Saturday, May 31, 2008

File Under "Nothing to Worry About"

Via, we have this list of The Top 10 Conspiracy Theories of the Religious Right. Let's take a quick look at #5:
In 1997, in Houston, the John Birch Society rented a hotel conference center to announce that Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, President Bush and Bill Clinton were really insiders working to overthrow the Constitution and nation.
Assume for the sake of argument that this is true. That's four consecutive Presidents of both parties. But we notice that the nation and (give or take a Bushian overreach) the Constitution are not yet overthrown. Thus, we are talking about a conspiracy so inept that even with four consecutive Presidents of the US on the payroll, they still can't manage to overthrow the Constitution and nation.

Let's face it: that's a pretty damn pathetic conspiracy. Maybe they should try setting their sights lower -- polluting our precious bodily fluids, or something.

So, frankly, even assuming this is true, I don't think we have anything to worry about.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Is the Meaning of 'Have', "Will Be" or "Have"?

McCain national security adviser Randy Scheunemann conceded that McCain said troop levels "have" been drawn down to pre-surge levels. "If he had said 'we'd drawn down,' he'd be accurate," Scheunemann said. "If he had said 'we were drawing down,' he would be accurate."

-- Report on today's conference call with McCain campaign staff (via)

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."

-- Bill Clinton, August, 1998

This Is What Journalism Looks Like

Atrios linked to a post in which some Knight Ridder reporters testily link to some of their pre-war journalism (as well as helpfully reminding some of those who need it about some of the history of deception leading up to the war). Now, I knew -- I'd read about, I'd seen quoted, I'd perhaps read snippets directly -- that Knight Ridder was much better pre-war than the craven bootlickers in the rest of the media. But clicking a few of those links, what gets me is not how skeptical... how hard-hitting... how god-damn journalistic their articles are, but how early they are.

Check this out:
Senior Pentagon officials who want to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq authorized a trip to Great Britain last month by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials told Knight Ridder....
Wolfowitz and several other officials have argued repeatedly in interagency meetings that the United States should bomb Iraq and topple Hussein after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have successfully deflected those arguments so far, arguing that such an attack would fracture the international coalition President Bush has assembled. Powell, Vice President Cheney and other U.S. and British officials have said there is no evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.
That was from October 11, 2001. Think about that: October 11, 2001. One month after the 9/11 attacks. And more than a year before the major lead-up to the war -- the time when the craven roll-over of the press was due (as NBC's Brian Williams explained after the fact) to "the mind-set" of "post-9/11 America."

And it gets better. This is from February 13, 2002:
President Bush has decided to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and ordered the CIA, the Pentagon and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps to achieve that goal, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday. No military strike is imminent, but Bush has concluded that Saddam and his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs are such a threat to U.S. security that the Iraqi dictator must be removed, even if U.S. allies do not help, said the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity...The president's decision has launched the United States on a course that will have major ramifications for the U.S. military, the Middle East's future political alignment, international oil flows and Bush's own war on terrorism. Russia and most of America's European allies have expressed alarm about the administration's escalating rhetoric on Iraq.
Just think about that. February 2002. More than a year before the start of the war -- a year when Bush continued to lie about seeking peace, war being the last choice, etc, etc. Of course, some of us thought by, oh, say, the summer of 2002 that the administration was hell-bent on war. But who ever listens to the leftie peaceniks? Just because we happen to be, y'know, right and all.

Just imagine if we had an entire functioning media... rather than one bureau of journalists, and a large number of propagandists and cowed stenographers. We might have had a real debate on the war.

Someone should forward some of those Kinght Ridder links to the NY Times, in particular to the pusillanimous Elisabeth Bumiller, to remind them what their job is. This is what the reporters were doing while Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were stovepipping falsehoods from the white house to the front page of the "paper of record".

Bush made the criminal decision to launch an aggressive war. But he didn't do it alone. Even aside from his numerous aides and political allies, the craven media was a crucial accomplice in his crime. And it seems that one of the chief virtues of McClellan's memoir is to remind everyone of this.

Of course, they are now shocked, shocked that anyone would think they didn't do their job at the time -- and, since they decide what gets reported on, that's most of what will show up in the mainstream press, most likely. But maybe McClellan's calling them out will give just a bit of space to the contrary view.

Let's hope so. Because what we need is to get into the collective discourse -- the media discourse, the academic discourse, the popular discourse -- the truth that the media's behavior in the run-up to the war (hell, throughout most of the Bush presidency) was a massive failure of the highest magnitude. So that the next time someone in this country wants to start a war, journalists -- and citizens! -- will be telling themselves things like: we messed up last time by not questioning enough, let's make sure we question this time.

And: last time they lied to us. Let's think about whether or not they're lying now. (Since the last time we all learned this lesson didn't seem to have stuck, maybe we can this time...)

McClellan's been criticized for saying nothing new -- just stuff that everyone (or at least everyone who reads left-wing blogs) already knows. But I'm not sure if that's such a criticism. Because we have to keep saying it, over and over, until we get it right.

One final point. I've been saying -- yes, angrily: I know, Uncle John, I shouldn't blog angry, but what can I do, the world keeps conspiring against me on this point -- that the media was craven, fearful, cowed. But there is another side to this too: the media was also militaristic. Major voices in the media really wanted to wage more wars. It wasn't simply fear or deference to power, although of course there was a lot of that. But a lot of the media were really as gung-ho for war as most of the politicians were. (Starting from the top, with the corporate executives who ran it.) They believed because they wanted to believe -- wanted to be "strong", which meant, wanted to cheer as others fought wars.

Militarism must be eliminated from the American mind -- and our public culture. And the media which does so much to sustain and further it.

Update: Will Bunch uses a metaphor after my own heart (via):
If the Iraq War had been a botched bank robbery, the Bush administration would have been the triggerman, but the media drove the getaway car. And when the charges come down, those two are equally culpable in the eyes of the law.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Step in the Right Direction

From tomorrow's New York Times:
Gov. David A. Paterson has directed all state agencies to begin to revise their policies and regulations to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, like Massachusetts, California and Canada.
It's not what we should have -- full equality -- but it's a start. And given anti-equality obstructionists in the State Senate, it's the most that Paterson can get through at the moment.

So good for Paterson. Half a loaf is better than none and all that.

Now, on to full equality. Give all our citizens equal marriage rights in New York State!

"A Legacy of Greatness": the Morality of a Psychopath

Andrew Sullivan, writing about McClellan's new book is most taken with the fact that McClellan claims that Bush intentionally ignored the WMD evidence, saying "if the president intentionally ignored data refuting the existence of Saddam's WMDs, he should be impeached." Frankly, the fact that Bush did this is old news; and impeachment is the least of the appropriate responses -- a war crimes trial would be called for. (I sort of thought Sullivan was farther along than this, actually.)

What struck me was the reason that McClellan gave for Bush's desire to go to war, which led to this "intentional ignoring" of evidence in the first place:
In Iraq, McClellan added, Bush saw "his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness," something McClellan said Bush has said he believes is only available to wartime presidents.
Of course, this isn't really news either:
"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."
But McClellan's admission is further confirmation of this.

It's worth pausing to reflect on what this really means. Bush went to war -- in part, let us say for the sake of argument -- to be "seen as a great leader... as a commander-in-chief", to "have a successful presidency", "to create a legacy of greatness".

It is almost impossible to overstate the evil of this.

People died -- hundreds of thousands, most likely more than a million Iraqis; more than 4000 Americans -- for Bush to be seen as a leader. To have a legacy. (And how many more Iraqis have been made refugees, been wounded, had their lives otherwise destroyed? How many more American soldiers have been injured beyond recovery?)

They died for his gain. For his image. For his "greatness".

He took actions, knowing that many people would die -- for that. For gain: for glory. (Even if he didn't know how many... an assault that kills people, with malice aforethought, is charged with murder for each person killed, even if the assailant didn't intend to kill quite so many as all that.)

This is the morality of Raskolnikov -- murder as greatness. Death as greatness. It's the morality of a stock villain: to kill the innocent for power or greatness or glory. Except Bush has gained a far larger legacy than most of those who set out to do so by means of other's deaths.

I'll say it again: for Bush's "greatness" -- hundreds of thousands, probably millions, have died.

If murder is the greatest evil, aggressive war is its most powerful form: the death of others for profit or pleasure or greed or ambition. This is what Bush has done. What so many others eagerly helped him do.

Of course Bush should be impeached -- for this, among so many other things. But really, impeachment wouldn't even be a beginning of a reckoning for his crimes -- something that, for those who don't believe in a literal hell, is probably impossible in this universe. But to put him on trial for the most colossal form of murder there is -- aggressive war, a "crime against peace" -- is all that we can do, here, on Earth. It is what must be done, for the least scrap of justice to be achieved.

In my original conception of this post, I was planning on including some of the images of the Iraqi dead -- murdered children, people blown in half, row upon row upon row of flag-shrouded coffins. For that is what Bush has done -- that is his legacy. But the truth is, I'm weak. I don't have the stomach for it.

But Bush should look at them: should be forced to look at them, in the course of his trial for "crimes against peace". And as a just sentence, perhaps he should be forced to look at nothing else for the rest of his natural life. Just bodies blown to bits in pursuit of his "legacy of greatness".

And he's not the only one, by a long shot.

The murder of more than a million: that is Bush's "legacy of greatness". The least we can do is make sure he reaps the full consequences of that legacy, as much as human action allows.

(Update: After a letter from a thoughtful reader, I changed a metaphor.)

Conservatives Live in an Alternate Universe

Seth Leibsohn at the National Review:
The idea that the press didn't do its job and was too soft on the president — as McClellan writes — is, frankly, laughable. Raise your hand if you have any evidence that the press was too soft on the administration.
Consider my hand raised.

Once again, the eternal question: stupid or lying?

Update: And another rather stunning new piece of evidence here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where We Are Now: Recommended Reading

Four links to essays, all from the past few days; essays that, each in a different area, have a spot-on take on Where We Are Now. All four are highly recommended reading.

1. Hilzoy on the Electability Argument. I've been concerned by the electoral maps that show Clinton doing better against McCain than Obama (although there are good reasons not to take them seriously -- Kos had a great roundup here; and see also Noah Millman). But I don't take them too seriously mostly for, well, precisely the reasons Hilzoy outlines. So: what Hilzoy said.

2. NOT Jim Webb for Vice President. Kathy G, guest-blogging at Matt Y's blog, has a long & definitive round-up. For me the deal-killer is Webb's terrible record on women's rights (summarized by previously pro-web blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates here and here for anyone without the patience to read the long version (although if you're not convinced by the short: read the long). Women's rights are an absolutely core liberal principle, and would have a good claim to be a deal-killer any year (counterbalanced by Webb's (partial) apology for his past stances & movement in the right direction on these issues); but this year it should end the conversation: Webb should not be the VP nominee. Full stop. (Update: There's an interesting, if not (to me) ultimately convincing, reply to Kathy G by Spencer Ackerman here.) (Update 2: For a broader ideological/social context on why Webb would be a bad choice, see this insightful post by Ezra Klein.)

3. Rick Perlstein on Liberals on Conservatives. For those of my Noble Readers who are interested in serious politics, I had you at "Rick Perlstein" -- Perlstein is among the most interesting commentators around these days. (He mentions in the linked piece grad students whose dissertations were inspired by his work. I am (partly at least) one of them.) I don't know if I'm quite as sanguine about the level of liberal self-knowledge at this point (in 2008 specifically, I'm terrified of overconfidence), but overall, he's absolutely right. And always worth reading.

4. Mark Schmitt on what the Republicans Have Left. As I said above, I'm nervous about overconfidence. Personally, I'd be very grateful if all the various elegies for the Conservative Movement that are floating around these days (that's one of the better ones, btw) would get shelved until after November. (It would also improve their collective prose by allowing a lot of hedging to be cut -- either way, really.) But Schmitt is an incredibly insightful observer, and I think his outline of the current situation is a terrific one. So yes: read it.

Bonus round!

5. Why You Shouldn't Give Money to Harvard. An alum whose 25 reunion would be this year -- via one whose fifth would be this year -- says that people shouldn't give money to my own alma matter (I'm precisely halfway between those two: if I were going, my 15th reunion would be this year). She's right: do something else. (See also Tim Burke.) And the same goes for Yale, Princeton and other rich schools. Not as important an issue as the above four, I grant you, but it's true, and it's worth saying, and a lot of people disregard it. So if it applies to you, go read -- and, even more importantly perhaps, forward it to those who need to read it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Poem for Memorial Day

The one thing one can say for certain about how those who have lost loved ones in America's wars -- particularly the ongoing ones -- feel today is that there is no single statement that will cover everyone. Some will feel that any questioning of the current war is an insult to their loved ones; some will feel that not questioning a war based on lies is an insult; some will simply want to remember or cry. (Hell, there are probably a few who just want to barbecue. People are weird.)

So this poem won't fit everyone's interpretation of the meaning of today. But it is what I thought of. I've posted it before, but it seems appropriate to post it again to mark today's meaning as I experience it (knowing some will be offended by that interpretation just as some will be in agreement with it).
The Invasion of Grenada

I didn't want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn't want a postage stamp.
I didn't want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming:
"Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway."

What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
nor ours.

What I wanted
was an end to monuments.

-- W. D. Ehrhart, 1984
(From Stewart O'Nan's anthology The Vietnam Reader, p. 679)

To all those today is meant to honor: RIP.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cheapening the Cause of Democracy

I've noted before that almost everyone in the reality-based community has had a moment in the past decade or so when they realized precisely how malign the right wing in this country has become; and that for some it was the impeachment, for some it was Florida in 2000, for some it was the start of the war and for some it was Katrina; and that for me it was Florida in 2000.

Which is why it turns my blood to steam to hear Clinton say things like this:
And we believe the popular vote is the truest expression of your will. We believe it today, just as we believed it back in 2000 when right here in Florida you learned the hard way what happens when your votes aren’t counted and the candidate with fewer votes is declared the winner. The lesson of 2000 here in Florida is crystal clear — if any votes aren’t counted, the will of the people isn’t realized and our democracy is diminished.
Set aside the fact that the cases aren't remotely comparable, for a dozen reasons (e.g.). Clinton is only leading in the popular vote if you don't count any of the votes in Iowa, Nevada, Maine, and Washington, or any of Obama's voters in Michigan.

In other words, it is Clinton who is arguing for votes not to be counted.

And for her to then compare that to the election theft which began the Worst Presidency Ever!

(She also compared the exclusion of the Michigan and Florida delegates -- which her campaign, and she herself, agreed to before the fact; in elections that neither candidate campaigned in and for one of which Clinton was the only candidate on the ballot -- to the disenfranchisement of African Americans before the Voting Rights Act. Which is objectively far more disgusting, but hits me less hard personally because I didn't live through that particular injustice.)

Clinton is right about one thing: voter enfranchisement is one of the core principles of the modern Democratic party, from the Voting Rights Act to the theft of the presidency in Florida 2000 to the numerous Republican attempts to disenfranchise voters this very year. And for her to claim that cause for herself, when it is she who is trying to overturn an election which she has lost, is not only morally obscene, but sullies that very cause, turning a noble calling into a base attempt to overturn an election she has lost.

Clinton (and, even more, her surrogates) have done a lot of genuinely foul things this election season. But for personal reasons, this is the one that makes me the angriest.

How dare she. How !@#$%ing dare she.

Shame, shame, shame.

Update: Also, what Josh Marshall said:
...there are actually numerous quotes from the Senator herself saying those primaries didn't and wouldn't count. Michigan and Florida were sanctioned because they ignored the rules the DNC had set down for running this year's nomination process. The evidence is simply overwhelming that Sen. Clinton didn't think this was a problem at all -- until it became a vehicle to provide a rationale for her continued campaign. Now, that's politics. One day you're on one side of an issue, the next you're on the other, all depending on the tactical necessities of the moment. But that's not what Clinton is doing. She's elevating it to a level of principle -- first principles -- on par with the great voting rights struggles of history...

...There are very good reasons to think Sen. Clinton won't take this to the convention, even as today she suggested she might. But that's sort of beside the point. What she's doing is not securing her the nomination. Rather, she's gunning up a lot of her supporters to believe that the nomination was stolen from her -- a belief many won't soon abandon. And that on the basis of rationales and arguments there's every reason to think she doesn't even believe in.
...I can't add anything; I'm too angry to type. Shame, shame, shame.

Update 2: More from Steve Benen. And from Ezra Klein:
But it's wrong to think of this as a continuation of her primary campaign. This is a new effort focused on the general election. She's now pursuing a political strategy meant to defeat Obama and ensure the party regrets his nomination. She will do this by convincing voters in Florida and Michigan that his campaign has wronged them and should be severely punished. It's an attempt to poison the well, to deny his campaign 44 electoral votes, or about 1/6th the total needed to win. That's a take I've resisted for a lnog time, but it's the only plausible explanation left. The Obama campaign has expressed a willingness to seat Florida and Michigan's delegates, and do so largely as the Clinton campaign wants. Yet Clinton continues to compare a procedural decision she supported to Zimbabwe and Birmingham. She continues to sow resentment and anger against the likely Democratic nominee over a decision she supported. Where I once was solidly dismissive of the idea that Clinton was setting herself up for a 2012 run, now I'm agnostic. In any case, it's clear she's trying to set Obama up for a 2008 loss.
One thing to note is that Klein, while now an Obama-supporter, was on the fence for a long time. And Benen, as he points out in the above-linked post, has defended Clinton against a lot of the more nefarious interpretations of her actions.

-- Until now. Clinton's lost some very genuine moderates. This really should matter -- whether or not it will, of course, is an open question.

What's needed now is for some hard-core Clinton partisans to step up and tell her to knock this shit off. Clinton supporters among the opinion makers in both traditional and new media could help here. Political friends and allies would be even better, of course. We may really need all of them.

There is a special level of hell currently being prepared for Ralph Nader for his actions in 2000. Clinton is getting really, really close to reserving herself a seat right beside him. If Obama -- FSM forefend -- looses in November, she may have just bought herself a one-way ticket. Unless she acts now -- really quickly, and really, really strongly, without any doubt, for the next six months. Someone -- a lot of someones -- need to tell her this.

Update 3: Kos has a round-up of reactions, including the above-linked pieces but other posts as well. But I still haven't seen signs of it going mainstream in the way that would really affect matters. Alas.

Update 4: Hendrik Hertzberg -- who is not only one of the deftest political commentators currently writing, but also one who (to his immense credit) has kept the flame of his anger over the election theft in 2000 burning bright and cold in the years since -- writes about the popular vote, and Clinton's claims about it, explicitly in the context of the 2000 dispute in the current New Yorker. If you've read this far down in this blog post, it's definitely worth reading.

Appalachia and Albion

One of the people who's stock has risen during the course of this interminable Democratic primary, I think, is historian David Hackett Fischer.

Which is impressive, since his stock was pretty damn high to begin with.

Let me explain.

David Hackett Fischer is a historian of colonial America. While he is perhaps a bit thick with incidentals and caveats to achieve the popular success of a David McCullough, he is, I think, not only a marvelously interesting historian but an extremely compelling writer. His book Paul Revere's Ride, for example, is just wonderful, and I commend it to all of my Noble Readers simply as enjoyable reading.*

But his most important work is a huge synthesizing work called Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Four-fifths of this book are a tour of four British-American cultures which were primarily responsible for populating the nescient United States. Fischer does marvelous thick descriptions of each of the four cultures -- that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of the Chesapeake, of the Delaware and the "Backcountry", about which more anon -- discussing their clothing and houses and diet and on and on, including their cultural beliefs about issues such as government and freedom. It's absolutely fabulous.**

But then you get to the final chapter. In the final chapter Fischer argues that these four cultures persist as distinct causative units up through the time of his writing, 1989: for, in other words, well over two centuries. Oh, as time goes on he starts to merge the Chesapeake/Backcountry cultures into a broad "southern" culture and the Massachusetts/Delaware cultures into a broad "northern" one, but he still ascribes an astonishing amount of persistence to these cultures. As an example he goes through the history of American Presidents (through either Reagan or Bush 1, I don't recall) explaining most of them in terms of their ancestral roots in these cultures.

Well, when I first read this book -- over a decade ago -- I thought this was simply nuts. It didn't take anything away from the brilliant first four-fifths of the book, of course. But the notion that these cultures were so persistent struck me as absurd. After all, there have been vast influxes of immigrants for centuries, diluting and transmuting the original cultural traditions, I thought, beyond recognition. Of course Fischer knows this perfectly well, but his explanation -- that the immigrants were absorbed into the seemingly all-powerful original four British folkways -- struck me, at the time, as simply straining credulity to the breaking point. So I put the book down as a fantastic synthesis with a wacky (if highly entertaining) conclusion.

And then this primary season we get these bizarre results out of Appalachia. Including, most recently, the extremely divergent results from last night's primaries in Kentucky and Oregon. As many commentators have noted, Obama doesn't have a problem with working-class whites in general -- he has a problem with working-class whites from Appalachia.

But while I've seen many theories, nothing I've yet seen has given a fully convincing explanation as to why.***

Which leads me back to Fischer's theories on the persistence of Backcountry culture. Is it possible that the culture of the Backcountry immigrants -- from whom, I believe, the white residents of Appalachia who are so opposed to electing an African American come from -- is the explanation for why Obama is so opposed in Kentucky and West Virginia, in stark contrast to his success (even with working-class whites) in Wisconsin and Oregon?

I don't know. This sort of cultural persistence still strikes me, on its face, as a bit absurd. But Appalachia has definitely demonstrated itself to be culturally distinct from economically and socially similar areas elsewhere in the country (not, it must be said, in a way that reflects particularly well on it). Some sort of explanation is clearly called for. So while I'm not yet a full, paid-up passenger on the Fischer Express, I am definitely giving it another look. Since something is going on here.

Is it really possible that the roots of Obama's Appalachian problem lie in distant Albion?

* It's basically a counter-revisionist history: Longfellow made Revere seem important in ways he simply wasn't; the revisionists downplayed him for others such as Dawes; Fischer argues he was important -- but in a different way than you think. -- In fact, every book of Fischer's I've read has been terrific. I should say that I haven't yet read Washington's Crossing -- which looks as narratively compelling as Paul Revere's Ride -- so the reason I'm recommending the latter not the former is not a comment upon Washington's Crossing; I just haven't read it.

** My graduate school advisor is quoted on the back of the book as saying that it's "a splendid achievement", so I suppose you might want to discount my opinion for bias here. (I wouldn't say so -- I disagree with him on plenty of things, after all -- but then, perhaps my not saying so is in fact part of my bias.) Albion's Seed, incidentally, is the source of the marvelous Fischer quote in my side-bar quote file:
The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be.

*** Although some of the more convincing explanations have discussed the history of the region in distinctly (even explicitly) Fischerian terms.

Friday, May 16, 2008

When All You Have is Maxwell's Silver Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Head

The basic point here isn't that the idea is nuts, it's how the fact that people are suggesting it shows how terribly, terribly broken our national discourse is.

Some of our national pundits want to invade Burma.

Including some -- get this! -- who believe themselves to be on the left. (In particular George Packer* -- who, IIRC, was one of those leftists who supported the aggressive war against Iraq, but who thought it was okay because they did it with really pained looks on their faces and with a lot of constipated agonizing about how hard a choice it was. And who, despite having written a book which reportedly excoriates the Bush administration's incompetence in carrying out his previously desired aggressive war, now wants them to do another one. ("If it’s going to be done, it should be done quickly" he says -- hence, by Bush.))

The TAPPED post by gets the issue right, I think, in saying this:
the take-home point is that few in the opinion-generating business are really serious about re-evaluating the wisdom of invading and occupying other countries. It's always going to be premised on either our national "interest" or security from the right, and always going to be premised on humanitarianism from the left. During the dark days of the run-up to the Iraq War it really became clear that the only daylight between a neocon hawk and a liberal interventionist was the labels. Now that that war has exposed the folly of using the blunt instrument of the military for whatever purpose suits our political zeitgeist, it's a race to differentiate the liberals from the neocons, without ever seriously taking stock of the unprecedented decline in American moral authority in the world, not to mention our increasing inability to actually carry out and fund these foreign policy adventures.
However, the following sentence -- " Like it or not, idealism is dead in American foreign policy, and apparently only the pundits didn't get memo." -- is only right if by "idealism" you mean "a willingness to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense" (cite) -- not, it must be admitted, the standard definition -- at least outside of the American political classes; amongst them, it's probably a common if not absolutely universal one.

But Dinauer if anything understates the case: we can't do it because the entire world, not to mention the saner two-thirds or so of our own citizens, wouldn't trust us, because of Iraq; we don't have the capacity, because of Iraq. American humanitarian interventions are another casualty of the Iraqi war -- not much compared to more than 4000 Americans and probably more than a million Iraqis who have so far died in the war (and still more injured or turned into refugees), but throw it into the mix.

Which is one reason why people supposedly on the left shouldn't endorse immoral imperialist adventures masquerading as humanitarian missions: it harms the possibility of achieving whatever justice there is in real humanitarian missions.

But even more screwed up is the bizarre twists and turns of American hawkish "liberalism" that has brought it to the point where the question of "humanitarianism" is more or less reduced to the question of "should we invade or not"?

Look, I don't know anything, really, about Burma -- in general, or the calamities it is suffering right now -- nothing more than I read in the papers. So if there is anything the US can do to help that doesn't involve invading another foreign country, I'm all ears. But I do think the positive view of war (which is what we're talking about, an invasion) in this country -- even by those who claim to be on the left -- is nothing short of nuts (not to mention immoral and massively destructive).

How deep does it go? This is how deep. In response to the first of these "should we invade Burma?" speculations, Josh Marshall quite reasonably wrote
But I have an even simpler idea. Why don't we not invade any more countries for a while?
-- And then felt it necessary to go on to explain that this didn't mean he was an isolationist. Even an expressed desire not to invade random foreign countries has become an automatically suspicious position in our culture.

Marshall does make a point that Dinauer misses, namely, that not only is this an absurd idea, but that even suggesting it is, in the current environment, unbelievably toxic. The US has earned itself a reputation as a warmongering power in the last decade**. People in other countries -- particularly ones that American pundits are speculating about invading -- don't tend to make fine distinctions between the various branches of the various American ideological positions; they just hear voices in the world's strongest military power calling for the invasion of their homes.

The point being, if (say) Canada were to consider some sort of intervention in Burma, it might at least get a hearing; if the US did it -- even under a new president, even with genuinely good intentions -- it would be suspected almost universally. And rightly so.

So I'd like to go farther than Dr. Marshall. I'd agree, of course, that we shouldn't invade any more countries for a while. But I'd like to further suggest that anyone who is openly speculating about the merits of invading other countries is, at best, irresponsible, and most likely a warmonger; and that such people should not be paid the least attention to -- should not, for example, be given op-ed slots in major national newspapers or blogs in major national magazines.

America, and the world, have a lot of problems right now. A lot of dialogue and idea are needed on how to solve them. But suggesting starting new wars just isn't among them.

Militarism must be eliminated from the American mind.

Update: Matt Yglesias is right about the reasons for this trend, I think:'s the very absurdity of the idea that makes it such an appealing op-ed thesis. It's self-righteousness without responsibility. Advocate an invasion of a country you don't know anything about and have it happen and, well, all kinds of things might go awry in a way that's embarrassing. But since everyone knows there's not going to be an invasion of Burma, you can say there ought to be one and then make up a nice story about how well it hypothetically went.
-- But I think this just goes to prove my point: the fact that the idea of starting a war is now a pleasant thing to muse about as a hypothetical, an act of self-righteousness, just shows how broken our discourse is.

(In the meantime, I suppose you could read his final sentence -- "You can even show your thoughtful seriousness about matters of war and peace by chalking up the tragic failure to invade as yet another disastrous consequence of the war in Iraq" -- as a zinger which hits me; but in my defense, I don't think that the failure to invade is "yet another disastrous consequence of the war in Iraq", since I think it's totally nutty idea rather than a "tragic failure". I do cop to the idea that the general death of humanitarian invention as a possibility is a consequence of the war in Iraq; I remain agnostic, however, about whether this is a bad thing, or whether not invading Iraq would simply have meant a different disastrous, aggressive war later on down the road. At any rate, if Iraq has scared Americans off from traveling a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense, so much the better; but then, everyone thought that about Vietnam, too, until the tag-team of Osama bin Laden and George Bush got to work on us.***)

* FWIW, I read Packer's 2000 book Blood of the Liberals soon after it came out -- i.e. before his born-again militarism -- and thought it was excellent.

** Some will say it had, or should have had, that reputation before, but whatever the truth of that, it has it now.

*** Update: As Nell correctly points out in comments here, this last bit is far too flip: the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" was being chipped away at, by both Democrats and Republicans, for several decades. You can make distinctions (e.g. Iraq 2 is the first time an American administration has tried to sustain a long oversees conflict since Vietnam (perhaps not their original intent, but still) -- at least from the US's point of view (our conquerees tend to experience these conflicts as longer than we do.)), but the basic point is right.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Arc of History is Long But It Bends Towards Justice

The Supreme Court of California ruled that the ban on equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian citizens violated the state's constitution. (Link via) The ruling goes into effect in 30 days.

Everyone of good will will be celebrating this today. A step forward for justice in the midst of dark times.

But whether the ruling will stay in effect is in doubt. An amendment to the California constitution is primed and ready to go on the ballot in November, which would overturn this ruling. In 2000, when the last ballot initiative in California on equal marriage rights was on the ballot, the side of bigotry and injustice got 63% of the vote. As Kevin Drum says: "In November we'll see how far we've come in the past eight years." (Update: In a follow-up post, he offers some evidence for pessimism on this front.)

Justice took a step forward today; but whether the arc of history has to go around the long way this time remains to be seen.

Incidentally, one point worth remembering when conservatives start to cry judicial activism: the California legislature already passed an equal marriage rights bill: it was vetoed by the Terminator, who said that it should be a judicial decision.

So far, one state in fifty allows its gay and lesbian citizens equality (or as near as they can get given the discriminatory effects of DOMA: as long as DOMA is in effect, even state-level marriage rights won't be equal, since the many federal marriage rights that exist are denied legally married Massachusetts couples who happen to be gay or lesbian). It's nice that we will -- at least for the moment -- go to two. It'd be nicer if we could stick with it past November.

This election is really going to be the ultimate clash of symbolism and substance. On the one hand, we have the now-undeniable fact that the Republicans have made a total disaster out of our foreign policy, shredded the constitution, wrecked the economy and fiddled while the environment burned: conservative policies have put this country in absolutely disastrous shape. Against that, the Republicans will offer the fact that the Democratic candidate is a Scary Black Man who wants to let Scary Gay Couples get married. It's all they've got left. Come November, we'll see if it's enough -- whether they'll be able to sign the public up for four more years of ruinous war, torture, illegal spying, executive power grabs, economic disintegration and ongoing environmental ruin as long as the President's white and wears a flag pin, and two men can't get married in California.

Update (on the Title): Yeah, I smegged up the quote: it should be "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice". (Maybe because what I really should be doing right this second is grading history exams.) Teach me to quote from memory, I guess.

Also, it turns out that this was not first said -- as I'd always thought -- by Martin Luther King, Jr. (who did quote it often), but by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810 - 1860). News to me. (Hat tip to Meteor Blades, who had the same thought I did, but A) got the quote right, and B) knew who first said it.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Election That Really Mattered Today

...was the run-off election in Mississippi's first district. The election to replace the congressman who replaced Senator Trent Lott when he resigned from the Senate to spend more time with his his lobbying duties. A district that Bush won 62-37 in '04, and that now-Senator Wicker won 66-34 two years ago. A district where the Republican tried to race-bait the (white) Democratic candidate by tying him to Obama.

A district that just elected the Democratic challenger, Travis Childers, by 52-48%. (Update: Nope: once all the results were counted, he won 54-46%. An 8-pt spread. "Not even close", quoth JM.)

As Josh Marshall says,
the Republicans have lost three straight Republican districts to the Democrats in by-elections this year. Hastert's district in Illinois, Louisiana 6th, and now Mississippi 1st. Each successively more Republican than the last.
Sure, it's only good through November when they do it all over again. Sure, a lot can happen between now and then. And I'm nervous about being hopeful.

Still: O. M. G.

I guess that's what happens when you have the most unpopular President in the history of polling leading your party through a disastrous war. Ezra Klein's right that Bush
is shockingly unpopular, and this is a reality that neither the Congress nor the media has quite figured out how to address. It's something of a crisis for our political system that the president has now spent over three years hated and mistrusted by the majority of the country, and yet has never felt the need to take steps to restore his legitimacy. Something is wrong.
-- Something is most definitely wrong with our political system; and the media, and Congress, have both failed by Bushian magnitudes in their failures to address this.

But maybe, just maybe -- knock wood, kenina hara, all that -- the voters will step up where the media and Congress have both failed so miserably. Maybe what the political classes have failed to addressed will be addressed in November -- by we, the people of the United States.

Update: From Politico:
"This loss is going to prompt serious introspection by our conference to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it," said a GOP leadership aide. "We have time to do that, and we will if we learn our lessons leading into November"
Except, you don't have time to do that. Because what went wrong wasn't a question of campaigning or branding or spinning. It was about reality -- the reality of the worst President in U.S. history, and the damage he has done to our country. It was about the fact that Conservative governance has disastrous results. And now people are seeing the results.

That can't be fixed in a few months.

Actually, the people that I hope take a message from this are the Congressional Democrats: rolling over and playing dead for the policies of this bunch is worse than stupid, it's suicidal: and if you don't reverse course, and reverse course hard, come January (assuming an Obama win and ongoing Democratic majorities), the people will hate you for not ending the policies they elected you to oppose. So stop mollycoddling the Conservatives, and grow a spine.

The very first step: END THE WAR.

Update 2: If anyone's interested in commentary on the other election from yesterday, the must-read post of the week is Josh Marshall on the demographics and history of Appalachia.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man: a Brief Review

In the past decade or so, Hollywood has learned to -- sporadically -- make movies which capture what's good about Marvel superhero comics. The first two Spiderman and the first two X-Men films are examples of this (And in both cases the third movie in those series were distinct disappointments). And so is Iron Man.

Now, nobody (I suspect) would pretend that Marvel superhero comics (which -- unlike the other major superhero publisher DC, which produces a bunch of other things too -- is pretty much synonymous with Marvel comics, period) are High Art. I hope I don't need to convince anybody in this day and age that a lot of comics are (and many more aspire to be); it's even true that some superhero comics are High Art. But that -- a few oddities aside, perhaps -- isn't what Marvel is trying to do. Marvel makes comics that are the comics equivalent of summer popcorn movies: fun, funny, exciting, nothing to think too hard about.

And that's what they've done well, recently. They've made superhero movies that have a sense of humor, that are exciting and fun and enjoyable if that's what you're looking for. And Iron Man is one of those. It's funny (a key component in such movies); it doesn't try to cram too much in (ditto); the lead actors turn in good performances. It has good special effects and it's a good action movie:. In short, it's very enjoyable; I liked it a lot. Excellent light entertainment. -- Don't think about it too hard: you'll break it. Just put it down gently. There. Like that. See? Lots of fun.

(There's more to say about this whole 'making a good Marvel comic movie': what works and what doesn't, what they include and what they omit, a precise description of the spirit they capture. Perhaps I'll get into it later, but for now: Iron Man does what it tries to do well; if that's what you want, then by all means, see it.)

Oh, and if you go, stay through the end credits -- Iron Man is one of those films that tucks a scene in there at the end.

Speaking of Iron Man, you can watch a funny Iron Man/Batman youtube here.

The Further In You Go, the Bigger It Gets

In an essay in the most recent New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers predicts that even if the next President is either Obama or Clinton -- both of whom have promised withdrawal -- the 44th President will not withdraw from Iraq:
Getting out of Iraq will require just as much resolution as it took to get in—and the same kind of resolution: a willingness to ignore the consequences.... Getting out means admitting defeat. Is it possible that the new president will have that kind of resolution? I think not; to my ear Clinton and Obama don't sound drained of hope or bright ideas, determined to cut losses and end the agony. Why should they? They're coming in fresh from the sidelines. Getting out, giving up, admitting defeat are not what we expect from the psychology of newly elected presidents who have just overcome all odds and battled through to personal victory. They've managed the impossible once; why not again? Planning for withdrawals might begin on Day One, but the plans will be hostage to events. At first, perhaps, all runs smoothly. Then things begin to happen. The situation on the first day has altered by the tenth. Some faction of Iraqis joins or drops out of the fight. A troublesome law is passed, or left standing. A helicopter goes down with casualties in two digits. The Green Zone is hit by a new wave of rockets or mortars from Sadr City in Baghdad. The US Army protests that the rockets or mortars were provided by Iran. The new president warns Iran to stay out of the fight. The government in Tehran dismisses the warning. This is already a long-established pattern. Why should we expect it to change? So it goes. At an unmarked moment somewhere between the third and the sixth month a sea change occurs: Bush's war becomes the new president's war, and getting out means failure, means defeat, means rising opposition at home, means no second term. It's not hard to see where this is going.
It's not a new point, nor even one that he makes unusually well*; but it's a point that requires repetition, over and over, with the force of a mantra, until we decide to make it not true.

Because there is one sentence -- one crucial, malevolent sentence -- in what Powers wrote that is not true, or rather is only true if we decide to let it be true: "Getting out means admitting defeat." That, Noble Reader, is what we call a Republican Frame. We were not defeated, because our goals were some combination of imaginary (rid Saddam of WMD), impossible (see a Democracy self-organize!) and evil (invade to control another people's territory and oil). "Defeat" is not a relevant category in any of the three cases.

But it will be if we decide it is. If we say withdrawal is defeat, we never leave. If we say that withdrawal is correcting a mistake or righting a wrong (in whatever proportion), then it isn't.

But we need to say that; and we need to say it now, not later.

The key point here is that if Obama and Clinton don't begin -- from the beginning, indeed from before the beginning, from more or less right now -- by saying they'll withdraw, then the will be tempted by the hubris of power and the momentum of success to try to do something to lead us towards an impossible, imaginary, immoral Victory.

But if they see withdrawal as their mandate -- if the giddiness of electoral victory means a determination to get out as soon as is practically possible -- then it won't be defeat. And they won't be tempted.

The longer they let it go on, the more it will become their war, not Bush's war, and thus the harder it will be to end. If they begin to end it -- as rapidly as possible -- on January 20, then it was Bush's mistake: they just cleaned up. But if they continue to long then, as Powers warns, it will be their war. And it will be harder and harder.

So will they? Will they run on really getting out, and then follow through on what they run on?

So far the indications are far from optimistic.

After all, the Democrats ran on -- and won on -- ending the war in 2006; and for a year and a half have given us nothing but snivelling, pusillanimous excuses for their utter failure to do a single thing towards that end.

And both Clinton and Obama have left themselves a disturbing about of wiggle room about "managing" defeat, about training troops and troops to guard our "embassy". I'm slightly more optimistic about Obama, since he'd advised by those liberals who say from the get-go that the war was a bad idea, rather than those who supported it, who think that ""cred" on national security is composed of being hawkish even when that means being wrong" (quite frankly, any pundit who would support such a notion at this late date should find another line of work). But I'm still not optimistic, because the pull of the American militarist establishment -- the "reasonable" liberals, the media, those who think that more force is always the solution to any problem -- will push him, hard, and he may well give in. He's running on unity, which can lead to an abandonment of sincerely-held principles.**

There must be no wiggle room, not wedge for the militaristic establishment to push for any notion of "Victory": the Democratic candidate must campaign upon a full and unconditional withdrawal if they're to get out at all. And they need to say this now, to campaign on it, to win on it. Then they can leave without it being defeat: indeed, leaving will be the victory -- over Bush's combination of stupidity, immorality and detachment from reality that led us into this misbegotten war in the first place.

The Iraq war has destroyed Bush's presidency, and all but destroyed Clinton's candidacy. If Obama wins, he can end it; or he can keep going and let it destroy him too.

I hope he chooses wisely -- not for his sake, but for Iraq's, and for ours.

* The same, admittedly, might be said of this blog post: others have said it before, and better. (I don't have a link handy, but Matt Yglesias comes to mind as one proponent of this point.) But, again, it bears repeating -- because the counter-weight to this idea is so strong that the odds are, so far, against its being recognized and acted on.

** This, I think, is what Krugman ultimately dislikes about Obama, What he doesn't see is that a possible weakening of principles is far better than a tenacity in immorality and error, which is what Clinton gives us.

Friday, May 09, 2008

File Under "Great Minds Think Alike"

Clinton lost the nomination because of Iraq. Period.

-- Publius

The biggest factor that doomed Clinton, from day one, was Iraq.

-- Ari Berman

Admittedly, this is the kind of counterfactual that's impossible to prove, but my guess is that if she had voted against the war Clinton would be the Democratic candidate.

-- Scott Lemieux

I agree. Barack Obama is highly likely to be the next president of the United States because he opposed a dumb war.

-- Kevin Drum

I think the reason that all these writers hit upon the same idea is not because they read each other -- only Kevin Drum linked to any of the others (he was seconding Scott Lemieux), but for another, far simpler reason: because it's correct. (Incidentally, if you're going to read one of those posts, read Publius's; he goes into a lot of very interesting (& hence arguable) detail about the mechanisms by which this worked.)

It's also good that she lost for this reason. As Scott Lemieux goes on to add, "sometimes getting big policies wrong really is politically damaging.... This is evidently a good thing." The best way to get politicians not to support stupid (and immoral) wars is for there to be negative political consequences for doing so. (Also, as Matt Yglesias says in the post that sparked Lemieux's, "...most of all we need to ditch the mindset that says "cred" on national security is composed of being hawkish even when that means being wrong").

As I said a few months ago, back when it was closer to being prescriptive than descriptive: it's the war, stupid.

Update - More Great Minds: Booman Tribune -- via Atrios, who agrees too.

Still Further Great Minds: M. J. Rosenberg. Matt Yglesias. Yglesias again. Matt Stoller. Kos.

And they keep coming in: Neil Sinhababu. Atrios again.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

"War is in principle something immoral"

"War is in principle something immoral"? What hippie peacenik said that? Let's go to tape...
The physical demilitarization of Germany has been successfully accomplished. But that alone does not guarantee that Germany will not again force the world into war in the future. Militarism must also be eliminated from the German mind. For all civilized peoples of the world, war is in principle something immoral, but the Germans must still be helped to this self-evident truth.

-- General Dwight Eisenhower, 1945
(Quoted in Konrad Jarausch, After Hitler, p. 28)
[emphasis added]
Well, I'll be. Ike.

I wonder what percentage of the American public -- or, even more, the American political elites -- would agree with the statement (without attribution) that it's a "self-evident truth" that "War is in principle something immoral"?

Given the enthusiasm for war five years back, I have to wonder if we, now, need some help to see "this self-evident truth".

Which is just another way of saying what Jim Henley said in his justifiably widely-quoted post about how he got the Iraq war right (written when the papers were filled with people who got it wrong):
What all of us [who opposed the war from the beginning] had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.

It goes without saying that America has not (yet) descended to the depths of immorality that Germany had when Ike said that "Militarism must also be eliminated from the German mind." But we have one thing in common with the Germans of that time: our country also has, with the support of a majority of its population, committed "crimes against peace" -- that is, "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" as the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson, put it.

Bush has instituted a torture regime, and taken the imperial presidency farther than any president in history by an order of magnitude at least. But the central crime of his presidency, the one that has wrought more destruction on the world than any other, was his war of aggression against Iraq.

And far, far too many Americans supported it. Because we have lost sight of the "self-evident truth" that "war is in principle something immoral". Those of us who understood that were against the Iraq war; those who didn't, for the most part, supported it.

And if this basic fact is not recognized, and dealt with, we'll do it again. (Actually, we've done it again: Iraq is the again, of which Vietnam was the first time after which we should have learned better. But we'll do it again again, if you see what I mean.)

Militarism must be eliminated also from the American mind.