Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

David Brooks Is Writing a Damn Good Column These Days

Monday, January 4th, 2010

David Brooks has been writing these extraordinary columns recently – providing a remarkable sense of historical perspective in his commentary on contemporary events. First was his column on Obama’s Christian Realism, placing Obama firmly in the tradition of Cold War Liberalism, of Reinhold Niebhur, of George Kennan and George Marshall, of Scoop Jackson and Peter Beinart. Brooks explained a core difference that he saw between Obama and many other contemporary “secular” Democrats and liberals:

Obama’s speeches [at West Point and Stockholm] were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

These speeches are grounded in an approach – according to Brooks – that acknowledges our own human frailty:

[A]s you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.

Then Brooks attempted to explain the long-term shift in America’s economy from manufacturing to “protocols.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions. A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

Brooks examines the implications of this shift moving forward. He doesn’t address the long-term consistency of America’s manufacturing output as a percentage of global output though – as we continue to produce large numbers of “things” while employing fewer workers to do so. He also doesn’t address the extent to which government policy, most specifically under Ronald Reagan, deliberately favored the financial sector over manufacturing. But, in only a few hundred words, he conveys quite a bit of this broad shift.

His next two columns were his annual Sidney Awards (Part I and Part II) for best long-form magazine reporting. Always interesting.

And then finally, in his latest he makes the same points I did regarding the infantile response of so many citizens and reporters to the latest attempted terrorist attack.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Fiercely Honoring Hope Witsell

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Sylvia over at Sylvia Has a Problem posted an extraordinary rant several weeks ago that should stand as a testament to the value of opinionated blogging. There may be too much self-indulgent crap and too little fact-checking in the blogosphere – of course, the same could be said of most opinion-spouters on op-ed pages and on cable news. But every once in a while, something extraordinary breaks though – and this piece on Hope Witsell is exactly that sort of extraordinary thing.

I won’t post an excerpt. Just read the piece.

No one asked Chris Brown why he beat Rihanna. Why then do we blame Tiger Woods?

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Everyone seems to have forgotten why it was we all first became involved in his personal life: that car crash in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving. Public opinion has coalesced around the conclusion that Tiger Woods was the victim of domestic abuse – that his wife became enraged upon discovering he was unfaithful and attacked him; and that when he tried to flee, she attacked his car with a golf club leading to his crash – during which he also may have been disoriented by a blow to the head. He was saved apparently by a call to 911 by one of his neighbors. We do not know what transpired here with any certainty. All we have are some alarming facts which everyone from late night comics to pundits seem to agree suggest an enraged spouse.

And yet, the lesson we are being asked to take is not that domestic abuse is unacceptable under any circumstances, but as Maureen Dowd opines:

Tiger ignored the obvious rule: Never get involved with women who have 8-by-10 glossies.

Or, as the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote:

The moral of the Tiger Woods story is that adultery leaves a trail of destruction. It can be avoided.

Or perhaps this from Bill Shuler at Fox News:

The issue of private sin is not exclusive to Tiger Woods. It is an epidemic in America.

Or any of a hundred variations on these lessons by pundits and late night comics.

Yet who asked Chris Brown why he beat Rihanna? It doesn’t matter if she was cheating on him or what ever else she might have done to lead to him beating her. As a society, there was broad agreement that what he did to her was wrong and that it should be condemned. Chris Brown’s career has likely been trashed, and good riddance, while Rihanna’s has gone on.

Why is it different for Tiger?

Why did the story move from the details of the events of that early morning quickly to what he did to provoke his wife?

The implicit message seems clear: if a man hits a woman, no matter the provocation, it is wrong; if a woman hits a man, he probably deserved it. This is simply sexism, and part of the legacy of gender discrimination in which women were regarded as weak and inferior. While overall, men do more damage in violent attacks on their partners, domestic violence by women is a serious issue as well, despite the sexist attempts to write it off.

All this reminded me of a story ABC News did several years ago – in which, after they had done several segments simulating male-on-female domestic violence in a public setting, and found that many people intervened, it occurred to the producers to try the opposite.  ABC News staged female-on-male violence – and over several hours 163 people walked by, one of whom eventually intervened. Several made gestures supportive of the woman. Almost all the women assumed that the man had did something wrong, that he deserved what he got – which was not what they would assume if a man had been attacking a woman. As one woman recalled her reaction:

“Good for you. You Go, Girl!” is how Lynda recalls her reaction.

“I was thinking he probably did something really bad,” she said. “Maybe she caught him cheating or something like that…and [it] made her lose it and slap him in the face. I reacted like, ‘Yes. Woman power.'”

The story is on YouTube as well. Watch for the gleeful reaction of Lynda as she sees the woman hitting the man.

The academic experts on gender violence I have contacted pointed out that academic studies have demonstrated this same point, as this chart sent to me by a professor of sociology shows:

Tiger was taken the hospital with what were described by those at the scene as “serious injurious” including lacerations to his face. He was in and out of consciousness, woozy, seemingly from head trauma. But, the news coverage has focused almost exclusively on why he was beaten – on his adultery, on his wife demanding and getting more money from him.

I don’t blame feminists for this. I blame latent sexism, the vestiges of a patriarchy that protected women because it considered them weaker. But the question that arises is clear: Are women to be the only beneficiaries of a feminist revolution that seeks women’s empowerment by any means necessary, even by hypocritically accepting the benefit of patriarchal assumptions if they benefit women? Are men to be mere victims of this feminism? Or is feminism about transforming society for the better for men as well as women?

If feminism is about more than mere rooting for women, if feminism is about more than genitalia, then feminists should be condemning Tiger Woods’ wife as loudly as they condemned Chris Brown. Perhaps some are. I don’t mean to call everyone out. (desifeminists on the Feministing Community page sees what I mean.) But the loudest voices have been gossips and busybodies who gather around every scandal. Where are you Jessica Valenti? Where are you Feministing, which so loudly (and rightly) pointed out that it didn’t matter what Rihanna was supposed to have done?

Violence against women is abhorrent and should be condemned. It’s time to take on the patriarchal attitude that a man hit by a woman probably deserves it. It’s time to stand up for victims of domestic violence, even if they are men, even if they are Tiger Woods.

[Image by Keith Allison licensed under Creative Commons. Graph taken from “When a Man Hits a Woman: Moral Evaluations and Reporting Violence to the Police” by Richard B. Felson and Scott L. Feld in the journal Aggressive Behavior, Volume 35, page 484.]

Rothkopfian Aphorisms

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Although the conventional wisdom holds that blogging and the internet is leading us to become cretins who cannot compose full sentences (lest they run longer than 140 characters), there is reason for hope. And not just because Twitter and Wordpress have made more prolific writers out of all of us. I have never read the news as intensely as I have this past years, so I cannot judge from even the limited perspective of my life, but there is some great prose written on blogs. I’ve found though, that when reading on a computer screen, I “read/skim” and don’t notice the finer sentences as I jump about the piece searching for the most interesting bits. However, I have taken to printing out substantial entries from blogs, and found much of the writing is in fact quite good.

One of the writers who has consistently drawn my attention with his witty aphorisms is David Rothkopf. His blog is well worth reading, for the insight, yes – but also for the wit.

On diplomacy:

In marriage, a lack of intimacy usually means you are not getting fucked… but in diplomacy, it means you almost certainly will be.

On the advantages America has over most other potential great powers:

We’re also protected by two great oceans and our neighbors are fairly easy to get along with. (Mexico is a bit of a concern at the moment but Canada lost its last remaining offensive capability when Wayne Gretzky moved to the United States.)

On Venezuela’s announcement of a nuclear program:

I’ve been predicting this problem for so long that it gives me a little lift even if it is a potential calamity for millions of others. Take note: that’s what narcissism makes possible.

On Eliot Spitzer’s desire for publicity:

The A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been [Spitzer’s] apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure.

On the mania of the government for ensuring constant economic growth, specifically of GDP growth:

Didn’t our founders specify that the purpose of our country was to guarantee the right of all of us (well, white men anyway) to life, liberty, and the pursuit of constant growth in “the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation’s borders during a given period (usually 1 year).”

Commenting on GQ’s “50 Most Powerful People in Washington” edition:

If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you’re not paying attention.

On the relationship between capitalism and Wall Street:

Because 21st Century Wall Street is to capitalism as Pope Alexander VI was to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a connection but it was remote and observed more in the breach than in the honoring of the essentially good underlying ideas.

On why Wall Street will finally be reformed:

Personally, I think they miscalculate. They finally may be undone by their greed. Except it won’t be because they stole too much or blew up the international economy. It’ll be because they stopped paying off the people who set the rules. And nothing puts a politician back in touch with his principles like a failure to keep up payments by the banker to whom he has mortgaged them.

Describing the dust-up between Kim Jong Il and Hillary Clintons:

No doubt drawing on his extensive training in rhetoric and stand-up comedy at the University of Malta (training ground for all of Malta’s best comics), Kim fired back with the tell-tale wit that once had him referred to as “the anti-factionalist Oscar Wilde of Baekdu Mountain” until someone discovered who Oscar Wilde was and the guy who invented the nickname was dropped out of a Russian helicopter into the Amnok River. (Wilde, meanwhile, might have called North Korean official efforts at humor “the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable.”)

Comparing America’s hegemony with Microsoft’s monopoly:

In the mid-90s, America and Microsoft were clearly the future of the world. Then both started to abuse their power. America, in the wake of 9/11, undercut the international system it built, rhetorically flaunted its hallowed values and then crudely and repeatedly undercut them in its behaviors. Microsoft went from a symbol of the garage-launched entrepreneurial energy of the tech revolution to being a ruthless crusher of competitors. In fact, it became so dominant, that it felt it could foist on the American public products that didn’t work, were full of bugs, were vulnerable to security breaches and, as in the case of Vista, should never have been released in the first place.

Defining the foreign policy precept, the law of the prior incident:

A reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

I had also accidentally included this Paul Krugman quote in the mix of Rothkopfian aphorisms – because it seemed so like something he’d say. Only on searching for the quote did I find its true author, but I’ll include it here anyway:

Serious Person Syndrome, aka it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.

[Image adapted from a photograph by the New America Foundation licensed under Creative Commons.]

What We Forgot All Too Quickly

Friday, September 11th, 2009

This morning, I re-read George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 address to a Joint Session of Congress. You should too.

It is an impressive speech – both in its temperance and quality of rhetoric and how it so clearly set up the tragedies that were to come. Re-reading the words written so near the aftermath of this attack, it is remarkable how clearly they foreshadow what came next. It is as if the Bush administration never recovered from this attack – and never took time to reflect after those panicked moments when the towers fell. Bush used the now ubiquitous formulation, “We will never forget,” repeatedly in the speech – though all too quickly, we seemed to forget all of those things he said we never would:

America will never forget the sounds of our National Anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris, and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo.

We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America.

Nor will we forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own: dozens of Pakistanis; more than 130 Israelis; more than 250 citizens of India; men and women from El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, and Japan; and hundreds of British citizens.

Yet too often since then, “We will never forget,” is used as a code word for the other elements of his speech that came to dominate the polarizing battles as America re-polarized: from his declaration that every nation must be either with us or with the terrorists to his declaration that terrorism was motivated by the hatred of our freedom to his understated plea for more centralized executive power. (I’ve always found it interesting that the loudest voices railing against any curbs on government power used to defeat terrorism seem to live in areas remote from danger. The cities – where terrorism is much more likely – are hotbeds of liberalism and civil libertarianism. I, for one, work in a landmark building and pass through Penn Station, Times Square, and Grand Central Station.) Ignored from the text are the pleas for understanding of those different from us, his appreciation for the support of the world, and his declaration that in our response, America proved itself resilient and strong.

But for me, the two most memorable lines are the following – at the beginning and then end of the speech:

Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done…

Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice – assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come.

This is the path not taken. In our response, we often failed to live up to these words, these noble goals. Our justice system was deemed too weak for terrorists. Patience was abandoned in favor of short-term actions.  And all too quickly, the Baby Boom generation re-polarized along partisan lines as Karl Rove sought to turn what he saw Bush’s greatest weakness into his strength. And, in neglecting to reflect on the events of that day, we learned the wrong lessons – focusing on a “by any means necessary” response indicative of panic that undermined our power rather than the true lesson about America’s core strength that was revealed in the efficacy of the local responses and in the only thwarted attack:

The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

We should never forget this – and remembering this day should reinforce our resolve to “meet violence with patient justice” and to stand for the civilization, freedom, the rule of law in the face of fear and terrorism rather than being cowed into preemptive surrender.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

Weekly Must-Reads: Disappearing, the Super-Rich, Harry Potter, the Public Option, Craziness, and Abortion

Friday, August 21st, 2009

A low-key blogging day today. Further events complicated my normal week-night blog writing, as my brother was hospitalized yesterday. He’s doing fine. But to some extent, it impressed upon me the reality of some small portion of this health care debate. To get to my brother’s room, I had to walk through the hospital – through security measures in the pediatric section, and then further security measures in the Intensive Care Unit of the pediatric section – and then to his room where I saw him, looking wan, but apparently much better than in the morning, with maybe a half-dozen tubes giving him drugs and liquid and food and another half-dozen wires monitoring his oxygen levels and heart beat and who knows what else. The nurses had to do tests on him every hour. And as I visited in the evening, I didn’t see the doctors who are figuring out what’s wrong and directing the treatment. The whole set-up must be outrageously expensive. And with my brother lying there, getting better, every cent is worth it. As a society, we have made a choice to spend some large portion of our wealth on protecting our families, ourselves – on following our natural human instinct to care for those who are not well. We have made a choice to maximize life at the expense of wealth.

But we must acknowledge that our system has limits. If my father didn’t have a generous health insurance plan, he could never have afforded for my brother to be treated this way. The hospital would treat him anyway – and then they would go after my father for everything he had. About a third of all Americans would be in this position – on the verge of bankruptcy – if an emergency required serious medical attention. And while hospitals have an ethical obligation to treat anyone who needs treatment, studies have shown that those without sufficient insurance get significantly worse treatment. When people argue that health care is not a right, they must do so in the face of those who need treatment. And if you consider health care to be a right, then health insurance must be a necessary responsibility for each citizen.

We do need to reign in increasing health care costs; we also need to preserve our system’s willingness to spend. But what we need most of all is a reasoned debate about what type of system we have and what type of system we want – and it doesn’t seem that America is capable of that. To that, I don’t know the solution.

Without further ado, here are the must-reads of the week:

1. Disappearing. Evan Ratcliff explains in Wired the difficulty of disappearing in our modern world – and how even the smallest slip-up can bring the authorities to your door. It’s an interesting look at the desire to start over – and how technology today makes it both easier and harder.

2. The Super-Rich. David Leonhardt and Geraldine Fabrikant examine the implications of the current recession on the super-rich – including John McAfee of McAfee Anti-Virus fame, whose net worth went from $100 million to $4 million in the downturn. Not that anyone should feel bad for the guy. The piece looks at the historical implications of our recent massive inequality and what this downturn’s implications are for such inequality in the long-term. The prognosis: the super-rich will stay richer than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, but their relative wealth will decline a bit.

3. Harry Potter and theological libraries. Michael Paulson in the Boston Globe explains how Harry Potter is becoming a serious subject of theological debate:

[S]cholars of religion have begun developing a more nuanced take on the Potter phenomenon, with some arguing that the wildly popular series of books and films contains positive ethical messages and a narrative arc that is worthy of serious scholarly examination and even theological reflection. The scholars are primarily interested in what the books have to say about the two big issues that always preoccupy people of faith – morality and mortality – but some are also interested in what the series has to say about tolerance (Harry and friends are notably open to people and creatures who differ from them) and bullying, the nature and presence of evil in society, and the existence of the supernatural.

Scholarly interest in the Harry Potter books began long before the series was finished, and shows no signs of slowing. There have been several academic books, with titles such as “The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon” and “Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives.” The American Academy of Religion last fall offered a panel at its annual convention titled “The Potterian Way of Death: J. K. Rowling’s Conception of Mortality.” And there is a raft of articles in religion journals with titles including “Looking for God in Harry Potter” and “Engaging with the spirituality of Harry Potter,” as well as the more complex, “Harry Potter and the baptism of the imagination,” “Harry Potter and the problem of evil,” and the crowd-pleasing “Harry Potter and theological libraries.”

4. Fighting for the Public Option. Ezra Klein makes a persuasive argument against simply giving up on the public option, but he still comes down on the side of those willing to give it up:

For all that, it’s one thing to fight for an uncertain, but promising, policy experiment. It’s another thing to sacrifice health-care reform on its altar. In July, Families USA released a paper explaining “10 Reasons to Support Heath-Care Reform.” The public plan is one of the reasons. But only one of them. And it’s not even the most convincing.

5. Crazy is a Preexisting Condition. Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, has an editorial in the Washington Post examining the “crazy” that he sees as an essentially American part of the political process. Read the whole piece:

So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers — these are “either” the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president — too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters’ signs — too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

6. Watching an Abortion. Sarah Kliff for Newsweek, who is pro-choice, watched her first abortion and reported on her feelings. Rather moving and honest. A welcome inclusion into our fraught debate.

[Image by me.]

Ezra Klein: I would rather be drinking…

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Ezra Klein sums up my feelings about blogging:

On a moment-to-moment basis, I sort of loathe writing this blog. I would far rather be drinking a beer on my porch. But in the aggregate, I’m much more satisfied with my life when I’m writing this blog.

Must-Reads This Weekend

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Nuclear Porn. Ron Rosenbaum writes about how hard-core our nuclear fantasies have become in an essay for Slate:

I love airport best-sellers because I see them as our Nostradamuses, the literary canaries in the dark coal mines of our paranoia. They sniff out and serve up fictionalized but “realistic” prophecies of coming doom of one sort or another. Perhaps it’s that in their visions of total world immolation they diminish in the mind of said traveler the possibility of something so trivial as a 757 engine malfunction.

The Awakening. David Rose investigates the Sunni Awakening in an article for Vanity Fair. The big news: apparently the initial approach by the Sunni insurgents offering to work with America came in 2004 – but was rejected as a result of turf battles and ideology. 

Happiness. Joshua Wolf Shenk tells the story of the most significant longitudinal study in history (so far). He reveals that one of the participants in the study (all of whom were chosen while they were in college) was John F. Kennedy. The study itself is fascinating – and Shenk’s piece was reflective and probing:

“I’m usually callous with regard to death, from my father dying suddenly and unexpectedly.” He added, “I’m not a model of adult development.”

Vaillant’s confession reminded me of a poignant lesson from his work—that seeing a defense is easier than changing it. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises…

Torture and Truth. Ali Soufan testified in Washington – but while he was constantly interrupted by an edgy Lindsey Graham, his written statement is a testament of a man who was there: 

The issue that I am here to discuss today – interrogation methods used to question terrorists – is not, and should not be, a partisan matter. We all share a commitment to using the best interrogation method possible that serves our national security interests and fits squarely within the framework of our nation’s principles. 

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. 

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. (This is aside from the important additional considerations that they are un-American and harmful to our reputation and cause.) 

Understanding Reactionaries

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I tend to judge an individual’s politics on two levels. First, on a more traditional left to right spectrum (leftist to progressive to liberal to conservative to right-wing.) This left to right perspective can be further broken down – but in general, whether due to social, political, or psychological reasons, individuals in a political system can be described as belonging to a discrete place on this spectrum. The second political judgment is where they fit on what I’m calling the Political Change Spectrum – pictured below. 

Reactionary Dick Cheney to Conservative George H. W. Bush to Reformer Teddy Roosevelt to Revolutionary Che Guevera

Footnote re. spectrum.1

These are also commonly used political terms that describe a political actor’s relationship to the status quo. To break it down further – the reactionary seeks to overturn the current order and return to a previous status quo, or alternately, to use radical measures to protect the current status quo; the conservative seeks to maintain the status quo; the reformer seeks to improve the status quo without overturning it; the revolutionary seeks to overthrow the system and put in place another one.

Political actors generally do not fall exclusively on one part of this scale – and may have some reformist positions and some reactionary ones. While a politician can take a left-wing or right-wing position,

But to a surprising degree, one can predict the actions and positions of a political actor based on their overall position on this spectrum – perhaps because it captures on a fundamental level how a political actor feels about his or her society and their natural temperament.

The reason I bring this up is a question: I have noticed that reactionaries tend to take within themselves (internalize) an exaggerated view of their enemy – and presume when making their own plans – that the enemies tactics and strategies are better than their own. What ends up happening in many of these reactionary groups is that they construct themselves on a model based on their worst fears of their enemy. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in self-sufficient cells with individual members having little to no knowledge of the group outside of their cell; they based this model on their perception of how Communist cells operated. Dick Cheney saw on September 11 the efficacy of violence and destruction to bring a people to heel; he apparently shared the view Osama Bin Laden did that America was not strong enough, not resilient enough to protect it’s way of life while remaining the same America – and so he then sought to unleash the righteous might of America on, eventually, a nation that had nothing to do with September 11 and remake the presidency into a national security dictatorship.

This internalizing of the enemy’s tactics and strategy does not only occur in reactionary groups – but I think – and this is my question – that reactionary groups are defined primarily by their worst fears of their enemy – which they then internalize and model their own organization on.

Reactionaries are more susceptible to this because they have already lost – to some degree – and generally believe their enemy must have in some way won not by honest means but by some clever stratagem. The rationale is that by imitating this stratagem the reactionaries will be able to protect their way of life. But it is impossible to maintain the status quo by radical action – because such actions inevitably upset the very thing being protected.

  1. Though I’m pretty confident about the middle two figures, Cheney and Che don’t necessarily cleanly fit into the categories in the way I wanted them to. Clearly, Cheney is a reactionary – and Che was a revolutionary – both fit in that sense. But Cheney was primarily a reactionary concerned about taking radical measures to protect the status quo while the ideal person I would pick would be someone seeking to restore a past status quo. Cheney did seek to restore a past status quo regarding executive authority – constantly harking back to the pre-Watergate presidency – but he didn’t seem to have a historical model for other aspects of his agenda. I wanted to choose an American political figure – but I had some trouble thinking of an American revolutionary who was of historical value and ended up with real power. Even the original revolutionaries were not revolutionaries in terms of this chart – though their French counterparts a few years later were. []

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.