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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



The last time I looked at politics, during the second week in March, Congress (and the headlines) were all about health care reform legislation. Shortly after I went to press, that legislation was passed, and signed into law by President Obama. Sundry states are bringing lawsuits, trying to get the law invalidated before it goes fully into effect (which won’t happen for some years). Regardless of whether (as its supporters believe) it will make life a whole lot easier & more healthful for many people, and regardless of whether (as its detractors maintain) it will drown the government in red ink, it is still not a very radical bill – divested, as it has been, of its “public option” program. Still, to the extent that it marks a triumph for the Obama administration, and a fulfillment of one of the President’s campaign promises, it puts him -- and his fellow Democrats – in a stronger position to withstand the Republican campaigners who are determined to gain control of at least one house of Congress in the November mid-term elections. Following hard upon its win with health care, Congress moved on to consider financial reform legislation that might help prevent repetitions of the way that both the credit market and the stock market tanked in 2007 and 2008. Like the health care law, this bill is much less sweeping than its most liberal supporters wanted, but versions of it have passed both houses of Congress. Now all that awaits it is reconciling the two versions before sending it to the President to be signed.

Congress is also working on an energy bill. It was originally designed to realize more campaign promises about promoting clean energy & saving the planet from greenhouse gasses, but it looks like Congress isn’t willing to take on the army of lobbyists for the coal industry, oil and gas industry, automobile industry, utilities, and all the other segments of the economy that would be affected by a really sweeping bill. Instead, it now looks as though any bill which can be passed will be primarily (if not exclusively) concerned with policing those oil companies who, like British Petroleum, have already brought environmental disaster upon us. For the fact is that activities in Congress – and indeed, practically every other subject --- have been forced to the rear of national consciouness by the disastrous oil spill that has been loosing untold millions of barrels of petroleum over hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. How could such a thing happen? Well, apparently BP – no doubt along with every other oil company in the business – didn’t obey whatever safety regulations were in effect, and didn’t stop to consider what further safety measures should be taken. Whole communities --- hell, whole states --- are being blighted, along with entire wildlife populations.

A lot of people are saying that President Obama hasn’t been sounding angry enough about this situation, and that the government ought to do more to get it under control. For the time being, we are hearing no more cries of “socialism.” Still, the way the President’s been keeping his cool doesn’t seem to affect his approval ratings. He’s not as popular as he was, right after his election, but he’s not getting any less popular. The biggest question pundits are asking themselves is to what extent he’s willing to cash in on his numbers and help the Democrats maintain their majorities in November. If he wants to get any more legislation enacted, he needs those majorities, but in his own campaign he paraded himself as above party politics, and at this stage of the game, it looks as though he’s going to take that same nose-in-the-air attitude this year, too. At least, that is how Matt Bai, a NY Times columnist who contributes regularly to the Sunday magazine section, seems to see it in a cover article for that magazine on June 13. “Democrat-in-Chief?” the article is titled, with a subtitle reading, “It’s not clear that President Obama cares all that deeply about leading his party. It is clear that that’s the real wild card in the midterm election.”

Those cries of “socialism” aren’t gone forever. As the returns from two rounds of primary elections have shown, too many voters are not in a mood to sanction any more big-ticket government spending: right wingers in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Nevada, in particular, bested their more moderate opponents. Other politicians, taking note of these victories, are talking “deficit-cutting” as opposed to “stimulus,” even though some liberal critics are arguing that the relatively feeble economic recovery now underway will fade into a double-dip recession unless more tax dollars are enacted to put more people to work. Even that recovery looks to be under fire, if the stock market is any indication. Having risen earlier in the year to beyond 11,000 on the Dow, it has more recently plunged to below 10,000 (at the moment, it’s hovering around the 10,000 mark). When the downdraft began, market analysts attributed it first, to the weak U.S. employment statistics; next, to the sorry state of the European Union, where Greece, Spain and maybe a few other countries look like they might be likely to default on their government debt, so over-extended are their economies with the depression. Most recently, the analysts are saying that the downturn is due to the oil spill, and the possibility that BP will have to forego its dividends in order to stockpile enough money to pay off the thousands of claims that will be made against it. All of which goes to show that nobody really knows what makes the market go up and down; its prognosticators might as well be reading tea leaves or gazing into crystal balls.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq appears to be relatively stable: despite the occasional car bomb, a new legislature seems to getting into place. Iran, on the other hand, shows no signs of being willing to stop building a nuclear warhead, despite the recent call by the U.N. for further sanctions against it. My own (heretical) view is that if I were Iran, I too would be building a bomb. After all, look at how nicely the U.S. treats those countries that already have them, including India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel (though Israel has never admitted it’s got a bomb, it is widely believed to have one). Merely because a country has a bomb doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to use it, but if non-governmental religious fanatics got one, that’s when I would start to worry. I shudder every time I read a story in the NY Times which suggests that the Pakistani government isn’t all that eager to evict the Taliban from its territory.

As for Afghanistan, its hopelessly corrupt President Hammid Karzai seems to blow hot and cold on the Taliban. According a June 12 story by Dexter Filkins, star reporter for the NY Times, Karzai was said to doubt that the Americans and their allies could defeat the Taliban, and was looking to make a deal with it. Two days later, Filkins (on Page A4 of the Times) told how Karzai was rallying support for anti-Taliban operations in the city of Kandahar. Which is it? Go figure. The best news out of Afghanistan appeared on Page A1 of the Times, that same day. By James Risen, the story described the discovery of $1 trillion dollars’ worth of untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. If that could someday become the center of a major mining operation, it might bring prosperity to that poor little country, enable it to dispense with its opium industry, promote education & eventually underwrite a more liberal form of government. Religious fanaticism thrives in the poorer and economically more backward areas of the world: when people have little or nothing to hold on to in this world is when they start thinking in terms of the next………. (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)
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