Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Get over it, Mike!

I really don't see what purpose this sort of rhetoric this serves:
I am deeply disappointed in the decision made by the state Supreme Court, and I share the frustration of Minnesota's voters. At the core of our democracy lies two concrete principles: No valid vote should go uncounted and all votes should be treated equally.

Michael Steele has never been mistaken for a particularly bright politician, but there really isn't any political point to be scored here. It's pointless. Minnesotans aren't going to be outraged that the Franken-Coleman Senate race is over--in fact, they've been wanting it to end for months, and they've generally sided with Franken on the particulars. Jon Cornyn's statement seemed like a better deployment of red meat, even though the notion that the Democrats command the sort of party discipline necessary to start ramming through single payer now that they have 60 votes is not exactly true. Still, it did what it needed to do. One saw the point with Cornyn's blather.

What's really annoying about this is the lack of self-awareness here. Does Steele even remember 2000? Does he remember the GOP's continued use of disenfranchisement tactics that continued well into the Bush 43 years, and that culminated into Rove protege and "vote cager" Tim Griffin being rewarded with a U.S. Attorney slot? It's not like I disagree with his sentiment in general, but to say that there hasn't been due process on this sucker is just baffling, and suggests even more ignorance about the political scene from Steele than we had been led to believe. If he were smarter, his spin would be better. Just sayin'.

Ain't America Great!

The tendency among certain groups on the left is to act as though Europe is far more advanced than we are, and that our goal should be to catch up. I think this is essentially correct in some areas but wildly misguided on others. For example, I think that the casual multiculturalism of America is one of our most appealing and rightly cherished virtues. You hear about European countries banning burqas, but this never gets serious consideration here (outside of the wingnuttier circles). This is because we have two pretty awesome things going for us here:
  1. Toleration
  2. Freedom of expression

These are not exactly as popular in Europe, and I do think that the lack of a true "Americanist" ethnic identity is what is responsible for both of these truly positive attributes. Hell, even immigration restrictionists are generally careful to insure that they're perceived as only being against illegal immigration, though the extent to which it is true is debatable (and every once in a while there's a bona fide racist like Tom Tancredo who pops into the mix).

Anyway, I feel like I'm constantly talking about what I feel we can improve about America, so I always enjoy the opportunity to talk about something that is genuinely good about our country.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Senator Crist just became a lot more likely

Club for Growth considers intervening in the Florida Senate race. I guess things work a little differently on the right--if there were a left-wing Democratic organization dedicated to purging moderate Democrats in marginal districts, and that had had as abysmal results as CfG, they'd be deader than disco, to borrow a phrase.

Neoconnery and nationalism

Larison discusses something that I have always found interesting: the underappreciated extent to which nationalism shapes democracy. I have always been curious as to why the neocons, who are nationalistic to such a severe extent that they literally (or near-literally) believe that America is such a special nation that God Himself gave us some sort of vague commission of global preeminence tend to find nationalism in other countries utterly distasteful. It's almost as though a married man was jealous of other men loving their wives, under the belief that all other wives weren't as good and therefore unworthy of being loved in any way similar to how he loves his wife. What would you say about such a person if you knew them in real life? My guess would be that the man actually undervalues his wife and is threatened by the honest affections of other people for their wives. I tend to believe that people generally operate orthagonally to their real intentions, though, so I'll readily admit that the neocons' arrogance might well be arrogance, and not arrogance-concealing-weakness. As I tend to believe that fear is one of the greatest motivating factors in life--much more so than narcissism, in my experience--the first interpretation strikes me as the likeliest.

But it seems almost silly to conclude that of course other countries are going to be irritated if we meddle in their affairs unbidden. It is, of course, different if we meddle in subjugated or satellite states. In these states, as Larison notes, they are already oppressed by someone meddling in their politics, so meddling to ensure their freedom is not going to offend them. This is why Iraqi Kurds are extremely pro-American, as they feel oppressed by the Iraqis, who they see as a different nationality. However, third-party subjugation and primary-party subjugation are entirely different problems. In the first one, nationalism can be deployed in our favor, while in the second it can only be a fatal obstacle in the long run.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The major problem with the left

Is demonstrated by Greenpeace, courtesy of David Corn. Look, as far as controlling climate change, Waxman-Markey isn't nearly enough, and it has obvious flaws. But this letter is very, very silly. It would be one thing if Waxman-Markey were what emerged from a House in which 300-400 members were committed to serious action in averting climate change. But this is not the case--Republicans essentially want to do nothing while not entirely looking like they're doing nothing, and while most Democrats want to take serious action on this the party's centrist flank doesn't. In other words, trying to kill this bill wouldn't result in a better bill to deal with climate change--it would probably result in no bill. At all.

And this gets at the basic problem of the left--the people running the institutions simply lack political understanding. At least, they lack political understanding outside of various left-of-center circles. You see it here, you see it even worse with the pro-choice movement, which chose inexplicably to fight a ban on partial-birth abortions that were never legal under Roe, but which allowed pro-lifers to flank them. The key insight here is that, sometimes, giving up some bad ground to your opponent can work to your advantage in the long run if the ground to which you retreat is more defensible and closer to your supply lines, thus allowing for easier reinforcement. Greenpeace would have us fight on ground that isn't holdable now, but that might be ready in five years, provided that we stake a foothold and try to build on it. I don't want to extend this metaphor too far, but hopefully my point is made.

Put another way, I'm sure that Ronald Reagan wasn't satisfied with lowering the top tax bracket to 50% in the early 1980s, but he took it and built on it. Of course, he was leading a movement staffed by savvy and experienced professionals. One hopes that Obama will have a similar impact on progressivism.

The curtain falls

Goldfarb, via Sullivan: "Basically, cap and trade strikes me as the Iraq war of the Democratic domestic policy agenda." Sullivan's analysis: "Pure Rove."

My question is, does Goldfarb not support the Iraq War? He doesn't believe that Iraq was a Glorious American War That Will Be Judged Correct By History? Or is he admitting that that particular right-wing meme is self-serving bs? And this is all nonsense. Great Britain has been operating under cap and trade for the better part of a decade, as has much of Europe. Conservative objections and the banking crisis aside, Europe survives. From the stats I've seen, there's no particular reason to think that cap and trade has severely clamped down growth. The sky hasn't fallen.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's all incremental

I'm sure that the climate change and health care bills that pass Congress will almost certainly be somewhat disappointing to liberals, but Ezra's got the right idea here. The same thing was probably felt about the 1957 Civil Rights Act. For all of his virtues, Dwight Eisenhower wasn't really keen on pushing civil rights, though I think he did much more substantively for the issue than anyone other than Lyndon Johnson. If 1957 were the end of the story on civil rights, then obviously that would have been a disappointment. But Ezra's right: it's not the end, it's the beginning.

I've been thinking about this quote from E.D. Kain recently, and I think it applies:
The Democrats have Obama, and without him I’d say they stand a much less likely chance of holding on to power unless, of course, Obama cultivates a strong following within the Democratic leadership – but we’re only half a year in to the new administration. In four years, if he is as skilled a politician as he seems to be, he will have remade the party in his own image, and that’s dangerous for conservatives.

I think part of the reason why the Democrats in Congress kinda suck right now really is because it's still, in large part, the Party of Clinton. I think that the 2006 and 2008 elections were helpful in bringing in a more progressive group of people that hold promise. Sure, there were some really conservative inductees in those congressional classes, but there's a real difference between a Democrat like Bob Casey and one like Evan Bayh. Both are classified as "moderate" but Casey is, like most newer Democrats, an economic populist and Iraq opponent (though he is socially conservative). Bayh is fairly liberal on social issues but is otherwise functionally conservative. I think this shift will continue, but even more than that, it's a question of attitude: Dems like Bayh, Landrieu, Nelson, etc., tend to be more deferential to the right wing because of the formative experiences of their careers, but more importantly, they tend to have a different conception of what it means to be a Democrat. To these folks, one can be a Democrat while taking vast amounts of corporate and special interest money. There's no conflict to them. Their careers began during a time when fundraising was difficult for Democrats without sucking up to those powers--something that doesn't really hold any longer, considering institutions like ActBlue and MoveOn and all the rest can raise money as well. Obama swamped McCain in fundraising last election. The game is changing.

So I think that getting something done now, then waiting and seeing and fixing what wasn't fixed before seems like a good idea. Leaders can have a dramatic impact on the future of their parties--just think of the GOP now and the GOP circa 2000. Or 1990, for that matter, before Newt Gingrich. Hopefully Obama will turn out better than those two.

Defense "cuts"

Matt makes a good point:
It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in financial expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough. Would an extra aircraft carrier have helped? A more advanced fighter plane? A larger Marine Corps? Additional nuclear weapons? One of the most realistic ways an organization like al-Qaeda can damage the United States is to provoke us into wasting resources on a far larger scale than they could ever destroy. The mentality Heritage is expressing here is right in line with that path.

One of the reasons I think we should at least halve the defense budget--aside from the fact that actually defending America is something that the DoD hasn't really done for decades--is that I'm of the belief that having a big military is going to mean that it's going to be used. There is an historical basis for this. Aside from the 1980s, every arms race in history has led to war. This is why liberals were really concerned about Reagan starting WWIII, and luckily that situation didn't end tragically. But going to war is often easier in the short run than tough diplomacy and long-term strategy, despite the much greater costs in the long run. Having a big military around merely makes the proposition more tempting. I'm no pacifist and I don't mind spending a little money on a strong military, but when we're spending five times more than the runner-up it's time to question what we're doing that requires so much "defense".

And the dominoes start to fall...

From TPMDC: "Speaking moments ago to a large and animated crowd of union organizers and health reform advocates in a brewing house just North of the Capitol, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) said he supports a public insurance option."

Well, of course he does. I think this just proves that Specter is not exactly a man of conviction--he's clearly interested in presenting a moderate front, but he's willing to become a conventional liberal if it's necessary to hold his seat. I guess the only question is: does he revert back to his original form after re-election? My guess is yes, so I support Joe Sestak to primary him.

At this point, there are only two questions about the public plan that matter. Number (1) is: do Democratic leaders in the Senate have the werewithal to put it in? Number (2) is: will Democrats that oppose it (just Lieberman and Landrieu, so far as I know) filibuster the bill? I somehow doubt (2), while (1) remains to be seen. Lieberman won't gain anything from opposing such an option--apart from burnishing his independent credentials--and I suspect he could be bought off by something like an Obama promise of support for his re-election. Landrieu might be harder, as the objection might be a bit more ideological. But will she filibuster the bill if it contains one thing she doesn't like, as opposed to just not voting for it? And with Specter signed on and Ben Nelson officially undecided, being the lone Democrat to filibuster would be a real--and foolhardy--act of political courage, of the sort I've never observed from her.

At this point, I'm not sure that the public plan is as good as it could be, as it's entirely free of taxpayer subsidy and doesn't have access to Medicare-negotiated pricing. In essence, because of the compromises that have been made, it's just going to be a non-profit health insurer that happens to be run by the government. I can understand why conservatives oppose it, but given their issue stances and ideology, I guess I don't see why they fear it, if government can't run anything efficiently.

Truly hilarious

I laughed at this incredulous reaction from Steve Benen: "Wait a second. Ralph Reed believes he can show his face in public again? He thinks he has the credibility to once again be a political player?"

More and more, the public face of the GOP is beginning to consist solely of philanderers, talk radio goons, and outright crooks. It's going to be a long time before they come back.

Taking one's country for granted

Ta-Nehisi's dismissal of the "greatest nation in the history of the world" idiots got me thinking. I'm a huge fan of Gore Vidal, and especially his historical fiction, which often expresses appreciation for underappreciated historical figures (like William McKinley) and looks more coldly at overappreciated ones (like Teddy Roosevelt). I believe it was Teddy, in one of Vidal's books, who said something like this, which prompted a response that he took his country for granted. And I think Liz Cheney's doing that too.

I think this is a concept that needs to be unpacked a little bit. Normally, when one thinks of taking something for granted, one thinks of ignoring that thing--and it's usually a spouse. But that's only one way of taking something for granted. It's just as bad--if not worse--to mindlessly praise your spouse every day without meaning it. At least hatred is an honest emotion. With this form of taking something for granted, the actual characteristics of the thing in question become irrelevant, and serve only as a pleasant abstraction of a symbol of status. I'd love to see a news anchor ask Liz Cheney why America now is the greatest country in the history of the world. I suppose it's possible to devise criteria by which this statement is true, but I suspect it would be something along the lines of "powerful military/economic "freedom"/moral values/power", all of which can be found in greater abundance in other and earlier countries, though it is true that we do have some pretty unparalleled economic power.

Ultimately, though, I think that evaluating a nation on any of these things is silly. A strong economy isn't a precious thing in and of itself, but rather as an auxiliary in establishing broadly-shared prosperity. We're not terrible on that scale, but we've stumbled over the past few decades. I tend to think that merely making this about prosperity or happiness doesn't quite get at it either, but I tend to think that we judge our success according to these metrics because that's what we're good at, in the same way that the French tend to evaluate their society according to education and culture. Ultimately, I tend to think that most nations feel that they're great, largely because every country is going to evaluate itself based on what it perceives to be its most appealing features and greatest successes.

But, getting back to the Vidal quote, even if one assumes that the Cheney proposition depends in one way or another upon economic and military might, it seems baffling to want to evaluate a nation based on things that are not guaranteed, and that will wax and wane over time. I suppose one could celebrate the greater amount of economic libertarianism in America as opposed to, say, Finland, but that seems a little odd and excessively ideological. Nobody talks about how much economic freedom existed under the Romans, but presumably there was more, despite the rather significant military expenditures of the time. Laudable or not, that metric is a little too esoteric. I suppose my criteria--this is going to be solipsistic, but then again, so's this whole conversation!--would be some mixture of equal opportunity, justice, openmindedness, and freedom. All in all, according to these metrics, I'd say that we're doing pretty well, but that there's substantial room for improvement on items (1) and (2), while we do quite well on (3) and (4), despite the small chorus of pitiful wingnuts that dissents from the common American views on these subjects. Certainly, when it comes to things like free speech and multiculturalism, we do much better than Europe, while I feel that they do better on some of the economic stuff. I'm not sure what the "greatest" country in history might be, as I'm not familiar with the politics of every country on the globe, but then again, neither are the wingnuts. I'd be very surprised if Liz Cheney could name many foreign heads of state. What matters isn't the facts to them, but the abstractions. They take "the greatest country in the history of the world" for granted.

A bit more on Sanford

John Cole more or less states how I feel:
But unlike when I watched Ensign last week and saw a tough politico with no soul doing whatever he could to just salvage his career, when I watched Sanford yesterday, I saw a confused, and lost, and hurting person. I can’t explain what the difference between the two cases, but there was something genuine about Sanford, and I feel bad for the guy, even though he brought it all on himself.

Social conservatism

The WaTimes has it right: "Extramarital affairs, gambling, alcohol abuse, prostitution and sexual pursuit of minors have taken a toll on the GOP."

Obviously, any movement that stays in power long enough is going to get corrupted. It happens. But I think that social conservatives who seriously believe that a "do as I say, not as I do" mentality is acceptable are seriously misreading public perception of their movement. They simply don't have that much political capital, and when the 2012 hopefuls start talking about the evils of secular liberalism, secular liberals will be able to connect the dots between Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Dave Vitter, John Ensign and Mark Sanford as evidence that the religious right's goals are not only hypocritical but also unrealistic. What baffles me is that these institutions hold onto people like Vitter and Ensign even though they could be pressured to go away with zero diminishment of Republican power. Both of their states have Republican governors. It just makes the whole institution look like the mafia.

From what I've read, it looks like they might throw Mark Sanford under the bus, which is a shame because his story is the least icky: he was in love with a woman who wasn't his wife, and while his conduct was reprehensible in the extreme, one can't help but empathize. He's made an accounting of what he's done and might well deserve forgiveness and a chance at rehabilitation. Vitter, though, simply does not. That the religious right has not only backed him but seemingly scared off primary challengers for him is merely evidence of the insanity at work here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Who are the real social conservatives?

Dennis Prager is at it again, promoting one of the latest memes in the echo chamber known as the rightosphere, that it was some sort of injustice for Barbara Boxer to request to be called by her title. Admittedly, he makes one good point: military officers use the sir and ma'am honorifics as a matter of training. But I suspect that a man who has had bullets fired at him [I'm speaking about the general here] could give a damn about things like this. It's just another chapter in Teh Librulz Hate The Troops. But this is rather stunning:
Liberalism has lowered expectations of behavior for everyone in America except white Christian heterosexual males. They are the only Americans from whom dignified and mature conduct is always expected. Liberals treat women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and many non-Christians, with what is known as the soft bigotry of low expectations. Many liberal women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays know that and use it to get away with conduct and speech that no WASP heterosexual male could. People rise or descend to the level of behavior expected of them.

His justification is partly that Barack Obama doesn't bristle when people address him as "sir", but I think that this betrays a lack of knowledge of protocol. Military officers are initially supposed to address Obama as "Mr. President" and subsequently as "sir". I don't know what the drill is for Senators, but it doesn't seem out of line to insist on something similar. Additionally, Prager evidently doesn't understand that using a black man as an example of a supposed example of white restraint undermines his whole argument, such as it is. And he really overreaches here:
That is why those 17 seconds in the U.S. Senate were so revealing and worthy of
attention. They encapsulated the way in which modern liberalism has lowered the
bar of civility for so many in America.

I have to think that being a wingnut requires a total lack of irony. This quote is completely meaningless, although it makes perfect sense if one replaces "liberalism" with "the conservative movement." I mean, just listen to Mark ("If I were your husband, I'd put a gun to my head." "WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR CHILDREN? WHY DO YOU WANT THEM TO BE IMPOVERISHED?") Levin or Rush ("They're going to have to call it the Ted Kennedy Memorial Health Bill before it's done." "I hope he fails.") Limbaugh for examples of the extremely low standards of civility in the public discourse. And it's the right that is far more in cahoots with trash culture these days than the left--Kim Kardashian rates an interview on Hannity and Fox News spent weeks covering the death of a stripper, while it's highly unlikely that you'll see similar antics on Rachel Maddow. At some point, hopefully, people will realize that today's liberals are, in every way, much more authentically culturally conservative than the so-called conservatives. One hopes that the cavalcade of Republican infidelities will help cement that impression.

The ultimate problem here for the GOP is that what is perceived to be culturally conservative in America is basically what can be counted as Midwestern values, while the GOP has become a Southern party, which has rather different standards of self-presentation. The reason why Democrats have an edge on social issues right now is that, from Obama on down, the Democrats have become adept at coopting the rhetoric and sensibility of Middle America while the Republicans are only really able to appeal to Texas, where the two most ubiquitous sorts of buildings are churches and topless joints, as well as places similar in mindset. I'm not sure if there's a larger argument to be made here, but this all strikes me as pretty solid. Then again, it does depend on the definition of "cultural conservatism", though I find it hard to believe that any real conservatism can be based on incivility, bombasticity, profanity and excess.

It's almost as though they aren't negotiating in good faith

Larison serves the neocons up on a platter:
When Obama wanted to exercise restrainty and say little, many neocons demanded that he say more and say it more forcefully. Once he does that, they will demand sanctions. Once he proposes sanctions, they will demand covert action to topple the regime. Should he actually authorize covert action, they will call for bombings. This is how it works: if Obama adopts anything resembling a hawkish approach, they will praise the hawkishness but always demand escalation. Short of war with Iran, which is where the isolationist policy Reihan is proposing ultimately leads, I doubt there is anything Obama could do that would be deemed sufficient by most neoconservatives.
Larison understands, of course, that neoconservatism is almost completely uninterested in the actual welfare of foreigners. The neocons, frankly, are vile. And I've pretty much lost any respect I ever had for Reihan Salam, who has always shown severe signs of hackishness (e.g. his ridiculous Palin boosterism), but has basically become a slightly less offensive version of Krauthammer during the Iran crisis. If he and Ross Douthat are supposed to be the future of the GOP, they're in for another New Deal-like spell in the wilderness.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why there's been no action on gay rights

From Sullivan: Ken Gude, an associate director at the Center for American Progress, who specializes in national-security issues, and who has close ties to the White House, believes that Obama’s instinct, like Panetta’s, was to set up a truth commission of some sort..."Obama’s political advisers dread any issue that could trigger a culture war and diminish his support among independent voters."

No kidding. It looks like significant steps on gay rights aren't going to happen as long as Rahm Emanuel is chief of staff. Then again, that job usually has a famously short average tenure...

Greatest unintentional compliment of the day

"This is someone who doesn’t believe in activism and America’s greatness as a way to change things around the world. He only believes we should do those things at home." -- Rick Santorum

I love this. He's right, you know. And the hilarious thing is that he thinks this is a bad thing, that it's fundamentally selfish for America to try to get its house in order before trying to meddle in foreign politics. You have to love this sort of cluelessness. It doesn't compute with these people that trying to advance democracy is more difficult in a country where bribery is effectively legal, where huge special interests set the score when it comes to regulation, and where the structures of government are centuries old and highly dysfunctional. It similarly doesn't compute that a country that denies millions of people fundamental human rights on the basis of their sexual orientation, that reserves the right to take anyone, anywhere and toss them into jail for an indeterminate amount of time with no legal recourse, and that engages in torture might not be the best world's spokesman for freedom. It seems that one of the prerequisites of neoconnery is serious self-delusion.

And here's a little something while we're on the subject:

Why the neocons are wrong, again

The Plank has a good rundown of the track record of U.S. involvement in foreign coups (excluding our activities in Iran, for some reason). The gist: it doesn't help. It gives repressive regimes propaganda tools that help them stay in longer. I think this list shows, orthogonally, how little understanding of human nature that the neocons possess: people generally tend to be angry when other people meddle in their politics, even if they don't like the politician in question. I suspect that the neocons wouldn't be too thrilled if Canada started throwing their weight around in U.S. politics. I know that the neocon objections to this are that a) America is a special nation destined by God to bring liberty to all, so therefore we need not worry about double standards and b) that we'll be used as a propaganda tool anyway. Option (a) is essentially unanswerable--you either buy the proposition or you don't--while option (b) makes little sense, as it is basically saying that our reputation of meddling in other countries' business proves the need to meddle in other countries' business. It's the same sort of logic that says that we can't give Palestinians their land back from settlements because they would use it to launch strikes against Israel: it's an admission of guilt used as a justification for further guilt. And if one believes in (a), and that there's nothing America can do to earn the disapprobation of God, it all washes out. How dare you question America's motives, sir! I am beginning to wonder what side you're on...

Every once in a while, one hears someone saying that they personally aren't neocons, but they feel that neocons have some valuable insights to contribute to the debate. I find this baffling. Democracy promotion and human rights aren't original neocon concepts (I think they're rather tangential to neoconnery in general) and conducting a foreign policy that takes moral considerations into account is good old foreign policy liberalism, see Wilson, W. I suppose the insight that war brings people together to do great things is something that is true, but that doesn't justify the deaths and property damage unless one feels that foreigners' lives are essentially worthless, as are the lives of the soldiers fighting these wars. The whole "we should never look weak to other countries" bit is just old-fashioned machismo, adapted to the global stage.

All in all, saying that neoconservatism has valuable insights to the state of foreign policy in this day and age seems, to me, to be the equivalent of saying that alchemy has vast import to the present state of natural science. It's not like there aren't things about both that bear some resemblance to the real world, but both are essentially wrong from the bottom up.

Win at all costs

Sometimes, I wish I were living in Britain:

“Since the administration is trying to do a serious number of bad things, everything that slows it down stops another bad thing it wants to do. Now, there is an argument against just saying ‘no’ or just stalling on everything. That is why, ideally, you can have a fight about an issue — Harold Koh’s thinking on international law is a serious issue that affects gun rights, for example — and you can slow the bad stuff down. That’s the best of both worlds.”

That's the GOP's uberfuhrer, Grover Norquist, who seems to have some sort of aversion to democracy. This "win at all costs, don't give an inch" mentality just grinds me. It doesn't have to be this way. We seem to have fallen into this groove by which victorious parties are prevented from governing through the use of roadblocks that were never forseen by the founders, and I'd argue that the founders' plan is already out of date, it's too unwieldy. I suspect that the founders themselves would agree with me, were they around. (And the gun rights thing is hilarious--somehow I doubt they think that in Switzerland.)

All in all, I much prefer the fair play ethic that more or less defines Britain. When I think about it, the traditional boogeymen of the left are correct, but not as a matter of inevitability so much as historical accident. Capitalism, for example, need not be an enemy. Lots of countries' business sectors have strong senses of corporate responsibility. Hell, American business felt the same way after WWII until roughly the 1970s. I'm beginning to think that the problem is a cultural one, and that must be our battlefield, though obviously doing things like regulating Wall Street are important.

I have hope that my generation will change the equation to some extent, but I keep coming back to Niebuhr, when he talked about how we had always been able to rely on prosperity to avoid answering thorny questions of social justice. Our prosperity, of course, won't last forever, and when it ends I suspect America will move more toward a social democratic, European model of economic organization.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Faith and neoconnery

E.D. Kain discusses why he's not a neoconservative:
So I re-evaluated everything, not just the foreign policy positions I had found so faulty, but the wider implications of the foreign policy itself, which it turned out were merely extensions of a wider domestic policy: expansionism, exceptionalism, and the push for a global economy which had at its core the cult of the individual. The conservative movement and the neoconservative movement, and honestly the neoliberal movement, have really become all one and the same, and at their heart lies this false idol – the Individual. Suddenly older, deeper ideas began to resurface, to bubble up from within and to creep in from without: community, tradition, history, fellowship, the Church. The local. The good, the true, and the beautiful. Peace. The order of things.
Kain mentions faith here, which interests me. What I find so interesting about this hyperindividuality is how deep the hold is despite the ever-professed Christianity of its citizens. To put it mildly, Christianity doesn't exactly teach that everyone is totally self-reliant and can get on by themselves. One would think that people with that background would view things from a different perspective. One would be mistaken.

We always hear about polls where like 2% of the public can name their state rep or whatever, but I rarely hear about polls asking self-professed Christians even rudimentary questions about the Bible and Christian doctrine. My suspicion is that they'd make those other polls look good by comparison. I'd actually like to see some polling done on this, if for no other reason than to discredit the holier-than-thou crowd a little bit. Such standing must be earned, not asserted. I think it's been clear for some time that the driving force behind the religious right is, in fact, pride. What else makes you think that you know what's best for everyone else and ignore any and all criticism to the contrary? One of these days, I'd be very interested to see a book on the feedback loop between the sociocons and the neocons. They seem to have brought out the worst in each other.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thomas Kinkade: shady operator

Christianity at its finest. I've never gotten the attraction personally, and everything I read about him suggests that he's borderline autistic. "Visual Muzak" is a nice way of describing his work.

Yet more neoconnery

Rep. Doug Lamborn states the assumptions of neoconnery far more compactly and fully than I've ever heard them stated before:

"Sovereignty is vital for America because we are an exceptional nation," wrote Lamborn, "one uniquely blessed with a vibrant Judeo-Christian heritage, as demonstrated both through its founding documents and by the witness of history. For any nation, and I believe especially for America, to give up any degree of control of its destiny to transnational bodies is irresponsible and wrong."

What I love the most about this, once one gets past the saccharine, is how silly it is. Really, America is solely in control of its own destiny? We are, really? What if a meteor hits us? I guess America has already thought through that possibility. It used to be that only Marxists believed this "control of history" pablum--now the right believes it too. At some point we're going to have to come to terms with the fact that we're not a special country, that the extent to which we are better than other countries is due to the decisions we make and have made instead of some sort of special status from God (who, in my religion, doesn't take sides in stuff like this), and that this sort of talk--which has underlied the American experience since the Pilgrim days, as Reinhold Niebuhr sadly observed--is just poisonous pride, that most deadly of all the sins. America, at some point, will have to change. But it's going to be over these morons' dead bodies.

I sometimes wonder if Al Gore had taken office in 2001 and had launched a similarly disastrous set of foreign interventions after 9/11, would the GOP congressional caucus look more like Ron Paul on foreign policy? If we had half as many pacifists in the government as warmongers, I'd feel a whole lot better.

And on the other hand

Andrew Sullivan is much more gracious to the neocons than I would be. No doubt many of them are as well-intentioned as he says. I, of all people, understand how annoying it is to be represented by narcissists and fools. But I think that neoconservatism is an ideology built off of faulty assumptions, a flawed model of humanity, an ignorance of history, and an ideology that begins and ends with platitudes. I don't really want to get into the whole thing now, but just because one is well-intentioned doesn't make one any less responsible for the wreckage that America has left behind for the past few years. And it doesn't make the thinking any less imperialist.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A lament

Andrew Sullivan says the way to get Democrats to start supporting gay rights is to stop supporting Democrats. Did I miss the part where he ever supported Democrats (aside from Obama)?

It seems like I've been reading this sort of thing a lot lately. I know where these folks are coming from. I thought electing Obama would change things, but in retrospect that it hasn't is unsurprising. Obama would often say that it wasn't about him, and it would have been nice had the movement he created stayed in place to pass his agenda. Instead, for whatever reason, Obama has given Congress broad latitude and the results have been less than encouraging. I guess he wants to maintain good relations with Congress, but good relations are only desirable inasmuch as they produce good results. With the death by a thousand cuts of Waxman-Markey, the defeat of cramdown protection, the ever-more-depressing outlook on healthcare reform, the Obama era seems to be looking less like the next iteration of F.D.R. and more like the next iteration of Tony Blair, without the war stuff. Calling him the next Clinton seems harsh at this point, but that is looking much more likely now than it was five months ago.

But on the issue of gay rights, specifically, the problem is all Congress and not Obama. Sullivan pays attention--Congress might listen to Obama, and then it does what it wants to do, which is usually the bidding of some big lobby or other. There is some hope from progressive Dems, but the Democratic Party hasn't yet been caputred by the progressive movement in the way that the Republican Party has been by the conservative movement. That's probably for the best, but it would be a good thing for Obama to eventually clean house and start recruiting actual leaders. The current ones just aren't worth a damn.

It's not too late, but it has been a little dispiriting. If Obama doesn't succeed, we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Here's a putdown for you

Never pick a fight with Jon Chait. They never end well:
I wasn't making making an ad hominem attack on Kagan, I was refuting the substance (or lack thereof) of his argument. It's true that I called his column "fairly embarassing" -- because Kagan is an intelligent person who's capable of good work. I wouldn't have used the term if such a shoddy column were written by, say, John Podhoretz.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the vein of my discontent with John McCain, the world's best news source offers a plausible alternate candidate.

Dear God, man, he's a U.S. Senator

I would never have bet that John McCain is the dumbest Republican in Congress--I don't think he's terribly bright, but this is a group that includes Steve King and Michele Bachmann, lest we forget--but with this Iranian saga he's certainly upping his prospects for the crown. Here is the man who might well have been our president, courtesy of Dave Weigel: "We’re not interfering when we take the side of the opposition."

I don't even know how to respond to this. It might well be the stupidest thing ever said by a human being in history. Stupider than General John Reynolds' "Nonsense, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-," which is usually my benchmark. I'm literally almost speechless--we're getting into flat earth territory here. I'm really, really, really hoping that Gabrielle Giffords decides to give this senile old bastard a run for his money. Janet Napolitano would be good as well, though my guess is that she's going to try to beat Jon Kyl in 2012 instead of a year after joining the Obama administration. Hell, I'd even be fine if a some anti-immigration nativist Republican unseated him. Who will rid me of this turbulent priest? Ms. Giffords, if you do decide to run, I'll donate your first $100.

Political films: Clear And Present Danger

I've decided to write a few blog posts about political movies that I feel are of some quality and that deserve attention. Hopefully they'll prove interesting...we'll see how it goes.

It might seem odd that a Harrison Ford film based on a Tom Clancy novel would be one of the most significant political films of the past quarter century, but Clear And Present Danger is, indeed, all of these things. Its relationship to the Clancy films (Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, The Sum of All Fears) resembles nothing less than that of The Wire to the likes of CSI and Law & Order. What makes the film interesting (and likely successful) is that it contains all the traditional set-ups and payoffs of the other Clancy movies--someone looking for some awesome, militaristic action setpieces will be more than satisfied, up to and including a climactic chase/fight scene (that, regrettably, doesn't quite realize all its possibilities). Perhaps the most famous scene from the movie is the scene where Jack Ryan (Ford), the FBI Director and a lot of other bureaucrats are ambushed in a Colombian back alley, fired upon from rooftops by drug terrorists with rocket launchers. The whole thing is ingeniously staged and is genuinely thrilling--so much so that some films have stolen bits and pieces from the scene (or, in the case in Home of the Brave, they just stole every camera setup and staging detail outright). Also notable is a sequence following a missile headed toward a ground target, which serves as a reminder that, yes, one can film explosions without CGI technology, and the results are often superior.

What Danger does that the other Clancy films don't do is to integrate the Clancyish elements naturally into a film that takes on some weighty themes about American adventurism, intelligence fowlups, the imperial presidency and the abuse of the American military. The other Clancy films don't really bother to try to do this. Hunt for Red October was a well-made film, but it just avoided making political arguments. It might well have been the right thing for the film to do. Patriot Games and The Sum of all Fears are not generally regarded as good films, and the lack of anything beyond Clancyish action boilerplate is more a function of deeper problems with the films as conceived and executed. Patriot Games shared a director with Danger, Phillip Noyce, and it seems that after Noyce delivered a successful crowdpleaser he was able to get away with making a more impressive, weighty, and contemplative film. Clear And Present Danger is, indeed, all of those things.

Unlike some of the other Clancy films, Danger tells a fairly simple story, albeit one with numerous resonances in history and the present day. In essence, an unnamed president discovers that some personal friends were murdered by a drug kingpin. He orders his National Security Adviser (played by Harris Yulin, who does a great job of playing an old bureaucrat who's too tired to give a fuck) to send a message, but without saying to, of course. Yulin seeks out the CIA's operations director (an unctuous toady played brilliantly by Henry Czerny) and gets him to sign onto the deal. All of this goes on behind the back of Czerny's counterpart, the newly elevated Jack Ryan. Before long, there are boots on the ground, and airstrips and coke refineries are being levelled, but the cartel's response to these is vicious. It's at this point that Yulin takes a meeting with a drug intermediary that he basically hangs the troops out to dry, in exchange for some assistance on the drug war. Since they were secretly deployed, they're easily forgotten, except that Ryan figures it out and gums up the works.

Danger is hardly a perfect movie. The scene where Czerny is confronted by Ford should be incomparably awesome--let's just say that they are on the exact opposite ends of the idealism spectrum, but both are equipped with substantial charisma--but it kind of falls flat. Anyone saying "the world is gray" unironically just isn't going to be taken seriously. Additionally, the climax of the film simply drags, and it isn't quite as imaginative as the other setpieces. Perhaps Noyce just knew that the action crowd that he needed to make the film successful needed some plain vanilla action to end the film? Or maybe the inspiration just ran out? I don't know. But there's quite a bit to admire--by putting together a frighteningly real military scenario, Noyce looks at the forces that make these depressingly pervasive force projection experiments possible. Personal pique, plausible deniability, extreme secrecy, and ultimately unchecked power are what made the disastrous paramilitary drug war expansion possible, and the use of the CIA as a way of conducting foreign policy on the cheap is something that has a grand and robust history in America (see The Very Best Men or, better yet, Legacy of Ashes for many, many examples of this). The film, much like Clancy himself, comes from a perspective of old-right realism and skepticism of the military-industrial complex and a belief in democratic institutions, but the political orientation is almost irrelevant, as the movie tells it straight about foreign policy and truth knows no party or creed. It is sort of ironic that Clear and Present Danger--a very political and revelatory film--is something of a mainstay on TNT and such, though I suspect the trojan horse philosophy of getting in some thoughtful argumentation while satisfying the masses was Noyce's point all along, and it's well enough accomplished.

There's much else to admire in the film--Czerny's scene-stealing Washington weasel (seriously, this guy is a fave of mine--between this and the first Mission: Impossible film he might well have been a minor star--what ever happened to him?), who ultimately serves to indict the cynical Beltway elites who care only about accumulating their power, and then there's Donald Moffat's unglamorous but spot-on performance as a not particularly charismatic commander-in-chief (echoes of George H. W. Bush here). Willem Defoe seems to play more villains than heroes these days, but his performance here splits the difference--the movie does tend to put people into "good" and "evil" camps, but Defoe is always ambiguous. And the final scene between Ford and Moffat is fascinating and works quite well as a denouement--Ford plays the scene nicely, as a patriotic and decent man who respects the office of the president, but is nonetheless filled with rage at how he and so many others have been betrayed by him and his cronies. As are we all. Clear And Present Danger has aged quite well, and even thought the country has moved on to other issues it remains disturbingly prophetic and plausible. In fact, it might be even more relevant today than it was in 1994. One wonders if we'll ever get the message.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why do the neocons want to sabotage Iranian democracy?

I am curious about the GOP House leadership--Boehner, Cantor, and Pence--as well as many neocons (like Jonah Goldberg) who are now insisting that Obama take sides with respect to the struggle in Iran. For the record, I don't think they're stupid. They all know that, if Obama were actually to follow their instructions, the protests would dissolve pretty soon. These folks don't want our help and they sure as hell never asked for it.

No, these guys are doing exactly what you would expect them to do: they're making a bad faith argument in order to set themselves up as the real champions of democracy, and Obama as soft on it. At worst, they might be trying to push Obama's hand here because they want him to fail. You know, it strikes me that the neocons are actually better served by not having power--their idiocy still gets spewed by any network that will have it, their ideas aren't sullied by submitting them to real-world testing, and they will be difficult to dislodge from the prominence in the GOP because the only challenge to their worldview is coming from the left. And a party saddled with neoconservatism as its foreign policy need not worry about regaining power and thus reexposing the dangerous ideas at its core. Neoconnery isn't going away until the right cleans house.

But we won the Cold War!

John McCain, spouting the sort of wisdom he regularly dispersed on the campaign trail:

jaketapper: to translate from twitterese: WH says “We have to deal with the Iran we HAVE, not the one we WISH we had”…

SenJohnMcCain: that’s revisiting the cold war arguments on how we dealt with the Soviet Union

SenJohnMcCain: we must stand strong for democracy in Iran as we stood for Democracy in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia

Now, I've read an awful lot about Cold War America, and I've never read anything that made me think that enacting the containment policy wasn't the right thing to do. In fact, it was indisputably the right thing to do, and once upon a time John McCain knew that. Neither the hard right nor the hard left liked containment--the hard left preferred coexistence and the hard right preferred rollback. Enacting either policy would have been completely disastrous, though it's not like neither one made any reasonable points.

But McCain's formulation is so idiotic. We didn't stand for democracy anywhere--it was the people of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia that stood for democracy. The extent to which we supported that shift did not include a hot war with the Soviet Union, as we let the Hungarian revolution of 1956 crumble rather than risk a hot war. Long ago, American policymakers decided that the Soviet Union wasn't dynamic or intellectually rigorous enough to survive, and basically decided to wait the regime out. A lot of rightists felt that it was immoral to allow people to be trampled under the yoke of Soviet oppression, I get that. But the alternative was far worse, which is why every president starting with Truman and ending with Bush 41, from relative doves like Jimmy Carter to relative hawks like Ronald Reagan, essentially conducted the same foreign policy. It was the only sane policy, the only one that might have resulted in both a free and safe world. I'm not claiming it was morally unimpeachable, but it was a satisficing choice, and the right one.

John McCain, though, is talking like this was a bad thing. He's obviously not arguing based on results, as the three countries he named eventually reformed. He's arguing based on a desire to further project American power into the Middle East. Thank God he's not our president.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I second Steve

When I heard that the President was discussing caps on malpractice lawsuits, I just assumed that it was part of a trade so that the AMA would agree to a public option. I see that Steve Benen thinks so too. I have my doubts as to whether a public option will actually pass, but it looks like Obama's working hard for it, and one counts the man out at one's own risk.

The trainwreck continues

The Hater exposes the insanity of the Wasilla Wingnut by noting that they responded with outrage to David Letterman's crude joke about pedophilia by...wait for it...cracking a crude joke about pedophilia: "The Palins have no intention of providing a rating’s boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman." This reminds me of the time in the primaries last year when David Shuster made some unfortunate comment about Hillary "pimping out" Chelsea. I can understand her being angry at that comment--it's not exactly in good taste--but Hillary took it much further, trying to get Shuster fired and using this as another reason to try to reunite the sisterhood. I found that distasteful, just as I find this distasteful.

Honestly, I don't much have much to say about Palin, who oftentimes sounds so stupid it almost seems as though she's a Democratic plant with a vested interest in destroying the Republican Party. The only people who seem interested in defending her are the Weekly Standard types who don't want to admit that their ridiculous boosterism of this mediocrity only further underlined their irrelevance, and all the cries of media bias aren't going to change that she's not exactly leading in the polls for 2012 and that she wears poorly with time, suggesting that she's going to go down, not up, in terms of her popularity. Her popularity in Alaska has eroded, and I doubt she'll seek re-election. She has all the signs of a classic political burnout, and I suspect that she'll be only vaguely remembered come election day 2012. The GOP seems eager to move on, having gotten some glimpses at the vulgarity and darkness under the relentlessly smiling outer shell.

One of the things that always interests me is the degree to which political leaders' personalities reflect the anxieties and hopes of the country at a particular time. It was definitely true of Nixon, and I think it was true of G.W. Bush as well, to a point--I think the Democrats' attacks against him as a trust fund baby who never really achieved much and actually had a long track record of failure didn't catch on because, deep down, a lot of Americans felt that we hadn't earned our heritage either (and that it was Al Gore Jr. that was making them took a little bit of the punch out of it--don't get me wrong, I like Al as much as the next lefty, but he wouldn't have been elected to much if it weren't for his dad being in the business, know what I mean?). Palin, too, has a personality that tells a lot about the state of contemporary conservatism: the free-floating grievances (Glenn Beck's "them", in other words), populism as a substitute for policy, rhetoric as a substitute for argument, wild-eyed faith unleavened by knowledge or reason. One can certainly take this exercise too far, and I'm not sure how much utility one can get from trying to figure out what Bush's dad tells us about late 80s America. But Palin exemplifies much of what drives modern conservatism, which is why she was so polarizing, as it stands in marked contrast to what drives contemporary liberalism: put simply, liberals feel that Palin is The End of the Enlightenment. It's all similar to how Bill Clinton personified liberalism during his day. Clinton, though, was successful, and in the end I think that's why conservatives really hated him. In a way, I think that Palin's defeat endeared her even more to conservatives (though most sane Repubs have since had second thoughts) because conservatism since Nixon has been based on a fundamental insecurity about America's position in the world, as well as conservatism's place in America. Palin is a huge ball of insecurities, which is something they identify with. So was Bush, for that matter--the bluster and bravado were disguises for a fundamentally weak man with a deep desire to be meaningful, even if it meant infamy. For all his faults, John McCain wasn't really insecure, and he came by his arrogance honestly. I suspect that his actual faith in America was why he never really lit the conservative base on fire. Viewing the contemporary right through the lens of insecurity reveals quite a bit, in my opinion.


I used to think that Republicans' claims about how we have "the best health care system in the world" were self-serving spin intended to forestall reform. I don't think that anymore. I think they believe them--the truth is that, if you're rich, this really is the best health care system in the world. But if you're not...not so much.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Iranian elections

Yes, they're meaningful. And even though the President of Iran doesn't have much statutory power, the election of Mousavi would signify a huge cultural shift, and would be a message to the mullahs that they are out of step with their citizens and that their power might be just a bit more weak than they thought. In a dictatorship, the most difficult thing is gauging political instability. The defeat of the dictators' preferred candidate would be something of a wake-up call that things are changing. And this is not to mention the benefits to Obama politically.

The Wars End

Interesting news:
Congress struck the government's strongest anti-smoking blow in decades Thursday with a Senate vote to give regulators new power to limit nicotine in cigarettes, drastically curtail ads and ban candied tobacco products aimed at young people. [...]

The 79-17 Senate vote sends the measure back to the House, which in April passed a similar but not identical version. House acceptance of the Senate bill would send it directly to President Barack Obama, who supports the action. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that "from what I have seen so far, I believe it will be possible for us to accept their bill and send it right on to the president."
During the 90s, smoking was something of a big culture war issue. Republicans and Southern Democrats generally opposed action to bring it under control, and lots of smokers insisted that smoking bans restricted their freedom--a fair point, but not so fair as the point that smoking forces everyone else to breathe your smoke, and freedom to breathe seems to outweigh the freedom to smoke. There was a full-on red vs. blue backlash over this issue, Denis Leary became famous, and in retrospect it all just seems silly. (By the way, Leary seems to be a phenomenally successful actor/comedian, and I can't for the life of me understand his appeal. If you want generic charismatic d-bag for a particular role, which is Leary's only real role, Mark Wahlberg seems like a better choice, though that's also the only role that Wahlberg can play.) But, anyway, times and issues change, and now roughly half the Republican Senate caucus now supports clamping down on tobacco. Just a reminder that nothing in politics is permanent.

Won't be fooled again

The GOP is unveiling its energy plan. What could that possibly mean:
"The Republican plan promises to bring 100 new nuclear reactors online by 2029, permit oil exploration in offshore and Arctic areas and speed up the development of alternative fuels, including controversial carbon-capture and sequestration technology."
This isn't all bad. I favor nuclear power, and I think that environmentalists who don't are people who simply don't understand the need for setting priorities--the environmental movement is made up of idealists, not pragmatists. So it goes. I support "speeding up the development of alternative fuels," though it's ambiguous--does this mean more corporate welfare for oil companies? And the carbon-capture stuff strikes me as wishful thinking--don't get me wrong, it would be totally awesome if we figured out the technology, but it strikes me as the same sort of longing for a silver bullet that the left always indulges on nuclear power. Tradeoffs are going to be necessary here.

But this is my problem: since Reagan, every Republican energy policy has read more or less the same: more nuclear power, some variant of "drill, baby, drill" and an admonition toward adopting alternative fuels, which in practice winds up amounting to bluster, coupled with some corporate welfare. In the meanwhile, we've had three Republican presidents, none of whom have taken any steps to actually wean us off of oil. Is it out of line to suggest that they aren't really serious about this issue? Without some sort of policy to reduce oil importation or to make it more expensive to live a carbon-intensive lifestyle more broadly, I just don't see the meat here (though I think enviros should reconsider nuclear, if for no other reason than to negate a GOP talking point).

There are plenty of sane, conservative arguments on cutting down on oil. For one thing, sending money to oppressive and terror-ridden Middle Eastern regimes strikes me as a bad idea. For another, being so dependent on foreign oil weakens our ability to be self-sufficient if the overseas supply dries up. But in reality, conservatives mock people who deride SUVs and insist that people have the freedom to pollute the sky, endanger our global position, and make more real the threat of global climate change. This is less about limited government than it is about conspicuous consumption, and there's a reason why people like Rush Limbaugh are the prophets of this prosperity gospel: because they know their audience, who are largely upper-middle "noveau riche" types who don't want to change their lifestyles one bit, despite the unsustainability of our present situation.

The settlements, ctd.

From the irrepressible Mr. Peretz:
The Israelis should not be expected to make a commitment of withdrawal from lands which, like Gaza, could, probably would become bases for missiles and rockets and gunmen and bombers aiming at them. That is, no one-way concessions without some concessions from the other side.
Here's another way of stating this principle: I steal five dollars from you. I later realize that I was wrong, so I ponder giving the money back. A good friend insists that I give it back, but then I say that I'm worried that you will use that money to buy a knife to hurt me for stealing your money, and thus decline to give the money back. And Peretz tosses in the perpetual neocon canard about "bases"--he knows better than that. Hamas controls much of the West Bank--there's a reason that Mahmoud Abbas is often derided as the "Mayor of Ramallah" and it's not because of his micromanagement of city government. If Hamas really wants "bases" it's not as though the settlement areas are any better or worse than the rest of the West Bank.

After some sanctimony about tossing infants onto the streets, Peretz comes to an interesting point:
The most distressing aspect of the Obama diplomacy is that it, as a virtually [sic] principle, is repudiating salient elements of the Bush administration's pledges to Israel and may not be bound to others.
Peretz is referring to the Bushies' alleged "secret" agreements with the Olmert government. But these were, axiomatically, never actually formalized or made public, and my feeling is that they should be treated just as one would assume: as informal compacts that, since they are not public, are simply not binding for future administrations. As for the formal foreign policy of the United States, the presumption has always been that presidents have a free hand to implement their own policies. In fact, Obama defeated Clinton in large part because Clinton promised less of a break from the national security ideology of Bush, and while I'll admit that Obama hasn't been a total angel in this area he's done more than I expected--taking on Israel on the settlements question strikes me as stepping on a third rail of some sort, and it shows that he's serious about moving this process forward, even more so than that hack, Netanyahu.

Ideologues like Peretz simply can't face up to the injustice of the settlement policy, and it ought to be ended as soon as possible, independent of any negotiation. However, while I do disagree with the numbers he assigns I do agree with him that Israel's positions are more correct than the Palestinians': I tend to think that the Palestinian goals on Jerusalem are misguided, and the right of return is a crusade that should never have been fought--Yasir Arafat's decision to walk away from the 2000 Camp David talks over the right of return (while getting everything else, including co-rule of Jerusalem) strikes me as the worst decision ever made by a head of state since WWI. So I'm hardly a reflexive pro-Palestinian. I just think that there are some issues that don't really have two sides of seeing them.


Do they really think that there's juice in this attack? We all know that the NRSC wants to drag this "fight" out to raise more money.

God, I hate judicial fights.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shame on you, Michael Steele

For God's sake, man, stand up for yourself. Sell wingnut someplace else, we're all stocked up here.

News to Rush: the left are Palin's biggest supporters!

Conor Friersdorf makes some sense:
"As Sarah Palin fans rally around the Alaska governor due to the fact that David Letterman insulted her — it’s the politics of Schadenfreude — I hope they’ll also note, in case they are tempted to back her in a 2012 presidential bid, that she still doesn’t make any sense when she’s talking about policy. That ought to disqualify her from higher office regardless of whether or not she is unfairly attacked."
I haven't watched the Letterman thing, but people I usually agree with are saying that it was sexist, so I'll trust them for now. But Friersdorf is right. We Obama progressives figured this out some time ago. We were angry when Chris Matthews started up his nonsense, and it made us more sympathetic toward Clinton, but it largely didn't change our allegiances. Despite the right wing's hatred of every media outlet save Fox News and Newsmax, they seem to allow themselves to be manipulated by their coverage an awful lot. It's the nonconformist conformist complex.

This just made me think of how Rush Limbaugh tried to interfere in the primaries with his whole "Operation Chaos" business. Limbaugh wanted Clinton as a foil, needed Clinton as a foil. A lot of progressives noticed this and it was about this time that Democrats broke for Obama in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. Don't these right-wingers see that progressives similarly want Sarah Palin as a foil? She'd set conservatism back by decades--someone who can't string words together to form a coherent sentence. Consider this part of her interview with Sean Hannity:

Hannity: …The price of oil is going up again. It’s not quite at $140 a barrel, but it’s on its way up to $70 and $80…

Palin: Yeah, well and I thank God it’s not at $140. You know people say, “Hey, Alaska! 85% of your state budget is based on the price of a barrel of oil. Aren’t you glad the price is going up?” I say, “No!” The fewer dollars that the state of Alaska government has, the fewer dollars we spend. And that’s good for our families and for the private sector.

Whoa, Sarah! This is blindingly stupid. Lower oil prices don't mean less government revenues and more to the people of your state, they just mean less money in the economy. I'd just love to hear Palin's explanation of how the stock market works. Palin backers no doubt believe that we liberals oppose her because we're afraid she'll win, which is ironically true, but in reality it's simply because we think she's, in Reihan Salam's words, a "clownish, vindictive amateur" who will almost surely burn out on the campaign trail, right before a 45-state Obama landslide that will make Nixon-McGovern look like Nixon-Kennedy. Ultimately, it is, as Conor notes, the politics of schadenfreude. And considering the ease with which Democrats have elevated Rush Limbaugh as their chief opponent one would figure that rightists would not be quite so keen on being so hamfistedly manipulated.


Benjamin Netanyahu is a horse's ass. We all know this. He's the ultimate hack politician--someone who believes nothing but will fulminate about anything if it gains him some sort of advantage. Evidently a high-ranking member of his government is now talking sanctions against the United States for insisting that Israel follow its own commitments with respect to the West Bank. In reality, this is an attempt to raise the stakes and to try to rattle Obama rather than to engage in economic brinksmanship with the U.S.A. And it's befitting a hack politician like Bibi.

One wonders if it will work. What I find interesting is how intransigent Israel is, and just how tone-deaf Netanyahu has turned out to be. I, along with a lot of other people in America and around the world, was horrified by Israel's little Gaza war--both by the brutality and the enthusiastic warmongering from Peres et al. After Gaza, Lebanon II, the collapse of the peace process and the election of the anti-two stater Netanyahu, Israel's reputation on the world stage has never been lower. A wise, skilled politician would have taken this opportunity to revisit the settlement question and try to regain some global credibility. Instead, Netanyahu has doubled down on settlements, ratcheted up the rhetoric on Iran, and in general adopted such extreme stances and coalition partners that even the government of the United States is trying to rope them in. Seriously. The same government that vetoes even minor symbolic U.N. resolutions against Israel is applying significant pressure. We haven't done that for twenty years.

Netanyahu refuses to give up the ghost of a "greater Israel" and is trying to use every lever of influence he can to keep his power, and it just might work. If he can work up enough anger among actual American Jews about Obama's demands--or if this escalates into a battle over foreign aid--then Bibi might win. I don't see Obama escalating it that far. But it strikes me that Jews--70% of whom supported Obama--are simply liberal across the board, and Bibi is simply too right-wing to know how to appeal to them. Bibi isn't just going to do Obama a favor, so the question becomes what's next. How to show Israel about Obama's seriousness--perhaps by not vetoing a U.N. resolution on the West Bank? Might not catch headlines, but the people who need to know will know what's new.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An oasis of reason

Among the right, only Daniel Larison really seems to have a grip on the reaction to the Sotomayor nomination:
We are reminded again and again of the hope that everyone will be judged by character and not by race. That sounds reasonable. So why is it that Sotomayor’s critics seem to be going out of their way to ignore her merits and her achievements and have been fixating on questions of identity and identity politics to the exclusion of almost everything else? Perhaps deep within the cocoon, articles that earnestly claim that Limbaugh and Martin Luther King are fighting the same fight seem credible, but what everyone else sees is little more than a collective panic that an Hispanic has been appointed to the Supreme Court.

This is also the trademark wingnut nonversation--they ignore all counterarguments and just keep saying the same things over and over again. See also: waterboarding.

Why the drama?

Yglesias laments the nature of judicial battles:
Consistent differences have emerged between the kinds of justices conservatives want and the kinds of justices liberals want, but it’s considered out of bounds for politicians to just say “The President has a different ideology from me, he’s appointing a judge whose decisions I anticipate disliking, and that’s one of the reasons I voted for the other guy.” Instead there are these incentives to concoct wild personality defects in the other side’s choices, or accuse them of deliberately subverting the law (”activism”), rather than of simply disagreeing about important issues.

The other aspect to consider is the extent to which the Republican Party is dependent on pro-life activists. It shouldn't be too controversial to note that a substantial portion of the GOP's activist base is primarily abortion-oriented, and these folks believe it so deeply that they will work incredibly hard for free on campaigns. They believe that getting more Republicans elected will mean the end of abortion, but Republican leaders know damn well that doing away with Roe would mean the end of the GOP for at least a generation. So, putting up a public fight over the occasional judicial appointment goes a long way toward maintaining the base's alleigance.

In reality, of course, around 70% of Americans support Roe and that number would necessarily have to include a substantial amount of Republicans, as there are plenty of Democrats and independents who are pro-life. Indeed, I suspect that the base of the GOP is somewhat less hostile to abortion than what one might think from watching Fox News, and that it's country-club types who have the most resistance to Roe, counterintuitively (or maybe not, as Fox News is made up exclusively of country-club types). But in this, as in most issues these days, the GOP is mostly interested in preaching to the choir.

Surprise, Surprise, Frank Gaffney isn't too bright

Via Dave Weigel:
Mr. Obama said he looked forward to the day “. . . when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.” Now, the term “peace be upon them” is invoked by Muslims as a way of blessing deceased holy men. According to Islam, that is what all three were - dead prophets. Of course, for Christians, Jesus is the living and immortal Son of God.

But Jesus really is a holy man in Islam! He's regarded as one of the prophets, and a significant one at that. Jews and Christians are, according to Muslim sacred texts, the "people of the book" and receive some recognition and appreciation for believing in precursor beliefs instead of full-on Islam. Admittedly, history has hijacked that special status to some degree, but it is based on what these folks actually believe.

Gaffney has become the beachhead for the "Obama's secretly a Muslim" conspiracy theories. If he wants to convince anyone else, he's going to have to do a lot better than this. Occam's Razor would explain this sort of thing as Weigel does, which is that Obama is merely using local and religious jargon in an attempt to reach his audience. This isn't exactly an obscure rhetorical device--I remember it well from SCOM 101 back in college. All conspiracy theories ultimately fail the Occam's Razor test, which is basically to say that there are always simpler explanations for the facts. Of course, if one is obsessed with the idea that the President is secretly a Muslim--why that would matter in the first place is still a mystery to me, as few Muslims are al-Qaeda--one will find evidence of that in otherwise innocuous-seeming places.

On Democracy Promotion

Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart tangle on democracy promotion, with expected results. Goldberg, arguing that we can impose democracy, notes the examples of Japan and Germany. Beinart doesn't push back on this. Therefore, I will.

Let's clear out Germany first, because it's easier. Germany was a Western nation, and its people were well aware of Western liberal values. As a matter of fact, one suspects that Germans wouldn't have abandoned the noble values of the Weimar Republic were it not for the Great Depression. Bringing Germany (specifically, West Germany) back to democracy was not so much the introduction of a totally alien set of values and norms but rather a return to an earlier, and never totally abandoned, state of German liberalism. This is, therefore, less than a compelling example for people who thought that invading Iraq was a good idea.

Japan seems like a better example of grafting a new and alien form of government onto a country that has no history of it. But this example doesn't exactly cut the mustard either. Japan was a democracy in name only, due to extensive meddling from the United States in the form of money as well as support for Nobusuke Kishi, one of the most notable statesmen of postwar Japanese politics, who was bought and paid for by the CIA. This is sort of like saying Greece was some sort of great example of the Western liberal consensus during the Cold War, when in fact we fixed the Greek elections in 1956 to ensure that the Christian Democrats would win. Indeed, Japan's democracy is less than ideal today--it's essentially a one-party state, though it is admittedly stable. That's not nothing.

The truth is that there simply wasn't any good precedent for assuming that our little Iraq experiment would work, though these flimsy examples were certainly good enough for Bush, who used them constantly. It is unsurprising that neither he nor Goldberg really knew much about history, aside from perhaps having seen an hourlong History Channel documentary or two. The truth is that all this pablum about how democracy is the natural state of man is just wrong. Humanity went for millennia before discovering democracy, and while I like it and find it more appealing than the other forms of government I find it a sign of a remarkable hubris to suggest that it's somehow built into the genetic code of humanity, while evidently evil isn't, and is rather something that Bush, Cheney, and John McCain thought we could defeat. Then again, "George W. Bush doesn't understand much about the religion he is a part of" is pretty much a dog bites man story at this point.

No, evil can't be defeated, as it's in every human heart along with good. One doesn't have to dig deep to find the chinks in the neocon worldview, as one immediately sees signs of a lack of understanding of human nature and history, coupled with an intolerable smugness and hubris. Many conservatives take their country for granted when they make arguments that are variations on "My country, right or wrong". Indeed, Goldberg does a variation of just that, and Beinart's rebuttal is thoroughly satisfying. What the neocons did, basically, is to take democracy for granted. As I stated, I like democracy an awful lot and wouldn't have it any other way, but there are some very real problems associated with democracy, and in particular American democracy, as any blogger could no doubt tell you.

Kevin Drum has some good stuff as well:
In fact, Bush always struck me as less serious about democracy than his predecessors. To him it was a nice slogan — every American politician is in favor of democracy, after all — but anyone who's serious about democracy knows that it's not the kind of thing you can get overnight. It depends critically on education, on institutions, on culture, on overcoming corruption, on property rights, on the rule of law, and a dozen other things. None of these were things that Bush ever seemed to have the patience to bother dealing with.

This gets at the practical difficulties of democracy promotion. The focus on elections was mostly a function of Bush's particular methodology--the much-vaunted MBA president who, like all MBAs, needs to have everything quantified. Having elections in countries provides quantifiable results, but as Bush learned those results can make things even worse for the United States. A lot of the stuff Kevin mentions is important, but difficult to quantify. This doesn't even get at the question of whether we have either the right, the responsibility, or the wisdom to do this kind of thing. I am dubious that we have any of them. I think it's become clear, throughout decades of meddling in the Middle East and Latin America, that this sort of influence, regardless of how it's intended, tends to do little more than breed anti-American hatred and suspicion. And the notion that America--home of the routine bunker-busting budget deficit--somehow has the credibility to tell others how to govern themselves would be laughable if so many people didn't actually believe it.

In his book, Heads In The Sand, Matt Yglesias made a point that the neocons have yet to answer: if one assumes that the arc of politics bends toward democracy, if that is the final stage in human development (as ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama wrote), then why do we need to wage expensive wars to bring democracy about in foreign lands? Shouldn't we take a cautious and restrained approach, aiding democratic movements from behind the scenes? It's amazing how quickly the tapestry falls apart, and all one sees afterward are arrogance, restlessness and unjustified expansionism, and ignorance. How these people ever held power is a mystery to me, though the only way they could was by waiting for a suitable crisis to ram through a bunch of wooly abstractions that only made sense because Karl Rove's organization scared the living hell out of everybody.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Charlie Rangel, S.O.B.

Gee, I wonder what the honorable congressman means here:
"You cannot support the governor, prepare for re-election, and at the same time say that you're keeping your options open for a primary. I think that there might be an inclination for racial polarization in a primary in the state of New York. And since we have most African-Americans registered as Democrats, and since you would be making an appeal for Democrats, it would be devastating in my opinion."
Shorter Rangel: nice state you got here. It'd be a shame if something happened to it.

Look, I thought we went over this last year. Opposing a female nominee doesn't necessarily mean that one is sexist. Opposing a black nominee doesn't make one a racist. Obviously, sexist and racist people might do those things for exactly those reasons, but this isn't an if and only if proposition--a lot of people opposed Obama out of concern for his experience, and a lot of people opposed Clinton out of concern for her calculation. There didn't need to be racial and sexual components to these things, and my hypothetical support for Clinton was dashed once she started with all that garbage. The identity aspects of that primary were dirtier than the general election was in that respect, to John McCain's credit (though I wouldn't give him too much credit, as this is still the dude that okayed the smut for kindergarteners ad).

But it looks like Rangel is out to reverse that verdict. When he says that opposing Governor Paterson might cause racial tension, he's ensuring that such an event will occur, perhaps by him. He's adding this element into the narrative to try to save an incompetent and gutless governor. If things were the other way around, and Paterson were considering mounting a challenge on an unpopular Governor Cuomo, one can be sure that Rangel would be singing a different tune.

One wonders whether Obama will step in if things get out of hand, and Rangel seems to have anticipated that. Rangel and Bobby Rush are part of the old order of black politicians that are unafraid to dirty themselves with this sort of, well, racebaiting--this is an order that seems to be crumbling. They're angry and they see the writing on the wall. Interestingly, it seems like Al Sharpton is trying to remake himself more along the Obama lines--it seems like, these days, you're more likely to see him in the news working on education policy than for stirring up shit. He gets it. The times, they are a-changin'.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Finally got around to reading Ross Douthat's column this week, and...it's good. I think this is the first one that a) is completely sound and b) that I agree with. I, for one, would like to see something along these lines:
There are bipartisan ways that the Court could be reined in, and the legislative branch reinvigorated. Shugerman, Caminker and others have proposed a supermajority rule, for instance, requiring a 6-to-3 vote to overturn federal legislation. To get conservatives on board, the rule would have to be extended to state legislation as well. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds — versions of the supermajority idea have been batted around by left and right alike since Reconstruction, and merely proposing it might spur the Court toward greater consensus, and perhaps greater modesty as well.
I do think it's clear--to honest conservatives as well as to liberals--that we need to add some additional checks to the Court's power. They do have a tendency to act up, and sometimes just making a push to bring them under control--think of FDR's failed court packing scheme--sometimes is enough to bring them in line. I generally oppose the filibuster as it is presently constituted, but I think that it might make some sense with respect to judicial nominees, to ensure that nobody too radical winds up on the bench. Then again, it wouldn't have worked with John Roberts, so maybe what Douthat's suggesting is better.

Checking in with the cousins

The British general election is next year. A lot is on the line, and it looks like the Conservative Party might soon find itself back in power for the first time in over a decade. One good sign that things are falling apart for Labour is the multitude of scandals in the current government, which is reminiscent of nothing more than the collapse of the Major government in the 90s, that paved the way for Tony Blair.

Now, I have some admiration for David Cameron, the Tory Leader. He's clearly a smart and polished young leader, one more reminiscent of Blair than of Thatcher, and I suspect that eventually American conservatives will pattern themselves after him after a style, if he's successful. When they do, we'll all be better off. But I just find it baffling that Britain, after the past several years of virulently anti-Iraq public opinion, would elect someone who supported Iraq wholeheartedly. I find it baffling that, after a global crisis in which HBO Scotland and other British banks had to be nationalized, that the party closer to business would be the one voters think ready to pick up the pieces. This is a structural weakness of two-party systems--that the party out of power might not really be equipped to fix the problems that cropped up with the last crew. The funny thing is that Britain actually has a fairly large third party--the Liberal Democrats, who initially looked like a more clearly-left alternative to New Labour before breaking dramatically toward the right and moving into the same crowded middle space that Labour and the Conservatives already occupy. In retrospect, this was even a dumber move than originally thought, as Labour has been thoroughly disgraced and unless the party dumps Gordon Brown as a leader it doesn't have a chance. And, when you get down to it, Britain doesn't really have a clear choice. There is some open space on the British left, considering recent corporate malfeasance. That the Lib Dems didn't take it will probably be the deathknell of that party, which only really got any power because of student opposition to the Iraq War in the first place.

I do think it's interesting that, when you get down to it, the West tends to move together in terms of politics. Right now, neoliberalism is dominant in America as well as Europe, and the result has been that center-right, neoliberal parties in Europe as well as America (until very recently) have been placed in power. Before that, Thatcherist politicians were being elected in many nations, from Britain (obviously) to Israel (pick an Israeli PM from the 80s) to America (Reagan, of course). And before that, politics in the West were substantially more to the left. I just wonder if neoliberalism is beginning to fade out, and Obama represents what might be the next stage in the West's continued political evolution. It will be curious to see what changes he might propagate.

No Apologies

I was thinking more about this topic, and it seems to me that Americans should never, ever apologize for mistakes seems even more batty than it did before. In my personal life, the people I admire most are the ones who are willing to admit when they make a mistake. This is not a sign of weakness but of strength--it shows not only self-confidence enough to insist that one's talents are valuable despite the mistake, but it also shows self-awareness that one is not perfect--in other words, humility. Admitting that one made a mistake means that the moment can be teachable, that one can emerge stronger and wiser from the experience.

Now, obviously, the rules governing states and individuals are different. For example, an individual might lay down his life for a family member or close friend, but no nation will ever destroy itself even for its closest ally. And I do think that using a forum like the Cairo speech to just trash the motives and results of the Bush Administration might well have been in poor taste (this is not, of course, what Obama did). But this notion that America should never apologize, should never listen, should never submit, strikes me as evidence that it is pride that is driving the neocons at this point. There's a reason why theologians decry pride as one of the worst, if not the worst, of all the sins. It's crippling, isolating, and deranging. It forces one to ignore one's limits because one simply wants to be better than others, everything else be damned. It causes one to ignore one's own faults by comparing them with others', and it ultimately leads to an unhealthy state of affairs in which one cannot trust anyone else, and thus cannot see their impending doom.

This is largely C.S. Lewis's analysis of how pride works on an individual level. Tell me that this doesn't sound exactly like the neocon conception of foreign policy. And the only way to combat pride, ultimately, is by admitting we have it and moving toward humility by acknowledging our weaknesses and mistakes, and by being honest. I suspect this is why the neocons hate Obama so much: he throws their personal failings--and, as I've said before, the neocons' personal feelings and arguments are at the heart of their foreign policy ideas--into very stark relief. Oh, and he's legitimately interested in peace, and could detonate their entire worldview if successful.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Funemployment beats unemployment!

The Hater pokes a particularly vapid piece of lifestyle "reporting" here.

In favor of family/education assistance

I realize that the right dislikes entitlements, but it seems like paid family leave should be an exception. For a party that talks about the importance of families so much, it's a no-brainer. Here's Matt Y:
This is basically a recognition on the part of everyone from Japan to Norway to Canada that having a child isn’t just a random consumption choice that we should leave entirely up to the free market. Parents have a special social role to play, and it’s important to all of us to put them in a position to play it well.

I looked quite a bit at these sorts of issues a few years back, and the truth is that there are a lot of fairly minor things we could do to make things vastly easier on parents. We could, for example, change the school day so that it corresponds with the work day--i.e. 8 to 5--and the extra time will mean that important stuff like the arts and P.E. will be safe. This would be better for kids all around, and it would be easier on parents, and save them a bundle on child care. We could further help by expanding the school year so that parents don't have to find arrangements for their kids for the ~3 months they're off school. Plus, since kids lose intellectual steam during vacations, this would help alleviate that. Obviously, these changes would cost money--we'd have to pay more to keep schools open longer and to pay teachers for more time worked. So they'd require some tax increases. However, they would help parents a lot, and I would think that this would be a compromise that society like ours would be willing to make.

I wonder how potent a political issue this would be. I suspect that these would be pretty swell issues for Obama to run on in 2012, after global warming and healthcare are done.

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.