Archive for December, 2009

Get It Through Your Heads: No President Can Keep You Safe

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Speaking of rooting for catastrophes, it’s hard to see anther reason for Dick Cheney’s continued attempts to politicize national security issues and terrorism. There is a ghastly calculation at work – as Cheney is attempting to set the scene for a Republican reemergence in the aftermath of the next successful terrorist attack.

There is so much glaring idiocy at work in the opinion page responses to the attempted Christmas bombing. Few seem willing to admit the obvious truth: No centralized power can keep us safe. No intelligence system will be perfect. No watch list will be all-inclusive. No screening procedures are foolproof. We can make it harder for a terrorist to succeed, but in order to win, we need to prevent every attack; while they only need to slip through the cracks once. And there will always be cracks. Even in a totalitarian regime, there are cracks. Part of the price we pay for a free society is vulnerability.

Yet, instead we seem to blame or credit the President himself for whether or not he kept us safe. We “got lucky” this time – it is said – but the President should get his act together and prevent another attempt. It was nonsense to say that George W. Bush kept us safe after September 11. And it is nonsense to say that Barack Obama has kept us safe since being elected. They simply do not have the power to do this, fictional narratives like Vince Flynn’s and 24 notwithstanding.

What the president is responsible for – along with the rest of the government – is creating policies and enforcing laws that balance freedom and security. There were failures that allowed the now-spayed bomber to get through security. But – and let me speak clearly here – assholes like Rep. Pete King, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, and former Vice President Dick Cheney who are trying to exploit Al Qaeda’s bombing attempt to score political points are beyond contempt. Cheney especially seems to have made the calculation that he can preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack.

What further demonstrates the bad faith of these assholes is that they offered no such criticisms of George W. Bush after the “shoe bomber” slipped through security and attempted to blow up another plane in December, after which Bush failed to immediately call it terrorism, and after which he did not immediately comment. I didn’t blame Bush for this at the time – and neither did the Democrats. Yet now, when Al Qaeda attempts an attack, rather than unifying us, provides yet another excuse for King, Hoekstra, and Cheney to bash the man whose agenda they despise.

Even worse, in doing so, they support the illusion that a tough President has the power to keep us safe – that if only we acceded enough power to Big Brother, everything would be alright.

Christopher Hitchens Speaking Uncomfortable Truths

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Christopher Hitcehns is a true polemicist – in a way that Glenn Greenwald is unable to be. He takes daring positions and supports them. He pushes his points obstinately, until he falls back. And in some ways, he is the best thing a writer can be: engaging with the real world, grappling with the consequences of what he says and believes – rather than blithely hiding behind some ideology. (See this article on his support for the Iraq War and how it directly lead to the death of a young soldier, and this video and article in which he tests out his belief that waterboarding is not torture.) He can also be a royal prat.

In response to the attempted Christmas bombing, he is in his best form. Hitchens:

What nobody in authority thinks us grown-up enough to be told is this: We had better get used to being the civilians who are under a relentless and planned assault from the pledged supporters of a wicked theocratic ideology. These people will kill themselves to attack hotels, weddings, buses, subways, cinemas, and trains. They consider Jews, Christians, Hindus, women, homosexuals, and dissident Muslims (to give only the main instances) to be divinely mandated slaughter victims…We can expect to take casualties. The battle will go on for the rest of our lives. Those who plan our destruction know what they want, and they are prepared to kill and die for it. Those who don’t get the point prefer to whine about “endless war,” accidentally speaking the truth about something of which the attempted Christmas bombing over Michigan was only a foretaste. While we fumble with bureaucracy and euphemism, they are flying high.

[Adapted from an image by ensceptico licensed under Creative Commons.]

Rooting for a Fiscal Catastrophe

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

The Wall Street Journal editorial board is following the exact playbook I predicted/described Republicans would take in dealing with the coming fiscal crisis.

During those times it had power since 1980, the Republican Party has blown out the deficit while in office by increasing spending for their constituencies (the elderly, big corporations, and the military) while cutting taxes for the wealthy a lot and a bit for everyone else. When out of office, the Republican Party has agitated for “fiscal responsibility” by which it apparently means protecting the status quo of spending while cutting taxes even more (and until the aughts, it also included reducing spending on groups that weren’t part of the Republican base.) This strategy was christened “starve the beast” – and it theoretically will culminate in the moment when government spending is so far above government revenue that no increase in taxes could make up for the difference. Thus a generation in the future (probably mine) will need to suffer through increased taxes with minimal government assistance, discrediting the idea of effective government itself.

Bill Clinton responded when he was handed this mess by fixing the fiscal situation he was handed: shelving his proposed spending, reforming welfare, cutting the budget, and keeping taxes as they were. (In fairness, George H. W. Bush also helped fix Reagan’s fiscal irresponsibility.) Obama proposes something different – to keep the economy growing, to “bend the curve” of health care spending, and with some of the fiscal pressure relieved, then to come to some “grand bargain” which will shore up our fiscal situation.

Looking at the politics of the moment, I predicted that the Republican Party (of which the WSJ editorial board is a primary voice) would want no part of any solutions. They would respond to this challenge from Obama by passing off all the responsibility for the increases in taxes or cuts in spending onto the Democrats (despite the facts shown in the graph below) – and would strive to protect the status quo by defending the privileged position their constituencies have – all the while asserting that fiscal disaster is looming.

This is how the Wall Street Journal framed the issue:

Democrats are candid, at least in private, about the kind of the deal they have mind this time around. Democrats would agree to means-test entitlements, which means that middle and upper-middle class (i.e., GOP) voters would get less than they were promised…

In return, Republicans would agree to an increase in the top income tax rate to as high as 49% and in addition to a new energy tax, a stock transaction tax, or value-added tax. The Indians got a better deal for selling Manhattan.

New taxes will only reduce the pressure to cut future spending…

The Democrats will use a tax-and-spend commission to confront Republicans with the false choice between huge tax increases or fiscal disaster. Republicans should respond with their own choice: They’ll agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table and forces all of Washington to confront the hard spending trade-offs between guns and butter, old and young, the poor and middle class, and social welfare and corporate welfare. Otherwise, Democrats should be forced to defend and finance their own destructive fiscal choices. [my emphasis]

To rephrase what the Journal is saying, “We oppose any changes to the status quo that would hurt anyone who benefits now. Therefore, we want no part of any solutions to the coming fiscal crisis. But it’s the Democrats fault!” For the Journal, fiscal responsibility is cutting spending. Yet they oppose cutting spending on “middle and upper-middle class (i.e., GOP) voters.” And they also have previously opposed cutting spending on the elderly and the military.

For the Republicans, responsible governance – where spending and revenue are matched – is irresponsible.

Given this ideological position, it’s not surprising that what the WSJ is signaling that they wouldn’t mind spending cuts as long as the Democrats take responsibility for them and those who benefit from the status quo don’t have to give up their privileged position. The Republicans are determined to keep the status quo intact until it becomes unsustainable – and in the aftermath of that fiscal catastrophe, remake the nation by cutting back the role of government. In contrast, the Democrats are committed to making the status quo into a sustainable system, while aiding those who are least privileged.

That’s not even getting to the inaccuracies in the framing of the piece (i.e., the lies at the heart of it.) Ezra Klein posted an excellent graph in response to this op-ed pointing out that the “destructive fiscal choices” the WSJ is attributing to the Democrats can be entirely placed on the Republicans.

Beyond the ten year time window in the graph, the entitlement spending budget explodes because of rapidly growing medical costs and an aging population – but that is exactly the rationale for health care reform that “bends the curve” that Democrats have been pushing and the Journal and Republican Party have opposed.

[Image by kevindooley licensed under Creative Commons.]

Obama’s Grass-Roots Machine

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, leader of the tea party “conservatives”:

We’ve been studying everything about the Obama primary strategy, and I happen to think the tea party movement could make even the Obama grass-roots machine look obsolete.

This could be interpreted two ways that I see. Either it is yet another example of right wingers demonstrating their reactionary nature (“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.”) or proof that Obama’s grass-roots “machine” was a startling innovation that remade campaigning.

[Image by Andrew Aliferis licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Failure of Skepticism on Reddit

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Back during the 2008 campaign, one of the things that most infuriated me was the emails that went around with all sorts of claims about Obama that referred to outside authorities such as Snopes or Obama’s memoirs. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) People forwarded these items, but never took the time to check out these basic claims. As FactCheck.org observed at the time:

Such attacks usually can be disproved with less effort than it takes to forward them to others.

Now, of course political debate has always been about framing events and pushing one’s agenda – about creating stories and propaganda to demonize your enemy and rile up your supporters. And there have always been lies, and every other sort of assault on the truth. There have always been fringe movements that require their supporters to believe elaborate constructions of lies built into conspiracy theories. But beginning with the rise of Obama in the spring of 2008, the Republican Party itself has become such a fringe group – as it has mainly stopped engaging in more honest political dialogue such as ideological arguments and good-faith disputes over facts. America’s political debate has turned into lies and efforts to combat these lies. (For the prime example, see the primal scream of outrage that was the health care debate. Hereherehere.)

How a propaganda source lies or frames issues tells us a lot about how its creators view their audience. As Jason Zengerle has sagely noted, the fictional world that Republican media is selling of grand conspiracies and ominous music demonstrates that they see their audience primarily as consumers who want entertainment. Is this season of 24 over? Then check out Fox News for the same adrenaline rush. Or read a Vince Flynn novel. Either way, you’ll get stories of grand conspiracies by terrorists with weak liberals being saved by brave conservatives. Thus Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and much of the rest of the Republican media establishment started out as and still describe themselves as “entertainers” rather than journalists.  Then, of course, as I’ve observed in the past, TownHall.com just presumes its readers are gullible, lazy idiots – sending them get-rich-quick-schemes (See here and here.) in addition to their political lies. (See here, here, and here.) The creators of the smear emails clearly similarly saw their audience as gullible and unlikely to check the sources they cited in support, even as they made the most outrageous claims. What all three of these propaganda sources have in common is that they don’t expect their audience to fact check their smears, but expect them to act on them and spread them to others. They do not expect their audience to be skeptical, but to simply accept and promote the smears.

I was reminded of this by another smear that got spread – this time via reddit. (Probably other sites too – but reddit is the only one I pay attention to.) I normally see reddit as made up of rather skeptical individuals. But a few times, as a whole, the reddit community seems to have bought whole various smears and propaganda efforts – usually when they were both (1) emotional and (2) fit into some preconceived bias, usually a bias against the establishment media. Thus, when Russia invaded Georgia almost two years ago, reddit promoted various Russian propaganda claims and demoted any support for Georgia – despite the fact that atrocities were being committed by both sides and Russia’s actions clearly violated international law. When I challenged people on this, the most common reaction was to say that they were just trying to balance the mainstream media which was very pro-Georgia.

Another example of this occurred on reddit last week – as headlines were voted up reaching the top of reddit claiming:

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs

Israel apparently harvested Palestinian organs without telling anyone.

Israel harvested organs off dead Palestinians, says former head of Israel’s Abu Kabir forensic institute

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs–without permission or consent

Philip Weiss on organ thefts: “I say it’s further evidence of this great challenge in Jewish history, learning respect for the other”

Anyone who followed up and read beyond the headline of the piece in the Guardian that most of these stories linked to would have found that an Israeli doctor had admitted that Israeli hospitals had harvested organs from patients “including Palestinians” who died in their hospitals, as they did not have a policy which required them to get permission.* Shortly thereafter, the Guardian followed up and said:

The Guardian has admitted it erred in using the headline “Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs” . “That headline did not match the article, which made clear that the organs were not taken only from Palestinians.”

This headline got much less attention. Even more interesting than those too lazy to read the article were those who claimed vindication for the Swedish newspaper that had previously reported that Israel had been killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs:

Will Netanyahu/Israel apologize for the baseless attacks calling Sweden anti-Semitic regarding the truth about Israeli organ harvesting?

Remember the Israeli outrage over alleged organ harvesting, and how that could never have happened? Yeah, well, about that…

Israeli Organ Harvesting. The New “Blood Libel”? I dare you to read this and say there is absolutely nothing to this story.

Yet the Guardian story by Ian Black specifically addressed the Swedish story:

Channel 2 TV reported that in the 1990s, specialists at Abu Kabir harvested skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives…

However, there was no evidence that Israel had killed Palestinians to take their organs, as the Swedish paper reported.

Reading through the comments on these posts, you will find quite a bit of blatant anti-Semitism, as well as people disputing and disparaging these anti-Semitic comments. But should it be called anti-Semitism when people were so willing to jump to the conclusion that in fact Israel had some program which sought to harvest Palestinian organs? I’m not sure. But it is disturbing – almost as disturbing as those many right wingers fooled into thinking Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya (and that Snopes confirmed it!)

I expect better from reddit. I expect people to be skeptical. When I read a story that says that Obama is a secret Muslim, that Israel is killing Palestinians to harvest their organs, that the health care legislation will create death panels and kill babies, I regard it with as much skepticism as when I am told that if I subscribe to this or that newsletter, I will make $1 million in less than a year. Before I vote up or forward an email or invest in a stock, I check the sources. This isn’t unreasonable – and redditors are usually decent about this – which is what made this story so bothersome.

* These headlines are as misleading as a headline on November 5, 2009 would be claiming that “McCain receives third largest vote total in American history!” without mentioning the guy who won.

Geithner on the Political Bind the Obama Administration Faces

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Timothy Geithner:

The country is torn between these two, not completely unrelated, basic impulses out there. One is that Washington is out of control; those people in Washington did this outrageous, take-over-the-economy type of stuff. And the other is that they haven’t done enough to help real people. The crisis came on top of this deep, terrible erosion in the basic level of trust in government and public institutions. That has made it much harder for people to believe that the policies we were [implementing were] going to help.

(During an interview with Daniel Gross of Slate.)

[Image not subject to copyright.]

The Best Proven Defense Against Terrorism

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The attempted terrorist attack of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day reiterates the lesson America should have learned, but did not learn, on that day:

The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people, is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Bruce Schneir makes a similar limited point about the impotence of so many national security measures:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

It is shocking that this lesson still remains unlearned. And not only does it remain unlearned, but the opposite lesson has been taken. Rather than learning from the events of that day, many have taken their lessons from the television show 24 where an all-powerful, centralized government bureaucracy aiding a rogue agent is able to prevent or mitigate one disaster after another. If one Big Brother-type agency can protect us, then torture, wars in the Middle East, and unlimited executive powers could be the answer. But this requires one to believe that government bureaucracies are incredibly competent – and never fail, even once. As the national security maxim goes: We need to stop them every time to claim success. They only need to succeed once.

Yet, right wingers have lined up to promote this idea that everyone must expect a super-competent government, even as they dismiss government’s ability to effectively do anything else – as for example Henry Paine in the National Review complained of the “federal takeover of the U.S. health system” while blaming the Obama administration for the fact that Abdulmutallab was on this plane, calling the two stories together “A Tale of Failed Washington Priorities.” James Joy Carafano explained that in stopping this attack, we “just got lucky” – which is true – but he couples this with the suggestion that centralized government action would fix this if only Obama cared about stopping terrorism and didn’t want  ”Department of Homeland Security push for a mass amnesty bill [rather] than fight terrorists…”

Victor Davis Hanson almost perfectly captures the missed lesson with this:

I think the year-long mantra of “Bush destroyed the Constitution” is now almost over, and we will begin again worrying about our collective safety rather than scoring partisan points by citing supposed excesses in our anti-terrorism efforts… [Yet] As we learned on 9/11, it is often the unsung heroes among us that come out of the shadows to aid us, and not necessarily large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety. Individuals acting on their own so often make the difference between salvation and mass murder.

Let me rephrase: We must worry about “collective safety” and stop trying to protect the Constitution because….”large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety” fail and instead “Individuals acting on their own…make the difference between salvation and mass murder.”

Either that, or perhaps we should realize that no matter what our centralized bureaucratic institutions may do to try to protect us, they will never achieve the competence imagined on 24. Rather, even as they should do what they can, we must realize the lesson learned from these thwarted attacks is that we cannot trust the federal government to protect us. We must protect ourselves. George W. Bush did not have the power to keep us safe after September 11. We did that. Barack Obama likewise does not have the power.

Motivated, vigilant, informed citizens are not a “thin line of defense.” There is no perfect defense to motivated people willing to kill themselves. We should do everything we can to create responsible national security measures to prevent any terrorist attacks – but we must remember that no defense is perfect, and that the best defense, the only proven defense, as events have proven time and again, is a motivated, vigilant, informed citizenry.

[Image by bfraz licensed under Creative Commons.]

Robert P. George’s Perversions of Natural Law

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.

Robert P. George, perhaps prophetically, in the New York Times.

There’s a lot to excavate from this piece. And, in fact, if you are interested in Catholicism or politics, you should read the whole thing. I’ve heard of Robert P. George in passing, but in David D. Kirkpatrick’s telling, he has become the center of the Catholic-Evangelical-Republican coalition since the passing of Richard John Neuhaus.

Kirkpatrick brings out very clearly how George’s (and other Catholic conservatives’) theology happens to have evolved to perfectly suit the Republican Party – almost as if these people began with ideology and then picked and choose what to accept from Catholicism. But unlike most Catholic conservatives, George has an elaborate rationale for why this is so. It begins with Thomism and St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory of natural law. Aquinas applied Aristotlian logic to Christianity, creating a vibrant and comprehensive philosophy that explained everything with precision: from what was, to what should be, to what had been, and what would be. All that was left was to determine – as some mockingly pointed out – was how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Since Aquinas’ time, humanity’s understanding of the world has undergone enormous changes: Gravity was discovered. Then the relativity of gravity. Genetics was discovered by an Augustinian abbot. The double helix by two Americans. Evolution postulated and then subsequently supported by discovered facts. The foundations of democracy and the rule of law had not been laid yet, let alone America’s two-party system. When Thomas Aquinas alive, it was still thought that the sun revolved around the earth!

Today, in many ways, science has evolved past common sense, and change and uncertainty are as constant as was constancy during the historical lull of Thomas Aquinas’ Europe. Which perhaps provides an emotional justification for the popularity of Aquinas today: He offers all the answers – almost literally in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica. And in a world with so much uncertainty, such certainty can be a salve. It seems consistent with the retreats to the certain and firm grounds of ideology and dogmatism that have characterized so much of the world’s response to today’s change – from Orthodox Judaism to islamist fundamentalism, from Nazism to Communism, from evangelical fervor to hippie free love, from Randian libertarianism to right-wing Catholicism. I do not mean to tar all of these movements as terroristic or totalitarian, as some certain are. Rather, they are all radical rejections of the world as it is, and of the direction it is heading. All these movements have these elements in common: rigid answers to life’s question, a rejection of some “Establishment” that is pushing the world to be as it is, and a promotion of purity as the answer to rapid change.

George sees such purity in the application of reason through natural law.

Thus for George, God’s will is most evident, even to those who do not believe in Him, within natural processes, while it is obscured in more sophisticated human interactions. In this understanding, the social justice issues that the New Testament revolve around: helping the poor, healing the sick, loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, &tc. are secondary. Reasonable people can disagree because the answers to these questions are complex and not obvious to reason. On the other hand, George believes that the answers to what we call Culture War issues are self-evident to any person capable of reason. Thus, George believes reasonable people can disagree on capital punishment, but not on abortion. Reasonable people can disagree on health care, but not on gay marriage. Reasonable people can disagree on the mechanisms by which the state collects taxes, but not on the mechanisms by which a married couple has sex. I always find this focus on sex to be puzzling. I don’t accept the slanderous views of some on the left that it is all about making war on women. Yet, if one can apply reason and ascertain there is only one way for two individuals to “get jiggy,” why can’t one use reason to figure out the one way to tax people? Both involve the interactions of human beings within a fallen-redeemed world; both involve emotional responses and complex social constructs.

Another small thing: I’m sure George would have some answer to this, but according to Kirkpatrick, one of the basic distinctions that animates George’s writing is the conflict between Hume and Aristotle:

Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in objective reason for me to choose one goal over another – the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy.

Yet, does it seem as if George has studied the world and derived his “oughts” from the “is” of the way things are? Aquinas certainly extrapolated universal moral principles about the essence of sex and the natural order from observing barnyard animals. For all the faults and biases of this approach, it seemed to be a genuine attempt to understand the world. From my limited perspective, it does not seem as if George similarly started with observation; rather, he seems to have begun with his conclusions based on the ideology of right wing Catholicism and worked his way backwards. Specifically, his views of sex seem derived – not from observation or lived experience – but from sterile intellectualization divorced from reality (which my study of history has shown is capable of the truest perversion of what God created.) One can see how such a limited view of sex does seem likely to appeal to a group of celibate men though. I know of myself that reading George’s view of sex, I felt a deep unease in my stomach – similar to when I saw the movie Quills about the Marqis de Sade, as George had intellectualized sex and perverted it from its natural form so much that it was deeply unsettling. Take this for example:

Their bodies become one (they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together) in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs and other organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole.

In another’s hands, this idea could be beautiful – a beautiful rationale for why sex can be wonderful. But by limiting sexuality so, by postulating that sexuality ought only be channeled into only this particular type of ritualistic purity, by declaring unclean an enormous swath of human and animal experience, by maintaining that only this sterile intellectualization can justify desire, George is truly separating man from his own nature, and woman from hers. This is the most fundamental perversion of all, the most grievous sin against natural law.

(Andrew Sullivan also has some good comments on the piece here.)

[Image by Fenchurch! licensed under Creative Commons.]

Rothkopfian Aphorisms (cont.)

Monday, December 28th, 2009

David Rothkopf on Yemen and Somalia:

[B]uilding a Denny’s in either of them would be a cultural transformation roughly akin to the onset of the Renaissance in Europe…

For more Rothkopfian aphorisms, see this earlier post – or better yet, read his blog.

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-12-25

Friday, December 25th, 2009

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