Tuesday, February 28, 2006



I was more than a little surprised this morning when I opened up the Post on the Metro and saw that 1,300 Iraqis (and counting) had been killed this week - nearly half the number killed in 9/11. Apparently no one knew until the bodies started streaming into the morque.

This is significant for a number of reasons (none of them good), but in particular I think the story shows just how little we know about what's going outside the Green Zone. Things are so bad that reporters just can't go out and must depend on military and government spokespeople for information. That's problematic anyway (e.g., incentives not to tell bad news), but it's especially problematic given that our troops are so scattered. I'd appreciate hearing from someone with some actual expertise on this - but it seems like we're all blind to what's really going on in most of the country on everything from the recent sectarian violence to the consequences of our own bombings.

[UPDATE: Commenter LJ points out that something might be screwy with the Post's numbers. Let's hope so. I think the general point still stands though. We don't have a good sense of what's going on in much of the country.]

YOU ARE AN OBSESSION - Hillary's "Sticky Attack" 


I suspect that Karl Rove, deep down, begrudgingly admired Hillary Clinton’s swipe at him yesterday. It was so simple and yet so effective – it had to remind him of his own handiwork. For those who haven’t heard, Clinton said yesterday that Rove “spends a lot of time obsessing about me.” I know this is Beltway junkie stuff that the public doesn’t care about. But as a Beltway junkie, I loved it. And at the risk of reading way way too much into a single line, I want to deconstruct Clinton’s one-liner to show why it was so effective and so deliciously Rovian.

One of Rove’s (and by “Rove,” I also mean the national GOP media strategists’) signature tactics is what I’ll call the “sticky attack.” The goal of the sticky attack isn’t really to draw blood immediately, it’s to undermine, re-define and ultimately discredit future attacks against you. The sticky attack is Lakoffian in that it attempts to create a “frame” that acts like conceptual quicksand or a spider’s web to bog down future attacks. In short, it gums up the works. It doesn’t cause direct harm, but it hinders opponents’ ability to go on offense by framing their attacks and arguments before they can make them and by forcing them to second-guess themselves.

Some examples will help illustrate what I mean. Think about the whole “party of nostrategy (it’s also called obstructionism or the “philosophy of a stop sign”). In a sense, these are direct attacks on Democrats. But the true effectiveness of this line of attack is its ability to undermine otherwise valid future criticisms by framing them in advance as something entirely different – e.g., as obstruction or “the philosophy of the stop sign.” In other words, it provides people with a pre-existing narrative frame that assimilates the attacks and prevents them from landing.

For instance, when Democrats reject or block policies that need to be rejected or blocked, the “party of no” attack trips them up. For one, it shifts the debate from the actual policy to the personal characteristics of the Democrats (not exactly a net political gain). Second, it’s a universal rebuttal for anything the Democrats say – oh, that’s just the party of no sayin’ no again. Finally, and this is key, when it’s effective, it makes Democrats second-guess themselves. Like a computer virus, the “party of no” theme infects its intended target and makes opponents less sure of themselves going forward. And I suspect that nothing makes the inventor of the “party of no” theme happier than reading stories about Democrats fretting about their lack of a positive agenda.

If you want to see an example of what I’m talking about, just look at how much Dean second-guessed himself after the “Dean is angry” theme got stuck in people’s heads following the one-kazillionth broadcast of The Scream. Suddenly he was wearing warm-colored sweaters and appearing with his wife and looking very un-authentic. Same deal with Kerry on the Iraq flip-flop stuff. I bet the Kerry campaign always had tortured debate before including anything about Iraq in Kerry’s speeches because the frame had "stuck" and it infected their offensive strategy on national security.

But not all attacks work as sticky attacks. (Q. What’s brown and sticky? A. I don’t know. Q. A stick.) To be “sticky,” the attack has to have several key characteristics. First, the attack has to have some resonance of truth. You can’t just make stuff up – it needs to be grounded in something intuitively plausible. There are Democrats who are blindly anti-Bush on everything he proposes (take me, for instance). But most aren’t, and most Democratic criticism is based in policy and value differences. But because there are decent numbers of knee-jerk anti-GOPers out there, the criticism sticks.

Second, the attack has to be simple. Third, and relatedly, the attack needs to be a meta-theme that can rope in a lot of smaller attacks. Again, the "party of no" meta-theme is a great example of this.

Finally, and most importantly, the attack needs to anticipate and undermine valid future critiques by reframing them in a way that puts you on offense and your opponent on defense. For instance, Bush is way better off if the debate is about the merits of his “party of no” criticism than if it’s about the merits of his Social Security reform. That’s why we “angry” bloggers were so upset at people like the Post editorial board who wanted to make a debate about a horrendously bad policy with enormous consequences into a debate about the absence of the minority party’s positive agenda. Yes, we might default on our debt, but let's talk about Howard Dean's disposition.

Bringin’ it all back home to Hillary, the “obsession” argument hits every one of these points. First, it has a resonance of truth – the Clintons cause of a lot of GOPers to go temporarily insane. As a result, they often overreach (impeachment, Ed Klein, etc.). Second, it’s simple. What’s even better is that it has this high school rejection-of-the-obsessive-nerd subtext that makes it irresistible for our media-entertainment complex. Third and fourth, it’s a meta-theme that can be used as a universal rebuttal to almost any attack. Oh, that’s just the obsessed Clinton-haters being obsessed with Clinton again.

Of course, real success will only come if Clinton’s comment gums up the GOP establishment’s attacks against her going forward and makes them second-guess themselves. For instance, will they write up attacks only to scratch them and say, “hell, I don’t want to come off as Hillary-obsessed again.” The obsession line may also trail Rove like an annoying piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoes (or, being a nerd, to the back of his pants). Anytime he brings up Hillary in the near future, people will think “why he is so obsessed with her?”

Of course, it’s worth noting that the GOP has unveiled their own sticky attack against Clinton – that she’s "angry." I think this is a potentially effective line. Again, the point is to undermine future valid attacks by framing them as the angry ranting of a [choose your impolite sexist word]. But Clinton did the right thing – she ignored it and chose to go on the offensive in a particularly effective way. You can’t beat a sticky attack – it’s like fighting in a spider web. You have to ignore it and avoid it and go right on with what you’re doing. But what I really liked was that Clinton’s counter-attack wasn't all that angry, but it was perfectly on point – with just enough sexual subtext to make the media eat it up.

Ah, this is good stuff. Beltway junkie stuff, to be sure, but this is my crack cocaine. I can feel election fever starting to seep back in my veins. 2006 may be a good year.

Sunday, February 26, 2006



I think Oliver Willis is on to something here:

[This question] should be asked in the 2008 election: Do you support the imprisonment of doctors for up to five years for the alleged “crime” of performing an abortion, as South Dakota’s legislature demands?

I’d actually go a couple steps further. I would ask every single Republican candidate up for re-election in 2006: “Do you support imprisoning doctors for performing abortions following rapes, as South Dakota’s new law demands?” If they hid behind the rape exception, then you could follow up with Oliver’s question about whether doctors should be thrown in jail for performing abortions more generally.

The combination of the Alito and Roberts confirmations along with the South Dakota law is, I think, a watershed moment in the abortion wars. The South Dakota law in particular should serve as a wake-up call to the pro-choice movement that its tactics aren’t working and that it needs to make some changes in its long-term strategy. To develop Oliver’s point, if I were a consultant, I would recommend that the pro-choice movement make two major changes: (1) It should shift its emphasis from a defensive legal strategy to an offensive political strategy; (2) It should shift the debate away from abortion itself – and the abstract questions of when life begins – and focus on crime and punishment. In other words, the movement should aim to make an abstract debate more concrete by focusing on criminal sanctions and the imprisonment of doctors and women.

First, it seems to me that the strategy of the pro-choice movement is essentially reactive. It waits for an intrusive law to be passed and then tries to block it in court. That strategy is ultimately a loser because it’s a defensive strategy. Think of soccer. If you keep letting the other team attack the net again and again, eventually one’s going to get through. Better to move the ball down the field and attack the other goal rather than constantly trying to block the efforts of others. This is especially true when you’re a Stevens heart attack away from losing the goalie altogether.

There’s only one way for the pro-choice movement to ultimately be successful – it has to keep those laws from getting proposed and enacted in the first place. That is, it has to make the extreme anti-abortion position a political liability, especially on the national level. Democrats tend to be scared of raising the profile of this issue, but they shouldn’t be. Unlike a lot of other culture war issues, this one is a bigger wedge for Republicans than Democrats. And if I were advising groups like NARAL, I would urge them to focus more heavily on using it – and stem cells – as a sword in campaigns rather than hoping for good court decisions.

The South Dakota law provides a perfect opening for this sort of offensive political strategy in 2006 and beyond. South Dakota’s new law was, in my opinion, an overreach – especially its failure to include a rape exception. Public support for criminalizing abortion in cases of rape is less than 20% – which I’m guessing is entirely Republican. So, why not ask every Republican up for re-election this year to take a position on South Dakota's criminalization of abortions following rape. You don’t lose a single Democratic vote and you alienate a decent chunk of the Republican base. Another benefit is that raising the profile of this draconian law shines a light into the shadows, so to speak, and shows soccer moms the extreme positions held by parts of the GOP base. The national GOP does a good job keeping this group out of the public eye (note Bush in the debates speaking in code; pro-life speakers at the GOP convention ). But when things like Schiavo and the South Dakota law come to light, it freaks people out. Tying South Dakota's extreme law around the necks of the GOP nationally would also result in pressure from the party hierarchy to refrain from passing these sorts of extreme laws.

But even if you leave off the rape demagoguery, GOP candidates across the country should still be asked to take a position on South Dakota’s more general effort to criminalize abortions and imprison doctors. Again, in most states and districts, no matter what the GOP candidate says, it can’t be good. If they agree, you can run emotionally-charged commercials talking about doctors and women being arrested. If they disagree with the law, it wedges and depresses the base.

That leads into the second point – the pro-choice movement needs to make a concerted effort to get this debate out of the clouds – it needs to be a debate about criminalization and the real-world effects of the laws this group wants to pass. It’s one thing to have an abstract debate about privacy or when life begins. But it’s quite another to see the actual, concrete reality of criminalizing abortion. I suspect that many nominally “pro-life” people would recoil when they saw doctors and young women getting thrown in jail.

Keeping the debate abstract also allows politicians to avoid some of the baggage of the more extreme pro-life position. Compare, for instance, the following two statements: (1) “I am pro-life”; (2) “I support imprisoning doctors and women for abortions.” The reality of #1 is usually #2, so that’s what the debate should be about. Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to get off by saying they’re pro-life. That’s not enough – one can be pro-life, but not necessarily pro-criminalization. Candidates should be asked point-blank – do you support imprisoning doctors for performing, and women for having, abortions? Given South Dakota’s overreach, people can no longer say that this is an absurd hypothetical. It’s about to become state law.

Bottom line – the South Dakota overreach can and should be used as a political weapon. But it should be part of a bigger strategy to fight in the political sphere offensively and to make that debate about the concrete consequences of criminalization.

I realize, of course that this is an emotionally-charged issue that people disagree about. My friends at SA, for instance, are probably appalled by this post. But people like my friends at SA feel very strongly about this issue and have been fighting hard politically (and have been on the offensive) for quite some time. If pro-choice people feel the same way, they should stop relying on Roe and start doing the same thing.

[UPDATE: Scott has more thoughts on the SD law.]

Thursday, February 23, 2006



What do the following characters all have in common: Dr. Frankenstein, Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, and George W. Bush. Answer - their creations all eventually turned on them.

Whatever the merits of the port issue may be (and we need more information to decide), it is a bit rich to hear Bush pleading for cultural understanding about the Middle East. People simply shouldn't rush to judgment and lump the UAE in with other less desirable Muslim and Arab factions he says. That's true of course, but rich nonetheless.

I say that because one of my main gripes about the administration's marketing of the Iraq War was that it exploited and fostered public ignorance about Muslims and Middle East society more generally. In fact, public support for the war depended on blurring the precise kinds of distinctions that Bush is now attempting to draw. I'm obviously not saying that everyone who supported the war was ignorant of the complexities of the Muslim world. That's not true. What I am saying, though, is that a lot of people who supported the war wouldn't have if they had understood many of the complexities that the administration deliberately and consistently obscured.

For example, Bush consciously and repeatedly conflated Palestinian terrorism with al Qaeda-style terrorism in both the pre-war and the post-war. Every informed person but the Oracle Stephen Hayes has stopped believing that Saddam provided any real support to al Qaeda. But uninformed people hear their President say "Saddam paid terrorists" and think he's referring to terrorists who actually pose a threat to America. For understandable reasons, that makes them more likely to think the war is a good idea.

Second, Bush depended on people not understanding the deep-seated hostility between secular regimes like Saddam's and decidedly un-secular Islamic fundamentalist groups like al Qaeda. The fundamentalists were Saddam's natural enemy, just as they are the natural enemies of other autocratic, non-fundamentalist regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Of course, maybe the war could be justified on other grounds in people's minds. But to the extent people supported the war for this reason, that support wasn't exactly well-informed.

Finally, Bush's policy relied on people not understanding the complexities of Iraq's three major ethnic groups. If the public had understood that Iraq was an artificial country drawn up after World War I that included three groups that all hate each other, they may have been less susceptible to the argument that a secular, Western-style democracy was going to spring up within months following the invasion. As recent events are making painfully clear, Iraq's ethnic cauldron is not exactly a firm foundation for a new democracy.

And all of this in addition to the terror alerts, the color codes of 2003 and 2004, and all of the other actions and rhetoric that kept Americans in a frightened state.

Bottom line - you can't consistently scare Americans and deliberately blur important distinctions between Muslims and then expect those same Americans to go along with a port deal involving a country whose name includes the word "Arab." You can't subtly (or not so subtly) encourage nativism for four years and then suddenly put it under wraps when it becomes inconvenient.

Maybe the best analogy is actually Dangerous Liaisons. When you play games with people's powerful emotions, you often lose control of them.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006



When I first heard the Dubai Ports World story, I was pretty skeptical. But when I saw that Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt were passionately opposed to the deal, I thought I should probably give it a second look. The bottom line is that I still think it’s bad policy – and at the very least, it deserves a closer review. Of course, people can support the right policy for the wrong reasons. And so to my fellow Malkinite comrades who oppose the deal, I hope you oppose it on policy grounds rather than simply deciding that "UAE = Arab = bad." In an attempt to look at these issues somewhat objectively, I’d like to walk through my concerns and the questions that need to be answered before I could support this deal.

Before I begin, though, a few quick points. First, whatever the policy merits may be, it’s clearly horrible politics. This is a battle that Bush can’t possibly win – and an odd one to fight about. Second, this statement from Bush gives me exactly zero comfort:

I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction. But they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully.

Sleep tight Baltimore.

Getting to substance, I think the first question is whether we should be concerned about the UAE in the first place (given that Dubai is a state-owned entity). To be fair, the UAE has been an ally and is an important Gulf hub for our navy. On the other hand, the people of the UAE hate us. According to recent polls from the Arab American Institute (associated with Zogby), public approval of the US in the UAE clocks in at 14%. And of course the UAE doesn’t exactly have a great history of policing borders. For instance, here’s a 2002 WP article entitled “Al Qaeda's Road Paved With Gold; Secret Shipments Traced Through a Lax System In United Arab Emirates.” This could, however, merely reflect that Dubai is a free-wheeling amoral financial hub. The widespread hostility to America is, frankly, more worrying (for reasons I’ll explain below).

Assuming UAE is a cause for concern, I still don’t think that necessarily means the deal is unsafe. We also need to know more about Dubai's corporate structure and how that structure relates to the ports. For instance, are the ports run by a subsidiary without much input from the parent (an American subsidiary perhaps)? Are they run like a franchise? Will any UAE officials actually be responsible for everyday administration? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think they’re essential in determining who’s actually right here. The more that individuals from the UAE are involved in the everyday administration, the more concerned I would be (because, statistically, they're likely to include people who don’t like America).

Even assuming UAE officials handle aspects of everyday administration, another question is whether it’s actually true that Dubai would have nothing to do with the security of the port. According to Bush, security would still be run by our crack team of Homeland Security officials. Sleep tight New Orleans. I find this a little hard to believe. But then again, companies from foreign countries run other ports, so maybe security is a distinct issue. In short, I don’t know really what people mean when they say Dubai will “control” the ports, nor do I know what the security implications of this "control" are.

Obviously, determining whether this deal is good policy (or “not unsafe” policy) depends on how these questions get answered. And until I hear good answers, I’ll oppose the deal. My fear isn’t so much that the UAE leaders will conspire with shadowy terrorist figures to blow up an American city. To be honest, I bet Dubai will be so paranoid about this (and about losing the money) that they’ll actually be more thorough about security than the Keystone Chertoffs.

I’m more afraid of the rogue actor. My fear is that giving Dubai control of the ports will give the company access to a host of extremely valuable information about our security procedures even if that information is just basic shipping logistics (where stuff comes in, when it’s inspected, what isn’t inspected, etc.). If the company has ready access to all this information, it only takes one disgruntled employee to share information in a way that could be harmful.

What’s critical to understand is that this situation could happen even if Dubai was infinitely careful. When you have a population that gives you 14% approval, and the employees are drawn from that population, there are a lot of potential weak links in the chain. It’s very similar to my fears about nuclear Pakistan. I don't think the leaders will give nuclear material to terrorists, but a rogue general could slip it to the bad guys without the leadership’s knowledge.

But again, I do think that a lot of this depends on preliminary questions about how ports actually work and about how Dubai's internal corporate structure works. Not that any of this matters now though. It’s not a policy battle anymore, but a political one. And it looks it’s going to be a nasty one, especially if the deal was approved by some crony Brownie-type figure.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006



Winner - Jimmy Carter.

The Bush administration got support Monday from former President Carter, a Democrat and frequent critic of the administration.

By shrewdly agreeing with Bush on the port administration issue, he undermines Bush's conservative support and drives the wedge deeper. That's some good politikin'.

[On an aside, in light of our newfound national unity, the pressure to take a contrarian position on this is overwhelming, but I'm not sure I can. More later.]

Monday, February 20, 2006



Now that I’ve had time to process everything, I think it's pretty clear what Quailgate's real significance is. It's not so much the unanswered questions or the lunchtime beer or the "secrecy" of the administration. The significance of Quailgate is that it revealed just how autonomous Cheney’s office is from the White House. The VP apparently answers to no one. And given what we know about the VP’s long history of bad judgment, that's far more disturbing than questions about the beer.

The standard storyline is that Cheney runs this administration. Quailgate, however, suggests something different. Cheney isn’t Bush’s puppet-master, but he is free to act independently of Bush. He's basically a loose cannon on deck that, while not controlling, is not controlled – a Doc Holiday-type to the Earp White House.

This NYT article sums up the problem nicely:

To others, [the story] is a telling example of the cocoon Mr. Cheney has created within the White House. . . . Several White House officials said no one among the White House staff, including the chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., felt empowered to dictate how news of the accident would be handled. . . . In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff. It conducts policy debates that often happen parallel those among Mr. Bush's staff.

The “cocoon” isn't such a big deal when the decision is about how to inform the public that a stray face intercepted the Vice-President's bullets. But it is a big deal if you’re talking about something like detainee policy or the intelligence justifying a war. And that’s the truly troubling question that Quailgate raises – if the Vice President’s office was free to do whatever it wanted on this issue, what other decisions has it been allowed to make on its own without oversight? What decisions is it making now? Because if there’s one office on the planet Earth that doesn’t need to be making decisions without oversight, it’s Cheney’s office.

Roughly three years ago, Josh Marshall wrote a Washington Monthly article arguing that Cheney’s reputation as cool-headed competence incarnate is absurd. Marshall argued that he’s not only incompetent, he’s literally wrong on almost every important issue he decides (even more than Rumsfeld, I think). Marshall says:

Indeed, on almost any issue, it's usually a sure bet that if Cheney has lined up on one side, the opposite course will turn out to be the wiser. . . . Cheney's reputation as the steady hand at the helm of the Bush administration--the CEO to Bush's chairman--is so potent as to blind Beltway commentators to the examples of vice presidential incompetence accumulating, literally, under their noses. . . . But his terrible judgment will, at some point, become impossible even for the Beltway crowd not to see.

Marshall’s article was published in early 2003, which means he wrote it in late 2002. Other than his prediction about the Beltway commentators' powers of perception, time has been kind to his argument. Writing then, he cited the energy policy, Cheney’s pre-war diplomacy, and the loose-cannon pre-war speech that Rice ultimately had to clean up. Today, Marshall could add a few big bullet points to that list, WMD and torture being the most significant. (The Carpetbagger Report had a detailed rundown of Cheney’s incompetence too as of late 2003).

Quailgate makes it clear that despite all Cheney's bad judgments, he still gets to do what he wants. His office combines autonomy and secrecy with incompetence and bad judgment. It’s a recipe for disaster – and disaster is exactly what we got on both pre-war intelligence and detainee policy. I suspect that when it’s all said and done, historians will conclude that a lot of the mistakes America made this decade could have been avoided if Dick Cheney had less power within this administration.

One final disturbing question that Quailgate raises is this – who actually makes the final calls on important decisions (foreign policy or otherwise) these days? I know Bush is obviously the final decision-maker in theory, but in practice, who is making the final calls? Is Bush really in charge? Because he sure seemed like a secondary character in last week's drama (much like his role in Katrina).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA - The Newest Marxist? 


I’d encourage everyone to read Francis Fukuyama’s “After Neoconservatism” in the NYT Magazine. It pretty much drives a stake through the heart of the theoretical underpinnings of the Iraq War, illustrating as it does the war’s internal contradictions and flawed assumptions (Fukuyama of course is – or was – a leading neoconservative). But what really interested me was this paragraph:

Many people have also interpreted my book "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992) as a neoconservative tract, one that argued in favor of the view that there is a universal hunger for liberty in all people that will inevitably lead them to liberal democracy . . . . This is a misreading of the argument. "The End of History" is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism.

This is a stunning paragraph. If I’m reading "The End of History" correctly (and I’m pretty sure I am), it is ideological and Hegelian, not materialist and Marxist. The paragraph above, though, is Marxist through and through. After reading this article, I realized that something bigger may be going on with Mr. Fukuyama. Specifically, Iraq may not only have soured him on neoconservatism, it may have pushed him out of the idealist (Hegel) camp and into the materialist (Marx) one. This is the philosophical equivalent of a Tar Heel fan slipping on a J.J. Redick T-shirt.

If you want a more detailed background on idealism vs. materialism, you can read my post here. The gist of it is that idealists think that ideas can move and shape history, whereas materialists tend to see ideas as the byproduct (or superstructure) of material forces such as economic relationships and power imbalances.

Iraq provides an excellent example of how these schools of thought work. Because materialists see democracy as the byproduct of (relatively) evenly balanced and widespread wealth, the materialist would stress economic reforms as a necessary precondition of democracy promotion. The idealist, however, believes that introducing the idea of democracy is enough – or more specifically, that introducing the idea can produce the economic wealth. The actual invasion of Iraq (and the greater neocon vision for the Middle East) depends entirely on idealism in that it bets the house on imposing Western ideas top-down rather than helping them develop from the bottom-up.

Personally, I think the materialists have the better argument because I think most things can be explained by underlying economic arrangements. For instance, I think economics explains why the American Revolution worked and the French Revolution didn’t. In many ways, the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all, but a defense of the status quo. The colonies rebelled when Britain tried to reassert top-down control and alter existing economic relationships that were favorable and (slavery excluded) relatively egalitarian. The French Revolution, by contrast, was a revolt of the property-less masses. Because money is power, the masses never really had any real power even after the revolution. And so it was inevitable that a tyrant would replace a tyrant – the underlying economic balance simply wasn’t there to sustain true democratic reform (see also evolution from czar-to-Bolshevik).

The same is true for Iraq. Because the wealth is not evenly distributed (which means power is not evenly distributed), the Iraq War will inevitably replace a tyrant with a tyrant. To truly change Iraq, you have to change the underlying economic structures (a process we’re allowing to happen in China – for now). Maybe America will stay long enough to build the underlying “roots” of democracy, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Anyway, getting back to Fukuyama, “The End of History” (and the modern neoconservatism it inspired) is fundamentally idealistic – that is, it argues that the idea moves History. It’s been a while since I read it, but one key assumption of the book was that History is driven by man’s universal desire for “recognition” or thymos. Because liberal democracy “recognizes” the dignity of each individual in a way that no other system does, it represents the final stage of History and has, ideologically speaking, triumphed over competing systems like socialism.

But the paragraph I cited above couldn’t be more Marxist:

What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.

In other words, money is power. He’s essentially saying that once the underlying economic relationships are “advanced and prosperous,” the demand for participation grows and liberal democracy is a “byproduct.” That’s just another way of saying that political systems are reflections of underlying power structures. When people have money (and thus power), they seek political power (liberal democracy, individual rights, etc.). That, my friends, is Marxism (not in the sense of being pro-communism or socialism, but in the sense that economics is the motor of History).

And that view sure seems a long way from the Fukuyama of 1989:

From the perspective of Hegelian idealism the motor of history is the idea - that is, human consciousness thinking about itself and finally becoming self-conscious. The idea is expressed not just in the philosophic discourse of thinkers, but eventually comes to be embodied in concrete social and political institutions - for the young Hegel, the revolutionary Napoleonic state, and for the older Hegel, the Prussian monarchy of the 1820s[.] . . . [T]he ideal will govern the material world in the long run[.]

Compare that with the Fukuyama of 2006:

This overoptimism about postwar transitions to democracy helps explain the Bush administration's incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that subsequently emerged in Iraq. The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform. While they now assert that they knew all along that the democratic transformation of Iraq would be long and hard, they were clearly taken by surprise. . . . Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.

So what’s going on here? In my opinion, Fukuyama is distancing himself from the fruits of his labor. Don’t get me wrong, I really respect Fukuyama and enjoy reading him, but it’s clear that his writing helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the Iraq War. Instead of recognizing his own role in the war, he seems to be backtracking from his past work and pretending that it wasn’t as ideological as it really was. In other places, he seems to be saying that his theories weren’t wrong, but were simply misused or misinterpreted. Indeed, if you were Kristol or Kagan, you’d probably feel a bit like a jilted lover after reading this. I did not have ideological relations with that man, Mr. Kristol.

Even if all that’s true though, I won’t hold it against him. Coming from a leading neoconservative, this is still a fairly stunning repudiation of past positions – and one that takes some courage. Thankfully, Fukuyama is (unlike much of the neoconservative establishment) willing to compare facts with theory in assessing whether the theory actually works. In light of the monumental failure of his theories (and his unwillingness to recognize them), it amazes me that anyone would still listen to what Bill Kristol thinks about foreign policy. Being smart is not the same thing as being right. And Mr. Kristol and the school of thought he represents have been deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong.

And for the many reasons Fukuyama explains, Kristol’s theory is dead. The heart has been ripped out even if the body has yet to fully collapse. Maybe we’ll slug out something decent in Iraq, but the underlying ideological rationale of the war is in shambles. As Fukuyama writes, “the neoconservative moment appears to have passed.”

On a final note, though, I do agree with Fukuyama that it would be a shame to completely abandon the neoconservatives’ idealistic vision. Regardless of the neocon excesses, democracy is a good thing that is worth pursuing. I don’t necessarily believe that freedom and democracy are tied into the fabric of some abstract Hegelian universe, but I do believe people are generally better off under democracies and lead better lives. And so I agree completely with this line:

The problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them. What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a "realistic Wilsonianism" that better matches means to ends.

Yep. And to her credit, Rice's State Department seems to be going this route, for now.

[UPDATE: A lot of interesting comments today that deserve a brief response. First, commenter Adam is right that Fukuyama's early work didn't entirely ignore materialism. I should have explained this earlier but it's obviously not a clear either/or. The dichotomy makes discussion clearer, but I don't think anyone is 100% in one camp or the other (including Fukuyama, who didn't deny the causal role of material factors). That said, his book's main "move" was the Hegelian/idealism point. That's what gave it its buzz and if you asked people what his schtick is, they would say that he's a Hegelian idealist. This new article puts a lot more emphasis on material factors than the book, which seemed to stress that materialism simply wasn't enough. Also, if you keep pushing the effect of idealism off into the long-term future, it's hard to see that it's doing any real work.

Second, a lot of people provided counter-examples to the wealth-begets-democracy point. Again, this isn't science, but a question of probability. Yes, Japan and Germany fell to fascism, but they also were receptive to democracy after the war. As for India, I agree that it's an example of democracy in the face of vast disparities in wealth. And if America stayed in Iraq as long as Britain stayed in India (and killed as many people), it could probably create the institutions and history necessary for democracy. But all this aside, in general, I think the point stands. Equalized wealth may not automatically produce democracy, but democracy only generally works in societies with relatively equalized wealth (i.e., broad middle class, high general education, etc.). For this reason, I think among all the autocratic Middle Eastern countries, Iran is actually the best suited for a Western-style democracy.]

Thursday, February 16, 2006

OPEN THREAD - What Happened to the Clinton Impeachment 


I'm on the road for work tomorrow, so I'll leave you with a question that's always puzzled me - why aren't congressional votes for impeaching Clinton a bigger political liability than they are? Since impeachment and the '98 elections, there has been an eerie silence about the Clinton impeachment. It was especially notable in 2000, but it's never really come up. The GOP got scared of it after they lost seats. And Democrats don't seem to want to press it either.

But Clinton remains very popular and I think the impeachment votes aren't aging well. So why not remind people? For instance, Santorum, DeWine, Kyl, and Burns all voted to impeach. It might not work well in Montana, but I bet it might in Philly and Cleveland. And I haven't looked but I bet there are potentially vulnerable GOP House members that voted to impeach too. Is this issue dead and forgotten? Are the Red States too anti-Clinton? Maybe it would be triggering a culture war that the Democrats don't need?

I don't know, I just never thought the impeachment supporters got what they deserved for their outrageous actions - actions made even more outrageous by the lack of concern over other (slightly more significant) violations of the "rule of law," especially torture and domestic spying.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006



Other than endangered species, you don’t hear much about animal rights these days. Maybe the animal rights people of the 70s and 80s were so annoying that they chased everyone away. Maybe it’s a cause for people too rich to have any real problems to worry about. I don’t know, but for now, the movement seems confined to the fringes of the so-called American Left.

At first glance, that seems strange. Like environmentalism, you’d expect animal rights to have some cross-over appeal to evangelicals and other religious coalitions. As I’ll explain, though, I think religious assumptions are actually in greater tension with animal rights than secular assumptions.

Dead-Eye’s quail “hunting” of pen-raised birds got me thinking about this. In general, I don’t have problems killing or eating animals. Animals eating animals is the order of things, and I think it’s impossible to justify any moral system holding that eating meat is immoral. I also refuse to read Fast Food Nation, mostly because I like Whoppers. As for hunting, I grew up in a town where everyone loved to hunt and I think everyone should be allowed to do it – and I have no problem with those who do it. But as a personal matter, hunting has been bothering more in my ripe old age of getting-dangerously-close-to-30. It’s not the killing or the killers of the animals that bothers me (we have to do that), it's the manner in which they’re killed. It just bothers to me to think of wounded animals dying in pain over several days from a imprecise shot – and that’s the image I find myself thinking about.

So I guess the ultimate question is this – do animals have “dignity.” If so, I don’t think that necessarily makes it immoral to kill them (we have to eat, after all). But it does arguably make it immoral to kill them in a cruel, painful way for sport.

At first glance, you might think that being religious would make you more likely to believe that animals (as God’s creatures) have this innate dignity. And you might also think that secular people who don’t believe in souls would be less likely to believe in this dignity. I think this actually gets it backwards.

Let’s start with the secular heathens. In one of my classes in college, our professor explained modernism as the blurring of the boundaries between fixed binary concepts. For instance, modernity blurred the line between human and animal, man and woman, mind and body. Everything existed along a spectrum rather than in one of two boxes. The human/animal part was an implication of Darwinism. If you take Darwinism seriously, humans are basically a line of animals that, by accident, developed brains that allowed them to start moving quantum leaps ahead of their fellow animals (think the big horns and drums in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Thus, the secular modernist sees the human as an animal, and one different only in degree from other animals.

The religious person, who maybe accepts evolution though sees a first mover behind it, sees things differently. To the religious person, the human is different. The human’s dignity is rooted in the divine nature of his soul. Thus, the human is a qualitatively different entity than any animal because the human is created in the image of God.

You can see the implications of this on the animal dignity question. The assumptions of the religious person make it less likely that she would see divine dignity in an animal. In the religious worldview, the human is at the center. And even though religious people would not support animal cruelty, this cruelty would not be immoral to the same degree that torturing a human (or fetus) might be.

A secular person, however, would arguably be more likely to find “dignity” in an animal because the animal isn’t a wholly different entity from the human. Whatever dignity that humans possess that makes torture immoral would also apply to equally-conscious animals (or so the argument goes). On an aside, consciousness might be the theoretical foundation for treating smarter animals better – the more consciousness an animal has, the more dignity it arguably has. For that reason, torturing a dolphin or a dog is much different than hooking a fish or stepping on an insect.

That said, I think it’s also perfectly possible that religious people could find such activity repellant because animals are "God’s creatures." My point isn't to say that religious people would ignore cruelty, it's just that their underlying assumptions make it easier for them to treat animals differently.

Again, I don’t know where I come down on all this. I like meat (a lot). I think hunting should be legal, and I don’t care about gun control. But I’m increasingly bothered by blowing off the flesh of sentient mammals and birds for sport (rather than for food). I don’t want to pass any prohibition or anything, I’m just saying it bothers me now even though it never used to.

I suspect these debates are many generations away, but I do think they’ll come one day.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006



Kevin Drum says:

Honestly, I don't think the story about Dick Cheney's shooting accident is any big deal. Good for some late night laughs, but that's it.

I sort of agree, and sort of disagree. I agree that nothing will come of the 2418-hour delay in reporting Dead-Eye Dick’s attempt to live out a Dr. Dre song. (Rat-tat-tat-tat like that. I never hesitate to put a nigga old rich white lawyer on his back). The delay was weird, but I don’t really see a scandal in there. I also agree that Cheney is going to be the butt of late-night jokes for some time to come. Unlike Kevin, though, I wouldn’t dismiss the significance of becoming a national laughingstock for a few weeks. Yes, it may not be a “big deal,” but I think it’s a potentially significant deal, politically speaking.

Ridicule is a sorely misunderestimated political weapon. When it’s done right, I think it’s an extremely effective line of attack – much better than angry frontal assaults or even direct slanders. In my own home state, Mitch McConnell is a master of the art of calculated ridicule. Ridicule was also a key to Bush’s victory. People can talk about the Swift Boats all they want, but I think the real political traction came from treating Kerry as an “object of humor and calculated derision.” After all, I doubt people were all that motivated by the Swift Boat stories by the time they actually made their decision. But I do think they were motivated by the flip-flop taunts, the wind-surfing, the lines about Massachusetts, and the other calculated ridicule heaped on Kerry in 2004.

Rove didn’t so much make America dislike Kerry, he made him a big joke who couldn’t be taken seriously in these serious times. And if I were Kerry, that would be even more maddening than the Swift Boats. The Swift Boats stuff can be overcome. But once you’re perceived as an object of ridicule, it’s very hard to overcome that (see also Tom Cruise).

Getting back to Dead-Eye Dick – slayer of octogenarians – I think the incessant jokes-to-come could undermine him (and the administration) politically – maybe not a lot, but they won't help. And yes, people ridicule Bush and Cheney all the time. But this one is different. To borrow from Ed Helms, he shot a 78-year old man . . . in the face. That’s so ridiculous that even people who pay no attention to politics will hear about it and find it pretty funny.

But here’s why it matters. Perhaps this is too snarky, but I think the continued political support for the administration has little to do with actual policy. How could it? Instead, it relies heavily on a cult of personality – a carefully-crafted aura or projection of toughness and decisiveness. To many people, Bush is still the 9/11 President, the decisive war president, the man who stood on the rubble with the bullhorn.

But the thing is – once you've pulled back the curtain, you can’t ever really believe in the Wizard again. It’s just an old man pulling some switches. Over the past year, the projected aura has lifted and revealed the bumbling incompetence of the administration. Call it the Wizard of Oz effect.

Katrina in particular was the last straw for many people. Katrina struck at the end of August. Although there is variance, practically all of the big national polls show a significant drop in approval and a rise in disapproval following Katrina (one Bush has yet to recover from). I would like to think that this resulted from a newfound desire to address poverty. But it wasn’t. Much like Guy Pearce in Memento, the American people have forgotten about New Orleans. But their image of Bush changed that week. Suddenly the 9/11 President was indecisive, helpless, weak, and incompetent. It popped the bubble for a lot of people.

And now we have Cheney – who shot a 78-year old man . . . in the face. It’s kind of hard to square the tough-guy war-leader image that Cheney wants to project with the image of the bumbling hunter who shot an old man in the face at close range. Yes, in a rational world, this sort of thing would be irrelevant. But in the modern media age, it’s not. And even if the coming ridicule doesn’t pull Cheney’s ratings down lower, it will at least prevent them from being rehabilitated for some time to come. And again, because Cheney depends so heavily on this aura of toughness for support, the ridicule may well effect that support.

I’ve directed my fair share of angry attacks toward Cheney and the administration more generally over the years. But being angry gives them too much credit. In reality, they’re just bumbling incompetents. They don’t deserve vitriol – they deserve ridicule.

Monday, February 13, 2006

HANK WILLIAMS - The Hillbilly Shakespeare? 


Since talking about politics just puts me in a bad mood these days, I want to talk about something else – why I love Hank Williams, Sr. He’s been called a “hillbilly poet” and even “hillbilly Shakespeare.” Bob Dylan once said in an interview, “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter.” I’m not sure I’d go that far (I don’t like comparing people to Shakespeare or the Beatles – they’re in a class alone), but I do like his songs. And even if Hank isn’t a “poet,” he has his moments – and today I want to examine some of those finer moments as part of a larger discussion about what I think makes art (literature, poetry, cinema) “good.”

First, I should say a bit about the non-poetic virtues of his songs. I recently read a biography on Hank Williams by Colin Escott. Personally, I prefer biographies that focus on the individual-in-historical-context rather than play-by-plays of the person’s life. Escott has too much of the latter, but it’s still interesting just because Hank himself is so interesting.

Anyway, a lot of Hank’s songs are good for the same reason that Elvis’s were good – they incorporated upbeat bluesy-ness (black bluesy-ness) into country songs. When you listen to songs like “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over” today, you might think they’re a little slow. But by country music standards of the 1940s, they were rockin’. “Move It On Over,” for instance, incorporated an old public domain blues melody that was also used in “Rock Around The Clock” – one of the first really big rock songs. Compare, for instance, Hank’s lyrics – “Came in last night, at half past ten, that baby of mine, wouldn’t let me in” – with Bill Haley’s – “When the clock strikes two, three and four, If the band slows down we'll yell for more.” Same melody – though Hank’s lyrics are better of course because they’re about being thrown out of the house for being drunk and unfaithful.

But Hank’s claim-to-fame has less to do with blues and more to do with his lyrics and songwriting – i.e., the hillbilly Shakespeare. While I think that label is a stretch, I do think that Hank has some for-real poetic moments. Before I explain why, we need a long-winded detour about what makes poetry (or any art) “good.”

A lot of this is based on ideas I explained in my 2004 post on the eternal Pearl Jam v. Nirvana debate (Nirvana). As I explained, I buy the Nietzschean idea that human emotion is a sort of primal or primordial (or Dionysian) experience that cannot be translated into words, but can only be experienced “immediately.” For example, the word “rage” cannot capture the swirling range of emotions that are experienced as rage. As Nietzsche said, “That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Even though pure emotion cannot be fully expressed, we try nonetheless – that is, we try to move from "im-mediate experience" to artistic expression that mediates the experience. The process goes something like this: (1) we experience the emotion; (2) that experience is channeled through pre-existing mental concepts and then translated into an expression (words, music, etc.) The problem though is that in moving from #1 to #2 something inevitably gets lost in translation. The artistic expression of the immediate experience inevitably drains part of its meaning.

Think about the old children’s game of “gossip” where someone whispers a sentence to one person who then whispers it to the next person and so on. By the time it gets to the end, the sentence is very different from the initial one. Something similar happens with artistic expression in that the ultimate expression is often many times removed from the original “immediate experience.” That’s because the experience gets expressed not in its own terms as we immediately experience it, but in terms that other people in the past have used.

Here’s an example – let’s say someone felt infatuated and wanted to write a poem about how beautiful his girlfriend is. Our aspiring poet sits down and writes some monstrosity about beauty being like flowers or mountain streams or something similarly puke-inducing. The problem is that his language isn’t reflecting what he actually feels – it’s reflecting other people’s ideas and “mediations.” Because someone in the past compared beauty to flowers and got that concept to stick, this derived mental construct (beauty = daisies) is mediating the actual immediate experience. By the time it gets expressed, there's nothing left of the immediate experience.

So that’s one challenge the artist faces in expressing “the immediate experience.” Another one is overcoming one’s own mind (including even one’s native language and the concepts it generates). Take the word “love” for instance. English speakers have one word called "love," whereas Greek speakers have a number of words that more precisely reflect the expression (“eros” = erotic love; “agape” = spiritual/religious love). Thus, the very fact that we speak English alters and limits the way we think about, and express, the immediate experience.

In short, it’s all one big linear process. The immediate experience happens sort of like the Big Bang happens. Through time, the experience filters into conscious thought where it gets altered by pre-existing mental concepts (created by other people’s past work or even our own language).

The goal is get as close to the “Big Bang” as possible. That’s the ideal, so no one can do it. But what makes an artist great is his or her ability to get as close to the immediate experience (the Big Bang) as possible. If you measured all this on an imaginary line, the great artist’s expression would be “closer” to the immediate experience than the bad artist’s and thus less polluted by mental concepts and other people’s work. It’s not so much a matter of being “authentic” as it is being close to the source – call it secular mysticism if you will, where closeness to the divine is replaced by closeness to the primordial emotion itself.

This is my theory of why Shakespeare is so good, and why his plays continue to have global appeal despite being four centuries old. The plays cut through to the very essence of human emotion. They are as close to “immediate” as the written word can be. MacBeth is a pure expression of lust for power and guilt following a crime. King Lear is a pure expression of the horrors of growing old. Othello is a pure expression of sexual jealousy. Romeo & Juliet is a pure expression of teenage infatuation. Hamlet is a pure expression of existential despair.

Shakespeare’s greatness is thus tied to the simplicity and universality of his themes. To be sure, there are some high-level concepts in there, but that's not what makes him great. And the reason he will continue to appeal to future generations (and the reason his plays can be infinitely adapted) is that he uses universal emotions. People are never going to stop being sexually jealous; they’re never going to stop being infatuated. Humans in all cultures feel these emotions because they’re human.

That’s why movies like American Beauty (though good) will not live forever. That movie is an expression not of basic human emotion, but of certain experiences and mental concepts that result from living in post-WW2 suburban America. When the conditions that gave rise to American Beauty fade away, the movie will be incomprehensible to audiences. Shakespeare will not, though, because his themes are closer to the foundation of the pure human emotion – or the Dionysian abyss.

Getting back to Hank Williams, I think that what makes some of his songs great is that they are authentic expressions of pure pain and loneliness. Along the imaginary “line,” he is closer to the source of the immediate experience than others.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” for instance, is an original – and haunting – expression of guilt following infidelity. And it’s expressed in simple “hillbilly” language that is especially effective when performed live (and with the proper accent):

Yer cheatin’ heart will make you weep
You'll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won't come the whole night through
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you . . .
You'll walk the floor the way I do
Yer cheatin’ heart will tell on you

The other song that is frequently cited as his best work is “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Again, it’s not complex language, but when it’s sung, it captures (I think) some essence of the experience of loneliness. When you hear it, it’s easy to picture someone sitting outside at night listening to trains go by:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low,
I'm so lonesome I could cry. . . .

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

If sung properly and in a small smoky honkytonk bar, this song is great live.

Again, what makes Hank great is not so much that this is awesome poetry, it’s that the songs capture the essence of the emotions he’s singing about (loneliness, guilt, etc.) in a personal and original way. When you hear them, they resonate within you at more than a cognitive level. You get the sense that he’s writing from experience – that is, only someone tapped into the true horrors of pure loneliness could write this (and as with all musical lyrics, it’s needs to be heard rather than read for the full effect).

These songs are also about universal emotions. Because people aren’t going to stop being lonely or feeling bad about cheating on people, these songs will have continue to have appeal in a way that Radiohead (though admittedly awesome) won’t. Concepts tend to live shorter lives than emotions (Dada anyone?). That's because concepts are a product of circumstances and lose relevance when those circumstances change.

But that said, there aren’t a lot of Hank songs that capture this pure loneliness. That’s why I think it’s a bit much to call him the “hillbilly Shakespeare.” He had his moments to be sure, but a lot of his songs are just fun bluesy songs, and some are just cheesy but fun pop songs. But awesome nonetheless.

Sunday, February 12, 2006



The man literally can't tell the truth.

And despite forecasts to the contrary, the tax cuts have translated into higher federal revenues.

It's becoming more amusing than irritating, but it is amazing just how factually inaccurate "last throes" Cheney is about almost everything of significance that he says.

In other news, I've updated the sidebar to include the one-and-only Dr. Biobrain. I'll be posting a real post later tonight.

Friday, February 10, 2006



South Dakota takes a step in teeing up Roe (via Drudge):

The South Dakota House has passed a bill that would nearly ban all abortions in the state, ushering the issue to the state Senate. . . . The bill banning all abortions in South Dakota was passed 47-to-22 in the House. Amendments aimed at carving out exemptions for rape, incest and the health of women were rejected. The bill does contain a loophole that allows abortions if women are in danger of dying. Doctors who do those abortions could not be prosecuted.

Got that? If you get raped in South Dakota and become pregnant, the South Dakota House wants to use the threat of criminal sanctions to force you to give birth.



The religiously devout Charles Krauthammer sez:

And these "moderates" are aided and abetted by Western "moderates" who publish pictures of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung and celebrate the "Piss Christ" (a crucifix sitting in a jar of urine) as art deserving public subsidy, but who are seized with a sudden religious sensitivity when the subject is Muhammad.

Again, I am not for a second excusing the mindless fundamentalist riots. But I do think the "Piss Christ" argument (which I've seen in a number of places) doesn't really support the point that it's being used for.

Depicting Christ negatively is simply not the same thing as depicting Muhammad negatively. There is no prohibition in Christianity against using and incorporating physical images of Christ (see, e.g., any Catholic church). There are a few Protestant sects that don't use images I think (leftovers from the early Reformation revolt against "idols"), but images of Jesus are common in all demoninations and I'm not sure I've ever been a church that didn't have an image of Jesus somewhere.

That's not true in Islam. As I understand it, any depiction of Muhammad is forbidden. Now, you may think this is all silly, but what you think doesn't matter. For these purposes, you have to take the rules and logic of the two religions as the relevant guide or baseline. And under those rules, the depictions are simply different in kind, not just degree.

Again, that in no way excuses violence. But if the argument is that everyone who published "Piss Christ" but didn't publish these cartoons is a hypocrite, I'm not sure that argument works.

[UPDATE: Reading the comments, it's clear that I should have spelled this out better (which is why I try to avoid writing quick posts at work). Anyway, the argument seems to be this - the newspapers/media are hypocrites because they published the offensive-to-Christians Piss Christ, but are refusing to publish the Danish cartoons. This of course shows that the media is hostile to Christians.

Whether or not this reflects hypocrisy turns on how seriously Muslims take the prohibition on depicting Muhammad. Assuming this is a very bad thing to do (anyone?) and not merely a pretext for burning things, publishers could rationally conclude that publishing the cartoons is a much bigger deal (and a much bigger disrespect) than publishing Piss Christ because there is no taboo on depicting Christ. None of this is relevant to whether publishers have the right, it goes to whether they should exercise that right. And again, assuming these depictions really are big deals, I don't think the Piss Christ argument supports the hypocrisy argument.

Of course, as Lindsay points out in the comments, things get even stranger if we assume (contrary to my argument) that the two religious depictions are equally offensive. If so (and as she explains), it seems strange that those most offended by Piss Christ would be clamoring for publication of the Danish cartoons.

Last point - the distinction could just be that the publishers don't want to get killed and that evangelicals don't kill people. If that's hypocrisy, it's not unreasonable hypocrisy. But the fact publishers even have to worry about it is a sign that something is seriously rotten in the state of fundamentalist Islam.]

Thursday, February 09, 2006

FEAR: The Great Motivator 


I’ve said before that the first rule of politics is that fear of political death is the only way to change bad political behavior. I should refine that a little – fear of political death is the best way to get a politician to do what you want him or her to do. The converse is that, without a credible fear of political death, it’s very hard to get politicians to do what you want them to do. This “first rule” has been on display across the country in a number of interesting ways. I don’t have any brilliant insights here, I’ve just found these to be interesting recent examples of the principle.

Heather Wilson

Perhaps most suprisingly, Republican Heather Wilson is calling for a full Congressional investigation of the terrorist-child-strangler surveillance program. Josh Marshall beat me to the punch, but the backstory is that Wilson is facing a very tough re-election. She’s in a perpetual swing district anyway, but is going up against the New Mexico Attorney General. I suspect she had a nightmare of October ads (in black-and-white with ominous music) saying, “The government spied on you illegally and Heather Wilson did nothing.” Or more likely perhaps, maybe she needed a high-profile headline to demonstrate her independence. Well, she certainly succeeded there – an investigation is probably the dead-last thing on Rove’s wish list right after having the Fitzgeralds over for fondue. For that reason, though, it wouldn’t shock me if she backs off soon or simply never follows through. She might have just wanted the headline.

Lincoln Chafee

Another vote with an interesting backstory is Lincoln Chafee’s vote on Alito – no, but essentially yes by voting against the filibuster. I actually felt bad for the guy. As Chris Cillizza observed, he was in a catch-22 – he could face the wrath of the GOP primary voters or the general election voters. To me, his Alito vote (no, but functionally yes) showed that he feared the primary voters more than the general election voters. And I think he’s probably right on that.

BenBill Nelson (FL)

I was surprised that Ben Bill Nelson voted against Alito, but I think it reflects the fact that he’s staring down the barrel of a Katherine Harris candidacy. Because the GOP’s threat is much less credible, they’re going to have a harder time getting him to bail out on the Dems this year. That's fortunate for the Dems, because Nelson has always struck me as a weak duck.

Olympia Snowe

Olympia Snowe is one of those people who I would love to see driven out of the Senate. When you get down to actual voting, there’s probably negligible difference between her and people like Inhofe. But because she likes to talk moderate, she is regaled in the press and loved by naked David Broders far and wide. [On an aside, the Post today had three – count ‘em three – “both parties are equally bad” columns – Ignatius, Applebaum, and the increasingly-annoying Samuelson.] But she votes for Alito and pretty much everything else the GOP leadership wants. And why shouldn’t she? There’s no credible challenger to her in Maine, so why risk the party favors. As Yglesias wisely said:

I don't think "press[ing] moderate Republicans to act" is going to get anyone anywhere. Better to crush several of them at Election Day pour encourager les autres. Fundamentally, as long as "moderates" are more afraid of losing a GOP primary than they are of losing to a Democrat, they're not going to act moderate in any meaningful way.

And that’s really the point – fear is the great motivator. If you want to change politics, win. Or at least scare the piss out of your opponent. Don’t appeal to reason or bipartisanship. Don't appeal to anything. Win.

On a final note, it will be interesting to see if Lamont can make a honest man out of Lieberman again. It seems like too short a time to unseat him before a primary, so I don’t know if Joe will take him seriously or not. I honestly don't know what to think about Lieberman - my theory is that he's pissed off for life about the 2004 primary, which is no one's fault but his own and his political tin ear's.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

YOO IS WRONG - No, Not That One 


I'm talking about communications professor Christopher Yoo, noted skeptic of net neutrality:

"To me, network neutrality at this point is premature," Vanderbilt University law professor and visiting University of Pennsylvania professor Christopher Yoo said at a press briefing. . . . During the briefing, Yoo argued that operators of broadband networks should be allowed to "experiment" with varying network architectures.


There's no such thing as a free lunch on the Internet, according to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who said Thursday that providers of bandwith-intensive Internet applications, including Google and Microsoft, should "share the cost" of operating broadband networks.

There is a really important fight brewing on the Hill right now about net neutrality. I have a big long-winded post on it in the works, but I'm too busy with other things tonight.

Also, I updated the sidebar to include long-overdue links to Lawyers, Guns, and Money; Battlepanda; and Digby. I've also updated SA with its new address.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006



Warrantless domestic spying is disturbing, but not quite as much as UK's basketball season. And they lost again tonight. At home. Again.

Mediocrity is a new thing for me in the world of college basketball. I don't like it.



While I’ve obviously been disturbed by the fundamentalist riots, I’ve also been disturbed at the reaction in certain parts of the right blogosphere – and fascinated. For instance, although Michelle Malkin and LGF (bastions of tolerant Western liberalism that they are) have dozens of angry posts on the “cartoon jihads,” you get the sense that they’re not so much angry as giddy about their free pass to bash Islam. These are subjective calls obviously, but if you read their February archives, you get the sense that something more is going on here than defending press freedom. For them, it seems like press freedom is being used as a pretext for unleashing more deeply-felt prejudices.

So here’s my point – similarly to the way that certain regimes and fundamentalists are stoking the fires for ulterior motives, I think that the Malkinites’ rage also serves purposes other than defending press freedom or liberalism. In fact, I think part of the Malkanites’ outrage-at-the-outrage serves deeper psychological needs – specifically, it reduces cognitive dissonance.

Before I start my pop psychology lecture, let me reaffirm that these riots are profoundly disturbing and raise a whole host of tough questions about the compatibility of religious fundamentalism and liberalism. The riots also confirmed that fundamentalists are scary people who, if they got power, would make life very bad. And as I explained earlier this week, liberals (classical sense) need to do more to push back against their bullying across the globe (not only militarily where necessary but ideologically too).

That said, one thing that has disturbed me about the Malkin-o-sphere’s reaction is the way it has seized upon the riots not merely to bash Islamic fundamentalists, but Islam itself (and Muslims as a whole). And it’s a strange sort of bashing – it’s bashing with “bridled glee” (quote from Seinfeld – the doctor’s observation of George’s mood after Susan died). They just seem too excited about the whole thing – and they seem to be relishing their window to say some offensive things. Here’s Malkin:

Blogger E.L. Core e-mailed me with an excellent idea for a Muhammad Cartoons "Blogburst": Hi, Michelle. . . . Maybe you could invite other bloggers to send you a link to their cartoon blog entry, and we could all start linking to them? Ok. Let's do it. If you've posted some or all of the forbidden Muhammad cartoons on your blog in support of Denmark and the Jyllands-Posten, send a track back or e-mail me your link. It'll actually be a very useful road map for the enormous number of Internet users around the world who are trying to find the cartoons (just check Technorati and you'll see what I'm talking about). I'll get started with a few right now and keep adding as many links to this list as humanly possible.

And here are some recent post titles from LGF in February: “Religion of Peace Gets Busy,” “Scenes of Peace and Tolerance,” “Danish Queen: ‘We Have To Show Our Opposition to Islam,’” “Get Yer Danish Cartoons Here,” “Religion of Tolerance,” “The Infidel Bloggers Alliance Mohammed Cartoon Contest.”

Centrist media critic Glenn Reynolds is, as usual, a bit slicker in that he merely block quotes what others [UPDATE: an Iraqi blogger in this case] are saying including this:

I would strongly support deporting those people back to the miserable societies they originally came from.

Don’t get me wrong – the riots need to be strongly condemned and even ridiculed. But just like it’s unfair to lump Christians in with Dobson, or Democrats with Michael Moore, or Group X with nominally-aligned fringe member Y, it’s unfair to use acts of idiot fundamentalists as a pretext to open fire on Islam as a whole.

Getting back to the Malkin-o-sphere, the interesting question is why it has seized upon these cartoon riots to “protest too much.” Psychologically speaking, I think that Malkinites need the fundamentalist riots. Specifically, they help reaffirm certain pre-existing views that are rooted in base prejudice. Better yet, let’s just say that Malkin and LGF are not exactly beacons of shining liberalism on issues of race – especially when Muslims are involved. LGF in particular is infamous for including posts about Muslims that cannot be distinguished from late German fascism quotes about Jews (take the quiz and see for yourself).

Of course, no one wants to think of themselves as prejudiced. There’s cognitive dissonance there. Thus, when people like Malkin and the LGF posters see idiot fundamentalists doing idiot things, they seize upon it because it tends to support their pre-existing (and possibly subconscious) prejudices. It’s similar to the way that Steve Sailer seized upon the Katrina aftermath to reaffirm his pre-existing views of blacks:

In contrast to New Orleans, there was only minimal looting after the horrendous 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan—because, when you get down to it, Japanese aren't blacks.

Another point is that playing up the riots helps the Malkin-o-sphere dehumanize Muslims, which makes certain policy choices that they support more palatable (e.g., war in Iraq). In its own dark way, this is almost a comforting thing – the fact that humans need to dehumanize others before supporting bombing their cities shows that maybe our basic instincts aren’t so bad after all. (The scary part, though, is how easy it is for dehumanization to take place.)

I wandered a bit – here’s my point. When you support an aggressive military or bombing campaign across the Middle East, you have to make that-which-will-be-bombed abstract or dehumanized – often, you have to push it out of consciousness altogether. Whatever you ultimately do, you have to do something to make the consequences less concrete in your mind. Wars make less sense when the bombs kill the secular Muslim high school student sitting in her house appalled at the riots – or that girl’s grandparents. Wars make sense, though, when the bombs are killing radical fundamentalists and/or terrorists. That’s why playing up images like these makes bombing these countries more palatable – in your mind, the subset becomes the whole.

This is a long-winded way of saying that playing up these images in the way that Malkin & Pals have done eases cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, it reduces the cognitive dissonance of claiming to be a Western liberal while harboring deeper illiberal prejudices. Second, it reduces the cognitive dissonance of supporting military policies that produce high levels of civilian casualties. So long as what’s on the other end of our bombs are the people burning the embassies, Malkin can sleep better at night. And so in its own strange way, her fire-breathing makes her a more complex and sympathetic figure – in the same way that negative fifty is somewhat closer to positive numbers than negative fifty-two.

Monday, February 06, 2006



Specter too:

There were several minutes of tension early on, after Mr. Specter said it was not necessary for Mr. Gonzales to be placed under oath. Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, who has accused Mr. Gonzales of giving misleading testimony a year ago, after he was nominated to be attorney general, differed.

"Mr. Chairman, I just say that the reason that anyone would want him sworn has to do with the fact that certain statements were made under oath at the confirmation hearing," Mr. Feingold said. "So, it seems to me, logical that since we're going to be asking about similar things, that he should be sworn in this occasion as well."

Mr. Feingold has made it clear he is angry about Mr. Gonzales's response a year ago to Mr. Feingold's question about whether he thought the president could, as commander in chief, authorize searches and wiretaps without warrants. Mr. Gonzales said then that "what we're really discussing is a hypothetical situation."

When Mr. Feingold pushed to have Mr. Gonzales sworn in, Mr. Specter called for a vote. The committee voted, 10 to 8, along party lines not to have Mr. Gonzales sworn in.

This is your modern Republican Party. Anyone care to make a remotely plausible argument for not swearing him in? And while you're at it, please explain why Stevens didn't need to swear in the oil executives either.

Sunday, February 05, 2006



Another couple of signs that, contrary to Fukuyama, liberalism (and its basic assumptions) seems to be under siege across the globe.

The NYT:

Thousands of Syrians enraged by caricatures of Islam's revered prophet torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus on Saturday . . . [T]he leader of the Palestinian group Hamas called the cartoons "an unforgivable insult" that merited punishment by death.

And though the Vatican rightly condemned the violence, it also issued a disturbing statement of its own:

The Vatican deplored the violence but said certain provocative forms of criticism were unacceptable. "The right to freedom of thought and expression cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in its first statement on the controversy.

That's, um, exactly what it entails.



It’s easy to be upset with the administration about its secret torture “black sites” and illegal domestic spying program. It’s not just that the actions themselves are immoral, it’s also that they were hidden from Congress and violated the law that Congress specifically passed to govern these issues. But while the administration deserves a lot of the blame, Congress deserves its fair share too. The NSA abuse is, I think, at least partially a consequence of Congress's abandonment of oversight of the Bush administration. And while it's easy to blame these oversight failures on GOP hackishness, I think there are also some deeper structural causes as well. In fact, I think one source of Congress's recent abandonment of its oversight responsibilities stems from the Constitution’s inability to accommodate modern political parties.

As I’ve explained before, our Constitution doesn’t contemplate national political parties, which only developed after ratification. In devising the system of checks and balances we all know and love, the Framers relied heavily on institutionalism. That is, they were betting that the institution’s members would guard their own institution’s own power and resist the growth in power of a rival institution. One key to preventing abuse then was this inherent structural tension among the various institutions.

Political parties undermine this structure in a number of respects. First, political parties artificially decrease the structural tension that is supposed to exist between the House, Senate, and White House. For instance, if the same party controls the Senate and the White House, then there may be less tension between them than there should be. Political parties can also, however, artificially increase the structural tension. If, for instance, different parties control the White House and Senate, then there can be more tension than there should be.

To see a perfect example of what I’m talking about, check out Milbank’s recent article on congressional oversight. Milbank focuses in particular on the House Government Reform Committee:

In an interview last week, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said "it's a fair comment" that the GOP-controlled Congress has done insufficient oversight and "ought to be" doing more. "Republican Congresses tend to overinvestigate Democratic administrations and underinvestigate their own," said Davis, who added that he has tried to pick up some of the slack with his committee. "I get concerned we lose our separation of powers when one party controls both branches."

Democrats on the committee said the panel issued 1,052 subpoenas to probe alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party between 1997 and 2002, at a cost of more than $35 million. By contrast, the committee under Davis has issued three subpoenas to the Bush administration, two to the Energy Department over nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, and one last week to the Defense Department over Katrina documents.

1,052 to 3. Fortunately for us, the Bush administration only needs 1/350th of the oversight that Clinton and the Dems required. Otherwise, we’d be in real trouble.

Seriously though, Congress’s complete abandonment of oversight is a major contributing cause to the administration’s bad (and sometimes illegal) policies. If the Bush administration had even the slightest fear of Congressional oversight or, god forbid, subpoenas, I suspect its policies would have been a lot different these past few years. But because the GOP-controlled Congress has given the administration a free pass on almost everything, I think the White House felt it could pretty much do what it wanted. And yes, the administration is to blame for taking that license and running with it. But Congress deserves its share of the blame too. It’s sort of like the teenager who wrecks the car drunk at 4 AM. Yes, the teenager is to blame. But some blame also belongs to the parents who allowed their child to have the car out at 4 AM.

But there’s one other point to make. It’s true that having an all-GOP government has reduced the tension (and thus oversight) that would otherwise exist among the branches. But party affiliation alone doesn’t quite explain the complete abandonment of congressional responsibility in the face of negligence and abuse. To borrow from Purple Rain, there’s something else. And that something else is money.

The rank-and-file depend more than ever on the resources of the increasingly centralized, hierarchical party (which is essentially a corporation). Again, I’ve explained all this before, but defying the party leadership is more expensive than it used to be. If the people at the White House aren’t happy with you, you may suddenly find yourself losing campaign contributions and high-profile visits. And you can bet that nothing gets on the power-that-be’s radar quicker than pesky oversight subpoenas – especially about something like torture or domestic spying.

Money also explains why what little oversight we have seen has come from the Senate and not the House. Senators (especially senior Senators) are more likely to have an independent financial base of support (that is, they need party resources less). They can also rely more on seniority than the whims of the leadership for committee placement. In short, the centralized party has less leverage over senior Senators. The House is a different story though. House members have to rely far more heavily on party resources and the whims of the leadership. The party therefore has more leverage over them.

But that said, the Senate has almost completely abandoned oversight too. To say that one is better than the House is not to say that one is good. Hell, the only reason we’re having any hearings at all on the domestic spying is because Arlen Specter is a committee chairman. Pat Roberts isn’t going to do it – and if Orrin Hatch were Judiciary Chairman, he would do nothing as well. (The latter are just hacks – they don’t need the money).

To sum up, the lack of oversight that led (in part) to the NSA abuse resulted from both one-party control and the internal dynamics of the party in control. When you step back and think about all of this, it should cause some serious constitutional concern. After all, the best protection we have against abuse and bad policy is not so much what’s written in a statute book, but the structural dynamics and tensions of our constitutional structure. We need the legislative and executive branches to be watching each other. Courts are simply too slow and institutionally limited to perform the oversight role. And if we have to rely on them, it just won't get done (not in time for it to matter, anyway).

Saturday, February 04, 2006



Last March, I wrote a post called “The Outrage Industry.” I stole the basic idea from old Frankfurt School writings (the “Frankfurt School” was a group of Marxist Jewish scholars who fled Germany in the 30s and resettled in America – many of their cultural critiques and observations were the foundation of some of the later 60s critiques). One focus of their critiques was the so-called American “culture industry” – which they thought distracted the people and kept them from rising up or whatever it is “the people” are supposed to do.

As I explained in that post, although I don’t buy that argument, I do think the argument can be reapplied to the evangelical, and to a lesser extent, GOP leadership. Frankly, I think the GOP and evangelical leadership’s preferred policies are not, on balance, all that Christian (anti-gay, pro-tax cuts-for-rich, anti-environment, focused on resentment rather than the “good news,” etc.). But to maintain the loyalty of the evangelical rank-and-file to policies that don't naturally square with Christian values, the evangelical leadership has constructed an “Outrage Industry.” Its goal is to keep evangelicals both loyal and distracted by making them think they are being persecuted on all fronts all the time. To do this, the Outrage Industry packages and commodifies outrages (Schiavo, Merry Christmas, gay marriage, Ten Commandments) and distributes them through direct mail campaigns, talk radio, and other mediums.

I think something very similar is happening in the Muslim world. Both the Middle East regimes and fundamentalist Islamic leaders have a vested interest in convincing the Muslim rank-and-file that they are being perpetually persecuted. The persecution takes the people’s eyes off of the regimes’ or leaders’ own failures and repressions and directs them toward an “Other.”

In this sense, the Islamic world has its own version of the Outrage Industry. Islamic leaders need outrages – in particular, they need outrages that foster a sense of persecution. While the distribution of these outrages is not as sophisticated as the American GOP and evangelical leadership’s, there is a conscious effort to play up these outrages to maintain the persecution complex that is so essential for maintaining loyalty to both regimes and fundamentalist leaders. For this reason, the Danish cartoons are literally a godsend. They fit the “persecution” role perfectly and leaders are milking them for all they're worth.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the Islamic and American persecution complexes are not the same. Unlike American evangelicals (for the most part), Muslims have a lot of legitimate gripes. This is a critical point and one that needs to be more widely recognized. As Anonymous (Michael Scheuer) observed in Imperial Hubris, when Muslims look across the globe at non-Muslim countries’ foreign policy, they see a lot to be pissed about. They see Israel’s land-stealing wall, Russian repression in Chechnya, Chinese repression in western China, French suppression of religious expression, corrupt autocratic regimes – and America supports all of them. And that’s not even including things like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

So it’s a little unfair to fully equate the evangelical persecution complex with the Islamic one even though there are similarities. Christians are an overwhelming majority in this country and evangelical Christians have unprecedented political power on both the state and federal levels. Islamic countries are not, on balance, very powerful in the world of geopolitical affairs. And to be honest, Muslims get shit on by many countries’ foreign policies – including ours.

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

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