up the account acknowledging that and if you don't like it, here's a fucking concept, just PAY YOUR GODDAM TAXES AND SHUT THE HELL UP, BITCH) and last year you didn't have to do any of this you submitted your claim exactly the same way as this year and it went through no problem (we don't care, it doesn't matter, this year you will do it the right way or you will not get paid, dickhead).

We don't want to have to point out to you where in the papers you were given when you signed up for the FSA it says you have to submit EOBs, or it explains about effective and termination dates on the account, and we couldn't, anyway, because we aren't participants in your FSA and we didn't get those papers and we haven't read the fuckers and it isn't our responsibility to, we didn't sign them, YOU DID, dimwit.

We don't want to have to point out where on our website it tells you that sandwiches at Panera Bread are not eligible for reimbursement regardless of how healthy and vitamin fortified they are, because it's a very complex website and anyway you're a moron, and it causes us a great deal of stress to constantly have to throttle down on the impulse to actually tell you you're a moron, which is like this throbbing drumbeat of anguished rage in our temples constantly while we're on the phone with you. And one of these days we're just going to snap and even if that doesn't result, eventually, in the SWAT team putting a bullet in the back of our heads as we hold our hugely overweight team leader in front of us as a kinda-human shield while spraying spittle all over the place as we hysterically shriek demands no one will ever listen to, it will still definitely result in us losing our jobs, and that's a bummer, so, no, at the very end of it all, we wouldn't call you even if we had the time, because talking to you dumbass people is annoying enough when you call US, it's not like we're going to initiate the process.

And if this isn't enough, then there's

(c) The simple truth: if you don't get any notification regarding the status of your claim, eventually, you are going to call and ask us. It is invariable, irrefutable, and axiomatic. This is, after all, YOUR money, and you want it, and while you may be stupid enough to sit around with your thumb up your ass for two or three or six or even twelve months (I kid you not, I got that call) after you fax or mail in a claim representing hundreds or even thousands of dollars that you earned last year and had deducted from your paycheck, eventually, if you don't hear anything from us, you WILL call us. That system works. It works every time.

Or maybe it doesn't. I suppose there may be people out there who open Flexible Spending Accounts, file one claim a year representing the entire balance, get that claim denied, and never ever check up on it. I wouldn't know; it's very hard to demonstrate a hypothesis in the absence of all data, and, well, it's very difficult for me to believe that there are people out there who are that goddam stupid. (However, there are people who vote Republican and people who send money to televangelists, so I suppose anything is possible.)

But, if there are such people, then their employer loves them, because Flexible Spending Accounts are use it or lose it accounts, and if you don't use up your money by the time the claim year closes, it is forfeit to your employer.

And... guess what? We work for your employer, not for you. They have no interest in making it any easier than they need to for you to get this money, and therefore, we have no real interest in doing it, either.

Oh, yeah, while I'm venting: saying "I don't think I'm going to do this FSA thing next year, this is too much trouble" is fine, but if you expect it to motivate us to go above and beyond and provide you with extra special super duper customer service (which seems to mean, set aside all the rules just for you and pay out your claim anyway even though it consists entirely of a piece of grocery bag you scrawled 'I bought a special support mattress please give me $2000' on in crayon), well, trust me when I say, when that call is over with, we laugh hysterically at your stupidity and tell everyone in all the cubicles around us about it and they laugh hysterically at your stupidity too. And then that night they tell their significant others about it over supper and their significant others laugh at your stupidity, also. And then some of us even blog about it.

Here's the haps: we don't care if you use an FSA next year. No, I take that back; we care deeply in that we hope you don't. Seriously. Because you're a dumb ass whiney pissy baby brat, and if you don't use the FSA next year, we won't have to deal with you.

Which brings me to what may be the hardest part of my current job: empathy. See, in the call centers where I worked before, I was dealing with Post Office customers, and Sprint long distance customers. Now, everyone is a post office customer, and mail is very important. And anyone can have Sprint long distance; it's not like it's a reflection on your character that you chose Sprint instead of one of several other largely interchangeable and pretty much identical long distance carriers for your telecommunications needs.

So when these people have problems, I can empathize, and do my best to help them out, provided they aren't being complete fucking tools to me on the phone.

But with the customer class I'm dealing with now, well, it's different. People with Flexible Spending Accounts are, for the most part, pretty well off. They have decent jobs that offer decent benefits, or they wouldn't have the FSA in the first place. And, let's face it, the only reason they're doing this in the first place, and putting up with all the hassle, is that someone told them they could get a break on their taxes by doing it, and they thought that was a pretty good idea. So, add it up: these are affluent people with good benefits who are actively trying to avoid paying their taxes. To say the least, my sympathy level does not start out high for them.

Now, if one of them calls me up and they're nice and pleasant, that's fine. I like to help people, I'll do my best to help anyone who isn't a complete dillhole to me -- even if their problem is that they hired an au pere to watch their kid, and the au pere doesn't want to give them their tax I.D. number to put down on the dependent care claim, and can't I do something? (I can't; they need to hire an au pere who is willing to comply with the laws of the nation where she works. But I won't get snotty with them, I'll just explain that as kindly as I can.)

But the slope is steeper for these people. They hit me with the slightest riff of entitlement, the tiniest whiff of attitude, the most minute particle of bitchiness, and that's it, they get nothin'. I am not inclined to like these people anyway. After all, they could just pay their goddam taxes, like the rest of us.

And now for something completely different

Swing wide the halls of reason
Let truth be e’er in play
Though fools and rogues cry treason
And lead lesser wills astray
when faith’s drummer beats its caisson
and all hope’s a dwindling ray
Swing wide the halls of reason!
Let no man say you nay!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Somebody else's problem

A guy I used to game with had a knack for colorful phrases… or maybe he just repeated stuff he heard on Saturday Night Live, I don’t know; at that time in my life I didn’t own a TV (one big reason that, to me, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo are still ‘the new guys’ on SNL).

One of the things my gaming buddy used to say a lot, when we’d be talking about various political issues or social difficulties, was “Well, that would be… somebody else’s problem, right?”

Then he’d laugh. Sometimes I would too. Mean spirited selfishness is funny; we’ve known that since Laurel & Hardy, and certainly shows like Seinfeld have driven the point home well in the last decade or so.

But let’s pause and look at that phrase a little bit longer.

Somebody else’s problem.

It’s a common impulse. We all have problems of our own, and our perception is, nobody is helping us with them, right? We have to solve our own problems, it’s something that’s expected of mature adults in our society, so why shouldn’t other people be able to solve theirs? Why should somebody else’s problems become ours?

“God doesn’t give anyone a challenge they can’t handle.” That’s something else I’ve heard from various sources throughout the course of my life. And it fits right into the Somebody Else’s Problem philosophy. If we assume the universe is an orderly place, kept well in hand by a Divine Being who acts as a completely fair referee to all living creatures, it makes things so much easier. We see someone struggling under some enormous burden – a birth defect, a crippling injury, a debilitating disease, ignorance, or just plain straight up poverty – and we comfort ourselves with the notion that whatever problems Somebody Else may have, God, that great wonderful guy in the zebra-striped shirt in the sky, has also given that same Somebody Else the resources to successfully deal with it.

Man, I’d love to live in that world. That’s the world of the family sitcom or comedy drama from the 1950s through the 1970s, a world where every issue, every problem, every challenge, every difficulty that arises is simple enough to be successfully resolved, once and for all time, in 22 or 44 minutes, right before the credits roll. Where every conundrum can be magically worked out simply by being honest with whoever the show’s authority figure is, or by asking that same authority figure for help when you need it. Where you can always tell the bad people from the good people and the wise folks from the fools, often simply by checking their wardrobes.

I suspect we’d all love to live in that world. There’s no racial strife there, at least, not for longer than a single episode which ends (like all episodes) with everyone hugging. That’s the world where every kid is happy except for momentary bouts of gloom caused by minor deviations from mainstream behavior. It’s a world where nearly every parent, every teacher, every cop, every fireman, every government official, is wise and strong and courageous and loving. Everyone there is well intentioned and has a good heart. Even the mean people and the bullies can be redeemed with a little bit of love and positive attention. Nobody is sick for very long, nobody is crippled, nobody is even ugly (hell, very few people are non-white, for that matter), and everybody that does have a problem that can’t be neatly solved (like the very rare person with a disability who only shows up for the obligatory Let’s Be Sensitive To People With Disabilities episode) is darned cheerful about it, too. God. They’re SO brave.

Of course, what these Father Knows Best trips to fantasy land really tell us, if we pay attention, is that the secret to creating a social paradise is a very simple one – neuter everyone. This, apparently, is the price of that perfect world from a bygone TV era – nobody ever has sex with anyone, at all. At most, in the steamier shows that only come on after 9 pm when little Biff and baby Kathy are in bed, people make out a little. I’m not sure that’s the lesson that the producers of 7th Heaven and The Partridge Family were really trying to impart, but it’s certainly implicit in pretty much every minute of such programs’ screen time. A world without sex is, apparently, Utopia. Of course, you’re going to run out of kids in twenty years or so, and out of humans entirely in a century, and I have to assume the suicide rate is nearly as high as the Prozac count in nearly every perfect family’s medicine cabinet… but these are small sacrifices to make on the road to Shangri La, right?

Regardless of our desires, however, we can’t live in that happy Golden Age of Television fantasy land. Here in what we mostly sane folks more or less agree is actual reality, that sweet little homily about God only giving us problems we have the strength to handle is a gigantic load of horseshit. God gives people problems they can’t handle all the time. God hands out crippling and disfiguring injuries and diseases like a schoolyard pusher passing around free dimebags to new customers. God has seen fit to create and maintain a world in which every living being needs to eat to continue to live, and eat well to continue to live well, and, amazingly enough, a great many people in the world… I’m not talking dozens or hundreds or thousands here, I mean, millions of them, a whopping percentage of which are children… can’t do the former, and millions more can’t do the latter. To say that God doesn’t give anyone a problem they don’t have the ability to handle on their own is, at best, myopic chuckleheadedness, and at worst, deliberately cultivated cruelty. The world sucks, most people are damaged goods, many of them right out of the womb… they simply cannot help themselves. Their difficulties, their issues, their defects, their challenges become, by definition, Somebody Else’s Problem.

I will, however, indulge in one perhaps overly optimistic, sweet sounding homily – Every living being has something to offer to the universe. Everyone, no matter how depraved or vile or seemingly trivial or unimportant, has some kind of gift, some kind of talent, something unique about them that, if they could find it, and it could be properly cultivated, could be employed to make the world a better place. I really believe that, and I suppose that makes me a sap, but it’s one reason why I believe that Somebody Else’s Problem… is, in fact, Everybody Else’s Problem.

Because when we help people solve the problems they can’t solve themselves… then they have the ability to turn around and help us solve the problems that we can’t solve.

It’s important to understand, when dealing with Somebody Else’s Problem Syndrome, that we are rarely that honest in describing it. That’s why it’s a funny joke; it’s one of those things we all think, but hardly ever say out loud. When we actually talk about our reluctance to help strangers who mean little or nothing to us, in person or through our taxes, we use ringing phrases like self sufficiency, and self reliance, and independence, and we speak in Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne cadences as we remark on 'looking after one's own' and 'taking care of yourself' and 'carrying your own water'. We claim a proud and lofty disdain for all outside aid, generally referring to such as 'goddam interference' and ‘no good guv’mint charity’ and to those who would proffer such distasteful largesse as 'lousy socialist busybodies'.

Under the wonderful American Frontier rhetoric, though, it’s all still Somebody Else's Problem. The flip side of self reliance is xenophobia; the dark mirror image of independence is isolationism. And thus we can see that the essential underlying principle we are speaking of here is not merely 'carrying your own water' or 'I can make it on my own', but also 'I don't care about you' and ‘Fuck off, buddy’.

Somewhere in the background, very faintly, Bruce Hornsby softly croons “Just to be funny he says, ‘get a job’…”

The reality of the world is, many people… I’d say most, in fact, I’m very tempted to say ‘all’… have problems they themselves cannot solve. Yearning for a simpler, happier place, where all children are healthy and happy, people have jobs they like where they make enough money to support their families and maintain a strapping bank account, everyone knows their place and nobody squabbles about race or religion or sexual harassment, it's sunny in the summer and it always snows at Christmas, people smile and nod on the streets, all entertainment is wholesome, we all leave our doors unlocked and there are aromatic pies cooling on every windowsill, everything is decent and proper and nobody gets any diseases worse than a cold, or has any medical conditions more serious than tonsilitis or an ailing appendix... well, certainly, longing for such a wonderland, and wishing mightily that we could live there, and not in the fucked up, stressed out, screwed over, imperfect, unjust, often hateful world we all actually have to inhabit... that's natural enough.

But out in the imperfect world we are all actually stuck with... hell, I don't know. Maybe this self reliance thing can work, for some people. Maybe there are folks out there who really do 'take care of their own' and who really don't need any 'interfering busybodies' to help them out. If these people exist, I for one admire the gumbo out of them. These fine men and women of true independent spirit are an inspiration to us all. They live their lives wild and free, carrying their own water, proud and independent, and never ever ask for anyone else’s help with anything. These guys have never once in their lives called their landlord, a plumber, an electrician, or an HVAC guy. They’ve never filed an insurance claim or a police report. They’ve never sought care from a medical professional, dialed 911, cashed a paycheck or used an ATM card, logged onto the Internet, eaten in a restaurant, or had food delivered to the house. They probably don’t watch TV, but if they did, it would be a television they built their damn selves, blowing the glass for all the tubes in their own basements out of sand they carted in from their own beaches, cutting down the trees from their own forests to make the wood for the cabinet, mining and refining the ore and then smelting the metals for the circuitry. And they do all this in a house they built themselves, after digging their own basement with either their own two hands, a hoe they made out of a stick and a piece of sharp rock, or a bulldozer they built using that same home made backyard assembly line-factory they're going to put into their basement and make TVs with once they get the basement dug in the first place.

Honest to Jesus, these people amaze me. They raise their own cattle, milk them, slaughter them, and skin them; cut their own meat and tan their own leather. They build their own automobiles and refine their own petroleum products from the output of the fully functional oil well in their side lots. They only drive on roads they themselves have surveyed, cleared, graded, and paved, and they damn well lay their own sidewalks, too. That cup they’re drinking from? They threw it and baked it their damn selves with their own wheel and kiln. That fluid they’re imbibing with such relish? Whatever it is, they made it themselves, presumably, or at least dug the well and installed the pump. These are some impressive motherfuckers, I tell you this in truth.

If you’re not one of these wonderful people… and if you are, for God’s sake, send me an email, just as soon as you get done building your own computer and making your own fiber optic cable and setting up your own Internet browsing software from scratch… then you pretty much have to fess ‘up. Admit it – however much we may wish otherwise, this whole self reliance thing really doesn't work. Whether we like it or not, we live amidst a vast and intricate social fabric, where most of the threads have a purpose. They do things for us we find useful or desirable, and, presumably, we do things back that they find equally practical or pleasant. That's how it works. We help each other get through the day, every day, and if we didn't, none of us would make it very far.

Somebody Else's Problem? Given how other-reliant we all are in our day to day lives, we can now see this exposed for the hypocrisy it is. We can't solve our own problems; we've never been able to. We can't deliver our own mail, we can't fix our own computers or snake our own drains; hell, many of us can't program our own VCRs. And if we all need so much help from other people, people with different training and expertise than we have, then who are we to begrudge giving other people help we can provide when they need it.

Yeah, but that's the thing, I hear someone in the audience shouting. Nobody is opposed to a fair exchange of goods and services; you fix my stopped up drain and I'll repair your computer; you get that annoying knock out of my car's exhaust system and I'll treat your kid's runny nose. That's how it's supposed to work, that's the social contract in action. And we all agree to follow the rules and obey the law and behave like good, decent, proper citizens and never disturb the peace or agitate each other, and all will be well. All Will Be Well!

It's, you know, the parasites and the slackers that decent folks object to. The lazy people who expect hard working taxpayers to support them and their worthless kids while they stay at home and watch Oprah. The worthless, greedy, ungrateful types who won't be content with decent jobs at decent pay and cheap housing in their own neighborhoods, who keep demanding higher educational opportunities, higher status work, higher pay, better housing -- nearly as good as white people, goddam them! And they want to have their own funny looking churches they call by stupid names, and they want to give their kids stupid names, and celebrate Winter Solstice holidays that aren't Christmas, and I don't know what the fuck all else; it's maddening and insane. And these people want to drive in our streets and send their kids to our schools and work in our offices and sit in our restaurants and take our jobs and bid on our contracts and have their own cable TV networks and holy Christ, we have to put up with all that shit and then, they want to whine at us about having problems? Problems that we're supposed to solve for them?

Since when is that the American Way? What the hell, did we lose a war or something?

See, here's the thing. I think people of one race solving problems for people of another race is the American Way. We needed cheap domestic labor, we hijacked half the population of the African continent and put them to work in the fields of the American South, and whipped their asses when they wouldn't work, hunted them with dogs when they ran away, and hung 'em high when they got too uppity. We needed railroads laid from coast to coast, we imported the heathen Chinee, and shot the fucker when he wanted higher wages and slightly better treatment. When those red skinned bastards who had the land first got uppity with us, we bribed other red skinned bastards to fight them for us.

For that matter, most of our independent frontiersman ancestors that we are all so proud of got here originally as indentured servants. And if our Founding Fathers hadn't all gotten together to solve each other's problems as regards the British, we wouldn't be having these arguments today.

If the United States of America has any claim to uniqueness as a political entity, it doesn’t lie in finding new, grand sounding ways to restate the phrase Somebody Else’s Problem. It stems from the fact that America truly is a nation founded by refugees, runaways, and other wretched refuse, a place where people who, in the immortal words of Bill Murray, got thrown out of every country in Europe came, mostly to be left alone… but they discovered when they got here that being left alone is the one thing that will never happen in this world if you have anything anyone else wants. So the scum and flotsam of the Earth had to come together as one entity, to solve their mutual problems.

We started by kicking the British out. Over the course of the past three centuries, we’ve more or less remembered how we began, what the foundation of our country is, and where we draw our strength from – by inviting in outsiders, and adding their particular strengths and quirks and even weaknesses to the bizarre but resilient alloy that is America. We make mistakes, we slip back into darkness and ignorance, we do terrible things sometimes. In the past we’ve built entire industries on slavery, we’ve committed genocide, we’ve broken treaties and conducted chemical warfare and covertly experimented on our own people and locked up our own citizenry simply because they looked different from us… but when we made those mistakes we learned from them, and we moved forward, and we’ve done our best to put those things behind us, sometimes at terrible, terrible cost… but we’ve always emerged from these things stronger for the experience.

Now we are backsliding again. We are trying to slam the doors closed to one group of brown people we don’t like who live nearby, while we are doing our level best to wipe out another group of brown people we really don’t like who live on the other side of the world, on land that has resources that we covet. Our national rhetoric is filled with hate and vitriol and rage, our foreign policy is defined by secret torture and illegal occupation and mass murder, our democracy has been undermined and humiliated, our liberties are diminished and endangered, and the people in power over us brazenly claim to be above even the watered down, ridiculously biased laws they themselves have allowed to be enacted.

And we are growing numb to it all, and the opiate of the American masses is a simple mantra:

It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

It isn’t. It’s our problem. It’s your problem, and it’s my problem, and it’s your mom’s problem, and your kids’ problem. I don’t know what to do about it, but maybe it’s a start to simply acknowledge that This Is All Of Our Problem. We have to do something about it.

Probably something more than just blogging about it, but I’m goddamned if I have much of an idea what.