Thursday, May 28, 2009

The real problems with the Sotomayor opposition

Matt Yglesias puts it so elegantly:
The argument about Sonia Sotomayor consists of the idea that we should discount her career and her degrees because those are just the results of the kind of “preferential treatment” that poor Puerto Rican girls from the projects get. We’ve also heard that she has a troubling fondness for Puerto Rican food. That it’s unreasonable that she pronounces her name as if it’s a Spanish word. We’ve heard that she’s a soft-hearted woman who wants to set aside the law in favor of empathetic victims, and also heard complaints that she’s failed to set aside the law in order to help out empathetic white people. These kind of criticisms are going to drive Hispanics away from the conservative cause not because conservatives are criticizing a Latina, but because they’re criticizing her in terms that imply a generalized skepticism about the qualifications of all American Hispanics, a loathing of Latin culture, and a monomaniacal obsession with defending the interests of white people.
And then there's Tom Tancredo claiming she's in the Latino KKK (whatever that means). Here's my opinion: honestly, Obama is probably not going to gain too much from this pick. There's probably not much to gain: he got almost 70% of the Latino vote. Maybe there are some marginal gains to be had here, and certainly picking the first ever Hispanic justice could help cement the Democrats' hold on Latinos, to some extent. But the political advantages for this pick are easy to overstate--after all, picking Sarah Palin was supposed to deliver disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters to the GOP, and the end result was that Obama managed an almost threefold improvement on John Kerry's votes among women. Symbolism can help but not too much. In other words, a mostly united GOP vote against Sotomayor would probably not hurt the GOP any more among Hispanics than it is already hurting, so long as she is confirmed such vagaries will not be relevant, and the confirmation wouldn't mean that Obama could take Latinos for granted.

However, there is significant peril if the GOP loses control of its message and this turns into McCain-Kennedy, Part II, in which unhinged wingnuts and talk impresarios turn the discussion away from substance and in a nakedly xenophobic/racist direction. There are valid reasons to support immigration restriction, and there are valid reasons to oppose Sonia Sotomayor. But those reasons, in both cases, seem to be almost irrelevant to conservatives, who prefer to take the rather odious tack they've chosen. This will have consequences. This is all sort of a no-win for Republicans, so the best they could do is keep things restrained. Since it's wingnut bloggers and talk blowhards who run the party now, that isn't not an option. These folks literally can't help themselves.

Have Jim Jones run for something. I'll vote for him.

Our National Security Adviser, sluffing off the ideology of national security:
"I think that the former vice president knows full well that perfection is an impossible standard" and that the United States can only do its best to "keep threats at bay and as far away from our shores as possible."
Wait, you mean that national security policy involves tradeoffs? You mean that we can't just kick ass and eliminate evil altogether, like those folks at Wingnut Standard want to do? Clearly this man is not a Serious Person. In any event, knowing that this man holds high office in America makes me a lot more optimistic about our future. And the fact that Obama has read some Niebuhr also gives me some hope.

Palin to face off against Berkowitz

I called it a while ago, but now it looks like a reality. She's going to face off against the Dems' 2008 congressional candidate, Ethan Berkowitz, who came this close to beating Don Young last year. It'll be a fight, and I'm unsure that Palin could be considered the frontrunner at this point--perhaps slightly, but this is going to be close, unless she decides not to run (which she might well do). I'd be interested to see what the polls have to say.

This seems like big news

Hillary Clinton calls on Israel to freeze settlements. Good. I'm not one of those who thinks that Israel is solely responsible for the crisis there--this is hardly the case (though neither am I one who thinks that Israel is completely innocent in this struggle), and the settlements are an illegal and offensive display of raw power--sort of like Israel's version of Guantanamo Bay.

If Netanyahu were smart, he'd accept this and begin the process of dismantling the settlements. Unfortunately, Netanyahu is a dumb and short-sighted hack who is interested merely in holding and maintaining power. He has no vision and no guts. It took America much longer to breed leaders with his sort of cynicism.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Limits of Power

I've been reading Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power. It's a good book. Really, really good. So far as I can tell, it's both indubitably correct and completely politically incorrect. Not in the "Why can't we tell racist jokes anymore?" wingnut sense, but rather in the Things That No Politician Can Ever, Ever Say way. His message is essentially conservative, but it's my kind of conservatism, and I suspect that you'd find more people on the left these days who believe that America cannot continue to exist unbounded than you could on the right. I've heard enough Rush Limbaugh to know that the conservative base is totally on board with conspicuous consumption.

In other words, a conservative movement more like Andrew Bacevich would be a good thing. Instead, it's just a bunch of pathetic overgrown bullies playing at facile manipulations while the country burns. When I read stuff like this I realize just how far round the bend the GOP really has gone. Evidently profanity, debauchery, and intemperance are the cornerstones of contemporary conservatism, right alongside Christianity. Just another sign of the utter Dixification of the Republican Party, and concomitantly its death spiral.

Indisputably true thing of the day

From John Cole, on Michael Steele's reticence to attack Sonia Sotomayor:
The funny thing about this is that despite all his faults, Steele has, for the most part, seen all the landmines his wingnut cohorts are tap-dancing through, but can’t do anything about it. And what makes that even funnier is that Michael Steele will be the one blamed for the GOP fail in 2010, when there was, quite literally, nothing he could do.

Let's demolish that stereotype

A prominent conservative media personality doesn't know anything about sports.

Men Are From Toughtown, Women Are From Fancyville

by Dennis Prager*

Women, huh? Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Those broads are kee-RAY-zee, and that's a fact.

I mean, seriously, with their emotions and stuff. What? Really. Dude, really. What's up? It's like you can't even talk about how they're genetically inferior to men like Lawrence Summers didn't really try to do, but that liberal women totally hated him for. They're nutty, they are. Especially those women profs. Man are they douchey. They were all liberal and stuff, trying to tell me to feel sorry about some culture or other. Never telling me to feel sorry about white men in the United States of America. I think my point is made.

And what ever happened to all those tough, manly he-men? Well, I'll tell you--they got feminized by all those nutty women with their silly virtues of compassion and concern for others. It almost crowds out the animalistic killing instinct--you know, that those tough and feisty men over on Wall Street have. I mean, most men oppose the Iraq War now. What is the matter with them? I mean, men should be ultra-aggressive and heedlessly risk-taking, right? None of this "concern for others" crap that the left thinks is so damned important. Well, what about Iraq, sir? What about Reagan? He won the damn Cold War! That was a man for you--the only man that I've ever been attracted to. I'll admit it! Still, I would never marry him, though being roomies would be totally awesome. Oh, and if he were alive...that would be good, too.

So, like, I've seen all these women with antiwar bumper stickers, and I think that's no coincidence. To hell with all those paleocons like Daniel Larison--real men love George W. Bush and believe in his policy of preventive war against countries that don't pose a threat to us. In fact, those are the best countries to invade. After all, war is the only way to tell the real men from those who run away, and Bush did it so that it's no big deal to peoples' lives, like World War II. Damn socialist F.D.R., with his high taxes and, you know, winning wars! Liberals hate war, but we conservatives love it so much that we want it to go on forever, because it allows men to show how tough they are, and how they're different from women (and lets us know who the effete liberals are). I'm sure if Bush had actually gone to war in Vietnam, he would have been a hero on the front lines, charging up the trenches across No Man's Land, machine gun bullets howling past his ears. Bush was a man, he did us proud.

Now, look, I'm not saying that women are unequal. No, no, no. They're equal, but different. Separate, you might say. I just don't think they should be in the government or serve as jurors. All those damn emotions! So strong. I'm very pleased to tell you all that I've never let my emotions cloud my judgment. Not even once.

(*This isn't actually a serious piece, nor is it by Dennis Prager. Just so's that you know.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor's not a liberal Scalia. This is a good thing.

Jeffrey Rosen: "Justice Scalia may be a brilliant bomb-thrower, but has failed in his attempts to build coalitions and bipartisan majorities."

Umm, yes. I don't know where this notion started, but it's silly. All things considered, I'd much have another Bill Brennan on the Court--who combined staunch liberalism with warmth and persuasiveness. More than anyone else, Brennan was responsible for halting the Burger Court's rolling back of civil rights rulings. I don't really know if there's another Brennan out there--even Eisenhower didn't know that Brennan would be Brennan, because otherwise Ike would never have picked the guy--but that's what liberals should want. Not a prickly absolutist who pushes moderates away.

I suppose that this is another way for a lot of bloggers to say that they want a bona fide liberal on the court. Sotomayor isn't that, I'll agree. But Obama will have more picks, and it would be good to have one or two of them on there, if only to improve the level of debate within the Supreme Court.

Gay marriage news

Pretty much how I expected things to shake out here in California. It's an embarrassment, to be sure, but at least the state isn't going to get in the business of breaking up married couples. That's something. I fully expect that gay marriage will be legal for good starting next year, as I doubt the Mormons will try as hard to derail it this time--their pound of flesh has been extracted.

The Sotomayor nomination

Ta-Nehisi states his (and my) opinion cleanly:
[T]his notion that Obama won't fight, really doesn't hold up. He sometimes doesn't fight for things that we want him to fight for. But he isn't afraid. I don't know if it's because of that Rosen piece, or what, but my initial impression is that this is very good fight to engage--politically and otherwise.
I'd go even further than this. I'm not sure that he's unwilling to fight for what we liberals want him to fight for (with some exceptions) so much as that he's unwilling to fight when we want him to. But the results so far (again, with some exceptions) have been promising.

This is why I get bummed out when I see people like Greenwald all but writing the guy off already. Look, I respect Greenwald and I'm happy that he's doing what he's doing--I definitely don't want to see the sort of hero worship that the right gave to Bush, which ultimately turned out to be self-defeating. Still, I don't think that public liberals have quite figured out the right sort of balance to tell truth to power. There's too easy a tendency to feel betrayed, too many bad memories of lost opportunities, too much confidence in the abilities of special interests to hold progress back. I certainly don't agree with every decision, substantive and tactical, that Obama has made, but what I've seen has been a constant series of forward steps, incremental changes for the better. Obama certainly hasn't delivered on everything I want him to yet--and I don't have a problem with people holding his feet to the fire--but we mustn't lose sight of the big things. Torture is illegal. Guantanamo will be closed, with or without the useless Senate leadership. The stimulus bill has passed and we got a decent credit card bill. None of these decisions were as impressive as they could have been, but they're better than we could have expected with President McCain.

So it is with this sort of mindset that I am annoyed by stories like this. I don't think Obama's a sacred oracle, but it seems like the SEIU ought to be doing more productive things with its time than attacking Barack Obama for something toward which he has only a marginal responsibility. I've generally thought in the past that Democrats were too soft, too fractious, and could use a stronger hand when it comes to party leadership (and stuff like this is why), but there has to be a middle ground here that appreciates that Obama is a human being with good intentions who may need to be pushed from time to time to do the right thing, but that also acknowledges that one shouldn't mistrust his motives until there's actually some reason to do so.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Steele Conundrum

"The problem that we have with this president is that we don’t know [Obama]. He was not vetted, folks. … He was not vetted, because the press fell in love with the black man running for the office. “Oh gee, wouldn’t it be neat to do that? Gee, wouldn’t it make all of our liberal guilt just go away? We can continue to ride around in our limousines and feel so lucky to live in an America with a black president.” Okay that’s wonderful, great scenario, nice backdrop. But what does he stand for? What does he believe? … So we don’t know. We just don’t know." -- Michael Steele, RNC Chairman

Bollocks. There isn't really that much doubt as to what Obama believes, unless one is trying to suggest that he's a closet Muslim or a secret Marxist or the actual culprit behind framing Roger Rabbit. I realize that conservatives no doubt consider Obama's relatively favorable media treatment as proof positive of media bias, though it's not as though he's the only person who gets exceptionally good media coverage--Newt Gingrich, for example, ought to be a political leper when one considers his utter failure at pushing any of his major proposed reforms, as well as abysmal popularity, multiple adulteries, etc. Instead he's the toast of D.C. The "liberal" media cannot get enough of him. No doubt another symbol of white liberal guilt, I suppose.

I can tell that the conservative establishment is going to spend at least the next two years screaming about media bias, hoping that the propagandistic effect of this yelling will undermine confidence in the news media, which they somehow believe will be a path to victory, I suppose. Once people see the "real" liberalism they'll run for the GOP hills, the theory must go. I do wonder if conservatives even have an idea what said evil, real liberalism believes in. Presumably, to conservatives, the media doing its job means reporting specious rumors about Bill Ayres writing Dreams From My Father and other unsourced nonsense that might or might not even be possible, let alone true. I talked to a number of conservatives during the campaign who felt the media was going too easy on Obama despite protracted newscycles on Jeremiah Wright and "Bittergate", both of which should have been one- or two-day stories at the most, as there was nothing beyond the surface, but conservatives evidently felt that the media should have been digging deeper--that the media should have asked whether Obama heard said messages, whether he responded to them, whether his kids listened in, etc. Conservatives seem to think that the media isn't asking the right questions, not considering that the media has strict rules on sourcing in publishing an article (with the possible exception of Politico). Assuming that the ideal for the wingnuts would be for The New York Times to become indistinguishable from The Corner, this is merely a sign of the right's tendency to treat wild, unsubstantiated rumors as worthy subjects of exploration and, more broadly, the end of truth and reason as the guiding lights of the right, supplanted by wild-eyed faith and innuendo. None of this is new, I suppose, but it isn't good.

But, ultimately, I don't expect these people to be convinced. A few more electoral defeats will be necessary for any reform to occur, I suspect. What is rather sad is the descent of Michael Steele, who I always felt was something of a lightweight but who I suspected was at least a decent and fair-minded--if very conservative--public figure who understood that the nastiness of present day conservatism was driving away a lot of potential voters. Steele was obviously a tokenistic choice, much like Sarah Palin initially was, and both had obviously not been terribly informed about the currents of the political debate. In retrospect, it seems only natural that, though both seemed to be initially at least somewhat honest, independent, and reasonable, that both would wind up going the full wingnut, as traveling up the stream without a paddle tends to be a losing proposition. Something very similar occurred with Mike Huckabee, who went from a more religious version of Teddy Roosevelt (not a great metaphor, but not entirely a bad one, I think) to someone denouncing the USSA of Barack Obama. This is an important and revealing trend--appealing and promising candidates simply cannot survive the GOP without adopting the nastiness wholesale. Reformist Republicans in particular are no doubt disappointed with both Steele and Palin--the former now sounds little different than his competitor who played the "magic negro" song and the latter seems unlikely to even get a second term as Governor of Alaska, let alone stop Obama in 2012. Is it any wonder that Jon Huntsman would just throw up his hands and accept an Administration job? No doubt he'd rather keep some semblance of integrity and humility, instead of being tossed into the Republican sausage-grinder.

Michael Steele is my guess

Who wrote this "comprehensive" list of teen "sexting" messages? It's definitely off the hook.

Here's something interesting

John Judis argues--persuasively--that social liberals need not worry about the new pro-life polls because people become more socially conservative during economically lean times. Money quote:

I would also make two other points. The first is that the tilt toward pro-life sentiment doesn't necessarily imply a changed view of whether the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade. In fact, a recent CNN poll shows that Americans, by 68 to 30 percent, do not want to overturn it; the Gallup and Pew polls are thus gauging personal sentiment, not policy preferences. Americans can be expected to embrace a more conservative social ideology during this period without endorsing conservative social policies.

The second point I'd make is that, though people become personally more conservative during economic downturns, they also seem less likely during those downturns to base their support for public officials and candidates on social issues like abortion or gun rights. In the 1920s, politicians battled over prohibition; in the 1930s, there was no equivalent social issue. Americans were worried about the economy and about being drawn into a new world war.

This doesn't quite explain why gay rights seem to have been picking up momentum, though there might not be a grand unified theory for this sort of thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dick Cheney is popular again!

Fifty-five percent of people questioned in the poll say they have an unfavorable opinion of the former vice president. Thirty-seven percent say they have a favorable opinion of Cheney, up 8 percentage points from January when he left office.

"Is Cheney's uptick due to his visibility as one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration? Almost certainly not," says Keating Holland, CNN polling director.

"Former President George W. Bush's favorable rating rose 6 points in that same time period, and Bush has not given a single public speech since he left office."

I'm guessing that almost all that uptick will be found among Republicans, who are so starved for leaders they're turning to the likes of Cheney, Rush and Gingrich. Between them are two of the most disgraced, failed public figures of our time and a radio shock jock whose approval ratings are just north of polio. I'll say this for Cheney--he's a savvy politician, and has sensed that the GOP has reached the apex of wingnuttery and that they're willing to buy what he's selling. But I bet that Barack Obama couldn't be more pleased that his three main detractors are some of the most widely loathed men in public life today.

The state of the wingnut art

"For what it's worth, my sense is that Obama isn't much concerned about Iran, is more or less sympathetic to Iran's view that if Israel can have nuclear weapons, it can too, wouldn't particularly mind if Iran carried out Ahmadinejad's oft-repeated threat to "wipe Israel off the map," and has no intention of doing anything controversial in the Middle East that could derail his domestic agenda,"- John Hinderaker, via Sullivan
I can't testify to what Obama is thinking about Iran, but this is clearly a very stupid thing to say. Threats are not the same as intentions, nor as actions. If I had a nickel for every time a right-winger talked about what bad people terrorists are, or how nasty the things they say are, I'm sure I'd be richer than Warren Buffett. That isn't why we're fighting them--we're fighting them to keep from killing us! That's their crime! What matters is not whether a threat is disgusting or frequently repeated so much as whether there is an intention to carry it out. And I think it's safe to say that this particular threat is minimal. As Jeff Goldberg explains:

Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t believe that Iran would necessarily launch a nuclear-tipped missile at Tel Aviv. He argues instead that Iran could bring about the eventual end of Israel simply by possessing such weaponry. “Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella,” he said. This could lead to the depopulation of the Negev and the Galilee, both of which have already endured sustained rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah.

More broadly, he said, a nuclear Iran “would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.”
In other words, Israel is less worried about being annhilated and more worried about a shift in the balance of power. I don't think we should discount this element--I don't like a more regionally powerful Iran myself--but the "existential threat" part of the narrative is overplayed. Israel is a very small country, and one nuclear bomb could probably incinerate most of it. However, the blast would also incinerate millions of Palestinians, as well as the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. I suspect that there would be little stomach for this in the Arab world, though fantastical neocons seem to think that anyone who talks shit about America or Israel has done enough to deserve a nuking merely illustrate the lack of a moral compass on that segment of the right.

I've long maintained that the right's tendency toward neoconservatism and saber-rattling is fundamentally an expression of an insecurity about America. A strong, self-confident America wouldn't give two shits about what tinpot dictators have to say about us. It's the insecure folks who see any challenge toward America's goodness as aggression that CANNOT STAND. The correct response to Ahmadinejad's threats ought to be derision and mockery, coupled with an under-the-table effort to buy the clerics off. It's what we've been doing for sixty damn years and it has a pretty good track record. Iran wants power, and a good chunk of foreign aid money to pay for better education and infrastructure will increase their economic power, so everyone would win. Problem solved. I suspect that Iran is occupying a fair amount of Obama's time these days, though Obama's troubles with Bibi Netanyahu are largely due to him being a posturing goon who seems to think that the Palestinian problem will solve itself, and is expanding illegal settlements while disowning the only viable path toward peace, the two-state solution. This concerns me because Palestinians are going to outnumber Israelis within a generation or two, and absent effective handling of this conflict Israel as we know it will cease to exist--either it will become a multinational state or it won't be able to hold back the stateless attackers. Netanyahu's attitude seems to be that he's more or less done with the Palestinians, and this sort of attitude will ultimately do more to destroy Israel than that bearded shmuck from Iran can ever imagine.

The fundamental problem of the left

Looks like my employer is looking to help out the President:
A new group of business executives supporting President Obama's economic policies, called Business Forward, will officially announce its formation today. Founding members include executives from AT&T, Facebook, Hilton, IBM, Microsoft, Pfizer and Time Warner. "When it comes to health care, education, and other critical issues, business leaders are among America's strongest advocates for reform," said executive director Jim Doyle.
It's one sign that this isn't 1992--these are some really big companies that, at least in theory, are supporting Obama's health care plan. And it also outlines one of the central problems, historically, of the left.

Historically, the left has been fundamentally an anticapitalist proposition. While not everyone on the left is a full-on Marxist, I can't imagine anyone on the left not fundamentally agreeing with Marx's critique of capitalism, which has yet to really be answered by free market ideologues--largely, I think, because it is unanswerable. It happens to be the truth. A system which rewards greed and self-interest is one that is going to, at the very least, present some challenging moral questions. In my opinion, Marx's cure is far worse than the disease, and while I don't believe that communism is prima facie evil as a theory I think it's safe to say that it's not an effective system because a lot of its assumptions about human nature are simply wrong. Suffering doesn't necessarily bring virtue. The poor are not intrinsically more pure than the rich. Not everyone is willing to continually sacrifice for their fellow man. In the end, the results of communism are far worse than the results of capitalism, and that is why I find myself a reluctant capitalist, albeit one who believes that the only way to mitigate some of capitalism's inherent flaws is for government to take an active role in the marketplace, as well as for everyone to be cognizant of the imperfections of capitalism. For example, the entire rational economic actor model is complete nonsense, invented by economists who needed something to model human behavior. The notion that people act in their own best interests all the time is laughable, and the idea that people are informed enough or interested enough to do things like read scientific reports or look at their doctor's disciplinary history is dubious. Then again, even most libertarians believe that there should be some sort of state that does some of this stuff, so I don't really feel that I need to draw out this argument.

According to many on the left, business and the rich are implacable foes to progress. I think that this narrative is fundamentally wrong, though it often feels plausible. Other countries don't have the have vs. have not dynamic that we do in America, and let's not forget that the postwar period saw business generally aligned with the liberal policies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as Jon Chait notes in The Big Con. What changed wasn't so much business as a cultural shift during the 1970s and 1980s--as the Greatest Generation began to fade away and the Baby Boomers began to take over, the prevailing cultural attitudes were oriented in a much more greedy, "I'll get mine" sort of mentality. And even now there are companies that are willing to support liberal goals, as well as plenty of rich liberals in the Northeast and West (though the rich are still a prime Republican demographic). This doesn't mention that most other countries--particularly Europe--don't have this sort of snobs vs. slobs dynamic.

So I'm not entirely convinced that we lefties can't live with capitalism, and during the post-WWII years it produced some reasonably effective outcomes. What the left should do is primarily to mount a cultural critique. There is some hope that today's youth is less status- and money-obsessed than the Boomers, so perhaps there's hope for American Capitalism. Or maybe Niebuhr was right and we've been able to avoid dealing with social justice questions by being able to take modest measures to distribute wealth more evenly, rather than major social restructuring a la Clement Attlee, 1945. But the narrative that the left often uses to frame these questions tends to be at least partly incorrect, and needs some work.

In other news

Rudy Giuliani's son sounds like a total douchebag.

National Security Speech Day

Obama's big speech is here. Cheney's is here. In my opinion, Obama makes a far more compelling argument--I easily admit that I'm biased, but Obama tries both to assuage fears that he's "soft on terror" while also trying to comfort members of his base who are nervous about some of his recent decisions. In my view, he pulls it off handily. Cheney's speech, though, is chock full of anecdote and emotionalism, and has the same 9/11 focus and sneering at dissenters quality we've come to expect of him. You have to like this little gem from our former VP:
Our government prevented attacks and saved lives through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and persons inside the United States. The program was top secret, and for good reason, until the editors of the New York Times got it and put it on the front page.
It might have saved lives, but it was rather obviously unconstitutional. Even now, Dick doesn't get it. I did enjoy his frequent references to the bipartisanship of the post-9/11 days--wonder how that stopped, eh? Maybe by intercutting pictures of Democrats and bin Laden in ads for certain Georgia Senate races?
In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.
It's interesting to note that that Obama faced criticism of his programs head-on in his speech, while Cheney doesn't. In fact, he relies on an essentially circular argument to justify his approach. He doesn't discuss the ever-more-likely rumor, for example, that he tortured to justify his Iraq fixation--he rarely discusses Iraq at all--and he doesn't address the arguments made recently by Ali Soufan that more information was received by nontorture methods of interrogation. As a result, his case is rather flimsy.
Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.
Did anyone notice that Cheney is, in effect, admitting that what he ordered is a prosecutable offense? I guess he's not too confident in the legal bullshit that he ordered from John Yoo, then put on the menu as prime rib, no?
In public discussion of these matters, there has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib prison with the top secret program of enhanced interrogations. At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency.
This is just a lie. Everything that happened at Abu Gharaib happened at Guantanamo. Forced nudity, stress positions, waterboarding, etc., were imported to Abu Gharaib as part of an effort to "Gitmoize" Abu Gharaib.
I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.
In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we’ve captured as, quote, “abducted.” Here we have ruthless enemies of this country, stopped in their tracks by brave operatives in the service of America, and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims, picked up at random on their way to the movies.
Um, that's largely true. A lot of Gitmo "terrorists" were people who were randomly scooped up based on hearsay and detained for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Read Jane Mayer for this.
Another term out there that slipped into the discussion is the notion that American interrogation practices were a “recruitment tool” for the enemy. On this theory, by the tough questioning of killers, we have supposedly fallen short of our own values. This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the President himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the Left, “We brought it on ourselves.”
I think this might be my favorite cheap shot of all. Look, as a member of the left, I don't believe that we brought 9/11 on ourselves. It was an act of madmen who were fully responsible for their actions. But to dismiss a perfectly valid criticism with the familiar (and idiotic) denunciation of "blame America firsters" is about what you expect from a disgraced fearmongering hack like Cheney.

I actually sort of agree with this one:
As a practical matter, too, terrorists may lack much, but they have never lacked for grievances against the United States. Our belief in freedom of speech and religion … our belief in equal rights for women … our support for Israel … our cultural and political influence in the world – these are the true sources of resentment, all mixed in with the lies and conspiracy theories of the radical clerics. These recruitment tools were in vigorous use throughout the 1990s, and they were sufficient to motivate the 19 recruits who boarded those planes on September 11th, 2001.
But this is sort of a new standard in denial:
The United States of America was a good country before 9/11, just as we are today. List all the things that make us a force for good in the world – for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences – and what you end up with is a list of the reasons why the terrorists hate America.
The vice president who fought resolutely for dehumanizing torture, aggressive and pointless wars, and against science, reason and accountability is going to earnestly lecture us on these matters. He hasn't earned the right.
And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.
Actually, this happened a number of times.
For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history – not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them. [...] To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them.
So why all the speeches? What are you worried about if history will vindicate you? And the last little fragment makes little sense at all. Is Cheney accusing Obama of sharing state secrets with al-Qaeda?

Overall, it's interesting to note the differences between the two speeches. Obama's is an intellectually honest effort, clearly intent on persuading people that his policies are appropriate. I don't always agree with Obama on these issues--he explained the torture photo decision well but I still think it was a mistake--but he is sincerely making an effort to engage in a debate and answer his critics. Cheney, on the other hand, despite an early swipe at being gracious, presented a knowingly untruthful and ignorant speech that ignores recent developments (waterboarding KSM 183 times, the Iraq-torture rumor) and that, despite his invocations of American values, continues to say that security concerns override everything else. Dave Weigel sums it up nicely: "Shorter Dick Cheney: ‘9/11′".

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The most moronic public debate this country has ever had

It is unclear to me what the right hopes to accomplish with this Guantanamo nonsense--aside from perhaps--perhaps--making people a little freaked out about terrorists for a few moments. It seems like this will ultimately come to naught, as Obama isn't actually proposing to set terrorists free. Are they that desperate to win news cycles? It's a complete fucking lie that the media won't call, partly because we lack a real news media in this country--just a bunch of pathetic stenographers, all hoping to be the next Cokie Roberts. But that's another discussion altogether.

It is baffling to me that Democrats are taking this seriously. This sort of attack reeks of desperation. The public, after eight years of terror fear-mongering, is mostly inured to it. One suspects that moderate Democrats still fear the GOP's terror attacks innately, which were so successful that they got the GOP a total of...altogether a handful of Senate seats in 2002 and 2004 combined, a few House seats (excluding the gerrymandered DeLay ones in Texas) and it only helped to ultimately destroy their credibility on national security. It strikes me that the Democrats have some serious purging to do--not necessarily ideologically, just of all the Clinton-era Democrats who live in constant fear of this nonsense--and who think that the worst insult is to be called liberal.

But the most fascinating thing about this story is that Dianne Feinstein is standing up for common sense and calling bullshit on this nonsense. She's not exactly known for, well, courage. Thanks, Dianne! Sanity can at least be found somewhere.

TV roundup

  • I'm gratified that Joss Whedon's Dollhouse is going to get a second season. I think that, after some initial missteps, it's become a hell of a show, a powerhouse whose surprises are, actually, surprising, and the unraveling of the show's mysteries over the past season has often been delightful. The premise of the show is, basically, that there are "dollhouses" that offer up fully-programmable human beings who will basically do whatever you want them to do. It's surprising that not a single episode so far has explored one of the most obvious applications of this premise--assassinations--and the show has played down the prostitution element, perhaps because that's just indefensibly exploitative and evil, instead creating a cast of fascinating, morally ambiguous characters but few good, likeable ones. Even the ostensible hero--an FBI agent played by Tahmoh Penikett, formerly of BSG--is not exactly sympathetic (and may be a sellout!). There are few outright heroes and few complete villains--Alan Tudyk's Alpha is an exception to the latter rule--and each mission usually involves putting the doll in question into the world with minimal supervision and, of course, without informed consent. They did sign up for the treatment but it's clear that they didn't know what that would entail. And even if they knew, one cannot sign away one's freedom, right? The show, uncharacteristically for television, does actually grapple with some weighty themes and arrives at some satisfying conclusions. In essence, the dolls eventually wind up reverting to their "real" selves, even though their brains are frequently being reassembled. Nontheists might not like the show's assertion that we're more than the sum of our parts, but the show does look (with some plausibility) at some of the seamier aspects of underground capitalism and tweaked scientific ethics, and it does add up to a fairly coherent damnation of them. The show could possibly become something of a hit--it taps into some very current anxieties about all of these things.

    I do wonder how this show will translate into a long-running series. I think it will be tricky to preserve the moral ambiguity of the Dollhouse universe after the argument has been made that it's not moral, but that ambiguity was one of the things that made the show interesting. I trust Whedon's judgment at this point--this is something well worth looking into.

  • It's regrettable that Dollhouse made it but that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles didn't. At times during the last season, TSCC was some of the best entertainment around, but there was a lot of filler and a number of missteps during the last season, as well as an inability to understand what was cool about the show (and it wasn't the eponymous heroic mom so much as the robots!). However, it really started to gel during its last handful of episodes, by blending a fascinating mixture of robotic and human characters together in a rather strong narrative arc involving a robotic CEO from the future and her ambiguous motives toward judgment day. It's frustrating when promising shows get the axe, and TSCC could have been a really strong show, especially if they'd had the desire toward more ambitious storytelling. Oh well.

  • It's unclear to me what's happened to 30 Rock, but the quality has gone down significantly recently. This past season often felt belabored and overthought, with the only real bright spot being the breakout success of Jane Krakowski as the Jenna Maroney. Jenna was something of a drag during the first two seasons--kind of an easy target, the dumb-blonde basketcase Norma Desmond wannabe--but in this season Krakowski infused her with a playfulness and innocence that has really made the character one that can hold her own with the likes of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy and Tracy Morgan's, well, himself. This season was largely forgettable, though...not a single Greenzo amongst the episodes, and the episodes featuring Salma Hayek were a grave miscalculation (though the Generalissimo ep was rather funny.) . Hayek is a fine actress but not a gifted comedienne, and the elevation of Kenneth--to the point where nearly every episode has a storyline revolving around K--was another unwelcome development. Kenneth has his moments, but there's a danger of his being overused, and I felt like that happened this season. The show's neglect of Scott Adsit as Pete Hornberger was another mistake, in my mind, as the show tended this year to be wacky and silly, and not biting and edgy, and Adsit is always good for some worldweary bitterness. In the season finale Jack tells Liz that TGS has two years of life left, max, which is an interesting observation to apply to the show about that show. I wonder if Tina Fey isn't feeling just a wee bit restless still on television, though I'm not sure she's ready to launch into the world of cinema, considering that Baby Mama was something less than a stunning success.

  • And there's The Office, which was busy having a banner year mixing comedy with pathos. I'm not sure many people have noticed that Office is a downer show, especially this season. Both Pam and Michael had to abandon their dreams (actually, Pam had to do that twice, though the second time turned out all right) to face reality. The Office isn't quite as true-to-life or clear-eyed about the compromises of the cubicle life as its British progenitor, but it's surprisingly uncompromising for a U.S. television program, and while the Jim-Pam relationship never quite managed the emotional impact of it's British cousin, it's still better than virtually all sitcom romances. The Office is unquestionably one of the best shows on the air right now--especially in terms of consistency and quality--and it looks like smooth saling for the time being.

Harry, Harry

Since everyone else is piling on:

REID: I’m saying that the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans, do not want terrorists to be released in the United States. That’s very clear.

QUESTION: No one’s talking about releasing them. We’re talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States.

REID: Can’t put them in prison unless you release them.

QUESTION: Sir, are you going to clarify that a little bit? …

REID: I can’t make it any more clear than the statement I have given to you. We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States.

(H/t: Sullivan's place.) Look, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The man fundamentally lacks the guts for the job. He's one of those Clinton-era Democrats who is too anxious to apologize for what he is, too scared of the right-wing noise machine, and fundamentally too soft to be an effective leader, having already been rolled by Roland Burris and Joe Lieberman within the last year, and his standoffs over the Iraq War were embarrassing. This takes the cake, though--I find it hard to believe that poor old Harry is going to be the Democrats' Senate leader after the next election.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My take on Obama's recent maneuvers

I think Mike Tomasky pretty much captures my feeling on some of Obama's recent security-related decisions:
Look, I won't defend Obama on this. When Obama does something I'm not crazy about, I don't recall having any trouble writing "I'm not crazy about" this. I don't disagree with him very often. But when I have I've said so. In this case, he's pretty obviously going in a direction not consonant with a lot of his campaign rhetoric.

At the same time, I've never been a civil-liberties absolutist. I'm not an absolutist about much of anything. Democracy is not a land of absolutes. Democracy is about balancing concerns and interests. Civil liberties aren't absolute, even in the land of the First Amendment. As the old cliché goes, you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre. The right to express an opinion is absolute, or awfully close to it. But there are other kinds of speech than opinionating speech.
My views are similar to those of former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming (a Republican, no less!) who said that civil liberties are not a slippery slope but rather a spiral staircase, each step of which must be trod with the agreement of the government and the public. My problem with a lot of the Bush-era abuses of power wasn't always the tactic involved, but rather that there was no debate, no congressional oversight, no judicial review--suddenly, we're just torturing people. I think torture is wrong, and I suppose I'm an absolutist on that. But I wasn't, for example, opposed to Obama's new stance on FISA during the campaign. We are, after all, in some danger. I think it's overstated, but I think that we will undoubtedly have to redraw some lines in order to stay safe. But this must be done in accordance with American values, laws, and in the view of the public.

So, yeah, I'm pretty disappointed with some of Obama's recent decisions. But looking at the broader picture, he's closing Guantanamo (somehow I doubt the pathetic Blue Dog resolution to stop it will go through), he's ended torture, and he's still going to end the Iraq War. I never thought Obama would be a true-blue liberal. I always thought he was an honorable and pragmatic person who would make the decisions that he thought were right, strategically and substantively. Only time will tell whether these decisions were correct.

Let's put a politician on the court

I find this piece to make a pretty good argument for not appointing yet another Ivy-educated appellate judge on the Supreme Court. Frankly, having a Court on which everyone has roughly the same educational and legal background seems really undesirable, and insisting that every member of the Court be an ivory-tower intellectual--it seems like one encounters this mindset only when discussing the Supremes--makes for a judicial body that is going to be blinkered and susceptible to groupthink when it's not engaging in rampant partisanship. I personally think that Governor Deval Patrick of Massachussetts would make an excellent Supreme Court judge based on what I've read of him, and a lot of our most successful and noteworthy jurists (Frankfurter, Warren, Black) were politicians and not just legal scholars.

Silverstein goes over the risks of appointing a politician, and I think they're certainly there. There's also certainly a danger of even further politicizing the judiciary (though I fear that we've long since crossed that bridge). But I tend to think that having at least one justice worried about the practical aspects of implementing Court rulings is really an important thing to have.

The GOP and foreign policy, continued

No sooner do I write about Jon Huntsman and the GOP's national security problem than do I get some proof of my theory:

President Obama has a 64%-31% approval rating on national security, and a 61%-31% rating on fighting terrorism -- both higher than his overall approval of 58%-33%. In addition, likely voters say by a 55%-37% margin that Obama's policies are increasing America's security -- rejecting the alternative statement that he's undermining security.

Indeed, a 51%-44% majority agreed with this statement: "President Bush's foreign and national security policies undermined America's security."

On national security overall, the Republicans have a statistically insignificant edge of 43%-41% over the Dems, and it's a dead-even tie of 41%-41% for the War on Terror. The GOP maintains a 53%-35% advantage on "ensuring a strong military," but the Dems have a 52%-35% lead on "foreign policy," a 44%-32% lead on Afghanistan, and a 47%-37% lead on Iraq.

I find it rather incredible (as in surprising, not as in not credible) that a majority of people actually think G. W. Bush made America less safer. Of course he did, but the GOP seems intent to defend his moves as commander-in-chief to the bitter end. I think this does go to show you that Bushian foreign policy isn't necessarily an electoral winner, and that Democrats can compete if they offer a more reasonable alternative.

This being said, I am worried about Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan policies, and I'm not entirely sure what the "Republican" solution on Afghanistan is--though that's been true throughout the conflict there. I simply don't see a Republican revival happening without some sort of significant advantage on these kinds of issues, and right now Republicans not only lack the sorts of figures to articulate what a conservative foreign policy might look like, but they also lack the willingness to own up to the failures of the Bush team. I suspect that we'll need to see these things and see a huge Democratic screw-up on foreign policy before the GOP even has a chance to compete nationally again.

Jon Huntsman to China

I'm coming a little late to this, but Obama's selection of Jon Huntsman as the U.S. Ambassador to China strikes me as a great idea. Not because Huntsman was a potential 2012 opponent--he never had a chance, and what's more he knew it--but because it enhances the prestige of both men, while it shows how hopeless the GOP has become that one of its brightest stars is essentially abandoning it right now. Huntsman is another of the relatively few Republicans That I Like, and accepting an offer like this merely proves his civic-mindedness and accentuates his ability to do something--i.e. diplomacy, especially with the Chinese--that might well make him more appealing if he decides to run for president in a year where the stars are aligned for a different kind of Republican.

What's more, Obama's attempts to corner the market with respect to foreign policy seem to be working splendidly. Over the past few months, Obama has offered positions to Bob Gates, Jim Jones, Chuck Hagel and Jon Huntsman. Hagel declined the ministerial job, but he's unlikely to become the GOP's foreign policy poster boy anytime soon, considering that he was booted out of the Senate for mild skepticism about the "surge". It seems clear to me that, at this time, the GOP has virtually nobody of any stature to mount a credible critique of Obama's foreign policy, at least that I can think of, as Obama has co-opted all of them. Admittedly, that's not going to stop them from trying, and we'll see more and more of Newt Gingrich's ugly old mug on television in the months to come. The public, however, doesn't trust him and doesn't trust Boehner, McConnell or Steele. Having Condi Rice speak out makes a bit more sense, considering her inexplicable popularity unleavened by having been a critical part of the Iraq War planning. But I don't think a former Bushie is the right person to critique Obama's policy either, and that administration's shoddy record on these matters is why I suspect that her criticisms have been muted.

And if this trend holds--and if the Obama team avoids any huge embarrassing missteps on foreign policy--it strikes me that a GOP resurrection will be very unlikely, as the GOP was largely held together in the Bush years by its allegedly necessary, "tough" foreign policy and Republicans' historic strength has been foreign policy. Not to mention that the other point where the Democrats had a greater share of the public's trust on security/foreign policy/war matters--that would be World War II--Republicans spent a generation in fruitless and pointless opposition. The GOP really is going to have to get real if they want back in the game.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Why the Pelosi argument doesn't excuse torture

Doug at Balloon Juice argues that the right is losing the torture debate:
To me, though, the big take away here is that the right is losing the torture debate. It started with “Dick Cheney was just keeping us safe from teh terrorists, don’t you libtards watch ‘24’?”. Then it became “mistakes were made, but it was a difficult time.” And now it’s “okay, maybe the whole thing was fucked up, but Pelosi knew about it so it’s her fault.” It’s just another variation on “Clinton did it too” and it’s essentially a defensive posture.
I tend to think that this is true, but I don't think it means that the left is winning. At the very least, the left is keeping a coherent set of arguments while the right is flitting around, ADD-style, hoping to find the silver bullet that wins the debate for them. However, I think the left's focus on torture's effectiveness in gathering intelligence--which I think is dubious but to some extent unknowable--is not a strong one, because then it allows some Cheney-style circular reasoning, like, "Torture saved lives. I know this because I saw documents that said it did (that will never be released). They can't be released because they're vital to national security, therefore I'm right".

Not that we should just concede this part of the debate, but there are a lot of facts that are knowable. My argument would be something like this: torture is morally wrong. It is contrary to the spirit and custom of the United States, as well as to an ethic of valuing life, dignity, and human rights. From a religious standpoint, torturing people who are, like ourselves, formed in the image of God is unacceptable. From a legal standpoint, the techniques which we are discussing are not permissible, and the legal hackwork pressured by the office of the vice president shows obvious signs of insincerity and bad faith. From a practical standpoint, there is little evidence that torture produced much good information, and intensified our problems in the Middle East by providing a recruitment tool to our enemies. Torture, historically, has been abused by those who practiced it, and the same holds true with America's experiment in torture, in which the infamous "ticking time bomb" scenario was given as the justification but in reality torture was used to make the Administration's case for the Iraq War, and was done dozens of times on people who hadn't even been charged with a crime over a period of months, thus belying any notion that it was only used only in the "ticking time bomb" situation. And, if Laurence Wilkerson is to be believed, America managed to defend itself quite well for several years after 9/11 without torture. It is unnecessary, immoral, prone to abuse, of dubious effectiveness, illegal and fundamentally wrong.

I think this comprehensively states the case of why torture (even torture-light) is wrong. The case for why torture is right is predicated almost solely on one particular hypothetical that isn't known to have happened. Now, because 24 is portrayed so vividly I think we may be dealing with an availability heuristic sort of situation, and if that's the case we should be leading with the "dozens of times" argument and the Iraq connection, but I think that all of this adds up to a good case against torture. I'm not sure why Democrats aren't blitzing the television screens mocking Dick Cheney, asking why you'd trust this man about anything, and making a similar case against torture. My guess is that the Democrats still lack a slick media operation to disseminate Democratic arguments (while the Republicans have the media operation down pat), and that a lot of actual Democrats are more complicit in this stuff than we'd like to believe. I don't think that should stop them, though: when a thrice-divorced born-again Catholic is allowed to earnestly paean to traditional marriage, anything's possible.

A question

New Hampshire is set to legalize gay marriage, but only if language is added to the bill insuring that religious organizations and florists, caterers and the like are not required to participate in gay marriages if they don't want to. I must admit I don't understand the point of this language. Is there a law somewhere saying that florists are required to work any wedding they're offered? I thought that those signs that some places have about how they have the right to refuse service to anyone were based on some sort of ordinance, right? And aren't religious institutions protected by, you know, the First Amendment? I don't really care if such language is added to these bills--especially if they make it easier for them to pass--but I don't understand the motive if none of this is in question.

This is something I find quite odd about some conservatives--they tend to seek out laws for things that haven't happened--indeed, that haven't even been discussed, like bringing back the fairness doctrine--and yet they don't believe that the commander-in-chief should be bound by any law at all ever. And some of them believe in black helicopters. I just find it baffling that they are insistent on evenhanded application of the law in some situations but indifferent at others. Developing a consistent pro-law stance could help your credibility in the future, methinks.

Attention, Ricky Gervais! You have a new competitor.

I've never been a big fan of Newt Gingrich, though before very recently I was mostly indifferent, perhaps even positively disposed toward the Speaker/adulterer. I kinda hoped he would run for president in 2008 because, unlike the 10 guys who chose to run for the Republican Party, Newt actually seemed to want to have a debate on issues that the GOP hasn't ever bothered with, and it often seemed like he was more interested in wonkery than in partisanship. My, how the times have changed. This ABC News interview is rather hilarious in its irony:
"I think she has lied to the House, and I think that the House has an absolute obligation to open an inquiry, and I hope there will be a resolution to investigate her. And I think this is a big deal. I don't think the Speaker of the House can lie to the country on national security matters,” Gingrich said.
Not about national security matters, sure. Only about personal matters, like boinking someone who isn't your wife and then intoning about moral values.
He continued: "I think this is the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime."
This one's almost too easy. Impeachment, anyone? Let's just call this one projection.
"She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowest of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior."
I don't know what he means by "trivial", though I suspect that if Nancy Pelosi is a trivial politician that Newt Gingrich must be one too--perhaps even more so as Pelosi actually wields a great deal of power at the moment. But I suppose Newt would know a lot about narrow partisanship and dishonoring Congress.

Gingrich is just an embarrassment at this point: a walking talking point of a has-been who is trying desperately to reclaim his relevance. This interview reminds me of Ricky Gervais's painfully oblivious performance as David Brent in The Office, as a silly man who fancies himself deep, and possesses little self-awareness or appreciation for irony.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

He's had it with these motherf#@*ing politicians with their motherf#@*ing earmark excuses!

Larison is fed up:
The electorate was disgusted [in 2006], but for the most part it was disgusted over other things, including the response, or lack thereof, to the ruin of New Orleans and the disaster that was unfolding in Iraq, and to the extent that the behavior of members of Congress entered into it at all it was the criminal behavior of so many House members resulting in indictments and convictions for corruption. [...]

Henninger is so preoccupied with Jack Murtha’s wheeling and dealing that he seems to have forgotten all about DeLay, Abramoff and the K Street crowd who represented the real criminal and unethical excesses of the GOP majority. Who can take seriously an argument that concludes, “The whole system has become an earmark”? What does that even mean? That is like saying that the federal government has become an amendment.
The funny thing about this complaint is how hollow it is. The GOP could, if it wanted to, make a push anytime it wanted to kill earmarks. The media would no doubt cover it nicely, the GOP could introduce a bill, and it would probably gain broad support, not from the Murthas of the Democratic Party but certainly from good government progressives like Russ Feingold. Earmark reform is the sort of abstruse, wonky issue that Feingold gravitates toward (to be fair, he's been right on the big issues as well, including coming out for gay marriage in 2005, which was slightly before I did). In short, if Republicans were really angry about earmarks, they could take action (or at least attempt to do so) and get it over with, all the while restoring budgetary integrity.

That there has been no effort of which I am aware to do this suggests the cynicism at play within the GOP. You hear the term "earmarks" and their concommittant evils from Republican politicians on a near-daily basis, but they take no action to stop them. Why not? Because they still love them! Really! Of course, the notion that the GOP was voted out of office because of some $30 billion-odd dollars of wasteful earmarks (it is far from clear to me that they are indeed always wasteful) while ignoring the hundreds of billions spent on fighting unnecessary wars and a poorly designed prescription drug entitlement seems to be more than just stupid. It suggests that being a GOP elite requires an individual to believe that 2+2=5.

Will movies come full circle?

I heartily approve of Doug's sentiment about the return of heroic schlubs in major motion pictures here, though I think it misses something critical. Doug writes:

A lot of 70s movies were like that (“Chinatown”, “The Long Goodbye”, etc.), but it really went out of style in the 80s. Roughly speaking, in 80s and 90s Hollywood movies, the hero prevailed by doing what was right, whereas in Hollywood 70s movies there really was no right thing to do. In 80s and 90s movies, the heros tended to be bad-asses or idiot savants or upper middle-classers with some remarkable store of courage and resourcefulness. In the 70s, they tended to be down-on-their luck idealists dealing, often unsuccessfully, with some kind of awful situation.

This seems to me to be indicative of a cultural shift: conservatives tend to believe that if one just stands tall for a grossly simplified set of American values, then one will always prevail, whereas liberals (speaking for myself at least), tend to think things are more complicated than that. Conservatives believe that the gods will always shine on the true and the good, liberals (at least me) believe being true and good will meet with no reward.

I generally agree with this argument, though I doubt we'll see a full recurrence of the 70s aesthetic. For one thing, in the 70s there was a fully viable arthouse scene, which coexisted and competed with the studio system, and also managed to drive innovation within the stolid studio scene. Keep in mind that Scorsese, Altman, Ashby and the rest of them were all studio brats and not avant-gardists like Cassavetes. But they were significant artists who largely got freedom to fulfill their visions because, aside from money, what studio heads want most is prestige. Hence Oscar bait these days, though in the 1970s it meant more experimental and personal films, since Hollywood didn't want the arthouse to get all the praise. These days, the arthouse is long gone, dead by the hand of the studios, sure, but it's not like the arthouse helped itself with self-indulgence of the type that resulted in Heaven's Gate. Of course, these days we have independent movies, and a few studios have tried to ape some indie characteristics and have quasi-indie units like FX Searchlight. Indies, though, are not nearly as popular as the arthouse was in the 1970s, nor do they have nearly the level of quality that one saw in its predecessors. Even the better examples of the indie phenomenon--such as last year's Juno--are pervaded by a calculated artificialness that, after a fashion, can be entertaining and might well explore interesting ideas and themes, but just don't ring true. More often it's just random quirkery like the recent Gigantic.

I also think that the role of the motion picture has shifted in the public's imagination. In the 1970s, social realism and conscientious filmmaking could find an audience. Not all 70s filmmaking was socially concious, but there were a number of successful films that would later become classics. A Clockwork Orange, for example, was one of the biggest-grossing films in history at the time of its release. These days, though, I think that things have changed significantly. My experience is that most people see films as pure entertainment and would be heavily disinclined to watch such provocative movies. Satire, in particular, is a very hard sell. I am tempted to play armchair psychologist and say that the decline in interest in films of a social realist/politically aware/morally ambiguous films is due largely to a decline in civic engagement, courtesy of the mercenary ethic of the Baby Boomers. In the meanwhile, smug and artificially uplifting movies that praise the Boomer worldview have become de rigueur since the early 80s. These would be the sort of people who thought that Born In The U.S.A. was a straight-up salute to the Stars And Stripes, or who thought that the repugnant protagonist of Wall Street was some sort of capitalist hero. There was some obvious missing of the point in both cases, but that's life.

Then again, this seems a little neat. After all, it's not like there isn't any social realism being made at all--The Wire ended only last year and was a masterpiece. Of course, this only proves my point as the show's audience was terribly small, thus proving that America is still very much an inward-looking nation (though the show's format no doubt made its appeal more selective).

Why on Earth would you defend Jack Murtha?

I realize he's Nancy Pelosi's BFF and that he played a big role in the public's turnaround, but really? Really? Look, there's every reason to think that Murtha's corrupt, and he's exactly the sort of corrupt porker that Democrats should be making an example of by not protecting him. I doubt they'd lose much by dumping the dude. One wonders if this isn't Pelosi playing defense by trying to keep her biggest friends in powerful places, but it only adds to the stink already on her from the revelation that she might well have known about waterboarding all along. (Though I tend to believe the rumors are correct, I am not passing judgment at this time.)

I tend to like Pelosi and I think she's been a good leader for the Democrats, very underrated in fact. But I think she's already a compromised figure, and she's getting more compromised by the day. At this point she should be trying to minimize the cloud of suspicion around her, not maximize it. Something tells me that, unless she has a brilliant plan to get out of these messes, she won't be gaveling in the 112th Congress.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Filibuster reform

This Dawn Johnsen business is appalling, and it seems rather tactically unsound to me. Filibustering everything in sight is only going to make reform a more attractive option for the majority, and using it in such a partisan manner is going to ensure that even Blue Dogs will eventually be forced to turn against it. It's a dumb move, but Mitch McConnell is hardly one of the best political minds of his generation. Let Obama get the team he wants, barring real improprieties, I say.

I don't mind preserving the idea of the filibuster, but it can't work as it is working. It seems to me that the best path toward reform is to put a clock on filibusters--sort of like a suspensive veto. If a large enough minority of senators objects to a bill or nominee, they can filibuster it for a while--let's say three months. During that time, they can try to persuade other legislators, influence public opinion, or work toward a compromise. Three months later, if a majority of senators still supports the bill, they get to vote on it and it becomes law.

I'd be willing to tinker with the time limit, but I do think that some sort of bypass like this needs to take place. The status quo isn't particularly fair or democratic, and the reason it is the status quo is because the Senate dons--McConnell and Cornyn--are interested only in their own power and prerogatives. But I think they've overplayed their hand, and something is going to have to give, if not now, then later.

My take on education reform

There's a great discussion about education reform going on over at The League, among other places. Here's E.D. Kain:
Teachers make a huge difference. I think it’s important to pay them well, and to give them an incentive to stick around. It’s also important to treat them like professionals; to properly accredit them (but also to make that process easier for professionals in other fields); and to give them options that make their teaching careers better on the whole. So teacher choice, I’d say, ranks right up there with school choice in terms of things we should be thinking about in the education debates. Michelle Rhee seems to be on to something with her “green vs red” tracks. We’ll see how it plays out.
The more I read about education reform, the more complicated it seems. I don't tend to think that teacher's unions are the only or even the major problem in education today, as states with excellent education have teacher's unions, just like states with poor education do. I am also wary about using purely statistical measures to measure education, as they smack of a statistical obsession that feels too corporate to me, and as The Wire shows, they can be juked to create the illusion of progress so as to take pressure off of responsible parties. My suspicion is that a lot of what's wrong with education isn't necessarily about the bureaucracy (though heaven knows there's much that's wrong there) so much as that a lot of the public simply doesn't see much value in education, either because they don't feel they can succeed or because it's seen as irrelevant to what people are dealing with, or both. Education can be the way toward class mobility and economic opportunity, but an awful lot of things have to go right in order for a poor rural white kid (or a poor urban black kid) to make it. And, on some level, the kids that do make it have to be self-confident enough to leave their communities behind--as Spike Lee memorably stated, trying to move out of the lower class is like a crab trying to get out of a bottle of crabs--they keep pulling you back in. So I tend to say that incremental reforms, like what E.D. is saying here, make sense to me. I'm not completely opposed to school choice, though I tend to be more supportive of charter schools than spending money on unaccountable private/religious schools. I'm a little skeptical about the merits of "competition" here, because I think that the relevant metrics are deeply flawed, and I don't know if the end result is more achievable with public schools bleeding money and their best students because I suspect that an easy path to reform would long since have been implemented. Clearly I have more reading to do on the subject.

I do think that this is a very smart idea:

Kids not academically inclined should have available to them apprenticeship-like programs designed to teach them useful trades. I think this could have a profound effect on graduation rates.

I know that Germany does something similar to this. I think it's a good idea, and I sometimes take a beating for it from other liberals who are of the "everyone should go to college" mindset. That is just silly. I think everyone should be able to go to college if they want to and have the qualifications. But many have neither, so I generally don't think that "universal college" is a good idea. Some people just aren't built for that, and that shouldn't mean exile to a life of burger-flipping that is the life of not having a GED. There's nothing wrong with being a plumber in my book, and from what I hear the pay is pretty good. It's probably more exciting than any number of college-educated positions. Liberalism gets a bad name primarily because there is often an all-knowing sort of chauvinism at play, one which tends to treat women who choose to stay at home to raise kids as tantamount to sellouts, or that automatically assumes that pregnant teens ought to have abortions as a matter of course. I get the sense that education is part of this general tendency, that letting some students choose a career-oriented track instead of a purely academic one (I'm sure they'd still take some history classes!) is somehow consigning them to a life of vile servitude at the hands of The Man. But it's not. What liberalism is and must be is a way of maximizing the liberty of individuals to make the choices that are right for them. We educate, they decide. What choices they make ought not to concern us at all.

Into the world of gay Republicans

Jamie Kirchick files a must-read article here.

The slippery slope, revisited

“I think you can see the kind of slippery slope we’re going down here,” he said. “What I see here is individuals trying to change the definition of a longstanding institution called marriage to fit into their agenda.” -- New York Assemblyman James Tedisco

You know it's not a good sign when a person uses the words "slippery slope" in a public argument and thinks that that makes his point more compelling.

Merely because something can happen doesn't mean that it will happen. Support for gay marriage is not a predictor for future support for polygamy. Indeed, I support the former and oppose the latter because one is about advancing equality while the other is about demeaning it. Allowing a man to marry multiple women demeans the women--they become another status symbol, another thing to acquire. This doesn't mention the inconvenient fact that few women in this country are particularly interested in being part of a brood of wives.

What one sees, over and over again, out of gay marriage opponents is a fear of change, pure and simple. It is, among many, a very acute fear and a sympathetic one. But that is all it is. And that is what this quote suggests: a fear that their model of society is being rejected. In reality, allowing gays and lesbians to be married will have at best a marginal effect--the other 97% of new marriages will follow the one man, one woman model. This isn't a redefinition so much as a small change to the admission criteria.

Why are Republicans playing into the Democrats' hands?

Yglesias again, this time about Rush Limbaugh:
Rush’s defenders understand, I hope, that painting Rush as the all-powerful lord of conservatism before whom all else must submit was, in its origins, a political strategy devised by their enemies, right? So why are they jumping so quickly to prove that the argument is dead-on?

I think they're doing it because they can't help doing it, and that's because the strategy of using Rush as the voice of conservatism was a surprisingly shrewd one. Rush clearly wants the job, and influential conservatives are either afraid of him or agree with him, even if they find him at least somewhat offensive. And it's definitely true that there's nobody within the GOP with enough political capital to fight a war with Rush.

Portraying Rush as the face of conservatism was a strategy predicated on using the conservative movement's defining characteristics--ingroup loyalty--against the GOP. The strategy is simple: attack one of the totemic (and anathemic) media loudmouths of the Republican Party and force the GOP to either defend him, which makes him more prominent and hurts the GOP, or to denounce him, which alienates his 17 million or however many viewers. It's a no-win scenario, but you can't lose if you don't play, as The Wire tells us. But the conservative movement isn't headed by shrewd, savvy politicians--it's headed by wingnut bloggers who can't wisely avoid taking the bait and have a wee bit of a tendency to overreact to things. Hence, the GOP walking right into the Obama team's trap on Rush.

What this really shows is that the GOP is incredibly easy to manipulate. All you have to do is make a few stray remarks about Rush Limbaugh and the "Party of No" to make the entire Republican base go apeshit, to the point where Sean Hannity spends an entire segment on the president's mustard choice and the RNC will only refer to the party in power as the "Democrat Socialist Party". These people don't seem to get that Obama is a formidable opponent who has a tendency to turn his opponents into complete drooling idiots. I'd say that Obama's goal of marginalizing the Republicans is going pretty well--he's showing some traces of Nixonian shrewdness at this point (mostly in a good way).

Flattery and the media

Matt Yglesias says:
Some 30-40 years ago, the mainstream media came under sustained attack from the conservative movement. The critique was that, basically, the press should compromise its mission of doing its best to tell the truth and instead give equal rate to the truth and to whatever the conservative movement wanted to convince people of on any given day. Virtually every institution decided that the best way to cope was to slowly but surely give in to that pressure.

Meanwhile, technological change has undermined the financial viability of a lot of these institutions. And now they’re feeling sorry for themselves. But the very same changes open up possibilities for new institutions—institutions that are not as compromised by decades-worth of burning their own credibility—to do amazing work. On balance, I’m excited about the new era.
I think this explains a lot, and I tend to agree. I'm not of the opinion that the media should stick its nose in and declare a victor for every issue--a lot of social issues and economic issues have more than one valid answer, and it's better to report what both sides have to say and let people decide. Obviously, when one side is lying the obligation is to call them out on it, and the media has proven to be almost pathologically incapable of doing this, to the extent of peddling silly trash about Barack Obama's pastor as though it were a revelation (and few people cared), or devising tons of false equivalencies (remember the Social Security debate?) to avoid ever having to make strong statements about anything.

I think that, on balance, this has not only destroyed the reputation of the national press corps, but it's also played a not-insignificant role in the eventual derangement of the Republican Party. The media did not take a skeptical tone on laissez-faire and supply-siderism, which led, respectively, to a financial collapse and enormous deficits. The media didn't deign to criticize Bush's utopianism democracy promotion, which led invariably to a decline of American power and unnecessary wars. Hell, even the Afghanistan War ought to have been questioned--we might well have had causus belli, but was it absolutely necessary to our security to invade and hold another country, rather than just making surgical strikes on al-Qaeda? I guess we'll never know. But had the media stood up and asked tough questions of a conservative president some of these disasters might well have been averted--indefensible positions might well have been knocked down. This is, of course, the point of having a media--to ask the difficult questions, to be skeptical, not to just defer to elected officials and wax indignant when they lie to you. It is ironic that the media did wind up killing the GOP in the end, as they always figured it would--but it killed them with kindness.

I suspect that this is behind why torture opponents haven't won the torture debate--the GOP has turned it into a partisan issue, and Washington elites are therefore not going to even challenge that view. It would be biased. What if the GOP supported a law to make everyone wear polka-dot shirts on Fridays? Would this get a respectful hearing? It sounds silly, but if the heavy-hitters were out there on Sunday morning talk shows, doing a full-on blitz, I honestly doubt that the press corps would mock them. (Read Ta-Nehisi for more on the torture stuff--I do think the lack of concern over this boils down partly to a lack of empathy but not so much about national innocence, as Bush ruined that with Iraq. I suspect it's still lingering fear of another 9/11, and let's be honest here--many Americans are just as utopian as Bush was about removing evil from the world, and fundamentally lack courage, physical and otherwise. But I'm done.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rove on Torture

This is too good not to share (hat tip to Kevin Drum):
It has served, frankly, I think, as a recruiting tool. They can now take these memoranda and go to prospective, you know, recruits and say, This is the worst that the enemy, the United States, would ever do to you....It’s given them a tool to make it more attractive to recruit people, and you know, this kind of thing is harmful to us over the long haul.
I realize that Rove's whole thing is projection, and this is certainly an exercise in that, but I see this as evidence of a bigger problem--the right's tendency to overincentivize human activity. I'm not saying that people don't respond to incentives or that we shouldn't offer them in order to encourage people to do laudatory things. But just look at the gaping void known as the GOP's social policy to get a sense of how much the CEO mindset has seized the Republican Party. How else to interpret hostility toward allowing gays to serve in the armed forces or ensuring nondiscrimination in securing a home loan or getting a job aside from as a function of a worldview that says that making things tough enough on gay folks will turn them straight? That allowing gay folks even fundamental rights in our society is somehow "emboldening" the gay community. And then there's foreign policy--we can't do this, because it will embolden the enemy. We can't do that, because it will show weakness. In other words, because it will incentivize attacking or not.

As I said, this sort of calculus has its place. But when it comes to foreign policy what's more important than incentives are interests. The Middle East is, largely, poor (with some clusters of rich oil magnates), lacking in infastructre and economy, and as usually happens in countries that can't sustain themselves the ruling elites who caused the problems cast about for scapegoats. America and Israel make good ones--we're foreign, speak different languages then they do, there's ancient and modern hostility there and there's the little matter of the Palestinian crisis and the Iraq War to help sell us as bad guys. But nobody in Iran, for example, is hungry because of us. Nobody in Saudi Arabia is unemployed because of us. Admittedly, our alliance with Israel makes us partly responsible for the Palestinian crisis, and we need to try to find a fair solution to that problem. But we're not really keeping the Arab world down, and most Arabs know it. However, this sort of vicious cycle can generate free-floating anger that demagogues can deploy against their enemies. And an enemy that engages in torture is even easier to demagogue against (as the late Saddam Hussein could attest to, were he still alive). Not torturing makes their case a little harder (though they manage nicely), but it also keeps moderate Muslims from radicalizing. Perhaps that's too strong a claim: I'll just say that torturing certainly led to moderate Muslims being radicalized, according to sources too numerous to name. (Jane Mayer is one.)

But this bit from Rove is really mystifying. Terrorists who are ready to kill themselves are going to be cowed by the threat of torture? Sounds a lot like the notion that tougher jail sentences will be a deterrent to drug dealers. People who aren't afraid of dying for their cause aren't going to respond to incentives like this, and incentives matter less when matters of real conviction are involved. (I'm a detractor of the rational economic actor model, but that is a discussion for a later time.) This is vintage Rove, trying to turn an opponent's strength into a weakness, only it's so incoherent that one wonders whether Rove's heart is still in it. And the GOP's revolving door of failures spins round once again.

Oh, yeah, and have I mentioned that I'm really glad that Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee beat Harold Ford in 2006? Here's why.

Crist is in

He's running for the Senate. I must confess that Charlie Crist is one of my favorite Republicans, and might well be a plausible path toward Republican revival in 2016 or later. He has exactly the sort of profile that might be attractive for a GOP desperate to appeal to young voters: he has a strong environmental record, comparatively good on health care, moderate on gay rights, and generally more willing to accept compromise and work in a bipartisan manner, instead of the Boehner-McConnell scorched earth model that is only making the GOP more unpopular. He's not dogmatic (though he is assuredly conservative, especially on tax issues--see Nate Silver for more). He seems like almost exactly the politician that Republicans ought to start noticing.

What's really remarkable is that Crist is an honest, ethical, right-thinking Republican in a party where such traits are much more of a liability than an asset. His support of the stimulus, is spurning of ACORN-bashing during the election, his quashing of voter suppression efforts in Florida and his support of allowing released convicts to vote--a no-brainer, in my opinion--are all principled stances of conviction that generally brought him little benefit and might actually have cost him political capital among his base and GOP elites. It's always rare to encounter real conviction politicians, and coming off of a several-year period in which the GOP deservedly got a reputation as a craven and cynical political machine that was more interested in helping its buddies than helping the American people, turning the party over to someone who is in many respects the anti-Rove might be just the ticket. Plus, speaking electorally, being overwhelmingly popular in a critical swing state that was just won by Barack Obama might well be the most valuable asset Crist possesses.

I can tell you right now that a Crist-like (hmm...that just looks wrong) Republican Party would both excite and scare me--it would scare me because Crist could probably win blue states like Oregon and New Hampshire, but it would excite me because Crist could well be the GOP's Tony Blair, reforming his party to compete in modern times while preserving the things worth preserving. And having a principled, intelligent Republican Party is good for the country. Alas, this is all speculation, but I do think that after eight years--and especially after 2012, when I fully expect the wingnut express to derail after nominating someone like Sarah Palin who will lose in a landslide--picking a winner could be a good deal more attractive to the Republicans. A Cristian (even worse!) GOP would be competitive nationally, while a Palinian GOP would only be able to compete in the Deep South, Alaska, and the Mormon Belt. So, while I'd rather have another Democrat elected to the Senate out of Florida, the GOP could do a whole lot worse than Charlie Crist.

Douthat on gay marriage/abortion

Ross Douthat makes a plausible argument to me about why the Obama Administration has not made much progress yet on gay issues:
On a national level, the issue still cuts against liberalism — but less so with every passing day. By pushing gay-rights debates off until later in his presidency, Obama is almost certainly making them easier to win.

I agree with this, and I am suprised that Andrew Sullivan--who frequently and correctly notes that Obama believes in the long game, the long-term strategy--is expecting everything to be done now. I do think that Obama should have ended Don't Ask, Don't Tell during the Honeymoon Phase, though I suspect that the delay has had more to do with placating the military establishment than with public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports the move.

I had something of a problem with this, though:
Thus gay marriage opponents’ persistent disadvantage. They can argue from tradition, custom and Christianity — as Obama himself does, albeit with dubious sincerity, to explain why he backs civil unions but not full-fledged marriage. They can note the perils of formally severing the link between marriage and childbearing in a society where far too many children are born outside of wedlock as it is. But supporters of gay marriage are the only ones making an argument from personal liberty — the freedom to marry, the right to marry — and that has made all the difference.

I'll skip the arguments equal justice for everyone, separation of church and state, and the hollowness of the traditional arguments against gay marriage. I've made them all before. Here's my question: is Ross making an argument against adoption here? I know he's strongly pro-life, and presumably he agrees with the presumably believes that women shouldn't procure abortions, but rather they should put their children up for adoption instead. Adoption, though, seems a way of separating the link between marriage and childbearing, both for the donors and the recipients.

Now, obviously, there is a coherent argument to be made here. One can say that adoption is superior to abortion, but inferior to a child staying in a male-female household. Fair enough. I don't even disagree with that, but this is the reason why Douthat's social system doesn't really work: people are going to have sex, and they're mostly not going to want to have 13 kids. (Not that there's anything wrong with big families, but they're not in vogue at the moment.) This means that there are going to be some abortions and some adoptions, naturally. Douthat would prefer more adoptions, presumably. But his argument doesn't really cut to the quick of the case for gay marriage--his argument doesn't address gay adoption, for example. Gay people aren't going to contribute to the numbers of children being born out of wedlock, they're going to detract from the children waiting to be adopted, which is otherwise cherished by Douthat. The column doesn't even address the arguments for gay marriage--I believe he is opposed, but he doesn't really give those of us who disagree much to think about. Plus, he doesn't address the sterile couples argument--in this case, childbearing isn't the mitigating factor. Why is that? I don't know if Ross is holding back here, but his argument here is sort of a weak punch. Douthat's columns so far have shown some insight and have had some interesting ideas in them, but I don't think he's quite grown into his columnist role yet. He does show some great promise, though.

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.