Archive for September, 2009

Our “Small Freedoms”

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

I’ve kept a printout of this blog post from Andrew Sullivan for a long while now, meaning to comment on it - his reflective September 11 piece from earlier this year. I kept it because of this one sentence by Sullivan that moves me – and then with the last clause irks me.

Sullivan sets up the sentence by framing September 11 around his experience on his blog:

I’m sitting in the same spot as I was on that fateful morning, writing the same (if much more evolved) blog.

He continues, as longtime readers remember his almost hysterical blog response in which he seemed to equate all leftists with Al Qaeda, not quite making an excuse but offering an explanation for his gradual shift:

The human psyche is built to recover from trauma, and so we should not be surprised or alarmed that the emotions of that day are less vivid to us now.

It seems to me that this is an effective counter to Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project which seeks to recover the spirit in the immediate days of the aftermath (which Beck oddly seems to remember having a distinctly libertarian edge.) More important, it is an essential truth. Sullivan goes on:

But it is worth, it seems to me, remembering its extraordinary power. It was one of the most despicable mass murders in human history, conducted by religious fanatics bent on destroying Western civilization.

And then came the quote that moves me:

It was terrifying because they achieved this with only 19 men, some box-cutters and the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country…

For me, this is the key fact about September 11 – that the “small freedoms” we take for granted are so powerful – that those who are willing to disregard them so completely can cause enormous damage. In a less dramatic way, Bernie Madoff revealed in a similar way how a man, willing to disregard the rules so dramatically, can cause enormous damage.

And in both cases, the response has been – and almost has to be – overwhelming and entirely out of proportion to the impact of the particular event. But what bugged me about this nearly perfect sentence was how it ended:

…the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country and now have no longer.

At that point, Sullivan seemed to strike a false note – as civil libertarians too often do – when they confuse the theoretically grave but rare breaches of liberty that the Bush administration was castigated for (torture, preventive detention by an unaccountable executive, etcetera) with the every day liberties which were barely affected. To a large degree, that is why the measures George W. Bush took didn’t alarm most Americans. (The measures should have, and I stand with the civil libertarians on this. Even though the fact that Bush ordered, for example, torture didn’t inconvenience 99.99% of Americans, it was a breach of the rule of law and undermined our democratic system itself.) And those every day liberties that were affected aren’t disputed as much – having to take off one’s shoes before going on an airplane, the numerous measures to harden potential targets that inconvenience many.

It seems to me that we continue to enjoy many “small freedoms” – even as others are taken away (from random bag searches to go on the subway, to having armed soldiers patrolling sensitive locations, etc.) – and that these “small freedoms” together are an immense vulnerability of our society. But they are being chipped away at; and the grave breaches of the rule of law by the Bush administration have eroded the normal system of checks and balances, and Obama has not yet been able to, and seems to have barely tried, to restore this balance. I guess this is what bothers me: We Americans have not yet given up our “small freedoms;” and we still will and do fight for them, whether against the tyranny of big corporations, against the encroaching government (and this), against terrorists. September 11 changed many things, but it has not yet changed this fundamental aspect of America. Deciding how to react to these challenges to our freedoms is the basic task of our politics, and the inherent conflict that makes liberalism a living force.

Matthew Continetti on the Health Care Debate: A Nihilist’s Defense of the Right Wing Hardline

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

I had written a few pieces some weeks ago criticizing the Obama administration for relying too much on technocratic instead of democratic institutions, though I attributed a good deal of the problem to the flaws which are so glaring in our democratic institutions. (Is Obama Leading Us To A Technocratic Dystopia? and An Encroaching Technocracy.) So I was a bit excited to see The Weekly Standard pick up on this subject in a piece by Matthew Continetti called “Technocracy in America.” I had a vague recollection of The Weekly Standard as a serious intellectual journal that – while right wing – took issues seriously.

What I found instead was something profoundly unserious at almost every point. The main thesis of the piece was that liberals hated democracy and that conservatives attacks on health care were justified. Despite it’s title, it barely touched on the idea of technocracy, except as a glancing reference to insinuate that Democrats hate the people. Most opinion pieces can be characterized as

  • propaganda meant to stiffen the spine of the already committed or cleverly persuade without honest discussion the unconvinced;
  • a polemic which is meant to advance the case for a controversial position as far as possible; or
  • civil discourse which is designed to educate and engage  and requires a good faith effort to understand and explain one’s opponents’ views.

This piece fell almost entirely into the first category. Which was disappointing. For the first portion of the piece, Continetti attempted to explain Barack Obama’s approach to health care – and it reads like an inoculation, an attempt to shape the audience’s perception of Obama’s words so that they prove ineffective, rather than an attempt to accurately describe them. Continetti starts out with the presumption that one of the core principles of liberalism is a “contempt for debate and smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority” which he describes as the reason Obama believes his health care plan is a good one. He distorts Obama’s message combating lies about health care reform by saying that Obama – by pointing to the various lies and calling them such – is saying that “There is no legitimate basis for opposition. There are only lies.”

Continetti then moves to several questionable assertions of fact meant to undermine the President’s claims – that:

  • it is a “widely held view that the best improvement to the Democrats’ grandiose plans is to scuttle them and start over with a set of targeted insurance reforms” (Continetti doesn’t cite any polls here – and perhaps that is because polling has consistently shown that a majority of the public supports Obama’s reform plans when the policies are described, but that support has weakened for what is perceived to be Obama’s plans);
  • that in “a world where money is fungible,” of course any spending on health care will go to abortions (But couldn’t the same argument be used to say tax cuts funding abortions?); and
  • that illegal immigrants would get health care under Obama’s health care system because “who would ever tell José and Maria No mas when they show up at the emergency room in need of care?” (Of course, Continetti conveniently omits that this is also the status quo.

Continetti – as he works for The Weekly Standard – also realized he must defend Sarah Palin against charges that she was hyping charges about “death panels.” She wasn’t, Continetti argues – she was merely creating “an extrapolation based on an analysis of the facts” when she wrote on Facebook:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

My “extrapolation based upon an analysis of facts” is that Sarah Palin can’t read as at least one of the facts that Palin based her “extrapolation” on was an idiot’s reading of one of the hundreds of articles Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote back in the 1990s.

But then, at the very end, I almost had hope. Amidst the constant smears of “the angry and arrogant left-wing” and paeans to the “instinctual conservatism of an American populace that is skeptical of complicated and expensive government interventions” and the constant attempts to mislead his audience about what Obama was saying, a small hint of anything other than political posturing enter into the piece. But that’ll be Part II.

Our Health Care Systems Undermines Entrepreneurship

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Ezra Klein brings together Andrew Sullivan and economist Jon Gruber to talk about entrepreneurship and health care. Quoting Gruber:

A system that provides universal access to health insurance coverage, then, is far more likely to promote entrepreneurship than one in which would-be innovators remain tied to corporate cubicles for fear of losing their family’s access to affordable health care. Indeed, even the Galtians among us should be celebrating the expanded potential for individual enterprise once the chains tying them to a job that provides insurance have been broken.

I think this argument should be more prominent in the debate – not because it’s the most important element – but because it demonstrates how integral to our economy health care is and undermines key right-wing critiques.

I wrote about this earlier in the summer:

If one wants to stimulate the economy by encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurship, there are few better ways to do it than to pass some sort of health care reform that makes it cheaper and more available outside of large employers. As Daniel Gross, financial columnist for Newsweek and Slate, explains:

An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.

I say this as a former small business owner and entrepreneur myself. One of my biggest concerns in working outside of an established business was that I was not able to get my health care through my job – which meant astronomical monthly premiums for a service I did not use – but which I could not be sure I would not badly need.

[Image by Matt McGee licensed under Creative Commons.]

Former Bush Speechwriter Takes on the Internet: Its all about “bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice”

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Michael Gerson was apparently irked by fellow Washington Post writer Ezra Klein’s response to his recent article on the rise of hate on the internet.

The dispute evolved like this: Gerson wrote a column about the vast amount of hate on the internet in which he compared the rise of the internet to the rise of talk radio in the 1920s and 30s, and described how the former led the Nazis to take power. Gerson did a vast amount of research for this column, but he managed to premise it on this unsourced wonder of a statement:

User-driven content on the Internet often consists of bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice.

Like an old man at a bumpin’ club, Gerson seemed confused and disoriented by the online goings-on around him. Ezra Klein, the hip young blogger who grew up with the internet, responded a bit mockingly but without personal invective. Klein pointed out that on the internet, almost everything is “fringe” and the “hateful comments” that Gerson uses as his source are almost all anonymous comments to more mainstream articles. In other words, they are little more than scrawlings on the walls of bathroom stalls. Those with the real power to foment hate – Klein argued – in a manner more similar to the rise of the Nazis than these fringe commenters, are the pundits on talk radio and on cable news. They have a soapbox that can reach millions – rather than the audience of tens or maybe a hundred that any particular web comment has – and a number of these talking heads, especially those on right-wing talk radio, deliberately attempt to foment hate. As Klein says:

I don’t worry about jewhater429, the 97th entrant in a comment thread. I worry about Beck and Limbaugh and Savage.

Their comments are arguably as bad – if not as crude – as any scrawls on bathrooms walls.

But Gerson – who used his position as a former George W. Bush speechwriter to work his way into a gig with the Washington Post – was so irked by Klein’s response that he immediately resorted to ad hominem attacks, starting his response by attempting to undercut Klein’s objectivity, calling him a member of “Barack Obama’s unpaid policy staff.” Gerson then goes on to equate Ezra Klein – a progressive blogger who writes mainly about policy – with Rush Limbaugh, an entertainer and propagandist who specializes in being outrageous, and Arianna Huffington, a right-winger-turned-centrist-turned-populist-progressive who has a knack for riding the zeitgeist. Each of the three figures is very different – but what they all share in common is a willingness to take a side – to be a partisan. Gerson, in another life as a speechwriter, was willing to do this; but now from his perch writing for the Washington Post blog which calls itself “Post-Partisan,” he looks at those mere mortals who take sides with disdain – and suggests doing so is the equivalent of lying.

Gerson ignores the substance of Klein’s reason for seeing talk radio as a bigger fomenter of hate – and instead imagines an entirely different reason: “Because Limbaugh interferes more directly with Klein’s political agenda.” Klein didn’t actually say this – he made a different point about control of the media – but Gerson, being “post-partisan” explains that the only reason Klein could have for seeing Rush Limbaugh as a more significant fomenter of hatred than a bunch of anonymous commentors must be “an excess of ideology [which] can affect the optic nerve — leading to complete moral blindness.” It calls to mind that line from the New Testament about removing the splinter from one’s own eye first.

Gerson is smug in his conclusion, as he takes the tone of a wise elder:

Those, like Klein, who trivialize evil are actually making its advance more likely. Their cynicism and ideological manias are the allies of genuine bigotry, because they blur its distinctive shape and cover its distinctive smell.

Of course, Gerson’s column – by giving great weight to anonymous internet commentors – trivializes “evil” by equating it with awful comments. In fact, prejudice has always existed, and it is not synonymous with evil. If it was, then free speech would be mere folly. Gerson could have written a column about how the internet – in encouraging communities of the like-minded, creates dynamics of escalating moral outrage which lead to conspiracy theories and even hatred along with reformist political movements and communities of knitters. But instead, he looks on the internet like a nun at a high school dance, frowning with disapproval at the whole thing. In doing so, he himself is blinded seeing a fallen world where it is instead a fallen-redeemed one.

Postscript: Amusingly, Gerson also has this to say in defense of his column comparing the rise of the internet to the rise of Nazism, and in attacking Klein’s disagreement with his analogy:

Beck, Huffington and Klein seem comfortable with this same, lazy tactic — the reductio ad Hitlerum. They are full partners in the same calumny.

But wasn’t reductio ad Hilterum exactly what Gerson’s original column was about?

[Creator of image unknown.]

Glenn Greenwald’s Civil Libertarian Propaganda

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Last week, Glenn Greenwald felt compelled to make the same basic point that Jack Goldsmith did back in May just before the dueling speeches by Cheney and Obama – that the Obama administration’s national security policies do not make for as sharp a break from Bush’s as they have been portrayed. As Goldsmith described the similarity:

[T]he Obama practices are so close to the late Bush practices is that the late Bush practices were much different than the early ones. In 2001-2003, both fear of terrorism and Bush unilateralism were at their height. But in the last six years, the terror threat has appeared to fade (at least to the public), and Congress and the courts have engaged on terrorism issues, pushing back on some, approving others, and acquiescing in yet others…In these and many other ways, U.S. terrorism law looked wholly different at the outset of the Obama administration than in 2001-2003. The law was much clearer in 2009, and there was much greater consensus–across political parties and the branches of government–about permissible policies and their limits. Many Obama policies reflect that consensus.

Goldsmith doesn’t mention another relevant fact about the Bush administration’s approach – that even as it scaled back the vast powers it asserted in the aftermath of September 11 and rolled back certain practices, it was careful to never admit a mistake or repudiate the extreme measures it had used. At the same time, even to the extent that it did do so, the Bush administration had no credibility because they had lied about what they were doing in the first place – from warrantless wiretaps to torture.

Greenwald though omits this vast change of behavior between the worst practices of the early Bush administration and its later years. Because to bring that up would undermine his propagandistic purposes which involves attacking Obama. See what I mean:

This leads to a more general point:  when it comes to uprooting (“changing”) the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties — the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else — the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do.  They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers.  With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites — at a time when none was operating.  They trumpeted the President’s order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used — at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn.  They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo “inherent power” theories — while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is.  They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo — while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram.  Their “changes” exist solely in theory — which isn’t to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice:  i.e., in reality.

Greenwald makes a big deal of the fact that the changes are in “theory” not “in reality” – but neglects to mention that most of the worst aspects of Bush’s abuses of power were only present in theory by the time Obama took office – due to pushback from Congress, the Courts, etcetera. Bagram is a serious issue - and Greenwald is entirely justified in talking about that particular hypocrisy. But the “ideological wind tunnel” that is Greenwald’s calling card causes him to omit key facts here – as it so often does.

And you n0tice – in setting up his own “spike,” Greenwald implicitly accepts Goldsmith’s contentions – that the Bush administration had stopped torturing, had reconstituted its wiretapping program with Congressional and court approval, and had otherwise already ceased the worst abuses of power.

A final note: Greenwald’s approach to Obama seems to have more to do with his discomfort with defending any establishment than with actual policy. There are certainly reasons for civil libertarians to be unhappy with Obama, but for Greenwald, there’s a strong sense he wishes no part in defending any Establishment. This makes him a gadfly – which while often useful does not make him right all the time.

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-09-25

Friday, September 25th, 2009
  • A weekend has rarely been as sorely needed… #
  • Did Congress Just Unintentionally End The Military-Industrial-Complex? http://bit.ly/Jid3x #
  • Why We Can't Have Bipartisanship in Two Easy Quotes http://bit.ly/Jcipf #
  • Constant police activity, fire engine sirens, ambulances speeding around Grand Central all morning so far… #
  • It already feels like "one of those days"… #
  • Despite this Warning: "This link will reduce productivity for the day," I foolishly clicked it: http://www.cardtoss.com/ #
  • I have a phantom friend request on Facebook… #
  • "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." – H. L. Mencken http://bit.ly/2PGkm5 #

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Big Project At Work

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

A big project at work will be keeping me busy for the next two days – as I’ll be staying late each night or taking work home…

So, you’ll have to wait for this coming Monday for your next 2parse fix.

Stopping Rudy 2012 Before It Starts

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

In the Times piece on the White House’s stepping into New York’s state politics by suggesting Governor David Patterson not run for office in 2010, Karl Rove is quoted as saying this move is all about sidelining former Mayor Rudy Giuliani:

The only reason they are doing this in New York is to try to strangle a potential opponent in 2012.

Rove seems to mean this as a criticism, accusing the White House of making crass political calculations which, of course, Rove himself never did. But this makes an opportune point to bring up that the politician being sidelined here is the same one who said:

Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

Yes, this “Mister 9/11” who never met an executive power he didn’t like is now searching for another balcony to take yet another shot at the White House.

This man is truly the one person I truly would be frightened of as president. (Sarah Palin runs a close second.)

[Image by VictoryNH licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Mayor’s Filthy Salt Habit

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Mayor Bloomberg launched a health initiative last year aimed at reducing the city’s salt consumption leading to such memorable headlines as the New York Post‘s:

BLOOMY TO NYC: HOLD THE SALT

The other New York rag, the Daily News, quoted Bloomberg on the new salt initiative:

People are eating too much salt, me included. After this, we can keep going. People don’t like to have somebody come in and tell them what to do, but afterward, if it turns out to be something that’s in their interest, they sure as heck say thank you.

Michael Barbaro of the New York Times though gets the real skinny a year after this initiative is launched: the Mayor himself “dumps salt on almost everything, even saltine crackers.” Barbaro apparently has been watching the mayor in dining situations closely – even counting the number of dashes of salt applied to his pizza: 6. (Salt on pizza?! Really?). This paragraph is representative of the piece:

But Mr. Bloomberg, 67, likes his popcorn so salty that it burns others’ lips. (At Gracie Mansion, the cooks deliver it to him with a salt shaker.) He sprinkles so much salt on his morning bagel “that it’s like a pretzel,” said the manager at Viand, a Greek diner near Mr. Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house.

There’s nothing wrong with a man – who admits his own faults – attempting to curb unhealthy behavior. But the many micro-initiatives to make New Yorkers healthier do end up getting on my nerves in a manner that makes me more sympathetic to Jacob Weisberg’s Slate piece.

[Image by the Center for American Progress licensed under Creative Commons.]

That Annoying “Pox on Both Their Houses” Mentality of the “Independent-Minded” Press

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Jacob Weisberg of Slate has written one of those typical, independent-minded, liberal attacks on the nanny state that crop up when the Democrats are perceived to have a monopoly on power. This type of piece always bothers me even as I agree with most of it on substance – in part because it is only written when Democrats are in power, and in part it has a hidden thesis: a moral equivalence between the liberal and right wing positions. Here’s Weisberg:

The underlying left-right divide is not about whether government has the right to promote private virtue but, rather, about what kind of virtue it should promote. Republicans demand paternalistic policies that uphold morality or social order. In Indiana, where I recently spent my vacation, you can pick up fireworks or a handgun anywhere, but good luck buying a six-pack on Sunday. Democrats, by contrast, deploy paternalism for health and safety reasons, yielding a different set of absurdities. In California, pot is on the verge of becoming more permissible than cigarettes. Both left and right take pleasure in mildly persecuting those who fail to meet their civic ideals.

There’s certainly an insight here – but it does not get to the heart of the liberal-right wing divide. It doesn’t attempt to deal with the civil libertarian strain in the Democratic Party which contrasts with the support for a national security apparatus above the law supported by the Republican Party. It doesn’t address the various mild strains of populist economic and social libertarianism in the Republican Party which are at war both with the economic royal-ism in the party and with the Democratic Party’s focus on regulation and government involvement in ensuring a fair process and/or preventing unfair ends.

In other words, Weisberg takes on this loaded topic but only discusses the “mild persecutions” that we can see changing rather than the structural positions that affect us far more deeply. The caricatures of the left and the right that Weisberg draws then aren’t very persuasive because they ignore the base of these competing political views.

Weisberg is actually conflating two different points in his attempt to even-handedly criticize the left and right. Liberals – especially urban liberals – tend to focus on policies which improve the collective status of most of their constituents. At best, they are – as Weisberg says, quoting Cass Sunstein – “nudges” towards healthier, safer activities. At worst, they are annoying and unnecessary constrictions on minor everyday freedoms like where you can smoke, what you can buy at a restaurant. Suburban, exurban, and rural areas tend to have less of this – whether they are dominated by liberals or conservatives.

On the other hand, the right wing claims it is against government encroachment and in favor of a more libertarian society; but this is a falsehood, as the bulk of the right supports right wing government encroachment and opposes liberal government vehemently. This is what is driving the Tea Partiers – not a fear of all government, but a fear of liberals in charge of the government.

If Weisberg had picked apart these two conceptions – of a right wing that claims to be against government, but instead is only against liberals in the government – and of the differences in the role of government in urban versus non-urban areas, he might have had two pieces rather than one – though neither would have fit as easily into the “pox on both their houses” mentality that independent-minded observers in both observers tend to adopt.

[Image by hegarty_david licensed under Creative Commons.]