Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dennis Prager speaks about torture

I wasn't going to revisit this for a while, but Dennis Prager has some questions for us lefty torture opponents:
  • Given how much you rightly hate torture, why did you oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein, whose prisons engaged in far more hideous tortures, on thousands of times more people, than America did -- all of whom, moreover, were individuals and families who either did nothing or simply opposed tyranny? There is a difference between actually performing torture and not being able to prevent it. In the case of Iraq, we had no real legal or moral basis for declaring war, and many more people have died as a result of our Iraq adventures than Hussein ever killed. I guess I'd flip the question around on you: considering that a big part of the case for the Iraq War was the very sort of abuses Mr. Prager mentions, why did he support the Iraq War (presumably) if torture isn't that big a deal? He says that waterboarding isn't a big deal compared to killing someone, which I'll admit, but that he cannot see that, by supporting torture, he surrenders the moral high ground.

  • Are all forms of painful pressure equally morally objectionable? No. But those things that are banned by Geneva and American law are banned for a reason, and just because al-Qaeda is a bunch of brutal murderers doesn't give us a right to do things that are less wrong and call ourselves moral. It just means we're less wrong. I realize that relativism has completely enveloped the right, but they need to realize that you can't both valorize torture and talk about how the evilness of terrorists justifies it.

  • Is any maltreatment of anyone at any time -- even a high-level terrorist with knowledge that would likely save innocents’ lives -- wrong? If there is no question about the identity of a terror suspect , and he can provide information on al-Qaida -- for the sake of clarity, let us imagine that Osama Bin Laden himself were captured -- could America do any form of enhanced interrogation involving pain and/or deprivation to him that you would consider moral and therefore support? In other words, the ticking time bomb scenario. Which, according to former FBI Agent Jack Cloonan and recently the United States Senate, among others, has never occurred. Things like this make me crazy. Stop watching 24, and let's realize that life isn't like that.

    But to take on this trumped up argument: in the event that we had a suspect who is absolutely known to have information on a specific pending terror attack (something so far unknown to happen), who has been uncooperative using traditional interrogation methods, and thousands of lives are on the line? I'll admit that I would probably consider it if I was in power at that time. But what we've learned from the Bradbury Memo and the Senate Report wasn't that torture was used judiciously in exactly these sorts of circumstances, but rather to provide intelligence for the Bush Administration's case for war in Iraq, and institutionalized in places like Gitmo as a standard way of dealing with high-profile detainees. This is, of course, rather different from the ticking time bomb. And this is why I think a blanket ban is appropriate not only from a moral but also a practical perspective--it can be a very appealing way of making intelligence gathering easier. It's inevitably a slippery slope. I think we ought to just stay off it.

    And, there's the little wrinkle that a ticking time bomb would probably make a suspect less likely to talk because they'd be that much closer to accomplishing their goal. Something for the right to think about in between 24's commercial breaks, perhaps.

  • If lawyers will be prosecuted for giving legal advice to an administration that you consider immoral and illegal, do you concede that this might inhibit lawyers in the future from giving unpopular but sincerely argued advice to the government in any sensitive area? They will, after all, know that if the next administration disapproves of their work, they will be vilified by the media and prosecuted by the government. If the advice was offered in good faith I wouldn't support prosecution. If not, then I would. This is why we need more investigation of all of this morass. But, from what I've read, the legal work was shoddy enough to merit the impeachment of Judge Bybee and the disbarrment of all the lawyers who wrote these memos. They fail to meet even a borderline standard of competence. So this ought to be straightforward.

    And, as I've said before, I don't mind the precedent of former presidents being hauled into trial for breaking the law. That precedent would make all future inhabitants of the Oval Office so assiduous to avoid even small legal violations that we could end the sort of executive branch illegality overnight. Rule of law would become far more than a theoretical concept in Washington. I don't see why this is a bad thing, and public disapprobation of Bush simply isn't enough for a man who never seemed to care if he was loved or hated.

  • Presumably you would acknowledge that the release of the classified reports on the handling of high-level, post-Sept. 11 terror suspects would inflame passions in many parts of the Muslim world. [snip] Do you accept any moral responsibility for any ensuing violence against American and other civilians? No more than the people who actually did this shit in the first place. They should have considered the possibility that word would get out, and the impact on Muslim public opinion then, or perhaps before the Iraq War, where most of the country was staunchly behind Saddam and, in any event, loathed America much more.

  • Many members of the intelligence community now feel betrayed and believe that the intelligence community will be weakened in their ability to fight the most vicious organized groups in the world. [snip] If, then, the intelligence community has been adversely affected, do you believe it can still do the work necessary to protect tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people from death and maiming? I'd like them to, you know, follow the law. In any event, it's not like the techniques were new: waterboarding has been around for ages. A lot of our torture techniques came out of the SERE program for military officers, which taught the military how to withstand torture and was created during the Cold War. Which means, of course, that the techniques used against terror detainees were the same ones used by the Communists against Christians, liberal reformers and political prisoners to extract false confessions. If that doesn't make you sick to your stomach, I don't know what will.

    I realize that we don't know the whole story about what information was extracted from these terrorists, but let me just say this: I would give up a scoop here and there to protect us from compromising our morality and, practically speaking, giving al-Qaeda an invaluable recruitment tool. When you're fighting both sides of the War on Terror it's pretty difficult to win it.

  • Will you seek to prosecute members of Congress such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who were made aware of the waterboarding of high-level suspects and voiced no objections? Yes. I don't know what she'd be prosecuted for, exactly, but justice knows no party. I suspect that most liberals feel the same way. This is, of course, antithetical to the group solidarity ethic of the right, but what's right is right. Let's have an investigation, and let the chips fall where they may.

  • Would you agree to releasing the photos of the treatment of Islamic terrorists only if accompanied by photos of what their terror has done to thousands of innocent people around the world? I think this question is irrelevant. We do to them, they do to us. It doesn't elevate us, it diminishes us. It's relativism, pure and simple--if the other guys are worse than us, our sins don't count.

    Now, I know Mr. Prager isn't a Christian, but I am, and that's not how it works for me. What we see here, again and again, is an attempt to try to reframe the question about whether torture is moral as a question of whether we're worse than the terrorists. Okay, I'll admit, we're not as bad as the terrorists. I concede that point. All I'm saying is that torture is wrong--not as wrong as lopping somebody's head off, but wrong nonetheless. That's what's at issue here, fundamentally.

  • You say that America’s treatment of terror suspects will cause terrorists to treat their captives, especially Americans, more cruelly. On what grounds do you assert this? Did America’s far more moral treatment of Japanese prisoners than Japan’s treatment of American prisoners in World War II have any impact on how the Japanese treated American and other prisoners of war? Do you think that evil people care how morally pure America is? There is a point here. Not torturing people isn't going to make al-Qaeda love us or treat us better, though Jane Mayer does catalogue some people who were surprised that they weren't tortured by American forces and actually started talking.

    No, Mr. Prager, I'm not particularly interested in what the al-Qaeda psychos think. I'm interested in what moderate Muslims who have to choose between us and al-Qaeda think. I'm interested in what Europe thinks. I'm interested in what the rest of the world thinks. Why? Because this nation has stood as an example of freedom for over 200 years. It holds the graves of men and women who died to keep that dream alive. Men and women who died in far-off battlefields so that we could continue our experiment. American power is not and never has been based on military might or economic might but rather on moral authority. Trust me, we didn't win the Cold War because we had a better intelligence service (we most certainly didn't) and not because we could have taken Russia after WWII (we would have been annihilated), but rather because we presented a vision to the world that was more appealing than the superficially attractive but ultimately self-defeating contradictions of communism. And we did that without torturing a single Russian. Imagine that.

I do find this line the most interesting: "Do you think that evil people care how morally pure America is?" It seems almost an admission that torture is wrong, and that it's justified because evil people want to kill us. What this quote indicates, really, is a conservative movement that has largely given up on questions of justice and morality and given into a sort of nihilistic relativism, predicated largely on in-group loyalty. One hears echoes of the sort of "nobody can judge us because nobody can understand us" notions that proliferated in places like Japan, Italy and Germany after WWI with the emergence of fascist regimes. I might have just broken Godwin's Law, but I'm not saying that Republicans are Nazis. They're not even close, and they're on the decline rather than gaining in power. America isn't the Weimar Republic. I am merely saying that the sort of civilizational decay that one found in those places--indifference toward the rule of law and justice justified by a narrative of external danger and unfair victimization, which exempts the group in question from outside judgment--is shockingly similar to what one finds if one reads history about those places.

I suppose I have some questions for Mr. Prager:

  • Are there moral absolutes that don't have to do with sex?
  • If the State of Israel could survive for the duration of its existence without institutionalized torture, why can't we?
  • If you feel torture is completely justified, and the interrogators found evidence of terror plots in progress, what is there to fear from more disclosure? Won't the public see them as heroes? Or are you worried that the more the public hears about the Bush Administration's interrogation program, they less they'll like?
  • You alternately say that you're worried about enflaming Muslim opinion by disclosing documents, while you also say that you don't care what al-Qaeda thinks about what we do. Had it occured to you that incidents like Abu Gharaib might lead to al-Qaeda getting more converts? That it might radicalize Muslims that might have supported us into opposition?
  • And, finally, Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture into law after it was overwhelmingly ratified by Congress. Since Reagan is considered the ne plus ultra of conservatism, could you explain why exactly he was wrong, and what core principle of conservatism he violated?

Highly religious voters and Obama

So how's liberal President Barack Obama doing among churchgoers? You know, the sorts of people who are outraged, outraged, about the President of the United States speaking at a Catholic University? Well, it turns out that the guy a lot:
Before the election, just 41 percent of weekly church attendees backed Obama, compared with 61 percent of infrequent attendees. Now, 57 percent of weekly churchgoers say they approve of Obama’s job performance, compared with 69 percent of infrequent churchgoers.

Dave Weigel attributes this to the pro-lifers being far, far more extreme than anything done by Obama. This is correct, and Obama has also largely been silent on social issues, which also helps. This is a smart move, and building up a broad base of support and trust might well help when Obama decides it's time to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I, however, tend to think that the trend is occurring because churchgoers aren't the monomaniacal culture warriors that both sides of the political spectrum seem to believe they are. I've been going to church regularly most of my life, and I've attended many of them. I've actually encountered very few churches that were aggressively culture war oriented--only one or two that I can think of that regularly spoke about topics like homosexuality, for example--and I've encountered very few churchgoing individuals who are the stereotypical ultra-right, closed-minded, Quiverfull types. Now, this is not to say that there aren't lots of people like that, and I've known a few. In general, though, most Protestants I've known tend to be conservative-minded, though more in the sense of favoring tradition and reverence instead of Tea Party-ish. Most Catholics I've known have tended to be economically populist and socially conservative, winding up somewhere between the two parties. And most people I've known of other denominations or religions tend to be liberal as a matter of course.

The reason why conservatives have tended to do well among churchgoers is because, historically, they have tended to encourage the sort of traditionalism and reverence that most Protestants cherish (think Reagan or W. Bush), while splitting Catholics along the lines of traditionalist vs. reformist. Churchgoers were never down-the-line Republicans so much as that the GOP seemed to be the only game in town: Democrats often seemed to be timid on speaking about the family when they weren't snarking about it, a la Hillary Clinton in 1992, and despite his professions of piety Bill Clinton never really came across as a reverent traditionalist, in large part because he really wasn't one. It was a question of policy to some degree, but conservatives have tended to have a knack for hitting even moderate churchgoers in the sweet spots on a deeper and intuitive level--or, at least, they used to. I think that the more recent shift of conservative rhetoric in a more trashy, abrasive, shouty and angry direction cannot help but be alienating to, say, young churchgoing Protestant parents who want their children to share their values. Obviously that sort of approach has found a lot of supporters, and a lot of Republicans really like it. But it is an interesting twist that it is Barack Obama whose piety, strength, warmth and actual lived social conservatism is more in line with the mindset of most religious people in this country, even if they disagree on many of the particulars of his social views. Viewed in this light, the religious trend toward him makes some sense. And it might even come to pass that more religious folks who like Obama now might take a look at Obama, take a look at the faces representing the anti-gay movement, and decide to trust the President on some of these matters over a beauty pageant queen (I am aware that Obama's not for gay marriage, at least, not openly). I really don't think the right realizes what's going on here, and it's a subtle development and not a large story at this point, but it could wind up being quite a big deal. I can tell you that most religious folks I know aren't keen to tune into Sean Hannity's show to watch the dumbest conservative pundit interview the Kardashian family, perhaps the trashiest and dumbest "reality" family out there. If the right wants to play it this way, they might well come to discover that their base is a lot smaller than they thought it was.

When they're right, they're right

Jim Manzi gets it in this blog post opposing waterboarding:
A Republic demands courage – not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs”, but reasoned courage – from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

Posts like this remind me that a conservatism built on recognizing natural limits, advancing thrift, promoting responsibility and preserving tradition would be a welcome addition to the political landscape of this country.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

Okay, more torture

This is almost funny:
Why is it that if this person...says the words “I surrender” that it suddenly becomes wrong to punch him in the face hard enough to make him bleed? Not prudentially foolish, but morally wrong?
G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, spoke about how it is easy to argue for something if you partially believe it, but almost impossible if you fully believe it. His example was that, since he fully believed in Christianity, when someone asked him why it was right he said something like, "the rocks and the trees and the sky", because all these things--because everything--was evidence to him of the reality of God.

I'm feeling similarly these days. I just don't even know how to respond to this. I don't understand what first principles Manzi is operating from. I just don't know how to engage this sort of argument. Everything in my being knows that this sort of statement is dead wrong. I'm just dumbfounded. I think that Larison makes a pretty good argument here--that when surrendering the soldier becomes a noncombatant, and that just killing noncombatants isn't something that civilized countries do. Manzi says that this doesn't matter because the soldier can escape, which is irrelevant as the soldier isn't a risk until they do that, at which point they become combatants again.

I also agree with John Cole's assessment: "[T]hey are mobilizing and going balls to the wall in defense of sadism. It is really quite amazing, and a testament to just how sick and detestable and rotten to the core the Republican party has become." And it's not going to pay dividends. The Obama Administration is going to release pictures of the torture detainees. There's going to be art on this shit. There's no way they're going to be able to huff and puff against pictures of bloody faces that our government made. Right now it's an abstraction, but it won't be. It didn't have to be like this: the Republicans could have said that the Bush era is done, that investigations were proper--in essence, they could have cut Dubya loose. They didn't, though, cause the libruls hated him, and you can't let the libruls win. Just my opinion, but I don't see anyone else with a better one.

But, really, if you think that hurting or killing somebody who poses no threat to you isn't obviously wrong--even if they could potentially be a threat to you (or not) at some point in the distant future--then our moral principles are so far apart that I don't even know how to engage you.

Crist for Senate?

Moving on to something a little less serious, evidently people are talking about Florida Governor Charlie Crist entering the Senate race in his state. Let's just say that I would be surprised if he wasn't getting some significant pressure from the National GOP to run. We know that the GOP is desperate to keep the Dems from getting 60 votes in the Senate. We know that Republicans would perhaps be slightly favored in Florida in a Senate race though not certainly, and we know that the presumptive frontrunner for the Republicans has been unable to raise excitement or money. This in contrast to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meek, who has been raising money like crazy, with generous assists from Bill Clinton.

As it stands, it's difficult to see how the Senate race in Florida would turn out--Rubio hasn't yet set the state ablaze, and it would likely wind up being a close race that hinges on base turnout. That might favor Republicans, but since Obama just won the state last year it might not. Putting up Crist as a candidate all but assures a Republican hold, as he has broad popularity and wouldn't need any additional funds. Crist is of a moderate disposition, though what sets him apart is that he does have some scruples and doesn't indulge the base in stunts like the ACORN nonsense. Crist running for the Senate, though, leaves the race for governor open. And there's a Democrat waiting in the wings for that, too. The implications of a Democrat winning the Florida governor's chair--and it's been about 12 years since the last one, so it might be time--would be huge. There would no doubt be less of Florida's famous gerrymandering in Republican favor, and the end result would be less House seats and less state legislature seats for Republicans. But it isn't inconcievable that Republicans are willing to trade a few House seats for a Senate seat--Republicans have a 70-vote deficit in the House, but they effectively only tied in the Senate. And yes, it's annoying that that's the case and that the filibuster is abused, but it is. My proposed reform would be to put a clock on the filibuster and allow it to expire after, say, three months. Seems reasonable to me. Anyway...

So, this is a theory that just happens to fit the facts. Repubs want to keep the Dems from 60, and they are willing to potentially sacrifice a governorship and elect a more moderate senator and perhaps shred Florida's GOP to hold the Senate seat. They're that desperate. I guess I just don't know what Crist gets out of it. A higher national profile for 2016? Someone with his profile doesn't stand a chance in 2012. I don't know. But it will be fun to watch.

(BTW, as I've said before, Charlie Crist is perhaps the best hope for a Republican renewal, which is something that even this lefty would like to see.)

The Gerald Ford Mistake

This is what John McCain's going with these days. It is intriguing that the corollary to this is that Bush is the Nixon equivalent. But I think we need to rethink Jerry Ford's "brave decision" which was, essentially, a terrible decision that might have been satisfying on some sort of emotional level for a weary country but isn't defensible on any sort of principle.

Look, it's pretty simple to me: someone breaks the law, regardless of who they are, and they ought to get punished. Richard Nixon betrayed the public trust that was invested in him upon his election as president. Losing his office is something that should have happened without question. And since he committed crimes, he should have had to answer for them in the way that civilized societies usually do: in a court of law. Not just in the history books. Nixon's trip to China is grist for judgment in the history books, but his flaunting of the nation's laws is something else entirely. It wasn't a thing for future generations to decide, like Truman's firing of Douglas MacArthur or LBJ's signing of the Civil Rights Act. It was something that ought to have been decided at the time, once and for all. Someone who robs a bank doesn't entreat the judge to let history decide his fate.

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone gets a fair shake in the justice system. Even if Nixon were to have been on trial, he would have been able to afford excellent attorneys and might well have beaten the case. Such is life, and that would have been bad, but acceptable. At least with a trial there would have been the possibility of justice. But Ford's pardon--whether done out of political expediency, payback, political self-interest or a sincere desire to get past what Ford must have assumed was a one-time nightmare--has turned out to be blindingly stupid. What he no doubt didn't count on was that Nixon wasn't a pariah to everyone--a lot of movement conservatives thought Nixon didn't really do much that was wrong, and as Jane Mayer's The Dark Side tells us, conservative think tanks had decided by the the early 1980s that they actually liked a lot of Nixon's ideas on presidential power. Ford didn't know, nor could he have known, that a lot of Nixon's antidemocratic notions would become mainstays of the right, and he was apparently not smart enough to realize that this nation wasn't founded on the notion of deference and goodwill toward those in power, and that letting a nauseating group of people get away with an inch means that an even more nauseating group will try to get away with a foot later on. Jerry Ford wasn't a bad guy--he just wasn't sufficiently farsighted (or cynical).

Seriously, does anyone think that not bringing the Bush Administration to bear for its manifold violations of the law think that that's going to be the end of this garbage? It just means that in eight, or twelve, or however many years, the right is going to be up to the same shenanigans. Most of them don't feel that spying on citizens without warrants or torture are bad at all, and most still feel that Bush did a good job of "keeping us safe", which is not to mention that elite opinion among conservatives is even more in favor of Bushery. The corrupt sewer of D.C. opinion seems to want to revive Fordism, and just sweep things under the rug to avoid facing difficult questions. They are, however, questions that have never been definitively answered, which is why they keep popping up, and will until we finally answer them irrefutably.

And the main question is pretty simple: are we a nation ruled by the laws, or by the whims of whatever person finds himself (or herself) in the Oval Office? It really is that simple. We're back to debating the divine right of kings, only in different language. Contra this, I don't think that human progress is a myth so much as a house of cards, one which you have to constantly watch because it is so very fragile. Humans are compelled by some vicious and neanderthal urges but also by some noble and civilizing urges, and the trick is to find balance and achieve progress. To this end we create institutions to police the baser elements of human nature. What happened in this country is that we just assumed that our institutions--as designed by the framers--were impervious to rot. The genius of the framers, though, is rather overrated. They had some sound observations and some good ideas, but also a lot of terrible ideas (the electoral college) whose day, if it ever occurred, has long since passed. The framers did forsee the problem of power being accumulated in too few people, and we just figured that we were done with all that nonsense. What one saw during the Bush years was an advanced form of decay--mostly on the right but also on the left as well. The idea that humans can invent an institution to stop decay is ridiculous, largely because humans are imperfect, as are the systems we create. They will be tested and eventually found wanting. The only way to make an experiment like America work is if the little-l liberal values upon which the country is based are broadly shared--and this has turned out to be not so much the case. The Bush years have brought on the inevitable--though not irrevocable--backsliding and decay, which is depressing but also invaluable as a lesson to avoid further complacency.

In the end, this is all just a reminder that the only way to keep civilization working is through the hard and unpopular slog of watching, waiting, and acting against those that would destroy it, inadvertently or otherwise. This is why Gerald Ford is wrong, it's why John McCain is wrong, and it's why Politician X in 2024 will be wrong. They're wrong for the same reason the person before them was wrong. The cycle will continue, what has happened before will happen again, and as there seems to be little appetite among the political elite to push the matter of justice forward, we're merely postponing the inevitable struggle. And all the while we're getting morally weaker. In 1974 even most Republican congresspeople supported impeaching Nixon. This year there aren't even too many Democrats willing to take Bush to task. It all becomes abstract, all about power, and the nation's moral bearings take another beating. I don't think it'll be this way forever, but eventually it has to come to a stop, doesn't it?

P.S. The argument that this will mean that every administration will prosecute its predecessor strikes me as a feature of Bush prosecutions, not a bug. I want that threat to be real--I want Barack Obama and all his successors to be so afraid of torture that they are superultracareful about following the law at all times. This is how civilized societies are supposed to work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Obama gets a nod from Larison

While the insane right has been having conniptions about Obama's Latin America trip, the sane right (in this case, Daniel Larison) offers praise:
Instead of the almost-obsessive need to celebrate American achievements, Obama’s handling of foreign relations has shown a steady, humble confidence in the United States...Obama has acted as a leader who feels no need to overcompensate for any perceived weakness and no need to apologize for giving priority to rebuilding damaged international relations with both allies and rivals. Indeed, it seems that the problem Obama’s critics have with him is not that he has been admitting American mistakes, but that he has failed to cringe and apologize to them for pursuing the course of action he thinks best for the United States.
Look, I'm an Obama guy, but I don't think he's perfect and I think he's made some mistakes. Not having thought through the torture endgame--indeed, not even seeming to realize the gravity of the situation--strikes me as a problem. But I do think he has extraordinary potential--I think he's probably the greatest natural politician this country has produced in a long time, and these times seem to provide the opportunity to implement a broad and deep vision for change in America. If he doesn't back down and doesn't get tripped up in all the bullshit (his staff shouldn't be watching cable news, for starters), I do believe he has the capability to be a great statesman, and one of the greatest presidents we've ever had. Of course, having a hated and batshit opposition probably won't hurt either.

What is the matter with the right?

It appears that the Texas secession movement is much bigger than I figured it would be. And this is after three months of Obama. I'm guessing the civil war/mass suicides begin about August.

It is interesting to wonder how it would play out if Texas really did decide to secede from the union. Would Obama just let them go? I don't see how you could, and there's a reason why hardly any governments accede to secessionist movements. Would there be military action taken against secessionists? Since there would no doubt be many Texans who wanted to remain Americans, would they leave or would there be an internal conflict as well? Would Austin become like a little island of America in a sea of Texas, like Berlin during the Cold War, or would it secede from the secessionists and become a Monaco-like city nation? I'm guessing such a nation would make Europe look like, well, Texas. And I'm only guessing that Texas wouldn't get into NAFTA, though I wonder if they'd eventually become an ally of the United States, like America has with Britain. Speaking the same language winds up being a real bond between nations. Well, in theory.

Seriously, though, it's been really shocking to me that there is substantial support on the right in Texas, at least, for secession. I totally understand the source--America to conservatives is more about an abstraction, a deliberately constructed, quasi-ethnic identity than anything else, and a country that elects a Barack Obama as president is one where that group no longer holds sway. It's a little sad to watch the right completely unravel like this, but also a little pathetic. I mean, the left was pretty angry at Bush for a long time, but it wasn't like Gray Davis was calling for California to secede from the Union a little after the 2002 elections.

Republicans want to start "World War III"

This is unsurprising. No, actually, it's surprising. It is surprising Republicans are stupid enough to think this will work, or do anything other than make the public hate them even more than it already does:
Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming said using reconciliation to pass health care reform would be tantamount to "a declaration of war." Roll Call reports today that the GOP is already planning its retaliation for Dems using a procedure Republicans have used many times.

As Senate Democrats move closer to using reconciliation to pass health care reform this year, key GOP Senators are signaling plans to avenge the move by employing parliamentary tactics to trip up even the most noncontroversial of agenda items.
Look, guys, you lost. I mean it--you guys got clobbered during the last election on every level. You're facing off against a popular president who is merely trying to implement the agenda upon which he was elected. It's a pretty popular agenda, too. You don't have to support it, but some realization that a party that has about 60% of the seats in both houses ought to be able to implement its priorities in more or less the way it likes would be nice.

Let's put this another way. You've gone this way before. And the results were, in rapid succession, the rise of Newt Gingrich as the most hated major political figure in the country, the handy re-election of a president with mediocre popularity, and the eventual nomination of someone who strayed as far as possible from Gingrichian rhetoric. Republicans, having the selective memories that they do, seem to think that the Gingrich years were some sort of triumph. Quite the opposite: they were a rapid succession of failures, starting with the Contract with America's failure, continuing through the government shutdown that basically facilitated Bill Clinton's political rehabilitation, and then culminating in the impeachment debacle that cost Gingrich his job.

Look, I know you're all upset about getting your asses kicked, and I sympathize. It wasn't like 2004 felt all that good for us. But it's hard to see how shutting down the Senate really accomplishes anything helpful for the GOP. In fact, it gives Barack Obama a new series of targets to attack, and as Bill Clinton proved, these sorts of actions lend themselves to a natural counterattack that can help even beleaguered presidents reclaim popularity. Obama is popular, as is his agenda, and he has a pretty effective press operation. Just imagine what he'll be able to do to Mitch McConnell.

One would hope that this is a bluff, but considering that the GOP is not allowing routine and uncontroversial nominees like Kathleen Sebelius, Dawn Johnsen and David Hamilton to get Senate approval, I'd say that the Democrats should roll the dice and see how far Republicans want to take this. Catharsis in this case will carry a hefty price tag.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why is Obama still so darn popular?

Steve Benen discusses why various right-wing "scandals" haven't really hurt Obama's approval ratings. The reasons he gives are pretty persuasive: conservatives have gone to the "OMG Obama needs the teleprompters! BAD!!!!!" well one too many times, and Obama is largely doing what he said he was going to do when he was running for president. He elides the crucial point, which is that people who are losing their house don't really care about Obama shaking Hugo Chavez's hand. Even under normal circumstances, they probably wouldn't. Nixon shook Mao's hand, Kennedy shook Krushchev's, Reagan shook Gorbachev's. And yet America stood. In fact, these are often regarded as high points in all three of these men's presidencies, and rightly so. Most Americans, unlike most Republican pundits, are fairly confident in America's power and standing such that saying hello to an autocrat isn't in and of enough to end American prestige. Then again, it must be said that Republican pundits do know a thing or two about ending American prestige, so I suppose their opinions can't be completely dismissed. If they were approving of Obama's diplomatic maneuvers I'd be a bit worried.

Getting back to the notorious handshake, the shake gets back to one of Niebuhr's main points, which was that American foreign policy was and is mostly a continuation of the same domestic arguments we've been having in this country forever. I think this is true to some extent, but I do think one cannot underestimate the extent to which the conservative politics of resentment have seeped into their foreign policy views. Both the left and right have alike absorbed the reality of the decline of American power and influence globally, and reacted in different ways. The left has largely accepted globalization, though there is a palpable anti-trade element to the party, and while they tend to be too timid in working to unwind American Empire and putting forward bolder proposals for a strong safety net to deal with the vagaries of globalization, the left has not taken brash action to try to halt the decline. The right has basically been driven insane by the reality that American exceptionalism isn't going to last forever, and I think that the rise of neoconservatism during the 1990s can be viewed through this prism. Conservatism has always had more than a small tendency to worship how much better things were in the old days, which is something I find silly, as every time has its good and bad elements, and there's the natural tendency to forget things like, I don't know, waking up every day with the fear of getting nuked by the Russkies. One sees in conservatism today a desperate effort to avoid facing the reality that things have changed, and that much of their America is gone, obsolete, and hated when not treated with bored contempt. The right often likes to accuse the left of using "the politics of meaning" but like most conservative critiques of the left it is really nothing more than projection, as to many conservatives the notion of America as the preeminent superpower is a part of their political identity and something that they have long taken for granted. To many of these folks, and I don't mean this in a racist or any other way, the notion that America is not going to be a country of white married folks frightens the hell out of them, as this is a fundamental part of their identity, and they're worried that their importance and significance will invariably decline.

In short, what one sees in the conservative movement today is a pathological fear of change, which is probably related to the demographic facts of the Republican Party's septuagenarian talk radio base. The public doesn't share this, so expressions of it, be they by protesters or Newt Gingrich on Fox News Sunday, don't really have much of an effect. One sees, in the tea parties and elsewhere, a desperate pushback against any hint that things have fundamentally changed in America. I don't think that stuff like the tea parties and Rush and Glenn Beck are helping the right at this point, as Obama and his agenda are actually quite popular and in the absence of a compelling argument from the right he's likely to stay that way. I suspect the right isn't going to be able to recover some sanity for about a decade when the party's demographics shift.

You've got to be sh*tting me...

So all that ticking time bomb talk is it turns out, the Bushies tortured people to prove their theory about Iraq-bin Laden connections. This isn't even about national security anymore, it's about people who thought they can do whatever they wanted. Send them to jail.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Just some friendly advice

You know a good way to keep protests peaceful? How about not having a million dudes with guns? Maybe a million armed dudes won't be violent, but without guns, there's absolutely no need to worry about that.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The worst conservative blog post ever

You have to love a blog post that starts like this:
Reagan Republicans Know Meghan McCain Is Wrong About Gays
I guess this is how policy differences are hashed out on the right these days? We're with Reagan, go suck it? Anyway, the blog post is a real departure for the right in terms of arguments on gay marriage:
Following a similarly, for the GOP, disastrous election in 1974, when there were plenty of senior Republicans counseling the need for a shift to the left in the post-Watergate era, Ronald Reagan urged the need to offer voters "bold colors, not pale pastels."
Got it. So Republicans should just be different from Democrats, irrespective of the underlying facts of the matter? One should paint in bold colors simply because they're different? At least Reagan said it because he was offering something different at the time, not just more of the same. Who said that nonconformists are the ultimate conformists?

It continues:
By this he meant voters needed, even wanted to hear the Republicans offer a clear, bold vision for the future that was in sharp contrast on the key issues of the time to what the Democrats were promising America. Or, to put it as Phyllis Schlafly did in her 1964 book in support of Barry Goldwater, the American electorate needed to be given "A choice, not an echo."
It is good that Mr. Roff wants Republicans to present an image of the future. So far, he has invoked Ronald Reagan, a man elected president nearly 30 years ago, twice. He has invoked Barry Goldwater, a man who was nominated for president 45 years ago, once. He has quoted a book written when the average Baby Boomer was 18. It doesn't sound like Roff is very interested in the future so much as reveling in the past. But he does explain why this approach will, inevitably, fail:
Unfortunately, and what she seems to miss, is that the GOP just tried that [moderation] in the 2008 election—with her father at the top of the ticket—and we all know how that worked out.
Conservatives naturally want to use this argument rather than admit the truth: that John McCain ran exactly the sort of conservative campaign that the establishment loved. How do I know that? Because the House GOP has been running it ever since the election! Sure, McCain nominally supported taking action on global warming (cap-and-trade, hold the cap) but lest we forget, McCain spent the last few weeks of his campaign calling Barack Obama a socialist, which is...exactly what the GOP has been doing since then. On foreign policy, McCain criticized Obama for desiring diplomacy with Iran, out of fears that it would "legitimize them", which is...exactly what they're saying about Obama's recent trip on which he shook hands with Hugo Chavez. And let's not forget about pork and earmarks, which is...exactly what the right is blabbering about on any given moment with respect to the stimulus, among other things. True, John McCain had a somewhat heterodox history, but he flipped on everything from immigration to taxes to torture in order to get the GOP's nod, and despite rock-solid GOP support he still lost badly in the general election.

The piece continues:
The political issues on which Meghan McCain urges moderation are some of the very issues that the GOP used successfully to realign the electorate in the 1980s and 1990s and which played a major role in winning the White House for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Yes, again, let's talk about a bold plan for the future by...recounting past successes! Cause that helps! And it evidently doesn't compute for this writer that public opinion can, you know, change, and that issues can lose their power over time. It is regretful that this mindset is typical of conservatives, who think that the issue set that brought voters running to the GOP in 1980 will bring them back again in the future. This is not impossible--we might well have a Nietzschean recurrence of the 1970s at some indeterminate point in the future. But I never think it's a good idea to count on Nietzsche. He doesn't strike me as particularly trustworthy, and all that "insufficiency of good and evil for behavioral categorization" stuff isn't likely to play in today's GOP.

This might be my favorite nugget of the piece:
I think the real issue is for the party to return to its Reaganite, limited-government roots. And the close to 1 million, by some estimates, people who turned out for last Wednesday's national tax day tea parties seem to agree.
Wait, so they were going out there because of gay people? Finally, an explanation for why these people were protesting. Though I suppose not issuing marriage licenses to gay people does qualify as smaller government.
They were quite clear they believe they are being taxed, spent, regulated, and borrowed to death by the federal government.
I don't think they were clear, and in any event this comes on the heels of polling that shows unprecedented levels of satisfaction with taxation. These people are outliers, and hardly the basis for any sort of national movement. The GOP has, unsurprisingly, misread public opinion again.
And so my advice to Ms. McCain, and to those folks who think she might be right, is to focus on issues that unite us, like taxes and spending, not those that divide us, and then try to prove you know how to win an election or two before telling everyone else what their agendas should be.
Yes, because God forbid that a conservative tackle an issue that doesn't have to do with taxes. I sure wish they would, because that would be fun to argue with for a refreshing change of pace. Instead, we get snark (has this guy ever won an election?) and a clarion call to dismiss anything that might "divide" conservatives, because the only divisions that should occur are mindless ones with Democrats. And what of the Reagan Democrats? What incentive have they to revisit the GOP? They've effectively been forgotten by Republicans, who have rewritten history in the past few years such that there were enough Goldwaterites to provide Reagan with a landslide victory. This is false, of course, but it negates the necessity of reaching out to anybody. You used to hear all the time about the elusive Reagan Democrats, but not so much anymore.

This is just pathetic. This article basically concedes the following points: 1) that conservatives are obsessed with their past victories, to the extent that they can't engage with current issues in American life, 2) that conservative opposition to Barack Obama is essentially opportunistic (use "bold colors" because there's a political space for it), 3) that there is no place for internal dissent in the GOP, and 4) that unless you get elected a couple of times, your opinion is meaningless (and even if you win a few elections it still seems to be meaningless--Steve Schmidt, he of the recent gay marriage supporters, won the 2006 California governor's election for Schwarzenegger. I should kick him for that one). Funny that the corollary doesn't hold: losing elections doesn't necessarily make you wrong. Because Reagan lost two. So did Barry Goldwater. And yet they are still quoted approvingly here--though not so much Goldwater, as he was too gay friendly. Come to think of it, that must be why he lost in 1964! Dammit, he could have gotten out in front of the gay marriage issue, and really laid it to the Democrats! There's a lesson here, Republicans!

One day, this country is going to have a real conservatism operative in it, instead of the pathetic mess it's got.

Liberal realism

Richard Just lays into it here. I'm a bit confused by what he's saying. What Just manages to do here is to make me feel bad that we aren't going to be able to do as much human rights promotion, but I was already sad about that. But it strikes me that the goals of foreign policy liberalism--democracy promotion, nationbuilding, human rights--are good goals, but ones that cannot be achieved without the bedrock of stability, which doesn't exist in Afghanistan. I think it's fairly clear that democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq are going to be plagued by numerous problems, and neither country is particularly stable.

What this sort of thinking represents to me is an inability to prioritize on what sorts of goals to set when it comes to foreign policy. I actually think Obama's on solid ground here--cutting a deal with more moderate elements of the Taliban might well increase stability if they stop fighting, while remaining odious from a human rights perspective. When you face chaos, try to bring stability. When facing stability, try to liberalize. I guess that's my take on the matter.

The handshake

Tim Fernholz, on Hugo Chavez:

In any case, a few basic things. Venezuela is a major trading partner, and they are classified by Freedom House as "partly free"; there are serious human rights concerns but there are also some functioning democratic institutions. Then you have other major trading partners like China and Saudi Arabia, two countries that are, respectively, a theocratic monarchy and a communist state; both of which are not free and have even worse human rights problems. But have a presidential photo-op with leaders in those countries is fine...A central difference, of course, has been Chavez' bombastic anti-American rhetoric.
Ah, yes. It is ironic that the very people who are so willing to deploy name-calling against anyone with whom they dislike are the least likely to take such treatment when it's thrown their way. Well, maybe it's not so ironic. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Over the past four decades, the GOP has basically argued for the creation of a quasi-ethnic identity--let's just call it "Americanist"--which the right has depicted as under siege from nefarious villains from outside who "hate our freedom" (untrue--bin Laden could give a rat's ass about our freedom, he mostly just hates Israel and us, mostly for our foreign policy), as well as from enemies from within, the notorious coastal elites who look down their noses at average Americans with their guns and God. None of this is particularly original, but just because there's a subculture in America that sees itself as the only legitimately American group--one that divides itself ethnically and culturally from the rest of America--doesn't mean that it has to be reflexively infuriated by the very existence of people that don't like us very much. That it does speaks more to the fear and anxiety that currently palsies the right than to the morality of dealing with questionable leaders in the world, which is absolutely necessary in the course of any nation.

Fernholz continues:
But it strikes me as funny that the Republicans calling for more "toughness" are basically arguing that we should get worked up because Chavez called us names -- come on, fellas, sticks and stones!
Conservatives can dish it out, but they can't take it. It's as true domestically as internationally. We know this. Usually liberals don't even bother to try to stand against it, but when they do--as in this clip where Lawrence O'Donnell points out to Pat Buchanan the inconsistency of being both pro-life and pro-death penalty--the typical conservative response is to take differences in opinion very personally. This is, of course, a manifestation of a fundamental lack of faith in their vision of society and in America, and that is a pretty consistent defining trait of the right, one which has been exploited by many conservative politicians--Karl Rove played it masterfully--by making stuff like this seem like something worse than it was, something that hinted at some sort of diminishment of America, instead of just a handshake, which is what it was.

I'm of the belief that conservatives have little chance of changing the world until they can drop the petty fears and paranoia. I suspect it's internalized too deeply to get out any time soon, and that's why I was hopeful that Mike Huckabee would be the type of hopeful Republican leader--possessed of some level of intellectual honesty and some sense of social justice--to turn things around for the GOP in a way that would be better for everyone. Unfortunately, he turned out to be just another Republican hack, clucking about the Chavez handshake along with the rest of them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

No, they really don't get it

Mukasey and Hayden take to the op-ed pages. The usual pro-torture blather. The relativist bullshit of "well, those terrorists chopped peoples' heads off, and we just put a guy in a box with some bugs, so no big deal". The way this is posited seems to be literally making the argument that two wrongs do make a right. This principle makes little sense when scaled up--saying that someone else robbed a bank while you cheated on your wife doesn't make you blameless. And of course there's the random 9/11 invocation:
Its effect will be to invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001.
Because that sort of talk hasn't jumped the shark. Trying to scare us into doing whatever the Rovians want us to do by raising the specter of September 11th is so 2002. Gotta like this bit as well:
[T]errorists are now aware of the absolute limit of what the U.S. government could do to extract information from them, and can supplement their training accordingly and thus diminish the effectiveness of these techniques as they have the ones in the Army Field Manual.
Doesn't matter, as those techniques aren't in use. We're just using the Army Field Manual now. Irrelevant. And here's the big defense:
Interrogation is conducted by using such obvious approaches as asking questions whose correct answers are already known and only when truthful information is provided proceeding to what may not be known.
So, their understanding is that someone who tells you the truth on one answer will keep on telling the truth permanently? They're not going to change their minds?
Such a claim often conflates interrogation with the sadism engaged in by some soldiers at Abu Ghraib, an incident that had nothing whatever to do with intelligence gathering.
True, but also irrelevant. Once brutalism enters the culture it metastasizes. Here are dumb and dumber on how Obama is handicapping intelligence professionals:
Even with a seemingly binding opinion in hand, which future CIA operations personnel would take the risk? There would be no wink, no nod, no handshake that would convince them that legal guidance is durable. Any president who wants to apply such techniques without such a binding and durable legal opinion had better be prepared to apply them himself.
Yes, God forbid they follow the damn law. You know, the one that worked for us during WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, all of which were rather more formidable than al-Qaeda.

Those Bushies stay true to their colors, don't they? They only offer one (discredited) piece of evidence in favor of torture, that of Abu Zubaidah, who talked before he was tortured and afterward gave a bunch of false leads that wasted a lot of the government's time. This is a document that is political and consequentalist, unrigorous and silly. I'm not linking to it--you can find it on your own.

The reason why torture is wrong, and why it has no place in a liberal democracy, is simple to my mind. Torture is the process of breaking a person's spirit, of smashing someone's will in order to obtain something from them. It is a violation on a scale so immense it is inconceivable that one human would do it to another, unless the perpetrator felt that the victim was less than human. Indeed, the most prolific torture regimes in the 20th century felt that way--the Nazis, of course, codified it in law. Same with the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, etc. In the latter cases the victims weren't humans but bourgeouis parasites who had to be purged for the greater good. Ah, you might say, but America didn't kill people on the magnitude of those evil regimes. Yes, though some terror suspects died in interrogation, America didn't participate in mass purges. I do believe, though, that while the terrorists are clearly doing something worse than the Bush Administration did, that there is a parallel there. The ultimate purpose of torture is to break someone, in effect to destroy that person in order to get what you want from them. Having read The Dark Side and all manner of journalism about the hollow husks of humanity that are torturees after release, it seems like the express purpose of "interrogation" is frequently accomplished. Despite only one little piece of evidence they can give that it has any worth at all, and lots and lots of arguments that it can't.

So it's depraved, but the defenders are even more disgusting. I find it baffling that right-wingers would save their cries of fascism for Barack Obama's stated desire to raise upper-class tax rates a few points while they support torture, and it just goes to show how the rudderless, twisted, and rotting remains of the right have abrogated any concept of morality or justice in favor of esoteric and ancient hatreds and prejudices. These are people who have no problem with the notion of a government that can kill them or torture them without having to give reason, and yet they complain about the creeping role of government and the erosion of "traditional American values", though presumably not the part about how all men are created equal and entitled to certain inalienable human rights.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Riddle me this

Of all the tea parties in all the land, why did John Boehner go to the one in Bakersfield? I guess the area is conservative--once you move in past the Bay, California starts to resemble Idaho more than Massachusetts--but presumably there was something in Ohio to go to? Or in Hawaii, perhaps? It certainly isn't because of B-field's natural beauty (I used to live in the general area, so I would know). I guess he was hanging out with my former Congressman, Kevin McCarthy, who is supposed to be a GOP rising star, so maybe he wanted to give Kev some visibility or something. I don't know, it's just weird.

Hope for Israel

The greatest hope for Israel's survival might well be Rahm Emanuel, though I agree with Matt's commenter Glenn when he says, about Emanuel's insistence that "In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn’t matter to us at all who is prime minister", that "The lack of profanity leads me to question whether that’s an actual Emanuel quote". Still, that Emanuel says he's willing to put pressure on Israel--something that will be made easier by his being a solid Zionist who served in the IDF--does bode well.

Obama Admin to release interrogation memos

This is good news, especially considering that Obama has been less than perfect on reinstating our constitutional freedoms and the rule of law. This gives hope that he's moving in the right direction, at least. As for the Republicans who threatened Obama's legal nominees over release of these memos: he called their bluff. And I do believe it was a bluff--blocking Obama's nominees now would just be revenge. Not that they're above it, but there's really no point now. I'm guessing Dawn Johnsen and Harold Koh will be confirmed forthwith.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The deconstruction of the network sitcom

Is effectively accomplished here, thanks to ABC Family's Roommates. Well worth it for the ironically inclined.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The tea parties: my theory

E.D. Kain writes:
[T]hese “Tea Parties” are nothing more than GOP leftover rallies from a population still deeply absorbed in its own denialism over the loss of the Presidency to a Democrat.
You do sometimes hear that, contra Kain, conservatives really are upset at Bush's spending. To the extent that the right is upset over Bush's spending--to the extent that some, like Newt Gingrich, have exiled him from the movement--I suspect that a principled case against Bush's wasteful spending would be unappealing to conservatives. If one leaves aside the wasteful spending of pentagon procurement and unnecessary wars--which I suspect conservatives would love to do--there's not too much left to pick at. There's Medicare Part D, there were oodles of corporate welfare to energy companies (among others) that were the sum total of the Cheney Energy Plan, there were giveaways to agribusiness in the 2004 Farm Bill, and various sorts of tax exemptions and pork projects liberally spread around. Virtually every one of these instances of wasteful spending aren't the result of Bush and the GOP going liberal--Part D, perhaps, but even that qualifies in the inescapable trend here: Part D was largely as a giveaway to corporate America. I suppose one could be angry at the principle of giving prescription drugs to seniors, but it certainly could have been done in a way that wasn't a bonanza for pharma. Instead, it was a bonanza for pharma. The Bush years' excessive spending sprees were characterized by a combination of corporate welfare, and a lobbying culture that was successful in Republicans to go along with the program. To the extent that Bushian wasteful spending existed, it wasn't really a function of anti-conservatism so much as an excessively powerful nexus between business elites and political elites, which still exists and is very dangerous, but it rose to new heights with the GOP unified government days of 2003-2007. It strikes me that a series of protests by right-wingers against political collusion with industry would be just the sort of salutary and attention-grabbing stunt that might change a few assumptions among the opinion elite, which is exactly why the conservative movement co-opted them into general-purpose conservative two minutes' hate-a-thons. The possibility of a visible anti-corporate right would make their job so much harder.

In fact, it makes sense that the conservative movement would deliberately want to muddy the meaning of these Tea Parties as being nothing more than the sum of conservative resentments. (By the way: read Dave Weigel's piece here). Annexing the Tea Parties means that the conservative movement has control over the outward message to some extent, and making it FOX News-sponsored only means that they'll have final cut over what gets out there, tailoring the coverage as they see fit and presumably drowning out any other comers. Keep in mind that it is crucially important for these people to continue the illusion that they represent the only "real" conservatism--if suddenly it starts to seem as though actual conservatives look a lot less like Mitt Romney and a lot more like Daniel Larison, it will prompt more than a bit of reexamination in the public sphere, and it's possible that GOP politicians would have to move to adapt to the change. Considering that, say, pivoting on free trade would likely offend big business this is not something they want to do.

Now that I think about it, these protests aren't likely to really help the GOP and can hurt it in a number of ways--by turning violent, by being repellent, by putting forward messages like fair trade that evidently are prevalent among conservatives but not among the GOP elite, for starters. How can they help? Did any of the left's anti-Iraq protests do anything other than make for an amusing sideshow during the run-up to Iraq? These things tend to be either mocked or ignored, when they don't turn violent. I suppose it is possible that peaceful protests that were narrowly targeted against, say, the bailouts might be effective. Not so much the stimulus bill, which is broadly popular, or the budget, which is too large and sophisticated to be reduced to something to be inserted into, "What do we want? ______! When do we want it? Now!" Anyway, that's enough for now.

Cornyn backs Specter

Proof that, despite generally being a braying jackass, NRSC Chair John Cornyn isn't stupid. He knows that the sort of hard-right Austrian economics that the GOP loves will never take hold in Pennsylvania. This is something of a bold stance to make, considering that it's coming the day before the much-hyped "Tea Bag" Parties that are allegedly focusing on wasteful spending and bailouts, of which Arlen Specter was a supporter. Cornyn might take some heat for this, but I'll give him some points for making a smart call.

My guess is that Specter doesn't survive the primary, though. I think voting for the stimulus bill--at the very time when the right is becoming excised about spending--was what did him in, especially when one considers that he barely survived a primary in 2004 with a much less wingnutty state GOP. Honestly, my sympathy for the guy went away when he decided to go against the EFCA and sell out the unions in the process. Still, Specter's odds just got a little bit better.

Addendum: Remember when I said Cornyn was a braying jackass?

Caprica is on the way

I'm skeptical that it will be any good. This review seems to be making the rounds, and it seems like BSG minus the action, which is also known as the latter seasons of BSG. This didn't exactly work that well, because the showrunners became enamored of the intellectual component of the show while the show always made more sense on a visceral and emotional level, with tight storytelling that developed its themes but kept them in the background. Unfortunately, it looks as though we're going to get another show about "ideas" that aren't all that new that overpower good characters and good drama. It seems that humans learn all the wrong lessons from history.

The review asks the question of whether or not BSG fans will tune in. They will, and they'll keep tuning in, the same way they tuned in during some pretty dire seasons of BSG. But are they enough to keep the show going? I found this chart which tracks the show's viewership over its entire run:

Basically, the longer the show was on, the lower the ratings were (this goes through the beginning of Season 4). The show wore poorly as it went on, though it stayed relatively stable during individual seasons. Near the end it looks like the show more or less plateaued around 1.2 million viewers, who are the diehards that will watch Caprica. I wouldn't even be surprised if a few disaffected BSG fans checked out the new series, as well as a few newbies that heard about BSG and want to see what all the fuss was about. My guess is that these folks won't stick around long if Caprica repeats BSG's mistakes, which fundamentally boiled down to poor storytelling and an unrelenting grim tone that--surprise, surprise--people got tired of at a fairly linear rate. If Caprica doesn't develop some coherent and compelling story arcs off the bat, as well as to do a better job of showing some real humanitas instead of Ron Moore's Opera of Gloom, then it will be gone soon. Time will tell.

Rick Warren

I've been pondering the good reverend over the past few days. I know that he is highly regarded by many in this country, but it seems to me that he lacks a fundamental understanding of the teachings of Christianity, as well as even some basic grounding in the numerous political issues on which he opines. Take this recent little gem:
The bottom line is that secularism doesn’t last, because no faith will always be filled by something else, and so that’s why Islam is making strong inroads into Europe, because faith of any kind will always beat no faith.
The reason why Islam is gaining strength in Europe isn't because secular white Europeans are converting in droves--a few are converting, sure, but the prevailing consensus is still secular. The reason why Islam is gaining strength is because birth rates among white Europeans is falling, while it's surging among Arab immigrants. This results in a higher proportion of Muslims in the European population. Clearly, this will present social cohesion problems down the road, and it points out one of the key weaknesses of the European model of society, which is far more grounded in ancient ethnic origins than America is, for we don't have any of those. But the notion that Europe is going to be majority Muslim soon is wrong, and the notion that Muslim gains are due to a tiredness of secularism are silly--Europe has been mostly secular for over a century. France's 1905 law that established church-state separation as a law--widely seen as the beginning of Europe's secularization--has stood for several generations, and that's several generations of people who have lived without Warren's faith resurgence. Warren and his ilk like to make the case that everyone needs religion of some sort, but his argument here is pretty dumb since the religion in question here is Islam, not Warren's Christianity, which is not making many inroads into Europe. Warren's argument here might actually be easily appropriated by the likes of Sam Harris or Chris Hitchens as proof that Christianity isn't some sort of unique or transcendent religion, as Europe is certainly familiar with it but it is not sweeping over Europe, while Islam is making some gains.

The truth is that Warren is simply not a very good spokesman for Christianity. His evolving stance on gays is a case in point: last year, Warren was a very public and spirited proponent of Proposition 8 here in California. Now he disavows the support. His church used to tell gays not to visit his church, but he lifted that language from his website. And he has not given any reason or public explanation for his switcheroos. What we see in these examples is not a principled man or a heartfelt convert to GLBT rights, but rather an opportunist who senses the changing political winds and has already begun to pivot. Now, obviously, as a gay-friendly Christian I am well aware that this is a difficult issue for many Christians, and I can accept that many just don't feel that they can go there. I appreciate it, though I suspect that the reasons for this have less to do with a strict adherence to Leviticus (which nobody in the modern world really does, completely) than a lack of life experience. But I think there's an ironclad argument for humane treatment of gay folks in the Bible, and I tend to think that citing Leviticus as proof of anything is a liability in an argument about Christianity and not a strength. As a matter of civic law I think the case for gay marriage is bulletproof. It would be nice if a religious leader like, I don't know, Rick Warren could participate in some of these complicated and difficult discussions rather than wuss out and say he's too tired to do so, but such is the state of Warren's conviction and seriousness.

I could go on and on, but I don't see any reason why we should continue to take this man seriously. The crowning moment for me was when he appeared on Sean Hannity's show and said that he believed that we should assassinate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cause we don't like him, I suppose. That's totally something that you can back up with scripture. Look it up. If Warren is the next generation of the religious right we're in real trouble, I'd even say he's a step down from Pat Robertson, who at least had probably read the Bible at some point, even if he missed the whole point in his preaching. Rick Warren is wrong too, and doesn't even seem to get why a Christian ought to think twice about murdering the ceremonial head of a state with which we are not presently at war, in a way that would likely make him a martyr and would enflame the Middle East even more against us. Giving the Christian imprimatur to hogwash like this is far, far more dangerous than any of Pat Robertson's laughable prophecies.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On ideology

Larison disses Jonah Goldberg's diss of realism:
The way to tell an ideologue from a realist, and the reason realists are not simply ideologues posing as something else, is that the ideologue will persist in a course of action long after it has failed and long after everyone knows it has failed because he thinks that his “values” demand it. Instead of “let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” the ideologue says, “I am right, and the world can go to hell if it doesn’t agree.” The ideologue is terrified of having to make adjustments and adapt to the world as it really is, because these adjustments reveal to the ideologue just how far removed from that reality he has become. The ideologue keeps redefining the justification for the policy, he keeps rewriting history to suit his own purposes, and he never accepts responsibility for the failure of his ideas, because he believes they have never been faithfully followed. For the realist, cutting one’s losses and reassessing the merits of a policy are always supposed to be possibilities, but for the ideologue the former is equivalent to surrender and the latter is inconceivable. In his greatest confusion of all, Goldberg manages to mix up realists with their opposites.
What surprises me is that the sort of rigidity that Larison describes wouldn't hack it in most professions. It certainly wouldn't work in business, where individuals and companies that don't change their thinking and adjust to new situations find themselves made obsolete by the market. It wouldn't work in academe, since people who don't change their mind when confronted with new evidence are just ignored, and their papers aren't published. Creationists, for instance, aren't exactly wrong to say that the scientific establishment doesn't respect them, but this is as it should be because creationism is not science of any sort, nor is intelligent design. I believe God created the world, but the notion that it occurred in about six days, some six thousand years ago, goes against centuries of scientific developments. So I'm inclined not to believe that. It's all a question of who I'm going to believe: scientists or the religious right. There's little doubt in my mind who's more worthy of trust.

Ultimately, this sort of mentality does occur in politics but the religious right has taken it to the next level. They made politics about values, not practicality. Obviously, people need to have values in order to govern responsibly, but to believe, for example, that raising taxes is always and absolutely wrong and disastrous, even though it led to a huge prosperity boom in the 1990s, is a good example of what Larison's talking about. I suppose it's not impossible that conservatism could come back without reassessing any of its dogma, but it's perhaps unlikely. In scientific research, prevailing notions change when the old thinkers die off rather than when they change their minds. So the GOP might well be in for decades of rebuilding if this is true.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right on Cuba

Read his take here. He says almost exactly what I think on the issue. If you're going to criticize tyrants on the other side of the political spectrum, you better be willing to do the same when they're on your side (though I'm not a communist, of course). I have zero affection for Fidel Castro, none, and that flows just as inextricably from the same principles that lead me to believe that the Netanyahu non-plan for Palestinian self-determination is wrong, or that the Bush torture regime was a grave injustice, and probably our greatest national sin since slavery (though some acts of Cold War realpolitik certainly qualify). Castro, though, makes Bush look like a saint by comparison. Any liberal who believes that individuals fundamentally possess rights to free speech, an honest system of justice, freedom of expression, and self-determination shouldn't find much to like in Castro's Cuba, excellent healthcare and education aside. Fundamental human rights must trump the welfare state. I could never get behind illiberal leftism, and I really don't understand people who could. I suspect it's because these people haven't thought things through.

And, by the way, Bobby Rush's comment about how meeting Fidel was just like meeting an old friend, coupled with his obnoxious Roland Burris race baiting, now makes him my Least Favorite Democrat (LFD). He's right up there with many prestigious figures:
  • Dan Boren, whose name in a story always is due to his opposing some good Democratic idea;
  • Evan Bayh, a simpleton whose only priorities in life are to get reelected and to prove how centrist he is, when in reality he just proves how hollow his centrism is;
  • Virtually everyone on Air America, who can't produce a halfway entertaining radio show, or seemingly get through a single hour without more earnest calls for Bush's impeachment (I presume it's different now, but I'm scared to find out);
  • Dick Gephardt, whose valiant efforts to coerce House Dems to vote for the Iraq War Resolution made it that much more of a certainty (and he had never really cared about foreign affairs before!);
  • Actually, toss in most of the Dem leadership during the early Bush years.

Actually, that's pretty much about it. Max Baucus used to be up there, but he's become good on healthcare, so he's out. Joe Lieberman has also become much less irritating recently. But Bobby Rush is now my least-liked Democrat. Interesting symmetry of obnoxious Rushes on both the left and right. Why couldn't Obama have beaten good ol' Bobby in 2000?

ACORNs come from trees, don't they?

There's not much one can do but chuckle at the ACORN nonsense coming from the right these days. They're practically acting like ACORN is the Men In Black, only craftier. I will give the right this: they never run out of Shibboleths.

Socialism is on the rise!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!!11

Maybe. I'm honestly surprised that socialism has any real support at all, but evidently Rasmussen (Rasmussen!) has a poll that shows that 47% of Americans either support "socialism" or aren't sure if it's better than capitalism. I wonder how much of this is really just a reaction to present circumstances (people hate business because of the damn bailouts) or if America really is in for a dramatic shift politically in the next few decades. Young folks seem to be the most left-friendly, which gives some confirmation to the letter that one of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote a while back. Then again, so were the boomers, right? Maybe? Who knows.

Now, as a liberal I'm for "socialism" but not for socialism. Do I support state ownership of the means of production? Not really. I don't think government should be making cars or blue jeans, because they tend to be bad at it and it's difficult to forecast how many will be needed. But since the right tends to define "socialism" as moderate liberalism--building up public infrastructure, an Obama-style healthcare plan, nationalizing certain public utilities (at least ones that nobody is in a position to compete with), strict new financial regulation that will make another financial collapse like this one impossible, moderately higher taxes for the rich--I suppose I'd answer "yes" to this Rasmussen question. But I don't want the Democrats to embark on an Atlee-style program of reform anytime soon.


Larison points out the inanity of Karl Rove's polarization argument against Obama:
As the minority party, that is their prerogative, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of policies that are vastly increasing the debt (it would help even more to have alternative budgets that don’t invite mockery!), but if a party has opted to go down the rejectionist route it is silly to complain the President is having a polarizing effect as if this were a bad outcome.

Yes, but the Republicans are running McCain-Palin 2.0. They're not even copying the good parts, either: evidently they think that the McCain strategy of message whack-a-mole, in which you change your message on an almost daily basis, from one silly argument to another in hopes that something sticks, not unlike trying to hit whatever mole pops up in the legendary arcade game. If you hit, then you go with it so long as the media is interested, e.g. "Drill, baby, drill!" and when the media stops caring you just pick something else and repeat. I actually thought that the message operation was the weakest part of the McCain campaign, no doubt due to McCain's own inability to set priorities and plot strategy and just to say whever pops into his mind, rather than crafting a sustained argument for your candidacy, as President Obama did.

So far as I can tell, the McCain-Palin press operation was sort of like Rovism with ADD. There were an endless stream of incendiary, divisive declarations that hit all the classic conservative sweet spots, except that they switched them up too quickly for any to take hold and were quickly forgotten. It really was a campaign geared toward winning every newscycle and getting Mark Halperin's verdict on who won the week to go their way. And it's not like these tactics weren't successful in and of themselves. But, as the Vietnamese general says, that might be true but it is also irrelevant. So we have the Tea Parties and "Obama's Polarizing", this month's rightist flavor that will be forgotten in June. By then, it will be something new, though likely something having to do with ACORN...

Chesterton was right*

Matt Yglesias notes:
[A]s a secular person who thinks there’s a lot of wisdom in traditional Christian ethical thought it always strikes me as very odd that modern-day manifestations of Christian political activism in the United States so often take the form of advocacy for violence, cruelty, and revenge.

Ah, Matt. This is a lament that I frequently hear from other liberals, and I am totally sympathetic to it. How can a religion that primarily consists of enlightened teachings--love your neighbor as yourself, treat others as you would be treated, don't judge others, forgive others when they wrong you--wind up often being so perverse? To some extent, it's pretty telling that both Christianity and Islam teach a lot of similar things in how to treat others, and yet both have some clearly repressive and deranged followers. I suspect in both cases that these form a fairly small percentage of practicing members of the faith in question, every group has its rotten apples, etc.

When it comes to politics, American Christianity has been heavily co-opted by the right, thanks largely to effective outreach by organizations like the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority. Those organizations have Southern roots, which isn't surprising, as the South is probably the most religious region in America, and the most contradictory. There are many stories about the antebellum South and its cultured, hospitable, genteel, religious way of life. Gone With The Wind is one such. All of those people, though, owned slaves. They engaged in one of the most abominable practices known to man, one which might not have been literally forbidden by the Bible (certainly not in the Old Testament, though it envisions the institution differently), but slavery violates nearly every lesson on how to treat others that Jesus ever spoke, as well as every standard of justice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet the South was predominantly Christian and agricultural, and therefore slave owning. Clearly, this is a group of people that has little trouble compartmentalizing their Christianity.

I would not go so far as to say that all of Christianity supports this sort of agenda, not even all evangelicals or even all politically active conservative evangelicals. But I would say that the sort of evangelicalism that's been on the rise in the past few decades has been of a Southern origin, one that is comfortable with an "us versus them" dynamic (though not necessarily still racist) rather than a "we're all God's children" dynamic that the actual Bible seeks to impart. That the Christian part of the Christian Right has been completely corrupted by the right, to such an extent that they now approve of torture, was predictable. Add in a healthy amount of apocalypticism, in which believers think that these are the last days and that all those Jesus teachings are well and good but this is WAR and we are fighting Satan and we can't let him win--well, you get the picture. Southern evangelicalism has long been rather apocalyptic, but I'd say that since the 1960s it's been quite a bit worse. This is the justification for quite a bit of religious acceptance of the present nastiness, as statements like this seem to belie an apocalyptic, barbarians at the gates worldview among many religious right types. And I don't see it as likely to stop soon: Christians have been waiting for almost two millennia for Christ's reappearance. For almost all of that time there has been some share of apocalyptics out there. We better just get used to it.

All of this is to say that the left needs to do outreach to religious voters. Secular voters are a significant part of the left, true, and they get nervous when Senator Blahblah starts pulling out the Bible verses. This being said, I don't think that most Christians really want to impose a theocracy on America, as many liberals often assert as fact (rather than just an opinion). Lines must be drawn, as I think they can, and there is common ground to be tapped. The intellectual tradition of Catholicism contains a strong strain of social justice that can be tapped to persuade individual voters, for example. For many years, for Christians, it just seemed like the right was the last gang in town, and the left has to be more present in this arena. To his credit, Barack Obama has been doing this, though it hasn't borne much fruit yet. He must continue to do so as a long-term strategy. The nation is getting less religious, but the only hope of Christianity continuing to exist here is if it gets less political, less Southern, and more focused on ideals of justice and spirituality. The left is late getting into this game--thanks no doubt to the Clinton-era preeminence of social liberalism and secularism as the heart of the Democratic Party, and the reticence of Democratic pols to look like they're pandering or to take a hit with the secular left. Things are getting better, but more must be done.

*"The biggest problem with Christianity is Christians." -- G.K. Chesterton

Globalization left and right

This article by Dave Weigel, about the resistance to "internationalist" Harold Koh as the State Department's legal guy, made me curious about the contrary attitudes about globalization on the right. On the one hand, the right supports some measures of globalization, like free trade (to some extent) and internationalism (of its own brand). However, it steadfastly opposes anything that even looks like an international attempt to straitjacket the unbridled expression of American will at home or abroad. I find this curious. Clearly it merits further analysis.

First off, I think the free trade issue can easily be dismissed. Like most other economic issues, it's existence is primarily due to the influence of the business community who wants to sell goods globally. And it's not as if the right holds a principled view of free trade, considering W. Bush-era tariffs on textiles and lumber. Trade is sort of a sui generis issue on the right, and I think that the easiest way for Republicans to regain ground in the Midwest would be to renounce free trade, which would lend itself naturally to the conservative pitch on patriotism and would be something economic that would make Republicans seem more appealing to actual voters. I don't think this would be morally right or good policy, and it's pretty much a nonstarter among the actual Republican elite, but that's my sense of things. I'm actually a pretty staunch free trader in general (though I do insist that free trade agreements include some protections for workers and the environment in other countries, so that other people see some improvement out of the thing), and that's one of the things that scares the hell out of me on the left. Protectionism not only seems like bad policy and immoral, but it seems to be appealing to the very sorts of id-centric "otherism" that so repulses me on the right. Thankfully, the free trade wing of the party seems very much in control, and influential left-leaning thinkers like Paul Krugman largely agree with me on allowing free trade and unionization, plus a robust safety net, as the answer to globalization.

Anyway, the contradictions in the rest of what the right says about globalization are interesting. The prevailing view seems to be that, to be our friends, countries should more or less follow our lead in overseas military adventures--Bush's "for us or against us" rhetoric. And yet the converse doesn't apply, as guys like Chuck Krauthammer believe that things as minor and inane as the UN Law of the Sea Treaty are an unconscionable breach of American sovereignty. This doesn't make sense at all--we don't have to follow the treaty if we don't sign it, and if we do, it's an expression of American sovereignty, only in concert with a lot of other countries simultaneously. The response I've heard most often in response to the contradiction I presented is that other countries should follow our lead because we're more powerful, but this principle is really thorny. In 1945 it is beyond dispute that the Soviet Union was militarily the most powerful nation in the world (though not economically). Not only did the USSR have way more tanks left over from WWII, but they had better tanks (the Russian T-34 was the best tank in the war, the American Sherman was the worst) and more battle-hardened veterans. We probably could have taken them by air, but there has yet to be a war won by air power alone. And Russia had way more infantry than America. Of course, the formation of NATO helped make the sides in the Cold War a bit more even, but would the neocons concede that America should have let Berliners starve in 1948 because Russia was more powerful militarily, and as the more powerful nation what they say goes? What about the American Revolution? Should George Washington have just surrendered to the British right off the bat? Of course not, because might doesn't necessarily make right, and simply being powerful isn't a moral impetus on other countries to bestow unchecked leadership upon us. (I do think that the South should have faced the inevitable instead of taking on the much more powerful North during the American Civil War, especially with the woefully pathetic obsession with the "Northern Aggression" narrative which translated into a terrible military strategy, but this is all a propos.)

The truth is that nationalism of this sort is often identified with the right but it wasn't always that way. In fact, conservatives like Richard Nixon and Arthur Vandenberg (a personal favorite of mine) were staunch internationalists after WWII, believers in the United Nations (which was founded by a Republican named Henry Cabot Lodge) and supporters of Harry Truman's containment policy. To some extent, international law might run afoul of the "small government" ethos that conservatives have built over the years, though that motto is more of a "whatever the hell you want it to mean" deal these days, if the invasion of another country to convert them to democracy--a notion that used to be confined to Berkeley hippies with their "Free Tibet" stickers--is now a province of the right. What unifies all of these threads--"with us or against us", "all your nations are belong to us", and "Free Tibet"--is not any sort of principle but rather a severe counterreaction to the undeniable reality of American decline. It's no coincidence that this notion gained currency among the right during the Clinton years, which were decidedly absent of great power conflicts and contained humanitarian disasters in tiny African countries that we should have been able to take easily in a war. It is also no coincidence that anti-UN sentiment among the right has risen, not fallen, in light of the disasterous nature of the Iraq War, which has only underscored the reality that we are not less powerful than we once were, but we're less powerful than we thought we were. That Iraq has turned around in the past few years has been due mostly to superior strategy and canny realpolitik, though that a war with the Alabama of the Middle East was even close suggests that we know even less about the modern world than we thought we did. Empire only worked in the first place because of the huge technology gap between the conquerors and the conquered--one man with a rifle is worth one hundred with spears, and all that. Now Iraqi insurgents can buy AK-47s for five dollars a pop. You can't build an empire under those conditions.

It is interesting that one sees far more of an acceptance of what Fareed Zakaria termed, "the post-American world" among the left. Indeed, it seems like liberal elites are less interested in forever being the preeminent nation among nations, which I think is clear-eyed and healthy. Unfortunately, I see little in the way of trying to wind down the American Empire around the world among the liberal elite, which I think is necessary. The world has changed, and talking about paring back defense budgets and "guns vs. butter" seems like the proper thing to start doing, though it's difficult to do that for now, considering the nature of the political currents of the current debate on national security. At some point, the left needs to start moving down that alleyway, though, especially if we want to actually keep Obama's stuff funded in the future.

Empires rise and fall, and there is usually some pretty intense attempts to keep them from falling after the fall is already well underway. A lot of people think that Iraq was George W. Bush's Vietnam, and while the analogy holds in a lot of ways--it's an unnecessary war launched by a president with a particular set of political anxieties and personal insecurities, it dragged down both men and destroyed both of their reputations, as well as their political parties (and they were both Texans, which has to be relevant)--it fails in others. Vietnam was a war we fought because of our policy of containment, a war we should just have abandoned but that there was some rationalization for it in existing U.S. policy. Bush introduced the "Bush Doctrine", a new policy based largely on his own whims on what to base military action. Lyndon Johnson was a very successful president otherwise--he'd be in the all-time top tier for sure if you ignore foreign policy. Bush was a disaster in every field of public policy, and a great deal of the problems with Iraq were due to sheer incompetence, which was not necessarily the case in Vietnam. No, I think the better parallel for Iraq isn't Vietnam, but Suez. British PM Anthony Eden launched an attack to reclaim the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1956. It failed and Eden resigned, and it was considered the last act of the British Empire. I don't suppose we've seen the last act of Empire in America--and even in Britain there were twitches of Empire during its rigor mortis, like the 1982 Falkland Islands War--but the sound of bells tolling is unmistakeable. I think that the history books will not reference Iraq as Bush's Vietnam, but rather as Bush's Suez. And if they don't, they should, because that captures the very essence of what it was supposed to be, only successful.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.