Thursday, September 30, 2004



I would rather puke my guts out than be part of some coordinated spin team. I promise that I would not get up here and try to spin something I didn't think was true - and the remaining debates will be a testament to that. But that said...

Bush just got his ass kicked. Seriously, I feared that Kerry would be defending his Iraq stance and the 87 billion all night, but Bush hardly mentioned either. The key is that Bush was on the defensive almost all night - especially in the first (and most important) hour. I was surprised. Bush was clearly angry at having to defend constantly his Iraq positions. And it showed. Bush's strength is that people like him, and think he comes across as a good, decent man. That didn't come across tonight. He was angry and defensive - and that's not how Bush wins debates. He wins by being "minimalist" and smiling a lot. But there can be doubt - he was on the defensive all night. And didn't come across as particularly likeable, which he almost always does.

Second, it was clear that Kerry is a much better formal debater than Bush. I thought Bush stumbled, and had lots of awkward pauses and what not. To be sure, the "global test" bit won't help Kerry, but this one wasn't even close. Kerry also pretty clearly had a better grasp on nuclear proliferation, North Korea, and various other areas. This is a race again.

Kerry 1, Bush 0.

WOW . . . 


I'm really nervous about tonight. I didn't think I would be, but I am. Generally, I only get nervous when UK is playing in the NCAA, or the fate of world history hinges upon a debate performance. Kerry shouldn't feel any pressure though . . .

[UPDATE: One more thing. It's a pretty good indication of how wobbly our democracy has become that the real battle has less to do with the substance of the debate (and there are some weighty issues to discuss), but with the post-debate spin. Apparently, legions of media warriors are standing ready on both sides to take orders from upon high to tell the American public what they should think about they just heard (via Josh Marshall). We have truly fallen into some sort of postmodern hell-hole where constructing reality is more important than reality. But I could possibly deal with that if our nation weren't facing such tremendous challenges, and so desperately in need of a democratic dialogue.

It really makes you wonder whether mankind is better or worse because of the rise of mass media. I honestly don't know anymore. Watching the bulls in Europe is looking better every day.]



From today's Post:

The Bush administration, battling negative perceptions of the Iraq war, is sending Iraqi Americans to deliver what the Pentagon calls "good news" about Iraq to U.S. military bases, and has curtailed distribution of reports showing increasing violence in that country.

The unusual public-relations effort by the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development comes as details have emerged showing the U.S. government and a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign had been heavily involved in drafting the speech given to Congress last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Combined, they indicate that the federal government is working assiduously to improve Americans' opinions about the Iraq conflict -- a key element of Bush's reelection message.

. . .

But administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the prime minister was coached and aided by the U.S. government, its allies and friends of the administration. Among them was Dan Senor, former spokesman for the CPA who has more recently represented the Bush campaign in media appearances. Senor, who has denied writing the speech, sent Allawi recommended phrases. He also helped Allawi rehearse in New York last week, officials said. Senor declined to comment.

But of course, if you attack Allawi, that means that your patriotism should be questioned. And as for the new "good news" campaign, I think everyone should start comparing administration officials to Baghdad Bob - e.g., Baghdad Scott or Baghdad Don.

WISHFUL THINKING - Post-Debate Spin from the Year 2005 


Political Science 541/Humanities 502; Ancient Greek Tragedy and Modern Politics

Mid-term Exam
October 1, 2005

QUESTION # 1: Last year, President Kerry defeated George Bush, largely on the basis of the first debate (which we discussed in class). Analyze this debate – and/or Bush’s subsequent defeat – in the context of one of the plays we have read.


I have chosen to compare Bush’s poor debate performance to the play Bacchae by Euripides. Specifically, I want to focus on the role that “reversal” (or “peripeteia”) played in both Bacchae and the aftermath of the debate. First, I will provide a brief account of the relevant portions of Bacchae, and then use them to assess Bush’s tragic reversal on the national stage, which ultimately cost him the election.

One of the great themes of Greek tragedy is the concept of reversal. In these plays, great men are suddenly cast down from power, often on the basis of characteristics that led them to power in the first place. For example, although Oedipus’s intellect led him to greatness, it was also the source of his downfall (or reversal) when it led him to see clearly what crimes he had committed. Similarly, although Bush’s stubborn resolve led him to victory and convinced a nation to go to war, that same unyielding resolve was the source of his tragic downfall (or reversal) after he refused to admit error or change course on anything. But the reversal in Bacchae was especially interesting, and especially relevant to the first debate in 2004.

Although the play has many interesting aspects, I am only focusing on the reversal. As you know, in the play, the king Pentheus denies that the Greek god Dionysus is actually a god, and wants to punish the women who are off in the woods worshipping him. To punish the king for his hubris, Dionysus enters the king’s city disguised as an effeminate young man wearing ivy and having long locks of hair. Pentheus, who is obsessed with projecting a macho image of strength and power, ridicules the young man for being such a sissy. He orders the young man to be chained, and threatens to kill him.

The reversal comes when the god, still in disguise, offers to take Pentheus to see the crazed, naked women out in the woods worshiping Dionysus. The god warns the king that he must go in disguise or they will kill him. So, he convinces the king to dress like a women. The whole thing, of course, is a trap. We know the great reversal has happened when Pentheus – the great, macho king – suddenly appears wearing a dress and wig. And sure enough, the women eventually rip his limbs off in a frenzy (as captured in this work of art). To the audience, it is indeed a shock to see this once mighty king physically embody the characteristics that he had previously ridiculed. In their eyes, the great king suddenly became the effeminate laughingstock.

Fast forward to 2004. Throughout the campaign, Bush projected images of strength, and strong wartime leadership. This “strength-in-wartime” was the theme of his convention, and it was repeated endlessly by the campaign itself. In other words, he was very similar to the macho Pentheus. And like Pentheus, he mocked his opponent for being weak, and French, and for lacking the strength and ability to be a wartime leader. The supposed weakness of Kerry in fighting the war and terrorism was the central attack that Bush used. The campaign was so sure of itself on this front that it demanded that national security be the subject of the first, and most important, debate.

At the debate, however, things suddenly changed – though I should give a little background. After months of drift, the Kerry campaign had recently sharpened its attack, and started focusing specifically on Bush’s greatest perceived strength – national security and wartime leadership. However, few people had tuned in yet. But millions and millions tuned in for the debate.

And during the debate, they watched as the supposedly weak, French-looking Kerry suddenly appeared very strong as he pounded away on Bush’s numerous mistakes and dishonesties in executing the war on Iraq (and this was pre-Gitmogate, which broke the following spring). Bush, relying on the same lines he always had, assured the national audience that things were getting better, and that he would have done nothing differently. But as Kerry presented more and more examples of Bush’s incompetence in executing the war (along with challenging his dishonesties), Bush’s lines rang increasingly hollow, and even dishonest. And as the night wore on, Bush appeared to be living in fantasyland with respect to Iraq. By the end of the night, Kerry had planted the seed of doubt by portraying Bush as hopelessly weak and incompetent in wartime – which, obviously, was the opposite of many’s previous perceptions of the president.

The press, perhaps guilty about the Swift Boat Vets, pounced on Bush. The conventional wisdom quickly became that Bush was either lying, or was too delusional to lead a nation in wartime. And within a week, the great reversal had set in – the great President became the laughingstock by becoming the reverse of his own projected image. Press clips and campaign commercials mocked the Pollyanna responses he gave in the debate. The press also seized upon a number of his debate statements and compared them with empirical reality in Iraq, and the more pessimistic statements made by other military and intelligence officials. Within days, it became clear that the great President had fallen. Just as once-macho Pentheus was seen in drag, so too was the once “strong-on-war-and-security” president now seen as hopelessly incompetent on war and security. The tragic reversal had set in.

Later on, Kerry advisors explained that they were convinced that Bush could be defeated only by striking at the very heart of his rationale for re-election. If they could reverse the public’s views on this critical issue, everything else would fall into place. And it worked. Bush was torn to shreds, so to speak, at the ballot box.

And while I'm at it - "Today in the news, a grown man who pretentiously refers to himself as "Publius" won the lottery and inherited a small island in the Pacific. . ."

Wednesday, September 29, 2004



Once again, the Post seems to have outsourced part of its editorial-writing duties to the Washington Times. In explaining why it doesn't object to Cheney's "Vote Kerry and Die" rhetoric, the Post explains:

But Mr. Cheney's remarks about the Kerry terrorism policy, while pretty rough, pertain to questions that are central to this campaign: What is the right way to fight the war on terrorism? Who is the enemy? Which president could keep the country safer? Mr. Kerry is arguing that the nation is less safe because Mr. Bush waged war in Iraq and paid too little attention to al Qaeda; that's a legitimate case to present to voters. Mr. Cheney is arguing that Mr. Kerry's voting history on the use of force and his shifting statements on Iraq foreshadow a leader who would not meet the terrorist threat vigorously enough, and he's entitled to make that argument.

The Post, however, is confusing logos-based arguments with pathos-based ones (I explained the distinction here). Yes, if Cheney were appealing to logic and engaging in a true policy debate, then that would be fine. But to characterize Cheney's hysteric Goebbels-isms in such a high-minded way is simply to ignore reality. Cheney - and the GOP convention - were appealing to base instincts of fear and anger, and doing so in the most hysterical of ways (see, e.g., Zell Miller). So spare me the bit about Cheney's "argument." There's no logos anywhere - and I don't the lawyerly use of the phrase "pertains to questions" gets you there.

Second, according to the Post, it seems that the Democrats are learning to love Goebbels as well.
John F. Kerry and his supporters are adopting President Bush's strategy of playing on the public's security fears and sometimes using incendiary charges to stoke them.

If they were acting on a blank slate, then I would roundly condemn this rhetoric. But it's not that simple. To use a perfect analogy from Kevin Drum, you can't blame England for fighting back in World War II. In other words, let's say you object to military aggression. Then, your country gets attacked, and only afterwards starts using the same tactics to fight back. If you support fighting back, it's not really fair if I turn around and say, "See, you're such a hypocrite. You were against force when the attacker used it, but now you're for it."

The Democrats have no choice but to use these Goebbels tactics. And there's absolutely no question who used them first. I mean, can you imagine what we would be hearing if Iraq had actually gone well?



Sometimes I wonder if Atrios and Glenn “Genocide” Reynolds are reading the same newspapers. I mean, can the New York Times really be that biased against both sides at the same time? While I think press bias is an issue (though one that is often selectively perceived), I think that a much bigger problem with the press is its intellectual laziness and its "groupthink." Laziness refers to the reluctance to check facts and assess the “he said/she said.” Groupthink refers to the sort of herd mentality that the press often succumbs to. And while these flaws have generally helped Bush over the past four years, I think they might actually help Kerry if he has a decent debate – especially the groupthink.

With respect to groupthink and herd mentality, Jon Stewart captured the problem pretty well one day on the O’Franken show. He compared the national media to a pee-wee soccer team. Someone kicks the ball and the entire team chases after it. Then, the ball gets kicked elsewhere, and they all leave immediately and run to it. There’s something to that.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that there just aren't that many (significant) people in the national media (and this is an area where I think blogs can help). Thus, a single idea or explanation can spread pretty quickly across the entire press corps and become the prevailing view - which then gets repeated over and over. This is an especially annoying characteristic of the TV pundits, and I’m not just talking about Laci Peterson or Michael Jackson. Among political reporters/anchors on TV, I think there’s some pressure to show that you’re on top of the game. And nothing shows that more than peddling the latest “fad” theory that explains events, and simultaneously shows your insider understanding.

The recent craze over “security moms” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Kerry is losing ground among women. Bush is talking about security. Thus, someone came up with the theory that there are all these pro-gay, pro-choice women who are turning to Bush because they’re obsessed with security (which, for the record, should make you vote against Bush - but I digress). And bingo, you’ve got the new fad for the fall – “security moms.” It lends itself so well to CNN stories. And the very incantation of the phrase makes it sound like you know the real dynamics of the election. The problem, as Noam Scheiber explained persuasively, they don’t exist. Or if they do, there is no empirical evidence of their existence. But that doesn’t matter – the groupthink has set in.

The same thing happened after the 2000 debates. Someone decided Gore lost because of the sighs, and that became the conventional wisdom. And the networks discussed and played them over and over. Same deal with the Dean scream – a complete media creation. And same deal with the theory that the Swift Boat Vets were destroying Kerry’s campaign. It was groupthink that spread like wildfire among people who should have been more critical.

For the past four years, these particular failings have helped Bush because his media strategy (and the greater GOP/Murdoch strategy) depends on them. The people over at Spinsanity have written a book showing how the Bush team has consciously exploited these standard press habits to gain an advantage. For example, the Bush team relied on the “he said/she said” format to counter the objectively devastating attacks from hawk Richard Clarke. The goal wasn’t so much to discredit him, but to throw enough counter-accusations around that people would think it was just another partisan squabble. And it worked.

Whatever flaws they may have, Bush and the GOP media empire are ruthlessly efficient at picking a few simple themes (or attacks) and pounding them home, day after day. And from the spring on, we’ve heard the press echo the Bush charges that Bush is strong and steady, that Kerry is a flip-flopper, that he voted for and against the war, and so forth. In other words, the press has been Bush’s unwitting ally (though Kerry has contributed too). Just look at what the Post said yesterday:

Voters routinely describe Kerry as wishy-washy, as a flip-flopper and as a candidate they are not sure they can trust, almost as if they are reading from Bush campaign ad scripts.

Anyway, it is possible that the same uncritical echoes from the herd could actually help Kerry if he has a good debate. We have all heard that Kerry is a good closer, even though that’s really just based on one race in 1996. In Iowa, I think Kerry’s victory had less to do with his closing, then with Dean and Gephardt’s implosion. But still, the “Kerry is a closer” myth is one of those superficially appealing themes – like “security mom” – that seems to have settled in. And to be fair, Kerry has finally come out with a consistent message and line of attack – though the reality is that he unveiled it forty days from the election. But reality doesn’t matter – media perceptions matter. And I’m getting the sense that the press is ready to interpret everything through the lens of “Kerry is a closer” or “Kerry is surging.”

Just look at the NYT today – “A Fast Finisher's Reputation Now Faces the Ultimate Test.” Noam Scheiber adds that all the elements are there for an “imminent Kerry-is-surging storyline”:

--Kerry staff shakeups and the hiring of old Clinton hands, which gives reporters a handy inside-baseball explanation for how things got turned around.

--Kerry's engagement on Iraq, which puts the actual situation there front-and-center rather than Kerry's position on it.

--The intellgience report [this summer's pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate], the [equally pessimistic] CSIS report, and all the bad news from Iraq (that was there all along but vanished for a while).

--Guilt over overhyping the swift boat story and letting Bush be unaccountable for past dishonesties (or do I overestimate their conscience?).

If Kerry has a good debate, and can win the post-debate spin, then I think this storyline could really sink in with the herd. The coverage would be more favorable, and the assessments of Bush more critical (especially if Kerry successfully hammers him on Iraq). I can hear Wolf and Judy now. And though some will interpret this new storyline as bias, it’s not. It’s groupthink, and to some extent, it’s intellectual laziness as well. But Bush has gotten more than his share of benefits from the press, so I won’t be shedding that many tears.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that Bush will tell some stupid joke about flip-flopping and then give us the smirk – and that will get played over and over again as the “decisive blow.” You just never know with these people. But get ready. If you think the GOP echo chamber has been well-coordinated so far, just wait until the day after the debate.

[UPDATE: For those who want to read more on the game theory aspects of herd mentality, you can read my post from January.]

Tuesday, September 28, 2004



Matt beat me to the punch on this one. I too had been annoyed at the title of the Post's series on being young and gay in "real America" (though I suspect it was ironic). Anyway, he has a good discussion of it here. And though I'm definitely from "real America" (rural Kentucky), I object strongly to the label. The problem is essentially a linguistic one - and this is yet another area where conservatives have won the linguistic war that is so vital in shaping people's thoughts.

The problem with the notion of a "real America" is the same problem with the notion that Republicans are the party of "values": The specific is masquerading as the universal. Here's an example of what I mean by that, taken from Southern history. During the civil rights movement (and after), we heard a lot about how modern Democrats or liberal judges were hostile to Southerners. The word that was generally implied, but missing, was "white." Ronald Reagan (yes, that great man) even called the Voting Rights Act "humiliating" to Southerners. Again, the missing word there was "white." It wasn't so bad for black Southerners, who got excluded from being "Southern" even though they made up roughly one-third of the population (though it varied across states). In other words, the label that actually applied only to a specific group - the white South - was presented as applying to a universal group - the South.

Something very similar has happened with the conservative hijacking of the words "values" or "real America." In broad sections of the country, there is little ethnic or religious diversity. Wide swaths of America are very white, very Protestant (or Catholic), very supportive of Christianity in the public schools (which makes more sense when you're living in a homogenous community), and very hostile to abortion and homosexuality. Thus, it's not surprising that the God they worship seems to share the social norms of the community they happen to live in. It's the "God looks just like me" principle. And you know, progressives should be more respectful of that (to the extent the views are actually based on sincere religious differences, and religion isn't being used to legitimate hatred or racism). I mean, we preach tolerance for diverse cultures, but sometimes fail to extend that same courtesy to our own religious diversity at home.

But that said, we need to call a spade a spade. Hostility towards abortion and homosexuality is not a universal "value." It's a value of a very specific segment of the population that is largely white and largely fundamentalist (or orthodox Catholic). Their values are not universal (let alone objectively more moral), they're specific to a narrower segment of the larger population.

But that's the linguistic genius of conservatives. They've managed to convince America that those who share the arbitrary, contingent values and social norms of all-white, fundamentalist Christian areas should be deemed to have "values." What's implicit is that more secular, ethnically diverse populations of urban areas and blue states lack "values." The truth is that they have different values.

So too with "real America." A very specific part of America - and one that has many values that I find distasteful (though many that I love and admire too) - gets transformed into "real America," rather than the "really white, Christian part of America." The characteristics of the specific get transformed into the universal. Their characteristics are more "American." They are "real" America. This linguistic triumph gives their own contingent values added legitimacy, which is one of the reasons why Bush and the GOP aren't getting crucified for making gay-bashing part of their campaign strategy. After all, they're just fighting for "values" and "real America."



Regular readers know how much I adore Billmon’s Whiskey Bar – I consider it the best blog on the Internet. But the more I thought about his argument in the LA Times this week, the more it troubled me. It also bugged Steve Gilliard, and I’m sort of riffing off of his response to it. Specifically, what troubled me was this notion that the blogosphere is selling out, or is destined to. As I’ll explain, I think that Billmon may be making a conceptual error that is too common among the "Left" – and that error is interpreting the entire world through the tired Romantic prism of “rebel versus oppressive authority.” Here’s what he wrote in the LA Times:

[T]he idea of blogging as a grass-roots challenge to the increasingly sanitized "content" peddled by the Time Warner-Capital Cities-Disney-General Electric-Viacom-Tribune media oligopoly [may be dying]. . . . Even as it collectively achieves celebrity status for its anti-establishment views, blogging is already being domesticated by its success. What began as a spontaneous eruption of populist creativity is on the verge of being absorbed by the media-industrial complex it claims to despise. . . . There's ample precedent for this. America has always had a knack for absorbing, and taming, its cultural revolutionaries. The rise and long, sad fall of rock 'n' roll is probably the most egregious example, while the music industry's colonization of rap is a more recent one. . . . Bloggers aren't the first, and won't be the last, rebellious critics to try to storm the castle, only to be invited to come inside and make themselves at home.

There are many possible responses to this. For example, Gilliard and Kos both explain that money can create freedom just as it easily as it can take it away. Indeed, if I could live off this blog, I have no doubt that it would become much better. But I want to focus on something different – the romanticization of the “rebel,” which I consider to be an exhausted theme. To be more precise, I want to focus on the conceptualization of the world in terms of some oppressive, soul-sucking authority in conflict with Romantic rebels whose quest to overthrow the existing order should be celebrated. The 60s are over people. Let’s move on.

The celebration of the “rebel” against oppressive authority has a long, rich history throughout Western culture – from Napster, to Jim Morrison, to rock-n’-roll, to the Beatniks, to Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, to the Romantics, to the American/French Revolutions, to Milton’s Satan, to Jesus, to as far back as Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. The current strain of rebel celebration – “be yourself” or “resist authority” – is a relic of the Romanticism that flourished from roughly 1790 to the 1830s or so. It was revived and re-translated in the critiques and slogans of the newly energized American Left in the 1950s and 60s, and was subsequently co-opted by corporations like Taco Bell and Nike whose used the slogans in its commercials. And you can hear it today from bands like Good Charlotte.

But the revolutionary potential of the original 60s language – and indeed, that movement – has been grossly overestimated. It’s more aesthetic to see it as revolutionary – and it’s certainly cool to hear All Along the Watchtower or Five to One juxtaposed with videos of student protest. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nixon won handily in 1968 and 1972.

To be honest, despite the ravings of conservative talk radio, there has never been a real revolutionary Left in American history – though perhaps the 1890s came the closest. But even then, McKinley (the nominee of the Monty Burnses of the 19th century) won in 1896, which ushered in thirty years of rule by other Monty Burnses.

And maybe that’s a good thing (not the rule-of-Burns, but the lack of a revolutionary Left). For every rebel worthy of admiration (Gandhi), there is another that became a tyrant (Mao). History has shown that revolutions swallow their children, and often lose sight of the ideals that inspired them – and that’s true whether we’re talking about the French Revolution or smaller fish like the so-called Republican revolution of 1994. My point is that even assuming the “rebel/tyrant” narrative is an accurate reflection of reality, we should be more ambivalent about the rebel him or herself, and look instead to what the rebel is preaching. For example, I adore the rebels of the Enlightenment, not because they were rebels, but because I adore empiricism and the freedom from primitive superstitions that it offered. I condemn the rebels of Communism because they were advocating an ideology that is inherently flawed and repressive-in-practice (though admittedly beautiful as an idea). Whether or not these people were “rebels” isn’t really relevant.

But in America, I simply don’t believe that the “rebel/corrupt entity” narrative reflects reality. Billmon obviously does. It’s infused throughout his writing, and especially his LA Times piece (an earlier version can be found here). Perhaps it’s because I’m younger and my generation has “60s exhaustion,” but I’m tired of viewing aspects of American politics and culture through that particular lens. I have no doubt that Romanticism will rise again, just as it has throughout history, and be a source of inspiration once more. But for now, let it sleep. It’s tired. It’s had a rough half-a-century. Let’s stop aiming for revolutions, and let’s start winning elections that will actually help people and stop getting them killed.

I’ve strayed a bit – here’s my point. Billmon’s critique of blogs only works if you assume that the “rebel/corrupt entity” narrative reflects reality. But do blogs have to be revolutionary? Do the options have to be "successful revolution" or "failure"? Will blogs only succeed if they overthrow the mainstream media? The answer is no, no, and no. Don't get me wrong, blogging is great – I consider it a beautiful manifestation of little-“d” democracy. It’s a return to the often nasty days of pamphleteering in the Revolutionary era. But we need to be realistic about what it can and can't do. Blogging doesn’t have to usher in a revolution to be a success. It will be a success for democracy if it makes democracy work better. And I think it already has, and has the potential to do a lot more.

First, there’s the fund-raising capability, which I discussed in more detail here. Just look at how much money Kos has raised for House races from people who never would have given otherwise. This is how democracy works – government reflects the interests of those who vote or those who give money. Conservative groups like the Club for Growth have a big head start, but Kos (and others) will help level the playing field.

Second, I think the blogosphere acts a watchdog for the press, which creates a market incentive for the press to get better. Third, the blogosphere helps more people get informed, even if it’s a small number of people right now. It also hosts and creates discussion, which is another vital aspect of a functioning democracy. And finally, it opens the debate up to people like me, who don't write for a big magazine and who don't have valuable "real estate" on an op-ed page. Who knows, maybe blogs will be the source for future op-ed positions. Personally, I would love to see some bloggers get a spot on the NYT or Post op-ed pages.

Obviously, there are downsides too, and I haven’t thought out all the societal implications of our “computer wizardry” as Giblets would say. But I think it’s unfair to evaluate the blogosphere according to its ability to be an effective rebel. And even though the American press certainly has its problems, it’s still a remarkable force for democracy when you use world history as your baseline. In other words, it’s not a corrupt tyrant that needs to be overthrown. It’s a democratic tool that needs to be improved. Again, this whole “rebel/tyrant” world-view needs to be discarded. As I explained here (and I would urge people who enjoyed this post to go read it), the Left has been obsessed about “deconstructing” things for the past few decades. Perhaps it’s time to start “constructing.” Here’s what I wrote:

This philosopher [Latour] believed that criticism [meaning “deconstruction”] was a tired concept. Instead of deconstructing everything, he argued that the Left should try constructing for once. I may be mischaracterizing Latour’s argument (it’s a, uh, tough read), but I think I know what he’s getting at. Instead of trying to tear down everything, the Left should use its intellect and energy to construct new ideas and new narratives.

Blogs can’t save the world. But they can make it a little better. And that's how they should be judged.

Monday, September 27, 2004



First, I want to welcome Julie Saltman to the blogosphere. She's a second-year at Michigan Law School and has an interesting post up today on religion in American politics. Check it out!

Second, this blog entitled "Bush Campaign Lies" is doing some heavy lifting in assessing the President's pants-on-fire problem.

And finally, don't forget to check out the blogs from two of my favorite commenters here - Total Information Awareness and Not a Pipe.

If you have a new blog, please let me know. I'm trying to make this a more regular feature, and would encourage bigger blogs to do the same.



It was nice to hear from Billmon again – you are missed. And after reading his criticism that the blogosphere is becoming too timid to go where the mainstream media will not, it inspired me to return to a topic that I think has gotten far too little attention in both the mainstream press and the blogosphere – the odd “glitches” that resulted in the exclusion of Hispanics from Florida purged-felons voting list. I’m writing in the hopes that the blogosphere – or even a journalist or columnist – might revisit this issue. Because it stinks. And it’s quite possible that it was a flagrant violation of the Voting Rights Act that is getting swept under the rug.

For those unfamiliar with the story, let me explain the background very briefly (I learned of the story from Billmon and wrote about it here). Florida permanently bans felons from voting unless they successfully petition to get their rights back. (Seven states do this – five are Southern, which makes sense because these laws trace back to the disenfranchisement of blacks after Reconstruction.). Anyway, in order to avoid the debacle in 2000 in which many black non-felons were denied the right the vote because they shared the same name as a felon, Florida created an updated felon list, with the assistance of a private company. The list included just under 50,000 names. Several local newspapers and CNN sued to get the state to release the list after state officials refused to do so. Finally, on July 1 of this year, a judge ordered it to be released. Within days, reporters from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (or "SHT") discovered something rather odd: there were almost no Hispanic names on the list. There were lots of African-Americans, but only 61 Hispanics on a list of 48,000 – which is one-tenth of one percent. Hispanics make up about 17% of the population in Florida – and 11% of the prison population. Oh yeah, and they tend to vote Republican – especially the Cuban-Americans.

After initially denying any error, the state officials conceded that they had overlooked a “glitch” that resulted in the exclusion of Hispanic voters from the list. Under pressure, they scrapped the list (which is bad news for Bush). That’s as far as I got when I wrote about this issue earlier in the summer. I was studying for the bar, so I never went back to see what the alleged “glitch” was. Well, now I know. And it stinks too. Obviously, I don’t know if there was any foul play. It will take some investigative journalism – or a criminal investigation – to find out. It is possible that it was an honest mistake, though I doubt it. Below, I’ll provide the official explanation, and then explain why I’m skeptical of it. I report, you decide. (I’m relying almost entirely on some damn good reporting by Chris Davis and Matthew Doig at the SHT in July – 7/7; 7/13; 7/14; 7/17; 7/18; [the 7/20 article - the most important one - is only on LEXIS, but you can see another version here]).

The official explanation deals with discrepancies in the way race is recorded by the Florida election offices and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). The former allows registered voters to include the designation “Hispanic” as their race. The FDLE, however, does not include this category and classifies all Hispanics as “whites.” The way the felon purge list worked was that it matched names taken from the voter registration lists with names from the list of felons. To qualify as a “match” (and thus be purged), there had to be a perfect match between two individuals’ name, gender, date of birth, Social Security number, and race. If any one of these did not match, the individual was not included. This essentially eliminated Hispanics from the purge list because the individual’s “race” category would almost always be different on the two lists (“white” versus “Hispanic”).

That’s the official explanation. Just a glitch. Sounds innocent enough, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

First, you need to understand two very important points about Florida – blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and over 80% of the Cuban population (which is itself 800,000 strong) voted for Bush in 2000. Because of the Cuban pro-GOP tilt, Hispanics in Florida tend to vote more Republican than the national average. The SHT explains:

The decision [to scrap the purge list] means that 28,000 Democrats who might have been banned from voting can cast their vote in November. By comparison, the list contained only 9,500 registered Republicans.

The second, and most critical issue in this controversy, is whether the Florida election officials knew beforehand that including race within the “match” criteria would create problems with the list. If so, someone should go to jail. The officials, of course, denied knowing about the problem. But the SHT reporters dug deeper and found that several people involved did in fact know about this precise problem well before the list was created. I’m not sure why the national media isn’t devoting more attention to what these two reporters have found. Again, this is the key question, so I’ll just quote what the Florida reporters wrote this past July (this is the 7/20 article - I couldn't find a non-LEXIS link, but it's cited almost verbatim here):

As far back as 1997, state election officials knew that using race to create a felon voter purge list could mean Hispanics wouldn't be included in the purge, the Herald-Tribune has learned. Elections officials studied the race issue for the purge conducted before the 2000 election, and again in 2001 as they developed the latest version of the list designed to keep felons from voting.

. . .

"The secretary of state [Hood] had absolutely no knowledge before recalling the list," Department of State spokesperson Nicole de Lara said. De Lara pointed out that Hood was not in office when the list was designed and that she has called for an audit of what led to the Hispanic flaw. Although Hood took office after the list was designed, many of her employees worked on the current list and the one used in 2000. Election officials were aware of matching difficulties involving Hispanic felons when they worked with DBT, a private company that helped build the 2000 purge list. DBT, which was later bought by ChoicePoint, discussed the issue with data experts in the secretary of state's office in late 1997 or early 1998, ChoicePoint spokesman Chuck Jones said. ChoicePoint and state officials analyzed the data together and recognized that using race would create an inaccurate list, he said.

"It was not part of the criteria because most of the data sets didn't support matching race," Jones said. "It was not reliable because of Hispanic or Latinos. We determined jointly that it was not reliable."

Jones cited Janet Modrow as one of the secretary of state employees who would have known about the race problem. Modrow also played a central role in developing the latest purge list. Modrow told the Herald-Tribune on Friday she needed permission from a secretary of state spokesperson before she could answer a reporter's questions.

Department of State records show that the issue of race came up again in October 2001, less than eight months before the unveiling of the Central Voter Database. That database of the state's registered voters was partly designed to allow election officials to identify felons who were registered to vote. Technical advisers charged with developing the database discussed race at the October meeting and concluded that Hispanic could not be used as a separate race category in creating the match, meeting minutes show. The minutes show that the committee planned to group Hispanics with whites for matching purposes. That step would have allowed Hispanics to be included in the felon list because Hispanics are reported in the white race categories in many voter registration databases and by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Chuck Smith, a Hillsborough County elections supervisor employee who served on the technical advisory committee, said he remembers a meeting where concerns about the use of race were raised. Smith said the concern came up because the committee knew that voters couldn't report their race as Hispanic in most counties before 1994." Prior to 1994, everybody was considered to be white or black," Smith said. "It was kind of a weird merge thing."

Paul Craft, voting systems chief with the Division of Elections, said he also remembers discussing concerns over relying on race to match felons and voters. But Craft said he forgot to mention those concerns to Clay Roberts, his boss at the time. Roberts, the elections chief in 2002, made a decision that ultimately created the data flaw that omitted Hispanics. In May 2002, just days before the voter database was unveiled, Roberts ordered a rewrite of the matching procedures.

He insisted that a registered voter's race match exactly with someone in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's database. Because the FDLE classifies Hispanics as white, Roberts' decision virtually ensured Hispanics would be excluded from the felon list.

Clay Roberts said Monday that he did not remember being at a meeting where the issue was addressed, but that he "vaguely" remembers there being some concerns about how race was kept in voter registration records before 1994.

He "forgot" to mention them. That makes sense. I mean, it's not like issues of race and disenfranchisement had come up in the past few years in the context of a presidential election. But anyway, here’s where it gets really good. Clay Roberts was the Division of Elections Director at the time the list was assembled, and he was appointed by Jeb Bush. Just days before the initial list was to be completed by Accenture (the company hired to help), Roberts stopped it and instructed them to create a more strict matching process that included race. To be fair, this was during litigation stemming from the 2000 debacle and perhaps Roberts wanted to be extra careful. But maybe not. Again, it just sounds fishy. Sorry for the long quotes, but this is important stuff (from the 7/17 SHT article):

In a May 2002 letter that Accenture wrote to the Division of Elections, a company official warned that making changes so close to the June 1 rollout date could cause problems.

"Any change to the application is high risk at this late date, even more so a change like this that has a significant impact on such a crucial part of the process," wrote Meg McLaughlin, a partner in Accenture. "We would prefer not to make the change at all ... but we understand Clay's concerns and the implications of not making this change."

At that point, the company had designed a "loose" matching system that did not require an exact match from one database to the next. But Roberts wasn't satisfied. He required Accenture to change the system so that a person would only show up on the felon list with a 100 percent match to the voter database. The changes nearly eliminated Hispanics from the list because the database of felons kept by the state doesn't offer Hispanic as a race category.

. . .

Roberts said Friday that his insistence on the changes were hardly last minute. He said he told Accenture early in the project that he expected them to use exact matches. "When they started sharing the databases with me, I said, 'This isn't what I asked for,'" Roberts said. However, the documents obtained by the Herald-Tribune indicate otherwise. In fact, the state had to pay Accenture an extra $7,000 to make the changes Roberts ordered. McLaughlin, who was involved in creating the latest central voter database, did not return repeated calls this week.

Long before Accenture laid out its concerns in the letter, state officials knew there would be problems with the central voter database and the felon purge list, according to Paul Craft, voting systems chief for the Division of Elections. In an interview Friday, Craft said he believed that the Division of Elections knew in the summer of 2001 that FDLE's database did not offer Hispanic as a race category. A year later, when Roberts demanded the stricter matching system, no one, including Craft, remembered that, he said. If they had, election officials would have realized that changing the matching requirements would eliminate most Hispanics -- who tend to vote Republican -- from the purge list.

It wasn't an issue in the beginning under Accenture's "loose" matching system because a person could be placed on the purge list even if their race didn't match. Roberts saw that model as too close to the one used for the 2000 election, which led to a class-action lawsuit against the state and a Justice Department investigation.

The third part of this puzzle is that the company mentioned above – Accenture – was hired to create the politically sensitive voter lists even though it had substantial ties to Republicans (as detailed here). Accenture subcontracted some of its work to Election.com. Both companies had a lot of experience in this area. You would think that companies with this much experience would notice the pretty obvious fact that no Hispanics were being included on a list in a state where they make up nearly 20% of the population. That's a pretty big oversight, and one that the SHT noticed on July 3 (no link), just days after the release of the list.

Fourth, you have to remember that the state never wanted to release this list publicly. Had news organizations not battled the state in court, this list would have been applied on November 2. This is a critical point.

Finally, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was concerned enough that it requested a formal investigation by Ashcroft’s Justice Department. I searched for quite some time, but couldn’t find any indication that the DOJ agreed – which makes sense given that the odds of Ashcroft approving an investigation of Jeb Bush’s election activities are literally zero. But hopefully I’m wrong – please let me know if I am (I’ve emailed some reporters to try to confirm this - or if there is some other recent development that my amateur journalism missed).

Again, there’s no smoking gun, but there’s enough smoke that someone needs to start checking for fire. Let’s hope the blogosphere will start.

Sunday, September 26, 2004



As I mentioned earlier, I got to see Outfoxed (the documentary about Fox News) on a theater in Old Town this week. It started slow, and I didn’t buy all of the claims (e.g., the attack on O’Reilly’s use of “shut up” was weak), but it is definitely worth seeing. You can buy it here for ten bucks.

Obviously, everyone knew Fox News was not, um, fair and balanced – that’s nothing new. What I found interesting though is that the movie outlined the various (and often ingenious) tactics and tricks that Fox News uses to implement its slant. I won’t list them all, but there were a few that stood out, largely because I had observed them many times without consciously registering what was going on.

First, there’s the selective news coverage. That’s not earthshaking – you can influence people’s views by choosing to cover – or not cover – certain stories. But what Fox News does – again, which is something I have observed even though it never registered – is that it relentlessly covers “culture war” stories (i.e., guns, God, and gays). These are the types of stories that play on the cultural fears and prejudices of “middle America” – prejudices that are, in my opinion, responsible for the current Republican majority. For example, there are endless number of stories about the removal of the Ten Commandments, or "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. O’Reilly has these “anti-religion” stories on all the time, usually with wormy-looking liberals. Same deal with gay marriage. During the recent controversy in San Francisco, Fox consistently showed gay men or lesbians kissing. It’s all part of conscious effort to solidify hostility to “liberal cultural values.” It’s the exact same strategy that we saw in the recent RNC mailing about the liberal desire to ban the bible. And that strategy is to get people to hate – on an emotional, non-rational level – Democrats.

Second, there is the “Fox News Alert.” If you don’t watch Fox, the alert is announced in big letters with loud, attention-grabbing audio. The creator of the “Alert” explained that it was originally used for big events like Columbine. But now, it is used to draw attention to very trivial events. For example, the Fox News Alert sirens are now followed by something like, “Cheney Attacks Kerry for Being a Flip-Flopper.” In other words, it’s used to help communicate the talking point of the day from the RNC.

The last point deals less with Fox News than with the entire right-wing media. You can’t underestimate how effective their collective voice is. It’s amazing, and I have a grudging respect for its efficiency. Each day there is an “issue for the day” (e.g., Kerry’s medals, or Swift Boats). And thus, you’ll see that issue covered again and again on Fox. Then, you’ll see the congressional leadership bring it up. Then, you’ll hear it on talk radio. Then, you’ll read it on Drudge and Instapundit. You have to think about this mathematically. For each issue, the combined message reaches millions and millions through the collective efforts of these various branches. For the people who don’t watch Fox News, there’s talk radio, or Drudge. But the key is getting your single talking point out to the maximum number of readers. And they do this masterfully.

Anyway, I’d encourage people to see the movie. There are more - these just stood out to me.

Saturday, September 25, 2004



I'm taking today off (as usual), but I would urge everyone to read the LA Times' rather bleak assessment of our progress against Islamic fundamentalism (i.e., "the war on terror"). It provides some strong support for what I argued in my lengthy post on why we were losing the misnamed "war on terror." If you're a newer reader, I'd encourage you to read it here.

Friday, September 24, 2004



Lately I’ve been trying hard to avoid shrillness. After reading Dana Milbank’s collection of quotes today, I’m convinced that shrillness is the only proper response.

Before I get to that, let’s start with the latest Glenn Reynolds/Andrew Sullivan outrage – Joe Lockhart’s disparaging comments about Allawi being a puppet. Sullivan is outraged by them – Reynolds is as well. Now, I will agree that under normal circumstances, the following comments would be irresponsible:

The last thing you want to be seen as is a puppet of the United States, and you can almost see the hand underneath the shirt today moving the lips.

But these are not normal circumstances. Allawi was brought here – forty days from the election – as part of the Bush re-election strategy, and everyone knows it. This was supposed to be a victory lap, further solidifying the themes presented at the Republican Convention – until Kerry and reality intruded. Indeed, Allawi even adopted Bush talking points about how much progress Iraq was making, and that the terrorists were "getting more desperate." So, let’s dispense with the little charade about how this trip was beyond politics. It was entirely about politics.

Second, given that Bush is so radioactive in Iraq right now, I think that trotting out Allawi in the Rose Garden does little to help his legitimacy in the eyes of American-hating Iraqis. On this point, Lockhart is right on. The more Allawi is seen as a puppet of Bush (which was pretty much confirmed this week), the less chance of success he – and thus we – have. If I'm right, then Bush is sacrificing Allawi's legitimacy for the sake of his re-election.

I also want to address some of the despicable quotes listed in Milbank’s article today in which he describes the clearly coordinated attack that Kerry’s criticisms are hurting our troops and helping the enemy. Here are a few:

Bush: “You can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages. You send the wrong message to our troops by sending mixed messages.

Cheney: John Kerry is trying to tear down all the good that has been accomplished, and his words are destructive to our effort in Iraq and in the global war on terror.

The surrogates were even more explicit. Milbank lists more. My favorite was Orrin Hatch: “[Democrats are] consistently saying things that I think undermine our young men and women who are serving over there.”

I’ll tell you what undermines our troops – getting troops killed undermines troops, Mr. Hatch – not criticizing the failed policies that got them killed in the first place. Bumbling an occupation and having no plan undermines troops. And Mr. Cheney, I’ll tell you what’s destructive to our effort in the global war on terror – your invasion of Iraq, which was Osama’s wet dream. And Mr. Bush, I’ll tell you how to embolden an enemy – invade the second-holiest land of Islam for no reason and then execute the war without a shred of competence. Lying about our progress also sends the wrong message to the people who are actually fighting your terrorist-aiding war. Let’s not forget that. We know exactly who – and what policies – have emboldened our enemies and undermined our troops. And it’s not John Kerry, or his criticisms of your failure. Nice try, though.

And last thing, Glenn Reynolds wins the Hermann Goering Award today. If you’ll remember Goering’s famous line:

Gilbert [the interviewer]: "There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

Göring: "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

And now, Glenn Reynolds:

This is behavior that is absolutely unacceptable coming from a Presidential campaign in wartime, and it's not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of such behavior. Joe Lockhart should apologize for these remarks, and Kerry should fire him. Otherwise you're going to hear a lot of people questioning Kerry's patriotism. And they'll be right to.

I for one am sick and tired of hearing attacks on those who attack failed policies that got our troops killed, destabilized the Middle East, and have been the biggest gift ever to militant Islam. Don’t blame the messenger, buddy.



Kerry just hit one out of the park. I just watched his speech outlining his plan to win the war on terror, and it was right on. You can read the speech here. Anyway, as regular readers know, the following was music to my ears:

The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy – Al Qaeda -- which killed more than three thousand people on 9/11 and which still plots our destruction today. . . . To destroy our enemy, we have to know our enemy. We have to understand that we are facing a radical fundamentalist movement with global reach and a very specific plan. They are not just out to kill us for the sake of killing us. They want to provoke a conflict that will radicalize the people of the Muslim world, turning them against the United States and the West. And they hope to transform that anger into a force that will topple the region’s governments and pave the way for a new empire, an oppressive, fundamentalist superstate stretching across a vast area from Europe to Africa, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

Read the whole thing.

On an aside, I want make a couple of other random observations. Although I flirted with Dean, but actually favored Edwards in the primary, the selection of Kerry makes a lot more sense when you remember how prominent national security was going to be this year. Edwards and Dean could not have given the speech I heard today. Perhaps Wesley Clark could have. Regardless, Kerry is - despite certain political weaknesses he may have - extremely qualified and credible to attack Bush in this area, which is the area that will decide the presidency.

Second, I watched Outfoxed last night (the documentary about Fox News). I'll have more to say about the movie later today. But as I watching the speech on CNN, I thought, "Hmm... I wonder if Fox News is covering this Kerry speech live." I flipped over, and it actually was. Or so I thought. About two minutes later, and while Kerry was still in the middle of his speech, a talking head popped up to tell us how busy Bush had been that morning attending to the actual business of the nation, rather than campaigning. Then, amazingly, it cut away from Kerry and started covering Bush instead. Though I turned the channel quickly, half-laughing at the sheer obnoxiousness, I'm pretty sure he was standing with children (perhaps from Beslan? - again, I turned it so quickly I couldn't tell). But I did turn back a few minutes later and Bush was still on. That network is a pathetic joke.

Thursday, September 23, 2004



If you want a good reason why I’m hesitant to trust conservatives to fight the “war on terror,” just read Andrew McCarthy’s NRO piece here (it’s a bit long, but worth the read). Quite simply, they just don’t understand it. Now, I should give McCarthy some credit – with respect to some parts of his argument, he’s dead-on right. But the other parts are so troubling – and so wrong – that they undermine what could be a very insightful and powerful argument.

First, to his credit, he understands that we are not fighting a war against terror, but a war against militant Islam. Kudos – I wish more people understood that most basic of points (and I one I elaborated on at length here). Second, he rightly points out that Bush is going to have hard time responding to Kerry’s new charge that Iraq was a diversion from the war on terror.

Senator Kerry's claim is not frivolous. Yes, bottom line, he is wrong, but only insofar as the war, properly framed and understood, is concerned. That is why the challenge Kerry appears, finally, to have settled on for the electoral-stretch run will find some traction.

McCarthy urges Bush to argue that Iraq is indeed part of the war, but not the war on terror - the war against militant Islam. But here’s his key move – he then tries to explain why Iraq was actually related to the greater war against militant Islam. And that’s where I get off the train.

Iraq was a diversion, regardless of whether you’re talking about the fantasy war, or the real one. It frustrates me, because McCarthy is almost so right. But for someone who obviously understands the true enemy we’re facing, it’s borderline insane to argue that Iraq was somehow connected to this particular fight. In reality, and as I explained in the post noted above, the invasion of Iraq was precisely the wrong thing to do once you realize who you’re actually fighting – and especially when you understand the religious nature of the fight.

A lot of this argument depends on what I said in the earlier post, so I won’t repeat it all again. But the bottom line is that militant Islamists wanted Saddam out of power. Indeed, Saddam was part of the larger Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian axis of regimes that Osama desperately wants to overthrow. People must understand – Osama hates these regimes too. And that’s not even considering the way that the invasion of holy Iraq validated Osama’s claim that the U.S. was attacking Islam, which in turn provided the religious justification (indeed, religious obligation) for a defensive jihad. The "terrorists" pouring into Iraq consider themselves as defending Islam - the same thing happened when Russia occupied Afghanistan.

But McCarthy rattles off several supposed links between Saddam and al Qaeda to make his point that the invasion of Iraq was connected - and indeed, helped - the fight against militant Islam. To do so, he must ignore the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, which flatly contradict him. But then he lists several other alleged “links” that supposedly justify his conclusion. Some I’ve never heard of (and I read the 9/11 Commission Report), so maybe readers can help. Some I know are false, and some are just ridiculous.

First, he makes a big deal of the supposed “contacts.”

[T]he IC [Intelligence Community] said well, sure, but there was no meaningful relationship, just unconsummated flirting. That, naturally, couldn't bear scrutiny either: Al Qaeda is a full-time terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of America, and Saddam was a virulently anti-American tyrant.

Umm, no. First, what we know as “al Qaeda” was an inchoate organization when Saddam had “contacts” in Sudan in the mid-1990s. Go read the 9/11 Commission Report on p. 59: "[I]t would be misleading to apply the label 'al Qaeda operations' too often in these early years [i.e., 1992-1996]." That's an important point. Second, McCarthy should know that al Qaeda is a world-wide Islamic insurgency. As such, one of their most immediate goals is to remove certain regimes such as the Sauds’ - the same regime that Saddam also hated for obvious reasons. The idea that a “contact” meant Saddam wanted them to destroy America is simply wrong.

I don’t want to get into a point-by-point refutation of the article - if you read my earlier post, you'll understand why I think he's wrong. The main thing, though, is that “contacts” is a ridiculous metric to apply when you - as you must - use al Qaeda’s relations with other regimes as the baseline for comparison. Using McCarthy's metric (or criteria), we should replace almost every regime in the Middle East, and Iraq would still be on the bottom of the list. Yes, if you are firmly committed to finding a link before you assess the evidence, you can come up a shard here and there. But that’s not how empiricism works – that’s how advocacy works. And that’s what McCarthy is doing. The distinction is critical.

As for the rest, the most egregious errors are saying that Saddam harbored al-Zarqawi, when the latter was purposely hiding out in the no-fly zone, where Saddam had no control. And McCarthy also tries to link Saddam’s support of Palestinian bombers with Islamic fundamentalism. Please understand that the Palestinian conflict is a nationalist movement, not an Islamic fundamentalist one, though the latter gets support from the perceived abuses in the former.

In short, I’d encourage people to go read my post to see why McCarthy is wrong (or half-wrong). His argument is especially curious given that McCarthy displays a much sounder knowledge of the overall war than most conservatives I read and talk to.



John Kerry is sitting alone, thinking about the election, when he looks up in the mirror and sees a reflection of his younger self looking back.

KERRY ’71: You’ve forgotten me.

KERRY ’04: I talk about you every day.

KERRY ’71: That’s not me. You’ve forgotten about me.

KERRY ’04: I’m losing.

KERRY ’71: Of course you are.

KERRY ’04: It’s because of the war.

KERRY ’71: It’s because you’ve abandoned me. This war was wrong, John.

KERRY ’04: What would you have me do? Reality doesn’t matter. It’s what people perceive. Do you think people in Ohio and Pennsylvania are going to vote for me if I say this war was a mistake? You have no grasp on political reality. You never did. You should never have spoken to the Senate about the atrocities.

KERRY ’71: You don’t believe that.

KERRY ’04: I can’t come out against the war.

KERRY ’71: Then you have betrayed me, and everything you fought for.

KERRY ’04: You have to be realistic about these things.

KERRY ’71: You have forgotten me, but I remember you, John. You were young once. Full of passion. Enraged about the lies that sent children to their graves – and almost sent you to yours. You watched leaders lie and send young men to be slaughtered even after they knew the war was hopeless. And you fought back the best you could, though you were powerless then. But you remember what you said, John? You said, “By God, this will never happen again.” You swore it. You thought you were spared for a reason. You said, “By God, never again,” and you said it with blood in your eyes.

KERRY ’04: I remember.

KERRY ’71: And now here you are. You have a chance to stop another Vietnam. You can punish lying leaders who sent troops to die carelessly, and continue sending them even after they’ve given up on the war. You asked God for this opportunity, John. You said, “Send me, and it will never happen again.” God and Fate have kept their end of the bargain. And here you are – but you are silent.

KERRY ’04: I must win first. I cannot help them if I don’t win. And this is the only way to win.

KERRY ’71: But you’re losing. This war is wrong John.

KERRY ’04: What should I say?

KERRY ’71: What you believe. This war was wrong.

KERRY ’04: The war is supported in Ohio.

KERRY ’71: Goethe wrote, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” The polls will come to you. People have given up on this war. But you must make the case, and you must take the risk.

KERRY ’04: You’re right.

KERRY ’71: You had a mission, John. You swore to God that you would never let this happen again. You swore. And God has put you here – you are the only man on the planet who can remove this president. You must fix the war, John. This president is lost in delusion and fantasy.

KERRY ’04: And if it can’t be fixed?

KERRY ’71: You must bring them home, no matter how loudly the Weekly Standard squeals.

KERRY ’04: So many have died.

KERRY ’71: And many more will, and for nothing other than political calculations. Tell the truth, and you will win. Stop running from me, and you will win. Remember me, and you will win.

KERRY ’04: I remember.

KERRY ’71: The hell with the Swift Boat Vets, the ghosts of Vietnam are with you John. They know they died for lies, and that you tried to stop future deaths. Your name was spared from the black wall for a reason, John. You swore to God, “never again.” You said, “not when I get up there.” And you were spared.

KERRY ’04: And if I lose?

KERRY ’71: Do you remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Do you remember what McMurphy said when he tried to lift the fountain to break out of the asylum? It was too heavy, so he dropped it. But you remember what he said?

KERRY ’04: He said, "But I tried, didn't I? God-damn it. At least I did that."


John Kerry, last Monday at NYU:

It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger. But it’s essential if we want to correct our course and do what’s right for our troops instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I know this dilemma first-hand. After serving in war, I returned home to offer my own personal voice of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004



After reading some of the thoughtful comments to last night's post, I did want to make one thing clear. I do not support "democracy promotion" if that entails imposing it by military force. Again, as I explained last night, this is the problem with arguing about such a vague and abstract concept - no one knows what it really means.

But just because I reject democracy promotion through the barrel of a gun (sounds too much like Rousseau's infamous "forced to be free" line), that doesn't necessarily mean that progressives should completely abandon the goal. For example, I have strong reservations about our support for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Putin's latest power grab. I also am inclined to agree with Boot's claim that terrorism is less likely to happen in places where people are free to air and channel their frustrations through the political process. [For the record, this is why the "right to life" groups developed and are so militant - the Supreme Court prevented them from venting their anger through the ballot box.] I'm convinced that Palestinian terror is inextricably bound to the Palestinians' political disenfranchisement. In fact, I would be more inclined to support parts of the neocon foreign policy if it supported democracy promotion on both sides of the dispute.

Anyway, the question here is one of details. If adopting a neocon foreign policy in the name of democracy promotion means bravely sending others' children to die, then the hell with democracy promotion. If it means providing economic carrots and sticks to encourage reform, then I'm listening. But again, that's the problem - it could mean anything. It's a void upon which people project their own preferences, much like an inkblot test. That's why we need to know exactly what people mean when they say they want a democracy promotin' foreign policy.



A while back, Kevin Drum linked to neocon Max Boot’s column and explained that it provided “a pretty good summary of the neocon case for democracy promotion as a primary imperative of U.S. foreign policy.” Critically, Boot (and the forthcoming book he cites) argues that successful democracies can arise before economic development, as the former stimulates the latter. Whether you agree or disagree, this question cuts to the very heart of the debate over Iraq. And I suspect it will be the central front in the battle for the soul of American foreign policy. As for me, I’m skeptical of the neocon (formerly Wilsonian) vision, but I’m not yet willing to toss it entirely. In fact, I wonder if the Left is making a mistake by entirely rejecting the neocon vision because of the failure in Iraq. More on that in a second.

The reason I say this cuts to the heart of the Iraq debate is because our mission in Iraq rested on the premise that democracy could be imposed upon a nation that (arguably) lacked the pre-existing economic foundations necessary for democracy to work (markets enforced by rule of law; educated populace; strong middle class; etc.). When Iraq fails, the million-dollar question will be whether it could have ever succeeded in the first place. In other words, was it possible to create a successful democracy in Iraq? Or was the idea itself so fundamentally flawed that Iraq would have failed even assuming infinite competence? In many respects, the direction of our foreign policy will depend on the answer to this question. And personally, I’m skeptical of the neocon/Wilsonian dream for several reasons, despite my lingering infatuation with the neocons’ French Revolutionary idealism.

First, I explained here why I doubted that democracy (generally) could succeed without prior economic development. The people Boot cites disagree, and can probably present a strong empirical case for why I’m wrong. If their argument holds up, perhaps I’ll change my mind. But my skepticism is rooted in my economic materialism, which means that I agree with Marx’s argument that economics makes the world go round. (I disagree strongly with his economic theories and remedies, but I agree with him about the centrality of economics to politics and culture.). I laid out my thoughts in that earlier post, so I won’t rehash them here.

So, the first point is that I am very skeptical that democracies can succeed without pre-existing economic development. I believe quite literally that money is power, and the right to vote will mean little if the money isn’t spread out widely enough among the people voting (see, e.g., Russia).

But let’s assume I’m wrong. Let’s assume the central idea of the neocon foreign policy – democracy promotion – is not inherently flawed. And after all, for as much bashing as they’ve received from the Left, there is a great deal of romantic idealism in the neocons' foreign policy vision. In fact, I often wonder why these people are in the same party with traditional conservatives like George Will who believe (perhaps correctly) that man is bad and cannot be changed or made better by abstract ideas or government intervention. I mean, when you stop and think about it, the neocons are the intellectual heirs of the French Revolution, a decidedly un-conservative event. The central intellectual premise of their foreign policy suggests that they should favor more government intervention in the domestic arena. (I didn’t read Brooks’s NYT Magazine manifesto yet – perhaps I should).

For those who are willing to give democracy promotion a chance (and I suspect that more people on the Left would be if the neocons hadn’t been so obnoxious about Iraq), the question isn’t so much the correctness of the goal, but the means by which that goal should be implemented. In other words, the devil is in the details. The concept “democracy promotion” seems OK on the surface, but it’s so abstract that it’s hard to say what it actually means.

I guess what I’m saying is that any debate over “democracy promotion” in the abstract is both meaningless and pointless. The wisdom of any democracy promotion policy must be debated within the context of some concrete background. Arguing about the wisdom of democracy promotion in the abstract is a debate about nothing. Instead, we should argue whether democracy promotion – in the form of “Specific Policy X” – will work in this or that specific country or region and why.

And if the policy-in-question doesn’t work in one region, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon the whole idea of democracy promotion. But it does mean that we shouldn’t try to force it where it has no chance of being successful. In fact, I think the neocons’ greatest error was not their idea of democracy promotion, but their desperation to ignore concrete reality and engage in an excessively abstract debate in order to implement their grand idea – which they just knew would work.

Take Iraq, or even Afghanistan for that matter. Even if democracy promotion is a proper goal, it was clearly improper to test the theory in these two countries. More precisely, it was foolish to try to promote democracy in the specific way we did – by imposing new, secular, Western democracies through military force in places where democracy had little chance of taking root.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Arabs or Muslims aren’t capable of self-governance (though I wonder sometimes if we are). What I am saying is that the foundation of successful democracies depends upon certain pre-existing conditions being met. For example, democracies won’t do well in nations where the hostility among rival ethnic groups is so strong that they are unwilling to submit to the results of the ballot box. Even in pluralistic America, we forget that our own unique, contingent democracy was only established after one rival ethnic group was exterminated and another enslaved. I think the neocons also forget that Iraq, like many of the nations in the Middle East and Africa, isn’t an organic country. It was drawn up on a table in 1919 by Europeans. Accordingly, it included three ethnic groups that have no business being in the same country. They hate each other, they have slaughtered each other, and they will never submit to the rule of the other. I mean, do you think the Kurds are going to submit to a majority decision made in Baghdad over Kirkuk? In my opinion, real democracy promotion would require completely redrawing the map of the Middle East that was created in Paris after World War I (or at least in those countries that aren’t ethnically homogenous). But regardless, Iraq was a horrible choice for the democracy promotion experiment. Horrible.

As for Afghanistan, it's an even worse choice. I don’t think that it’s racist to say the millennia-long tribal culture of Afghanistan is simply inhospitable to a Western-style, liberal democracy. Anonymous makes this point over and over again in Imperial Hubris – Afghanistan is very fundamentalist, and has been for a very long time. And in the end, hard-line Islamic fundamentalists will rule in Kabul. The Russians learned it. We will learn it. And Bush’s fantasy-land speeches won't change it.

However, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t necessarily mean that we should abandon democracy promotion as a goal – though that may be the result. But it does mean that we shouldn't have reduced the arguments relating to the invasion and occupation into a simplified, abstract debate over whether to support democracy promotion itself.

So, I'm honestly not sure where I stand. I'm skeptical of the neocon vision, largely because of Iraq. After all, idealism seems a bit obscene next to the concrete reality of 1,032 dead soldiers. But I would be willing to reconsider it if we could get the debate out of the clouds.

[Update: Haloscan is a bit screwy today. It's not registering that there are any comments - and it (or Blogger) erased some of the edits I made to this post last night (so I added some of them back). But there are some very good comments below, and I'd encourage people to check them out (especially the Fukuyama quote provided by Eric Martin).

Tuesday, September 21, 2004



As I noted yesterday, the Bush team will attack Kerry's opposition to the invasion by pointing out past statements where Kerry supported the invasion. Just look at the following bit from the NYT today:

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, seemed gleeful at the engagement, saying, "The guy seems to have this belief that every time he speaks it's a blank sheet, and he doesn't have to worry about contradictory things he's said in recent days, weeks and months."

And I'm sure this will come up in the debate. If it does (and it surely will), here's how Kerry should respond:

BUSH: Senator Kerry now says the world would be safer with Saddam in power. There he goes again twisting in the wind. For example, Senator Kerry said just the opposite in 2003. He said, "I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein." Freedom. . . madman . . . strong, steady . . . etc.

KERRY: Yes, Mr. President, I did say that. And the reason I said it was because I thought you could be trusted. You cannot. I believed you when you said Saddam had WMDs. You were wrong. I believed you when you said Saddam had links to al Qaeda. You were wrong. I believed you when you said we would be welcomed. You were wrong. And I believed you when you said Ahmed Chalabi could run a new, democratic Iraq. You were wrong. A lot of people supported your policies until they realized you cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Iraq. And for that reason, this country needs new leadership and a new direction. You had your chance to lead in Iraq. You have not led. I will.

Then I get up and dance around in front of the TV, quoting Smoky from the movie Friday - "You just got knocked da f*** out.!"

FIXING GERRYMANDERING - Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Seek Reform 


Kevin Drum asks whether Congress has the power to remedy gerrymandering. The answer is a pretty clear "yes," at least with respect to congressional races. Article I, Section 4 states:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

And I agree with Kevin that any gerrymandering reform must be a national effort, given the quite large collective action problem. So yes, Congress can do it. But the reality is that Congress will never do it, at least until the two-party system collapses (and it's held up pretty well for a long time).

I wrote about this problem in one of my earliest posts back in January where I argued that the courts are the only possible hope we have for fixing gerrymandering. I provide a more complete argument there, along with some statistics for those who are interested.

To briefly recap that post, the problem with gerrymandering is that it has become a "political process" problem. In other words, it is a defect that cannot be remedied because the defect has become entwined with deeper, more fundamental flaws in the structure of the political process.

The most classic example of a political process problem was the disenfranchisement and discrimination against blacks in the pre-civil rights era South. This problem could not be remedied by the southern legislatures (are you listening Judge Bork?) because the people affected couldn't even vote in the first place. The process - and thus the text produced by the process - was inherently flawed. It took some long-overdue action by Congress and the Supreme Court to step in and fix the flaw. Incidentally, this is the same reason why the Israeli government does nothing to remedy the plight of the Palestinians - the latter can't vote and so there are no rational incentives to help them.

Another example of a flaw that cannot be fixed is the malapportionment of the Senate, and the incorporation of this malapportionment into the Electoral College. As I've noted before, if the Electoral College calculations were made without including the two Senate points, Gore would have won. For those who want to learn more on this flaw in the process, you should read another early post of mine here. I explained:

Let's look at the data another way - Texas, NY, and California have 74 million people and six Senators. The following states have about 35 million people collectively (less than half the amount of the former three): Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New Mexico. These predominantly rural states also have 38 Senators. THIRTY EIGHT. The implications are obvious for any issue that pits urban and rural interests against each other in the Senate.

You might respond that the Framers knew this would happen and that Senate malapportionment was part of the deal. And perhaps you're right. But, at the time of the Framing (1790), Virginia was the largest state with roughly 750,000 people. Delaware was the smallest with around 60,000 people. So, the biggest state was about 12 times larger than the smallest state. Today - California is the largest state (34 million) and Wyoming is the smallest (500,000). So, California is 68 TIMES more populated than Wyoming.

This is ridiculous by almost anyone's definition of democracy. But it will never be changed. To get rid of the Senate would require a new Constitution altogether since the current one explicitly forbids removing equal representation without a state's consent. But even a more modest goal - removing the two Senate "points" from the Electoral College calculations - would require a constitutional amendment and thus support from 3/4 of the states. You can see where I'm going. The states that benefit from this malapportionment will always have veto power over any amendment because more than 25% of the total number of states benefit from the malapportionment. Thus, because of these structural flaws in our political process, the Electoral College will never be made more democratic.

And that brings us back to gerrymandering. The problem is that fixing gerrymandering would require supermajority (actually, majority) support from a legislative body whose members are themselves elected from gerrymandered districts. If anything can unite the House in this polarized age, it is support for the structure of the political process that puts - and keeps - the Representatives in office.

Admittedly, this is not as intractable of a political process problem as, say, black disenfranchisement or the Electoral College, but there are many structural obstacles to reform. First, in a two-party system, one party will always be in the majority. Do you really think that the majority would risk its status for the sake of a more pure democracy (especially in light of how fond both parties are of each other these days)? Hell, even a good share of the minority party legislators depend upon gerrymandering too (see, e.g., the California delegation). Second, you must remember that this is an age of centralized national parties where both individual Representatives and state legislators depend upon the national party leadership for funds, campaign advice, and high-level visitors. I doubt that we can find that many Republicans willing to incur the wrath of DeLay to pass reform that will make them have to work harder to win their seat. And the state parties - where there is some hope, I suppose - are often subservient to the national parties. Third, I doubt that the gerrymandered districts themselves will ever punish their Representatives for opposing reform out of fear of losing the district to the "other" party. Remember too that gerrymandering can frustrate the will of the centrist majority by varying the levels of partisans in each district. And even if a gerrymandering referendum proceeded on a state level (rather than as an issue in a single race), there is the collective action problem that Kevin discussed.

The only path to legislative reform that I can envision would require a massive mobilization of single-issue voters across the nation. And because I suspect the overwhelming majority of Americans don't know what "gerrymandering" means, I'm skeptical that it will ever happen.

That's why I favor judicial activism in this one area (and I'm generally very skeptical of an active judiciary, much like the old Progressives were). Courts should take a greater role (ex ante - no Bush v. Gore please) in fixing flaws in the political process (e.g., restoring voting rights to ex-offenders who can't vote).

But I doubt that's going to happen. The Court has come to the very edge of saying that gerrymandering is a "political question" that should be left to the legislature, which of course is the whole problem in the first place - the legislature can't or won't fix it. And so, gerrymandering will continue for the same reason that rural areas will continue to be grossly overrepresented in Congress and continue to have disproportionate influence over the White House. And that reason is that our much-revered democracy has some pretty severe structural flaws.

By the way, with respect to the presidential race, it's easy to forget how much that the structural cards are stacked against Democrats and urban interests more generally in any national election these days. It's not just that Kerry ain't an ideal candidate. He's fighting within a system that is structured in a way that hurts his chances - namely, by giving less people more voting power than they should otherwise have (which is a different question than the standard math model question of which states' voters have more influence in the Electoral College).

[Update: This is another example of how the existence of two centralized political parties hurts our democracy and contradicts the design of the Framers. As I've explained before, the Senate and the House were intended to have a natural friction - and they still do, to some extent. But the political parties reduce that friction, and often for the worse. For example, if the Senate weren't artificially connected to the House through shared political parties, it could push for gerrymandering reform fairly vigorously. But it won't do that. That's because Frist - and many others - gets his marching orders, or at least coordinates them, with the House leadership and the White House. That's why Bush has never vetoed a bill. But even if the Democrats controlled the Senate, I'm not sure that any gerrymandering reform bill would ever reach the floor. There would be too many Democrats in the House whose political existence depended upon the gerrymandered districts.

I suppose reform is possible, but I honestly don't see how the reform could ever get passed as long as the districts are shaped the way they are - which of course is the problem that needs to be reformed.]

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