Saturday, April 30, 2005



I promised a more lengthy response to Billmon’s post on Strauss and the neocons (and Digby has added thoughts too - hat tip Eric), so here she is.

First, I’ve always been skeptical of the alleged influence that Strauss has exerted on the modern American Right. Yes, Strauss is anti-Enlightenment. And yes, parts of the American Right are anti-Enlightenment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Strauss is responsible for the anti-Enlightenment streak of the modern Right. Correlation is not causation.

But even assuming that Strauss has been a major influence upon the neocons and the American Right, the Iraq invasion seems completely at odds with Straussian teaching. It’s not a policy that a committed group of Straussians would favor. I’m eventually going to provide support for that argument, but first, we’ll need to take an extended detour into the history of Western political thought.

I suspect that many eyes start glazing over when I (or Billmon or whoever) start tossing out terms like “illiberal” or “anti-Enlightenment” or “anti-modern.” It’s important to know the precise connotation of these terms in order to understand Billmon’s argument about Strauss. Fortunately, the big picture is pretty simple. The reality is obviously more complex, but understanding the big picture is all you need to know to understand what people are really trying to express when they throw these terms around.

To be grossly general, the last six hundred years or so of Western history has been a battle between three great forces. Let’s call them Traditionalism, Liberalism, and Leftism. Traditionalism is a political system with God (or a god/s) at the center of its universe. Liberalism puts the individual at the center, while Leftism puts the collective mass at the center.

Traditionalism is, to quote Billmon, the world of “hierarchy, tradition and religious orthodoxy.” Some good examples of Traditionalist systems are the old Catholic Church and the feudal system it helped maintain. A more modern example would be the Taliban. In this system, God – as opposed to a Constitution or democratic legitimacy – is the basis of the government. (Or to be more precise, the ruling elite’s interpretation of God).

Traditionalism’s most eloquent defender was Edmund Burke who wrote in response to the French Revolution and the fears that its fires could spread across the Channel. A strong believer in tradition, stability, hierarchy, and religion, Burke feared sudden change. Social change should happen slowly. He was also very skeptical of Enlightenment principles and human reason in general. So when I use terms like “Burke conservatives,” I’m generally referring to Traditionalism. Strauss also fits within this Traditionalist/Burke camp.

The second great system, Liberalism, arose as a reaction – and an adversary – of Traditionalism (and not only in Europe, but everywhere else that “traditionalists” ruled). It’s easy to get confused about the word “liberal” because of the way it used today to mean “consumer of spicy tuna rolls and lattes.” But I’m talking about classical Liberalism. Liberalism in this sense doesn’t have a precise translation in modern political lingo, but “libertarian” would probably be closest (notice that both begin with the same Latin root, liber). Liberalism was about respecting and protecting the rights and civil liberties of the individual. It was also the source of many of the rights and principles that we take for granted today – including the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of contract, and racial and gender equality.

To be blunt, Liberalism replaced God with human reason. Based as it was on Enlightenment notions of legitimacy, reason, inalienable rights, and consent, the individual human was now placed at the center of the political universe. That’s why it was so radical at the time. It held that a government not based on consent – like the old feudal and religious regimes – was illegitimate. Liberalism also rejected laws and policies that intruded upon an individual’s sphere of freedom (e.g., forced prayer, forced religion) or failed to recognize the dignity and equality of one’s fellow human (e.g., race/gender discrimination). For years and years, the great battle was between Enlightenment liberals like Voltaire and Locke and Traditionalist religious/feudal regimes.

The third great system is Leftism. I won’t say a lot about it because it’s never truly existed in America like it has in Europe, China, and Latin America. Leftism (communism, pure socialism, etc.) rejects Traditionalism as superstitious and economically repressive, but it also rejects Liberalism as amoral. Remember that Liberalism leaves most everything up to the individual and majority voting. Other than protecting the boundaries of individual freedom (speech, religion, etc.), it is decidedly agnostic on what “the good” is. “The good” is generally what free consenting adults decide it is. If that’s working children 12 hours a day, so be it. Leftism “fixes” this by putting the good of the collective population (as opposed to individual rights) at the center of the political universe. There are eerie overlaps between Leftism and Traditionalism in that both try to impose a top-down morality upon the population by force of law.

So those are the three great systems. They are all antagonistic and have all “battled” each other (politically and militarily) at different points in history. In Russia, for instance, Traditionalist czars fought the Leftist Bolsheviks. In modern Europe, the Liberals competed with the Leftist Socialists. In America, the battle has generally been contained to two rival notions of Liberalism – the classic laissez-faire liberals and the “new” liberals like Roosevelt and Clinton. (For more, see my post here which argues that modern liberalism should be understood as an outgrowth and improvement of Liberalism and not Leftism, which has never had any real influence in America.). In the Middle East, the Liberals are fighting the Traditionalists.

One last point to keep in mind is the divide between “modern” and “pre-modern,” or to say it another way, “Enlightenment” or “anti-Enlightenment.” Liberalism and Leftism are both products of the Enlightenment. Both are thus “modern.” Traditionalists reject modernity and reject Enlightenment values. The old Catholic Church and al Qaeda are both “pre-modern” in the sense they reject much of the Enlightenment (religious tolerance, equality of women, etc.). [Some people think al Qaeda is post-modern, but I disagree. Postmodernity is just a variation of modernity. Al Qaeda rejects modernity and is thus pre-modern or anti-modern.]

Unfortunately, the Dobson Right is becoming more and more pre-modern, and more and more anti-Enlightenment. On many issues, they reject the notion of individual liberty and libertarianism and seek instead to legislate their own religious beliefs on everything from abortion to forced school prayer to creationism. In this respect, they are more like the old Traditionalists that the old original Liberals – Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson – did battle with. This is what Billmon means when he says:

What strikes me most about the Straussians – and by extension, the neocons – is that they’ve pushed the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy of American politics back about 150 years, and moved it roughly 4,000 miles to the east, to the far side of the Rhine River. Their grand existential struggle isn’t with the likes of Teddy Kennedy or even Franklin D. Roosevelt, it’s with the liberalism of Voltaire, John Locke and John Stuart Mill – not to mention the author of the Declaration of the Independence.

Throughout American history, the most illiberal section of the country has been, unfortunately, the American South and fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. It has embraced racial discrimination and has been the most Traditionalist in terms of favoring the imposition of religion-by-government-decree. It also been the most hostile to science. Because the GOP is becoming increasingly Southern-centric, Billmon and others are certainly correct that the GOP is becoming increasingly pre-modern and anti-Enlightenment.

But that said, it just doesn’t follow that Strauss has been the source of all this. Perhaps this my own bias, but I tend to favor material explanations to ideological ones. What I mean is that the increasing hostility to the Enlightenment is the result of various material socioeconomic forces (globalization, economic dislocation, new scary technology, immigration, etc.) and not the result of written words and ideas. If Strauss had never been born, the GOP would be trending just as anti-modern.

But getting back to Iraq, you often hear that Iraq was the result of the Straussian conspiracy. But now that you have the three great systems in mind, you can understand why Iraq was not rooted in Straussian Traditionalism, but in extreme Liberalism. This week’s rationale for invading Iraq was to destroy a rigid traditional hierarchy and replace with a Western-style democracy that recognized religious freedom and gender equality. What’s more, building democracy in Iraq would cause democracy – and thus, Enlightenment philosophy – to spread across the Traditionalist Middle East. As a Traditionalist, Strauss would have been aghast at the hubris of trying to replace years of tradition with a radical new secular government in the name of an abstract Enlightenment idea (freedom/democracy), just as Edmund Burke was aghast when he looked across the Channel and saw the rabble chopping off the heads of monarchs in the name of abstract liberty. I’ve said it before, but it’s an essential point – the Iraq War is the 21st century’s French Revolution.

One objection to all this is that I’m taking the neocons’ democracy-promotion rationale at face-value, and that I’m fooling myself in thinking that this was the real reason for the war. Let me be clear - I agree with Kevin Drum that democracy-promotion was not the reason we went to war, though I do think it was a prime motivation for true believers like Wolfowitz. So let’s assume that the war was not about democracy promotion, but was about something else. My point is that even if it is about “something else,” that doesn’t make it “Straussian.”

First, let’s assume the war was really about securing oil and establishing a vital military outpost in the volatile Middle East – which is the rationale that I predict future historians will adopt. There’s nothing Traditionalist about that – it’s just the old human flaw of imperialism and taking what does not belong to you. Modern and pre-modern regimes have all exercised their might to secure wealth and natural resources. That doesn’t make it ok, but it doesn’t make it Straussian either.

Second, let’s look at the lying and fear-mongering about WMDs. Again, there’s not necessarily anything Traditionalist about this. It’s merely a marketing device that Traditionalist regimes often use. For instance, religion often attracts followers by creating a fear (hell) and providing people a product to avoid it (religion, opposing gay marriage, etc.). Similar, the Bush administration attracted followers by creating a fear (mushroom clouds) and offering a product to avoid it (war). This isn’t Traditionalist, it’s just playing on humans’ emotional weaknesses, just like the Head & Shoulders’ commercials do.

The last thing is that the bogus WMD rationale seems a lot like the “noble lie” that I am told is a part of Straussianism. But is that enough? The administration lies, I agree. And Strauss advocated the noble lie. But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the administration lied about WMDs because of the Straussian influence. Tony Blair lied too – is he Straussian? Clinton lied about his blow job to remain in office – was that Straussian? I guess I just don’t think that the fact that leaders lie is necessarily a sign of Straussian influence.

But I haven’t read the book, so I could very easily be missing some things. If so, please let me know in the comments.



Coturnix, a long-time friend of this blog, would like to invite everyone (especially the more science-oriented) to the Tangled Bank. Majikthise recommended this blog too so I'll just repeat what she said:

The Tangled Bank is a blog carnival that collects, once every two weeks, best blog posts about science, nature, medicine, environment and the interface between science and society. The First Anniversary Edition has just been posted, but digging through the archives is great fun, too, as well as a good way to find some wonderful blogs.

Thursday, April 28, 2005



Rare is the day when I take issue with a Billmon post, but I’m not sure I completely buy his argument in this post. I don’t have time tonight to explain, but I will definitely return to it this weekend. In the meantime, everyone should check it out because it is – as always – well worth the read.

His basic argument is that Straussian ideas (Strauss is the alleged intellectual father of many modern neocons) are hostile to Enlightenment rationalism and modernity. He adds that Strauss and his hostility to modernity have trickled down to the modern GOP. Now, it’s certainly true that the Dobson wing of the GOP is hostile to the Enlightenment (though I doubt they’ve read Strauss). But I’m not sure it’s true of the Kristols and Brooks of the world. To me, the grand vision of promoting democracy in Iraq through military force was Enlightenment rationalism gone wild. The intellectual ancestors of the architects of the Iraq invasion were not the Edmund Burkes of the world, but the French Revolutionaries who acted in the name of abstract modern ideas (liberty, freedom, etc.).

Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy tonight to spell all this out. But I will. So if what I just said makes no sense, don’t worry – I’ll explain it this weekend. But until then, check out Billmon’s post.



AP (via Julie):

The House passed a bill Wednesday that would make it illegal to dodge parental-consent laws by taking minors across state lines for abortions. . . .

H.R. 748 - The Child Interstate Notification Act

[W]hoever knowingly transports a minor across a State line, with the intent that such minor obtain an abortion, and thereby in fact abridges the right of a parent under a law requiring parental involvement in a minor's abortion decision, in force in the State where the minor resides, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

. . .

A physician who knowingly performs or induces an abortion on a minor in violation of the requirements of this section shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

New York Times, May 1, 2006:


Jane Doe, a nineteen-year old sophomore from Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Bill Smith, a respected Nashville physician, were sentenced to 365 days in prison today, becoming the first people convicted under the recently-enacted Child Interstate Notification Act.

Doe, a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, drove her seventeen-year old sister to an abortion clinic in Nashville at the younger sister's request. “She was so scared and desperate,” Jane testified, “We had to pretend she was visiting me. We didn’t have any other choice. Every doctor in town knows our family, and our family just wouldn’t understand.” Her younger sister sobbed as the sentence was read by the judge and she begged the court officials to let her switch places with Jane. “It’s not fair,” she sobbed, “I asked her to do this. Take me instead.”

At trial, the defense attorneys pointed out that the father had, on occasion, physically abused his daughters when he lost his temper and had repeatedly warned them about becoming pregnant. “I was just so scared for her,” Jane testified with a wavering voice, “I wanted her to go to college like I did.” Jane added that her father would never have paid for her sister’s education if he discovered that she was pregnant. “I didn’t want to break the law, I just wanted to help my little sister.”

Dr. Smith was less contrite. “I did it, and I’d do it again,” he noted calmly as he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. “This is the United States, not Saudi Arabia. And I don’t think it’s right for the state to force themselves into people’s private lives in the name of one group of people’s religious views. The government is sending me to jail for serving the needs of my patient.”

The case had become a national controversy and the courthouse drew crowds of supporters and protestors of the new law. Vanderbilt students drove up Interstate 65 to protest. “I just can’t believe this happened in America,” explained one student, “where does it stop? First, gays. Then, Schiavo. Now, young women. What's next? Where does it stop?”

Others disagreed. “This is about protecting the sanctity of life,” explained Sally Jones, a supporter of the law. “Those who assist with murder deserve prison. I don’t care if it’s your sister, your patient, or your best friend. It is murder in the eyes of God.”

Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring:


I know what it was that you saw. For it is also in my mind. It is what will come to pass if you should fail.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005



The Guardian is reporting that Tony Blair may be in trouble. I'm really really torn about the UK election. I like Tony Blair, and pre-Iraq, I held him in the same esteem I held Clinton. Both were responsible for rearming Western progressivism for the 21st century. I have always found their "Third Way" quite compelling.

But Iraq is an awfully big "but." Although I still think our invasion lacked legitimacy by any definition of legitimacy one cares to adopt, Blair's support was crucial. (But I should add that I hope for the best now that we're there). Without that veneer of international legitimacy, it really would have been us alone - and that might have been enough to stop the war, or at least boot Bush out when it became clear how horribly planned it was.

But the election is over. We lost. As much as part of me would enjoy booting Blair for spite, I think that, because we have Bush until 2008, the world would be better off with Blair as a leader and as at least a potential influence on our foreign policy. But I won't shed any tears if Labour loses.



Josh Marshall had a very perceptive post today about why Reid’s compromise offer on the “teddy bears and gumdrops” option is actually very shrewd. At first glance, it seems ridiculous. Just when the Democrats seemed to have Frist on the ropes, Reid is considering allowing a few of the judges through in exchange for Frist's disavowal of what has become known as the “lollipop and gingerbread” option. But as Marshall noted, there are a lot of moving parts here. And it’s a great example of how game theory works.

You have to understand that what’s really at stake is the Supreme Court nomination and the yet-to-be-nominated lower court judges. The ultimate issue is whether Democrats will retain an effective veto over judicial nominations from this point forward. The individual judges in question (Owen, Pryor, etc.) are just pawns in this larger battle. Thus, if Reid can sacrifice a few of them for a guarantee that Republicans won’t go gingerbread, he wins.

So with that in mind, let’s look at the game theory dimensions of all this. Remember that in a conflict (or “game”) with multiple parties, each party tries to maximize their gain (or profit or “utility”) by adopting an optimal strategy. Put another way, people try to win. And to win, you need a winning strategy. Game theory is about determining what the best (or “optimal”) winning strategy is. What’s interesting about game theory is that a given optimal strategy depends upon what the other person does. For instance, let’s say you’re playing poker and you have a crappy hand (which is worse than the other person’s). If you knew nothing else, the optimal strategy would be to fold. But, if you knew that the other player was going to fold no matter what, your optimal strategy would be to stay in. The point is that one’s optimal strategy varies depending on the actions of her opponent.

Let’s apply all of this to Frist and Reid.

In light of the public opinion polls, it appears as though Reid is close to his best-case scenario – preserving the filibuster and blocking all judges. Offering to compromise on a few of them seems suboptimal if he has the power to block them all and keep the filibuster. But here’s why the compromise offer actually is an optimal strategy, in my opinion. Reid knows that Frist won’t – and can’t – take the offer. An unnecessary compromise is worse than not compromising. But offering to compromise when you know the other side can’t accept the compromise is the best of all possible worlds.

Remember that the ultimate outcome is going to be decided by public opinion (as influenced by the media’s perception and reporting). Because he knows that Frist can’t budge an inch with Dobson and Perkins breathing down his neck, Reid can float up a compromise that actually gives away nothing in light of what he knows about Frist’s behavior. This will make Reid look cooperative and will appease the Broder-Russert Chorus of Conventional Wisdom who crave nothing more than fuzzy displays of bipartisanship and cooperation.

Reid also has an advantage in that he has more room to maneuver. It really doesn’t matter if a few of these particular judges go through. For him, a guarantee that the gingerbread option is off the table is a big victory in the real battle, which is veto power over Supreme Court and future lower court nominations.

Frist lacks this flexibility. In yet another example of why Senators make bad presidential candidates, Frist has put himself in an impossible situation. His presidential aspirations are conflicting with his current job of helping the party as Senate Majority Leader. If he compromises in the slightest on anything, he faces the wrath of Dobson and loses the nomination. He’s backed himself into a corner where he can’t lose a single judge and certainly can’t abandon the gingerbread option.

But this inflexibility harms the party in the court of public opinion. If he refuses to compromise, the GOP could lose - and the loss would look worse in light of Reid's compromise offer. Or, it could win and risk a Schiavo-like backlash that Democrats could exploit because, hey, they offered a compromise. Democrats – and presumably the Broder-Russert Chorus – could plausibly argue that religious extremists have seized control once again to break the rules even though a compromise was offered. (When it’s all said and done, I think Schiavo will be seen as the proximate cause for defeat on the nuclear option.).

All in all, it’s a clever ploy, and I’m growing to admire Reid more and more as time goes on.

Of course, the one critical assumption I’m making (well, two really) is that the press coverage will turn against Frist when Reid offers his compromise, and that public opinion will therefore follow. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of the way the WP poll was worded. Yes, if people realize that the GOP is breaking (or changing) the rules, public support will plummet. But this requires people to understand that the GOP is changing the rules. I’m not sure they do. If they think the Democrats are violating the Constitution, they will support Frist.

That’s why it’s absolutely critical for both sides to frame this issue favorably. The more people see it as breaking the rules to appease the Ayatollah Dobson, the less they will like it. The less people see it this way, the more they will support it.

That’s why press coverage and pundit commentary will be so vital to the outcome of this legislative battle. By offering his compromise, I think Reid will get more favorable coverage and turn the tide his way. Score it Desert Fox 1, Dr. Frist 0.

And on a final unrelated note, this was the best line of Marshall's post. I am very jealous that I didn't write it:

If you think ending the filibuster is the 'nuclear option', just watch what happens when Bill Frist rings up James Dobson and says, "Sorry about the judge thing. The Democrats won't let us."

At that point you can start with the horizontal mushroom clouds coming out of Dobson's ears and it's pretty much a chain reaction through the rest of Wingnut Nation from there on.

Monday, April 25, 2005



As I noted earlier today, Justice Sunday was generally tame. They knew that the eyes of the nation were on them tonight, so we didn’t get many outlandish statements. But still, I actually enjoyed it – it was educational in an anthropological sense to see the “unfiltered” speeches. I don’t have any one overarching point to make, but just a list of thoughts and observations.

Filibusters and Procedure

Interestingly, there was a heavy emphasis tonight on constitutional and legislative procedure. You heard over and over that the Senate was neglecting its constitutional duty to “advise and consent.” Each speaker demanded an up-or-down vote as the Constitution requires. Frist himself didn’t even mention religion – it was strictly about process and the nominees’ right to an up-or-down vote. To an average listener, this doesn’t sound unreasonable at all. The Constitution says the Senate shall “advise and consent,” and it doesn’t appear to being doing so by denying an up-or-down vote on the nominees.

Though it seems reasonable, this constitutional argument won’t work. The Constitution does say “advise and consent,” but it never defines “consent.” What is or isn’t “consent” is determined by internal Senate rules. In other words, the Senate gets to decide how it approves of everything from legislation to treaties to nominees.

If you’ll remember, the GOP once pushed for supermajority approval to raise taxes. Even if that’s unwise policy, it is perfectly constitutional. The Senate gets to make its own rules. Currently, the Senate rules (agreed upon ex ante by a supermajority) contemplate filibusters, and the Senate therefore does not “consent” as a body if a filibuster is successful. It’s part of the rules and it’s perfectly constitutional. The Justice Sunday speakers were wrong to equate “consent” with an up-or-down vote – an up-or-down majority is merely one of many possible ways to consent

With the constitutional question aside, the real question is whether the filibuster of judicial nominees makes sense as a matter of policy. The Senate can constitutionally filibuster, but should it? That’s an interesting question and people can disagree in good faith. I’m generally anti-filibuster, but I think Mickey Kaus has finally convinced me that filibusters should be allowed in the judicial context (but only in the judicial context).

But regardless of what you think about filibustering judicial nominees, there’s also the important and completely separate question of how you go about ending it. That’s the part of the debate that is getting overlooked. People need to understand that the nuclear option is a flagrant violation of Senate rules (as people like Yglesias have noted). Even if you support ending the filibuster, that's not enough to justify the nuclear option. To justify going nuclear, you must also support breaking Senate rules. These are two wholly distinct issues, and I’d welcome a justification from a pro-nuclear conservative.

As I said, the Senate rules recognize and regulate the filibuster. Changing a Senate rule requires two-thirds approval. What Senate Republicans plan to do (good explanatory link here) is bypass these rules by asking for a point of order that debate has gone on too long. Darth Cheney would sustain it and a Democrat would then appeal. A Republican would then move to table the appeal, and that motion would be subject to a majority vote. In other words, the Republicans are using procedural jujitsu to change a Senate rule without obtaining 2/3 support. Or put another way, they’re breaking the rules – just like they consistently do when the rules don’t produce the result they want. Ironically enough, they are doing precisely what pro-Bork conservatives always whine and wail about – they are imposing their own preferences without going through the proper amendment process.

What’s dangerous about this procedure is that it could in theory be used to change any and all Senate rules by a majority vote. That’s why it was aptly named “nuclear” – it really could destroy all Senate tradition and transform it into the House.


As expected, there were several references to abortion tonight. Dobson said that Roe has killed something like 44 million Americans and created the biggest Holocaust of world history. Like most Americans, and many Jews I suspect, I disagree rather strongly. I simply don’t believe that non-viable fetuses (much less microscopic embryos) are “alive” in a legal, moral, or biological sense.

But for sake of discussion, let’s say Dobson is right. Let’s say that every microscopic embryo has a divine soul and that it should be considered “alive.” From that perspective, abortion is murder. In fact, it must be murder according to Dobson.

So if that’s right, here’s my question. Doesn’t the pro-life position necessarily imply (as a matter of logic) a pro-criminalization position? If you really think that embryos and fetuses are alive, then abortion doctors are murderers who should be imprisoned and possibly executed, right? Similarly, women (even 14-year old girls) who have abortions are at least conspirators to murder if not murderers themselves, right? And if you really take this view to its logical end, then every stem-cell researcher who splices an embryo is guilty of murder, right? And if not, why not? How can you believe that abortion is murder and not support criminal penalties (or even capital punishment) for those who participate in abortion or stem cell research.

That’s what scares me most about overturning Roe. In some states, we would literally be throwing doctors and young women in jail. Call me a crazy secular Lefty, but I don’t believe that the government should use the threat of criminal sanctions to force birth on 18-year old girls.

Checks and Balances

One of the most striking arguments I heard tonight was that the filibuster threatened the Framers’ system of checks and balances. It’s interesting because it is the Justice Sunday crowd that is threatening checks and balances by attempting to eliminate (or drastically reduce) the independence of the judiciary. For instance, the Schiavo affair was simply an attempt to bend the judiciary to the legislative will at that frenzied moment-in-time. Dobson and Perkins have also both spoken about defunding and impeaching judges. Tom DeLay and Cornyn have even hinted at extrajudicial pressure to get them to change their minds.

But assuming these people aren’t just creating mock outrages to get money, they seem to sincerely believe that the Republican-dominated judiciary is “out of control” and unchecked. It’s fascinating from a psychological perspective. And it meshes nicely with the persecution complex that is a fundamental characteristic of fundamentalism.

When I wrote my post on the Outrage Industry, one of the commenters suggested calling it the Persecution Industry. I’ll stick with my phrase, but the commenter was correct too. The Justice Sunday leaders require outrages and persecutions to feed their movement. And you could see that tonight. Even though their language was toned down, the big theme was persecution. The Christian faith is under attack. Pryor and Pickering were discriminated against because of their religious faith, and you could be next (Mohler said “you and yours” could be next). Babies are being killed. Pornography is everywhere. Marriage is being undermined. Even the title of the event referred to the “filibuster against faith.” Everywhere, oh everywhere, the secular Left is attacking us. Even though Republicans control all branches of government, people of faith are being persecuted. And the persecution is so great that it requires breaking the Senate rules.

And as the outrage builds and builds, the Justice Sunday leaders (in Head & Shoulders fashion) offer a product to relieve the outrage – ending the filibuster. Or that’s what it is today. Yesterday it was intervention with Schiavo. Tomorrow it will be the Pledge of Allegiance. The next day, gays. The only constant is the outrage.

[UPDATE: David Schraub has more thoughts here.]

Sunday, April 24, 2005



I'm all signed up for the Justice Sunday webcast from 7 to 8:30. I'll post on it when it finishes (and it's possible I might do some "live-bloggin'" as updates to this post if I see anything really good). Given that this has become so high-profile, I suspect the speakers have been warned to tone things down. We'll see.

The things I do for you people.

[UPDATE: Dobson - With Roe, Supreme Court created the "biggest Holocaust of world history."

Mohler - The Court found a "constitutional right to sodomy."

Frist - Just finished - interesting, not a peep about religion or faith. It was all about how an up-or-down vote is required and how the filibuster of judges was unprecedented.

Ok - the first hour is over, and the first hour included all the big speakers so I'm going to sign off. All in all, it was a fairly tame event. It was actually interesting from an anthropological point of view. I'll post my thoughts later tonight.]



At long last, an update to the sidebar. You'll see that I've added Billmon, Majikthise, and Liberals Against Terrorism to the Links list.

I also want to give a long overdue welcome back to Billmon. I really consider Whiskey Bar as the best blog on the Internets, so it's good to have him back.

An another overdue welcome back to Angelica at Battlepanda who has now set up shop with Blogger. Welcome back!

Saturday, April 23, 2005



The following quotes all come from co-hosts of "Justice Sunday," an event in which the Senate Majority Leader of the United States will participate:

President - Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


Like mile-markers in time, certain calendar dates stand in memory as not only historic, but momentous. Dates like December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 represent far more than mere days on a calendar. Now, May 17, 2004 must be added to that list. Why? Because today -- by the unilateral decision of activist judges -- the State of Massachusetts will legalize same-sex marriages. This is a day that will live in moral infamy... The attacks on Pearl Harbor, New York, and Washington awakened the nation to peril and called citizens to action. That must happen once again.

4/22/05 (cached page of Mohler's blog from Google):

The battle is joined. Sen. Salazar is asking Dr. Dobson to repudiate me for "anti-Catholic" statements. Well, I stand by my comments, made a few years ago on "Larry King Live." My statements reflect nothing more than classic evangelical theology.

3/22/00 (Larry King Live):

And as an evangelical, I believe that the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. And indeed, I believe that the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.

. . .

The larger problem I have with the pope -- this pope in particular -- however, is how he has redefined the Christianity and the Gospel. And he has actually embraced all monotheists, both Jews and the followers of Islam, as long as they're sincere within the penumbra of the Gospel, within the canopy of the gospel. And that is just unbiblical, and by the way, not very pleasing to either Jews or to Muslims either.

. . .

COIRO: You know it's a funny thing how Catholics and Jews seem to be friendlier than Catholics and some Protestants, but yes, I'm very hopeful. I'm an optimist.

KING: Are you hopeful, Reverend Mohler or you doubt it?

MOHLER: Well, it all depends on how you define the terms. And let me just say that I join you in hoping people will be nice, but unfortunately, I believe there will be many nice people in Hell.

Bonus Quote - Mary Matalin, Crossfire 6/14/00:

Let me say about the Reverend Mohler, he is considered in the Southern Baptist Convention brilliant, the most brilliant, as I said, to come by in 25 years. He's very articulate, passionate, compassionate advocate for those stands.

Founder/Chairman - Focus on the Family

"Homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage. . . . It will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth."


Newt Gingrich chooses somebody to respond to the president. Who did he choose? Christine Todd Whitman, the absolute antithesis of everything that [our] constituency stands for. She is pro-homosexual activism. She's pro-condom distribution. She's pro-abortion. She's pro-partial-birth abortion. . . . They put a symbol [Whitman] of the immoral, amoral constituency up in front of the people who had just handed leadership to the Republicans.

More Dobson notables:

"State Universities are breeding grounds, quite literally, for sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), homosexual behavior, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, alcoholism, and drug abuse."


"My observation is that women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership."

7/04 Newsletter:

We will discuss the regrettable passage of so-called "hate crimes" legislation by the U.S. Senate in June. Unbelievably 18 Republicans joined 46 Democrats in passing this terrible bill,12 which is designed to stifle religious and political freedom. In this regard, the U.S. is just one step behind Canada, which has actually criminalized disagreement with homosexuality and threatened the religious liberty of the church.


I heard a minister the other day talking about the great injustice and evil of the men in white robes, the Ku Klux Klan, that roamed the country in the South, and they did great wrong to civil rights and to morality. And now we have black-robed men, and that's what you're talking about.

6/02 Newsletter:

Mark even felt condemned for jumping up and down in the shower and for feeling the excitement it created. (That titillation by the sight of his own body is a classic symptom of narcissism, or a "turning inward" to fulfill his unmet gender-identification needs.) He either had to figure out how to control this monster within or, in his understanding, face an eternity in hell. There is no greater internal turmoil for a Christian boy or girl than this. At the top of Mark's letter he wrote, "I may sound very bad. I hope I'm not that bad."

Poor kid! Mark is in desperate need of professional help, but he is unlikely to get it. His parents apparently don't know about his travail, and the pastor he trusts tells him it will pass. It probably won't! Mark appears to have a condition we might call "prehomosexuality," and unless he and his entire family are guided by someone who knows how to assist, the probabilities are very great that he will go on to experience a homosexual lifestyle.

President - Family Research Council


Supporters of V. Gene Robinson, the newly consecrated homosexual Episcopal bishop, claim his elevation sends "a powerful message of love and tolerance." However, it is not "tolerant" to brush off opposition to the consecration of a homosexual bishop. Nor is it "loving" to suppress evidence that homosexual behavior is a "death-style" that is sending young people to an early grave.


The point that Congressman Hostettler (R-IN) is raising is long overdue; it is time someone with the proper authority stood up to the runaway judiciary, which does not have the exclusive authority to enforce its own rulings.

Hostettler's point (same link):

When the courts make unconstitutional decisions, we should not enforce them. Federal courts have no army or navy.... The court can opine, decide, talk about, sing, whatever it wants to do. We're not saying they can't do that. At the end of the day, we're saying the court can't enforce its opinions.

--U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, September 2004, addressing a Christian Coalition gathering


This is the wake-up call for both the American public and our elected officials. If we do not amend the Massachusetts State Constitution so that it explicitly protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and if we do not amend the U.S. Constitution with a federal marriage amendment that will protect marriage on the federal level, we will lose marriage in this nation.

Paula Zahn, 9/24/04:

This thing about separation of church and state is more about trying to separate Christians from government, because they're fearful that an energized and mobilized Christian community is a very significant factor.


Speech in Najaf, 9/28/77:

Of course, in the opinion of many of the educated class, and especially many of the religious scholars, Islam has nothing to do with politics. They believe Islam and politics to be issues separate from one another. This is what the governments would like us to think; this is the idea that the foreigners have instilled in us from the beginning. Many promote the notion that the akhunds should have nothing to do with political matters. When they want to defame an akhund they say: "This is a political akhund!" They say that Islam is separate from politics, that religion is separate from politics, but these people haven't understood Islam.

. . .

But this is not Islam. Islam stands up to the oppressor, it orders the people to do battle with the taghut (oppressor), with the unbelievers who reject divine guidance, and with those who rebel against God. So with all these rules for battle, for jihad and so on, is Islam so far removed from politics?! Does Islam mean nothing other than going to the mosques, praying and reading the Qur'an?! Islam is not only this. Islam has political laws which must be implemented.

[UPDATE: Via Digby, I see that the LA Times got their hands on an audio recording from a private conference on March 17 with Dobson and Perkins. Here are some more choice quotes and excerpts from the article:

"There's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one way to take a black robe off the bench, "said Tony Perkins

. . .

Perkins said that he had attended a meeting with congressional leaders a week earlier where the strategy of stripping funding from certain courts was "prominently" discussed. "What they're thinking of is not only the fact of just making these courts go away and re-creating them the next day but also defunding them," Perkins said.

He said that instead of undertaking the long process of trying to impeach judges, Congress could use its appropriations authority to "just take away the bench, all of his staff, and he's just sitting out there with nothing to do."

. . .

"Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court," Dobson said. "They don't have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn't exist anymore, and it's gone."

. . .

As part of the discussion, Perkins and Dobson referred to remarks by Dobson earlier this year at a congressional dinner in which he singled out the use by one group of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants in a video that Dobson said promoted a homosexual agenda.

Dobson was ridiculed for his comments, which some critics interpreted to mean the evangelist had determined that the cartoon character was gay.

Dobson said the beating he took in the media, coming after his appearance on the cover of newsmagazines hailing his prominence in Bush's reelection, proved that the press will only seek to tear him down.

"This will not be the last thing that you read about that makes me look ridiculous," he said.

You got that right, buddy.

Thursday, April 21, 2005



It's almost time. I really hope that the powers-that-be haven't warned the Ayatollahs to keep things toned down. If not, we could hear some truly classic statements Sunday.

THE FATE OF NATIONALISM - Genetics and Cultural Lag 


Stealing ideas from Praktike, David Ignatius weighed in on the rising wave of nationalism that’s sweeping across the globe everywhere from the good ol’ U.S. of A to France to China. Ignatius recognized the most important point, which is that nationalism is always a reaction to unwelcome change – in this case, to the pressures of globalization:

In some ways, this new nationalism is a kind of geopolitical fundamentalism -- in which people cleave to old identities as a way of coping with the new stresses of globalization.

That’s exactly right. It’s remarkably similar to the rise of religious fundamentalism in that respect. As Karen Armstrong explained in her excellent history of fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, fundamentalism tends to emerge from periods of rapid change and social upheaval. When faced with unwelcome change, people retreat back – Freudian-style – into old identities and modes of thought. In fact, I believe that constitutional originalism is a retreat of sorts from modernity, and shares striking similarities to other “reaction”ary movements like nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Anyway, Praktike and Ignatius raise some interesting points, so I’d encourage you to read them. Today, I want to shift the focus to two other areas – why nationalism is notoriously difficult to overcome, and why it will eventually be overcome. In doing so, I want to rely on genetics and a concept called “cultural lag.”

Before I begin, let me offer my distinction between nationalism (bad) and patriotism (good, or at least less bad). Praktike tried to distinguish the two concepts by offering an excerpt from Orwell, but I’m not sure I entirely buy Orwell’s distinction. I think a better example comes from the way you think about your immediate family. On the one hand, you’re supposed to love your family and fulfill certain duties toward them. But just because you love them and want to help them, that doesn’t mean you should think that your family is the bestest family of all families in the world. Your family can be a bunch of screw-ups, but you can still love and support them.

“Patriotism” is roughly analogous to providing that love and support, while “nationalism” is a belief that your family is superior to all other ones. That’s how I distinguish them.

This notion of “family” actually provides a perfect lead-in to my first point. The great fraud of nationalism (i.e., superiority over all others – which then justifies horrible things) is that it exploits our genetically-wired instincts to support and protect our immediate family. And from a Darwinian perspective, it makes sense why we would have these instincts. Families (and clans) whose members supported and protected each other were more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation. This is called kin selection in biological lingo. One of earliest scientists to recognize it – William Hamilton – argued that altruistic cooperation is proportional to the amount of genes you share with the beneficiary of your altruism. For example, brothers are more likely to scarce food with each other than with a second cousin. And so on. The big point is that loyalty towards one family is deeply embedded within our genetic wiring.

Nationalism exploits these instincts by creating an artificial family on a national scale. On this level, the family is no longer a small gathering of family members or clan-members, but an arbitrary and artificial grouping of millions of people who have no contact or knowledge with each other.

The key move that nationalism must make is to persuade people that they are members of this family and must therefore love and support it. And the only way to do that – as Praktike explained – is by creating an “Other” to define themselves against. The notion that such a thing as “the German people” existed was absurd. The languages, cultures, and traditions were extremely diverse even in that little narrow strip of central Europe. That’s why “the Jew” was absolutely necessary to the Nazis’ myth of the German people – it created an Other, which allowed them to impose an artificially-contrived “family” upon the masses. Given that these appeals rely on deeply embedded genetic instincts, they’re extremely difficult to root out.

[This is also why mass communications are so potentially dangerous – it is now much easier to persuade a larger group of people that they are all “family” and should therefore march off to war.]

But to get all John Lennon on ya for a moment, I would like to think that mankind will eventually transcend nationalism. My hope is that, as people come to see how interdependent all humans have become in the age of globalization, nationalism will be seen for what is – cultural lag.

“Cultural lag” is a very cool concept. It refers to the “lag” time between technological/economical changes and the social and cultural adaptations that are required to accommodate such change. There are many examples that will help you understand. For instance, when railroads emerged, the law was not capable of addressing the sort of issues (injury; takings; property damage) that arose. Modern American tort law is essentially the law’s reaction to railroads. But there was a “lag” between the rise of the railroads and the development of modern tort doctrine. This is what “cultural lag” refers to.

Another example is modern copyright law – it’s quite possible that it’s simply incapable of addressing the issues raised by Grokster and digital technology. Copyright is thus “lagging” behind the technology.

But “cultural lag” is not limited to technology. There is also such a thing as political cultural lag. The idea goes something like this – imagine a house that was custom designed to be built on a certain foundation. As that foundation begins to fall away, so too must the house – though there will be a lag time between the fall of the house and the beginning of the foundation’s change.

In other words, political structures rest upon certain foundational arrangements. (It’s basically the Marxist idea of “superstructure”). When those arrangements collapse, the political structures will eventually follow.

Monarchies, for instance, depended upon a set of economic arrangements where land and wealth were heavily concentrated. With the rise of cities and modern market capitalism, the wealth began to spread. Thus, the foundational economic arrangements that supported monarchical governments began to change. And as one might expect, as the new middle class gained money and power, it demanded reform and monarchies became “cultural lag” in the new world order.

Something similar happened to the United States in its first century of existence. The arrangement of independent states and colonies depended upon the existence of localized, non-connected markets. However, as trade and markets within American became more national, the regime of individual states gave way to the national federal government we all know and love. Remember that the Constitution was very much about protecting property and commerce (that’s why Congress has the power over interstate commerce – the Framers didn’t trust the states and wanted to protect these markets). The states-based regime became “cultural lag” as the economic foundations changed with the nationalization of the markets. A national government was now necessary.

And today, we’re seeing something very similar on a global level. Just as American markets expanded from the state to the national level, today’s markets are now expanding from the national to the international level at a pace and magnitude unprecedented in human history. The economic and demographic foundations upon which our hundred-nation political system is built upon is rotting away. It’s just a matter of time before the “houses” that currently rest on these foundations will eventually rot away with them.

What I’m saying is that nationalism is fast becoming cultural lag. The destiny of mankind is toward political structures more consistent with the new economic foundations (EU, anyone?).

That’s where we’re heading. I suspect it won’t be pretty – and it will be impeded by reactionary retreats into nationalism and fundamentalist religion. But because globalization and shared interdependence are here to stay, nationalism and religion can’t stop them. Unless we destroy ourselves, markets will continue to be international in scope – and we will continue to be drawn together.

And just as Virginians eventually started thinking of themselves as Americans, so too will Americans eventually start thinking of themselves as something other than Americans.

Eventually, the very idea of “America” will be cultural lag.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005



I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne on the defeat of John Bolton – after all, what Dick Cheney wants, Dick Cheney usually gets. Still, given the inevitable flood of complaints from Bolton’s old colleagues, things don’t look good.

But strangely enough, I was a bit uneasy when I read Laura Rozen write that the delayed vote was “a spectacular triumph for the Senate Democrats.” She’s right of course – and they do deserve credit for standing firm on principle and not caving. But I think the victory should be seen as something much larger. It’s a victory for the idea that there is some notion of the public good that transcends party lines and crass political calculations. For a brief moment, Voinovich’s vote restored my faith in the larger idea of America – i.e., that there is some shared consensus of values that haven’t been completely strangled and replaced with absolute partisan loyalty.

At first glance, that might seem like a ridiculous statement. After all, Bush is having considerable trouble unifying his party around his Social Security proposal. But that’s only because Congress is afraid of a backlash. Getting beat at home is the one universal trump over party loyalty – the eternal rock to party discipline’s scissors.

When their own asses are not on line, party loyalty has trumped sound policy again and again over the past four years. It’s been incredibly troubling how willing Congress – and in particular, Congressional (and in particular House) Republicans – have been to adopt wretched policies for no other reason than party loyalty when the issue is not as politically combustible in their home districts as an issue like Social Security. On everything from the Medicare Rx bill to steel tariffs to deficit budgets to torture, Congressional Republicans have time and time again ignored and sacrificed the public good in the name of party loyalty – while many conservatives cheered them on.

As I explained here, the tacit support of torture even made me wonder if we had entered an age where there were no longer theoretical limits to what people would support in the name of partisan loyalty. After all, if you can’t reject torture, you have to start entering Nazi-land to gather some sort of worst-case scenario that would cause the partisan loyalties to stop.

Now I’m certainly partisan – and proudly so. But I like to think that there are limits to my partisanship in the face of bad policies. I also like to think that there is a shared background consensus of objective values that we can we all appeal to when the other side crosses the line. Here is a strained analogy from the world of baseball. Even though the Red Sox and Yankee fans hate each other, they nonetheless share a broad consensus that three strikes means you’re out and the umpire gets the final say. It is the shared commitment to these background rules that makes the game of baseball possible. Similarly, there must be some broad shared commitment to certain values that makes the idea of America possible. Otherwise, we are merely two warring camps locked in a winner-takes-all battle at all times. In the case of the latter, the term "America" would merely define the geographic space in which this battle takes place, but the idea of America - the idea of an ideologically-shared nationness - would no longer exist.

Back to the lecture at hand - John Bolton is, by any objective measure, a horrid choice. Even if you hate the UN with every fiber of your being – even if your genetic sequence of A-G-C-T nucleotides consists of variations of the letters N-E-O-C-O-N – Bolton remains an absolutely dreadful choice. He treats subordinates like scum – he screams at them. He fires them for not agreeing with him. He spies on them. He withholds national security information from his superiors in government.

The fact that you hate the UN should not blind you to the systematic pattern of intolerance, abuse, recklessness, and lack of basic human decency. The man is scum.

And this is who we want to be our representative to the world? John Bolton? In a time when our troops are dying because we can’t persuade people to help us – in a time where world hatred of us has never been higher – do we really want to send a universally reviled asshole who has a history of enraging everyone he comes into contact with to be our public face to humanity?

What makes it all so ridiculous is that, given his history, there isn’t any objective reason to support him other than party loyalty or the hope of getting something in return from the administration. Hagel and Lugar and Chaffee are all decent people, but they sat there like spineless cowards and would have voted for that scumbag knowing full and well that he was not only a horrible choice, but a liability to our foreign policy goals – goals that affect our national security and the safety of our own troops.

I could go on, but I want to get back to Voinovich. I suspect that voters in Ohio wouldn’t have cared one way or the other how he voted. I also suspect the Democrats didn’t have much to offer him in return. He also knew the wrath he would face – and is apparently already facing – because of his decision. But Voinovich – for now anyway – put the public good of America first. I can’t think of any other reason why he would delay the vote (which will probably kill the nomination) other than his conscience. Maybe something will turn up, and I’ll have to rethink all this. But for now, it looks like someone put the public good before party loyalty.

So thank you Senator Voinovich – you restored my faith in our political process - at least for a few hours.

[UPDATE: NYT - Voinovich, "My conscience got me." Sleep tight Sen. Chaffee.]

Tuesday, April 19, 2005



Hugh Hewitt won my heart last week by referring to me as, and I quote, “the influential lefty blog.” Sweet, sweet Hugh – you had me at “influential.” So it is with deep sorrow and profound ambivalence that I must pick apart the logic of Hewitt’s argument that people like myself are attacking Christianity when we attack people like Dobson. Here’s what Hewitt had to say:

There is incredible hostility on the left to what it deems as "Jesusland," and that adamant contempt that sometimes lurches into hatred – last week, for example, the influential lefty blog referred to James Dobson as the Ayatollah bin Dobson.

He added in a subsequent post:

In my post yesterday, I noted that the left side of the blogosphere is pulsing with anti-Christian rhetoric: "the American Taliban," the "Frist Jihadists," "Ayatollah bin Dobson." Senator Schumer ought to be denouncing this hate speech from the left rather than demanding immunity from criticism over his treatment of Pryor etc.

It’s a rather clever rhetorical strategy. Hewitt is conflating Christianity with a particular interpretation of Christianity. It’s a common tactic, so it’s worth dissecting.

The general principle here is to confuse the audience by convincing them that a particular subset of Concept or Goal “X” is equal to the entire set and that no other subsets exist. Some examples will help illustrate what I mean by that. In the lead-up to Iraq, everyone shared the same broad goal of fighting terrorism and keeping the country safe. However, there were many possible ways to go about securing the nation from terrorist attacks. Invading Iraq was merely one of many possible tactics.

The rhetorical strategy of many pro-war advocates was to equate opposition to invading Iraq (the subset) with opposition to keeping America safe from terrorism (the larger “set”). Andrew Sullivan was especially guilty of this logical error. He crowed on and on about how people who opposed invading Iraq didn’t understand that we were at war with Islamic terrorism. The problem, though, is that people could agree that we were at “war” with terrorism, but disagree about the wisdom of adopting this particular tactic as a means to prosecute that war. Invading Iraq was merely one of a range of options. The Bush administration (and many of its supporters), however, tried to equate the invasion with the broader shared goal of keeping America safe from terrorism. If you opposed Iraq, you didn’t just oppose it as a tactic, you actually opposed keeping America safe.

We’re seeing something very similar in the equation of attacks on the Dobsons and Santorums of the world with attacks on Christianity itself. The logical error is that the form of rigid rule-based, Pharisee Christianity practiced by Ayatollah Dobson is merely a particular manifestation (or subset) of Christianity proper. One can be at peace with a whole range of Christian interpretations and soundly reject the anti-Enlightenment, anti-woman, anti-privacy, anti-freedom, anti-science, anti-homosexuality, anti-everything-that-doesn’t-look-and-think-just-like-me version of Christianity.

An attack on Dobson Christianity is not an attack on Christianity. Just like an attack on the Ayatollah’s interpretation and exploitation of Islam for political purposes is not an attack on Islam itself.

On another level, I’m not sure there is such a thing as “Dobson Christianity.” Dobson actually represents the opposite of Christianity. If I’m recalling my Sunday School classes correctly, Jesus’s whole point was to emphasize love and tolerance, and to show the ridiculousness and spiritual bankruptcy of blind adherence to a rigid set of moral codes long since divorced from the more basic values of love, forgiveness, and tolerance. The hapless Pharisees – those rule-bound suckas – were always the butt of Jesus’s jokes.

Whether you’re a Christian, atheist, or anything in between, if you actually sit down and read the four Gospels, I suspect you’ll see that Dobson fits the role of “Pharisee” pretty well. He’s everything that Jesus opposed. That’s why it’s so utterly ridiculous for him to claim the mantle of the values of love and tolerance espoused in the Gospels – values that do not, by the way, require a belief in the divinity of Jesus or even in God at all.

It's an important principle to keep in mind - and one that has many applications. For instance, attacking one particular interpretation of Catholicism is not attacking Catholicism proper. Attacking some extremist right-or-left-wing nutjob is not attacking the mainstream conservative and liberal movements more generally.

Monday, April 18, 2005



I often wonder how future generations will come to view the invasion of Iraq. And by “future,” I mean way in the future when everyone who is politically invested in the war (or in opposition) is long gone. How will the generations who don’t have a dog in this fight come to view it centuries from now? I suspect it will be a much-debated question – why Iraq, and why at this point in history?

My guess is that, as time goes on, the democracy-promotion and national security rationales will fade into the background when historians explain why we invaded (though certainly 9/11 will play a role in explaining why we invaded at this particular point in history). As time goes on, I suspect the larger focus will be on the justification that dare not speak its name – securing oil. In fact, when Iraq is viewed from a broader historical context, my guess is that it will be seen as merely one manifestation of a much larger global conflict to secure the natural resource most important to the world’s most powerful economies. In short, we are living in the Era of the Oil Wars, and more battles are coming. Just as Vietnam and Korea were isolated battles in the larger decades-long Cold War, the invasion of Iraq (I predict) will come to be seen as an early salvo in the decades-long Oil Wars that have only just begun.

Before I defend this prediction, I should briefly discuss a couple of competing theories that historians use to explain what causes conflict and wars. Although this is grotesquely general, there are two big theories of causation. The first is an economic/materialist explanation. The second is ideological. (For a more detailed discussion, see my post here). The former is simply the Marxist (not in the sense of “communist,” but of “economic determinist”) view that historical change is generally the result of economic struggles. To these people, the American Civil War should be understood as a battle between two competing economic systems, one of which was economically dependant upon chattel slavery. A more ideological explanation would be that the Civil War was about fighting for freedom (an “ideal”).

The materialist/determinist view, however, isn’t limited to struggles over money or chattel slavery, it also includes struggles for scarce resources (or “materials”) such as mates, water, hunting grounds, and food. People like Jared Diamond are “Marxist” in this sense because they believe that many conflicts can be explained (or are “determined”) by environmental factors. For instance, the more ideological explanation for the Rwandan genocide is that it was caused by racial hatred. Diamond, by contrast, sees this struggle through an environmental/determinist lens – the Rwandan population was too dense for the resources (soil, food, etc.) available to support it. Diamond's general argument is that when resources are too scarce for a given population, people fight.

So here’s the million-dollar question – why are we in Iraq? Are we over there for materialist reasons (oil) or ideological ones (spreading freedom)? In the end, I think that when historians assess the contemporary state of the global economy (and the natural resources that sustain it), they will opt for the former (oil).

Oil is the backbone of the economies of the world’s major powers, which means that oil is the backbone of the global economy. With the rise of the 2-billion-people-strong Indian and Chinese economies, and our unwillingness to take even modest steps toward energy independence, demand is skyrocketing.

The fundamental problem with these developments is that oil is a scarce resource. There are only a few regions in the world where you can get a sufficient amount to satisfy the needs of your economy. Unfortunately, these regions are neither stable nor reliable. Add it all up and you’re left with a troubling dynamic. Countries are becoming more and more dependent on the resources of regions that are less and less stable and reliable (e.g., Middle East, Sudan, Venezuela, Russia).

As Diamond might explain, when you have multiple parties competing for scarce resources, you should expect conflict. And that’s essentially where we are today. The economies of the world powers need reliable supplies and suppliers of oil. In addition, they need to remove potential threats to these stable supplies of oil. Thus, as we might expect, we are beginning to see these world powers engage in a string of seemingly isolated global conflicts to secure supplies of oil – both in the sense of physical conquest and/or in the sense of removing threats to the stability of oil-producing regions. This is what I mean by the "Oil Wars."

To illustrate, let’s look at some of the recent actions of America and China. Turning to America first, I think that the 1991 Gulf War was the true first battle of the modern Oil Wars. Regardless of your views of the more recent Iraq war, the Gulf War was clearly about nothing other than oil. You can argue about whether securing oil was worth sending troops to die, but that’s clearly what it was about. The Gulf War, however, wasn’t an old-school imperialist seizure of oil fields, it was about removing a threat to the stability and existence of the current oil supplies (in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).

Moving forward to 2003, everyone should understand that the invasion of Iraq had two important consequences (putting aside for now the question of the Bush administration’s intent). First, it opened up new oil supplies (supplies now controlled by the American military) to the global economy. Originally, if you’ll recall, these were to be handed off to a puppet regime headed by Chalabi who could be trusted to keep the pipes flowing our way. Second, it eliminated a future threat (Saddam) to the stability of the Middle East and its existing oil supplies. It’s ok to have a Saddam in Zimbabwe, but it’s not ok to have him running around the oil fields of the Middle East.

Regardless of the motives of the war, these were important material consequences of the invasion and they shouldn’t be ignored. And the fact that we seem to have every intention of maintaining a permanent military presence there seems to bolster the claim that oil has a lot more to do with this war than people on both sides of the Iraq debate realize.

The potential conflicts with Iran and Syria can also be understood within the larger context of the Oil Wars. I would bet one hundred dollars to one that we would strike Iran before we would ever strike Syria. Unlike Syria, Iran has a lot of oil and will continue to have oil for a long time to come. Overthrowing the Iranian regime and replacing it with a more friendly one would open even more oil reserves to the U.S. economy. Also, Iran is now the rising power in the region. Because its regime is hostile, it is now the biggest threat to America’s stable oil supply – especially if it gains influence over the new Shiite-controlled Iraqi government with its newly-opened oil fields. Because Iran offers both new oil and poses a risk to America’s current supply of oil, you can expect conflict in the years and decades to come.

However, the real danger of the Oil Wars is China. It is entirely possible that America and China could be drawn into conflict in the decades to come over what is essentially an oil-related dispute. Bismarck famously predicted that if world war broke out, it would be because of “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.” He was right. Similarly, if America and China ever come to blows (or China and Japan, or China and Taiwan), it will be because of some damn fool thing about oil.

You can already see the fault lines forming. A lot of China’s tensions with its neighbors must be understood in the context of its growing appetite for oil. Check out this excerpt from a rather frightening WP article last week on China’s growing military capabilities:

But the expansion of China's interests abroad, particularly energy needs, has also broadened the military's mission in recent years. Increasingly, according to foreign specialists and Chinese commentators, China's navy and air force have set out to project power in the South China Sea, where several islands are under dispute and vital oil supplies pass through, and in the East China Sea, where China and Japan are at loggerheads over mineral rights and several contested islands.

. . .

Against this background, unifying Taiwan with the mainland has become more than just a nationalist goal. The 13,500-square-mile territory has also become a platform that China needs to protect southern sea lanes, through which pass 80 percent of its imported oil and tons of other imported raw materials. It could serve as a base for Chinese submarines to have unfettered access to the deep Pacific, according to Tsai, Taiwan's deputy defense minister. "Taiwan for them now is a strategic must and no longer just a sacred mission," Lin said.

The recent agitation against Japan cannot be separated from the strategic obstacle that Japan potentially poses to China’s oil supply. Granted, the protesters probably aren’t worried about oil, but China’s government has every reason in the world to encourage its citizens to hate Japan. That’s because as China’s needs for oil grow, it’s only a matter of time before they use (or threaten) military force against its neighbors to secure or seize oil supplies and the networks necessary to import them. When it does, some future American president is going to have some difficult decisions to make.

Of course, all of these conflicts – from Iraq to Taiwan – are complex, and any proper explanation must take account of the full range of material and ideological sources of tension. But I think that, in America anyway, people all across the political spectrum have been hesitant to talk about oil and the role it is playing in our interventions in the Middle East.

More crucially, I think that people need to start understanding the interrelatedness of conflicts and controversies in oil-producing areas such as the Middle East, Sudan, and Venezuela. They must also understand the role oil plays in conflicts like China-Taiwan and Russia-Chechnya. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a global conflict (a world war even) to secure the scarce resource of oil. What we are witnessing is the Era of the Oil Wars, and it’s just getting started. As long as oil is scarce and demand is increasing, the Oil Wars will continue and grow more intense. And because I’ve seen no reason to think that anything will improve on this front for decades (thanks in part to the cabal of oil-loving Texans running our government), I think we will see some nastier conflicts ahead - and potentially some very nasty ones.

And that’s why energy independence from oil is the most pressing challenge for mankind in the decades ahead. It should be the first priority of anyone serious about our national security.

Saturday, April 16, 2005



NYT yesterday:

As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees.

Sen. Reid (via Atrios):

I am disappointed that in an attempt to hide what the debate is really about, Senator Frist would exploit religion like this. Religion to me is a very personal thing. I have been a religious man all my adult life. My wife and I have lived our lives and raised our children according to the morals and values taught by the faith to which we prescribe. No one has the right to judge mine or anyone else’s personal commitment to faith and religion.

God isn’t partisan.

Luke 18:9-14

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.



For any guitarists out there who like Dylan, I just found the best site ever - dylanchords.com. It has the lyrics and chords of every Dylan song arranged by album, including the '66 Royal Albert Hall and other live performances.

As you were.

Friday, April 15, 2005



Julie Saltman - having deservedly graduated to the Wash Monthly - ain’t buyin’ my filibuster argument. I should re-emphasize that I am completely opposed to ending the filibuster if the ban is limited to the judicial context alone. It’s all-or-nothin' for me.

But anyway, I think Julie’s post reaffirms that the crux of the dispute is, as I explained in my earlier filibuster post, the extent to which you think passing legislation is too easy or too hard. In general, I think the procedures created by the Constitution are inefficient enough without the extra anti-majoritarian check. But I also pointed out that this may no longer be the case when one party rules all branches of government in the age of centralized national parties and mass communications. It’s clear which side of the fence Julie comes down on:

[T]he filibuster prolongs the debate phase of bill passage, which is generally the only stage the media covers and we hear about. By slowing things down with a dramatic gesture, the filibuster draws public attention to something that might otherwise have been rubber-stamped without notice and allows us some time to read up and maybe even lobby our representatives.

For her, legislation (and in particular, crap legislation) can be passed too easily. We therefore need to slow things down and force deliberation. I don’t know if I agree (I’ll “reserve judgment” as they say), but if she’s right about the need to slow things down and force deliberation (which is the point of many constitutional provisions), then she’s right to support the filibuster. The question is not so much the filibuster, but your faith in the legislative process (deliberation, appropriate checks, etc.).

One last thing - some of the commenters in her post pointed out (as I have) that Democratic Senators represent far more people than Republican ones. They went on to conclude that the filibuster is thus necessary to protect the majority.

I’m not sure that follows. Let’s assume that the Democrats controlled the Senate (mmmm. . . control, sweet subpoena-power control) and that they were trying to pass legislation that had overwhelming majority support. The filibuster would then be thwarting the majority, not protecting it. If you’re really worried about protecting majority preferences, especially given the extreme minority protections the rurally-slanted Senate already includes, it seems like you would come down the other way on this issue. In fact, you might even favor doing away with the two-senator-per-state rule.



Wal-Mart Facts.com:

Good Benefits

At Wal-Mart, we believe a job is about more than work and wages. It’s about being part of a business family that cares for its members and gives them the support they need.

Washington Post:

The retailing behemoth, whose $10 billion annual profits are based on low prices, low expenses and its relentless pace of store openings, announced it will shut the doors here May 6 after workers voted to make this the first unionized Wal-Mart in North America. The closure will leave 190 bitter employees out of work . . . . Sylvie Lavoie, 40, said she is unsure how, as a single mother, she will support herself and her 10-year-old daughter after the store closes. But the backup cashier, who earns $7.55 an hour, said she does not regret joining the union drive.

"We can't regret trying to make our lives better," she said at the union hall. "I don't know what I'll do, but I know my daughter will be proud of me."

First, I should say that if any knows of any links or organizations that provide donations to these workers, please pass it along and I’ll post it.

There are few things I find more vile than the way that Standard Oil Wal-Mart treats its employees, and thus the families who depend upon their paltry wages and benefits. The solution of course is to begin unionizing the stores and giving the employees some semblance of leverage to demand decent wages and benefits. But as the poor newly-unemployed workers in this Canadian town learned, store-by-store organization may not be the best strategy.

I’m still learning about these issues, but it seems to me that Wal-Mart is now so massive that a store-by-store strategy simply won’t work. That’s because the stores are trapped in a giant collective problem. According to Wal-Mart’s propaganda site, there are roughly 3,600 facilities in the United States. Thus, if one store votes to organize, Wal-Mart can afford to shut the store down because it would only cost them 1/3600 of their revenue. [Obviously, not all stores are equal, but you get my point.] Given the scope of the collective action problem, Wal-Mart would have to be threatened with the loss of a much greater chunk of their revenue before they would stop retaliating by closing stores. In a perfectly rational world, this would be an amount equal to whatever national or regional unionization would cost them – and I expect that would be a rather large sum.

Anyway, my point is that it seems irrational (in an economic sense) to pursue store-by-store unionization. This strategy simply can’t muster the economic leverage necessary to force Wal-Mart to take unions seriously. That’s why I think the only viable strategy is legislation. Much like the trusts of old, Wal-Mart has simply grown too large for individual stores (much less employees) to have the bargaining power necessary to force meaningful negotiations.

Taking a step back, this actually gets to the heart of another of the philosophical foundations for liberal economic policies like the federal income tax and Social Security. Much of the legislation that liberals hold dear must be understood as addressing collective action problems and market failures. Take child labor. The best of all possible worlds would be if no factory employed children. However, the worst possible world from the perspective of the individual factory owner would be one in which his factory refused to employ children (or “cooperated” in game theory lingo) while other factories continued to do so (or “defected”). In a world where there are no child labor laws, it becomes rational (economically speaking) for the individual factory to employ and exploit children. The broader point is that the market cannot – and did not – correct the problem of child labor. It required the government to intervene and make child labor irrational for everyone by imposing civil and criminal penalties.

Same deal for leaving economic and regulatory matters (such as environmental regulation) to the states. The best possible world would be one where all fifty states protected the environment and provided good services. However, in the real world, states compete with each other for jobs and businesses. States who enforce environmental laws, or provide services through higher taxes, are at a competitive disadvantage with those who refuse to do so. That's because businesses can simply flee to other states. Thus, only the federal government is in a position to address issues like environmental regulation because the states can’t be trusted to do so. And that’s not because the states are stupid or wicked – it’s because it’s irrational for them to do so given the collective action problem and the "race to the bottom" that it creates.

We’re also seeing this exact same dynamic playing out on a global scale (outsourcing, etc.). Technology has developed to the point where jobs can now “flee” to other countries. As these trends continue, it is inevitable that some sort of world body will emerge to address these collective action problems. We’re already seeing the early signs in the form of WTO sanctions and IMF mandates. Eventually, and long after we’re all dead, these institutions will give way to some form of world government. That’s not a hippy liberal dream – it’s mandated by the logic of game theory.

Anyway, getting back to Wal-Mart, it seems like legislation is the only viable strategy given the enormous disparities in bargaining power. Legislation is not the only option – anything would work that would “pinch” Wal-Mart hard enough (e.g., simultaneous organization or a national boycott). But still, I suspect the best hope for now – given that helping rich people is en vogue these days in the House – is to pursue legislation at the state level. Wal-Mart can afford to lose one store, but it might not be able to lose, say, the entire state of Florida’s stores.

Again, I’m new to this realm of the law, so I'm just throwing things out here. For example, what if a state quadrupled taxes (or imposed other steep penalties) on large employers who closed a store within a certain designated time after its employees voted to unionize? Would such a law be pre-empted by federal law? Do these laws already exist? I know that federal law puts some limits on retaliation, but I don’t know what sort of evidence is necessary to show that the retaliation was the result of organization efforts.

Of course, when the reign of witches passes over, federal legislation would be the ideal option. Congress could certainly provide a sufficient pinch to get Wal-Mart to the bargaining table. But it's going to be a while before we can hope for any relief on this front ("witches," you know).

I’m obviously talking out of my ars when it comes to the specific policy proposals. But I think my more general point is valid. Any solution is going to have take place on a sufficiently large scale that Wal-Mart would feel the burn. I'm not sure a store-by-store strategy can accomplish that.

And at the very least, I hope no one who reads this blog shops there.

[On an aside, this is another one of those issues (like Darfur) where progressives could enlist the help of religious conservatives who value a culture of life over a culture of money.]

Thursday, April 14, 2005



I'm swamped again at work so it may be a day or two before I can post. When I do, I hope to elaborate a bit about my gripe against what Kos said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005



Look, I know that people have their gripes with the DLC and The New Republic. And Lord knows I have my gripes with Lieberman (and would support a primary challenger). But this statement by Kos is just absurd:

Funny that the NRSC is trying to claim that the New Republic and the DLC (peas from the same pod) somehow represent rank and file Democrats", but whatever. Fact is, Lieberman, the DLC, and the so-called-liberal TNR are tools of the GOP.

Kos is showing - once again, unfortunately - an ideological rigidity that is counterproductive to everyone's shared goal of creating a progressive American majority. Not to mention that's it's just A-fucking wrong. Ed Kilgore and the New Republic writers are "tools of the GOP"??

Get a grip people. Friends come in all shades of progressive (minus Lieberman - the hell with him). Keep this crap up and maybe with some luck the Democrats can get under the 40% mark - but hey, at least we'll be ideologically pure.



Plainsman passed me the cyber-stick, so I will oblige:

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be saved?

I toyed around with Homer, but at the end of the day I'll have to agree with Plainsman and go with the Riverside Shakespeare (or some other complete collection).

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Hmmm. I'll have to go with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She narrowly beat out Ludivine Sagnier in Swimming Pool.

3. The last book you purchased?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which is awesome - and a long-overdue purchase.

4. What are you currently reading?

Thomas Madden - A Concise History of the Crusades. I also checked out The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, but I had to stop because it's unreadable. It's long, long-winded, and is more of a collection of tedious essays than a book. I think I'll go with the cliff-notes on that one.

5. Five books you would take to a deserted island?

I can't limit it to five:

- Riverside Shakespeare
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
- Huck Finn, Mark Twain
- As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
- Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

And I'll pass the baton to the commenters assuming that's not cheating.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com The 2006 Weblog Awards