Saturday, October 30, 2004

THE TAPE - It's Not About Us 


One of my most fundamental gripes with the American mindset is its "Americo-centrism." In far too many people's eyes, America is the fixed center of the universe and the rest of the world merely revolves around it. The idea that there is a larger world out there (98% of humanity) rarely figures into our calculations. The bin Laden tape is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

The initial reaction to the tape was that bin Laden was trying to affect the election, or influence our political process. This was echoed by the "media idiot chorus," as Billmon said (welcome back! - we've missed you). If that's true, then I'm relieved that a videotape was his only means of doing so. But frankly, bin Laden couldn't care less about our election, or us. This videotape's intended audience was the Muslim world, and the Muslim world alone. In my opinion, the timing of the release had less to do with influencing an election that he cares little about, and more about getting maximum media coverage for his message. And in that, he succeeded wildly (again).

The tape struck me as being a lot like one of Bush's speeches to the UN. When he addresses the international body, he's not speaking to the world. He doesn't even care about the world. His UN speeches were intended solely for a domestic audience.

Bin Laden's speech was exactly the same. For those who haven't read them, I wrote my most lengthy thoughts on bin Laden's strategy and the misnamed "war on terror" here and here. If you buy the arguments I raised in those posts, you can see exactly how the text of bin Laden's speech meshes with his global strategy.

Though you should read those posts, I will point out a few of the main themes. First, bin Laden's goal is to change the Middle East, not destroy us. Attacking us is a means to uniting Arabs similar to the way Marx once wanted to unite workers across arbitrary national borders. Second, bin Laden has hijacked the religious concept of "defensive jihad." According to the Koran, all Muslims are required to fight back (or lend support) if Muslims, Islam, or Muslim lands are being attacked. Third, and this is bin Laden's real innovation, he has used concrete examples of policies that outrage Arabs and fused them with the religious concept of "defensive jihad." Unlike the old Iranian revolutionaries, he doesn't rail against the West's mini-skirts. He points to concrete foreign policies and actions throughout the world that Arabs find offensive (Palestine; Chechnya; China; Kashmir; American occupation of Saudi Arabia; attack on holy Iraq/Najaf; support for corrupt dictators; etc.). Bin Laden uses these concrete, universal grievances to persuade the Arab street that there is a global assault on Islam, which justifies his terrorism (or "military actions" depending upon one's perceptions).

The key to everything for bin Laden is to make sure that the Arab street perceives that nations like America are hurting Muslims. The perception is the key. And Bush has played the foil perfectly (think Abu Ghraib; Boykin; use of the word "crusade"). Bin Laden could not have scripted it any better.

The other aspect of all this is the role of shame. Again, I wrote about this idea in more detail here. The 9/11 Commission Report, for instance, explains that much of the Arab street feels humiliated and oppressed about its colonial history, its own lack of progress, and the current foreign policies of many nations that are perceived to be anti-Muslim. As I explained earlier, it's similar to the inferiority complex of Southerners here in America. And that's why these people revere Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee - these are heroes who stood up and kicked the asses (for a while) of those who make them feel inferior. Bin Laden's appeal is similar. To many Arabs who feel powerless and who hate America, he is the "badass" who struck back and appeared strong. Remember, I'm only talking about perceptions - there is nothing "badass" about the mass murder of 3,000 innocent civilians who had nothing to do with anything.

Anyway, with all that in mind, let's parse bin Laden's text.

Security is an important foundation of human life, and free people do not squander their security, contrary to Bush's claims that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example. . . . Despite entering the fourth year after September 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you, and therefore the reasons are still there for a repeat of what happened.

God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers. But after the situation became unbearable and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed -- when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. 6th Fleet.

Bin Laden is linking his efforts to the more concrete Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, he's never cared about our culture (unlike the Ayatollah) or our freedom. He is trying to change the Middle East, and to rally support to do so. Terrorism is a tactic, not a strategy, and he tries to justify by linking it with widely held grievances such as the actions of Israel.

We had no difficulty in dealing with Bush and his administration because they resemble the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half by the sons of kings. . . . They have a lot of pride, arrogance, greed and thievery.

He [Bush] adopted despotism and the crushing of freedoms from Arab rulers and called it the Patriot Act under the guise of combating terrorism.

Again, bin Laden is linking his cause to an widely shared concrete grievance in the Middle East - the corrupt dictators who oppress Islamic fundamentalism. He's trying to convince the Arab street that he's fighting to change these governments, and that Bush is no different than people like the Sauds.

It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American forces would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone at a time when they most needed him because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers.

That's intended to ridicule Bush and embarrass him in the eyes of Muslims. Again, it's a recruitment tool to rally money and foot soldiers to those with an inferiority complex.

Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential candidate John F.] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands, and each state that does not harm our security will remain safe.

Again, bin Laden's critique is about our policy, not our freedom.

In a strange way, this tape gives me some cause for optimism. The fact that bin Laden couldn't attack before the election is promising. The fact that he is outlining all these arguments that are clearly intended for the Muslim world leads me to think that he has not yet won the heart and minds of the Arab street. I hope so.

Regardless, from the text of what I read, this seemed more like a recruitment commercial than anything else. Perhaps it was a guidebook for aspiring cell leaders as to how to persuade impressionable foot soldiers or donors. I don't know, and I don't know how the tape will effect the election. But I do know one thing - George Bush's policies have played into bin Laden's propaganda game perfectly. And for that, he deserves defeat. As he likes to say, he doesn't understand the post-9/11 world.

Friday, October 29, 2004



For those not from Kentucky, you might think that Senator Bunning was responsible for the Republican state legislators who implied that Mongiardo was gay (story here). Josh Marshall linked to the story - I'm sure Kos will to. But it's not Bunning, it's McConnell. Frankly, Bunning is too stupid to come up with something like this. McConnell is just a step above Rove, and he coordinates high-level Republican strategy in the state. That's why the governor won't condemn the remarks either - he knows McConnell is behind it. The Kentucky Courier-Journal, long familiar with McConnell's MO, gets it right.



I'll take what I can get, but the best of all worlds on November 2nd would be for Kerry to win the Electoral College, but lose the popular vote. That would give us perhaps our only real chance at getting rid of that wretched, undemocratic institution. If conservatives complained about it, I would be happy to say, "Yes, it's an outrage. Bush should be President. Let's get rid of it." And if Bush gets more votes, he should be President. Al Gore should be President.

The critiques of the Electoral College are familiar. I broke down the math here back in January. What's most outrageous are the two "Senate points" that each state gets. There's no reason for Wyoming's 500,000 people to get two extra bonus points, when California's 34 million also get only two bonus points. It really throws things off. Wyoming gets one elector point for every 167,000 people. California gets one elector point for every 614,000 people. If these two bonus points were removed, Gore would have won in 2000, and Kerry would be clearly ahead now. The current election rules are stacked against more urban states.

I have always thought we could never change the Electoral College. Why? Because the Article V amendment process depends upon states, and not people. In theory, fourteen people could thwart the will of 300 million if, say, fourteen states only had one person each. That's absurd of course. But it's true that fourteen sparsely populated states can block the will of the rest of the country. It's undemocratic. But even worse, the Article V procedure is itself incapable of fixing the problem - it's a contradiction of sorts in that the fourteen small states will never (assuming they're rational) give up their veto power.

But if Bush wins, these people just might blame it on the Electoral College.

Still, I suspect they would come to their senses by the time the vote came around. But it merely points to a larger problem - the idea of "states" and "federalism" is increasingly in tension with democratic ideals. Obviously, giving power to states was a necessary part of the bargain back in 1789. But even then, the bigger states like Virginia and New York almost didn't join because they feared the smaller states had too much power. But today, population growth and demographic shifts are such that these states would not have joined today (assuming they're rational). Here's why (from my post in January):

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

I doubt it. But look at the ways that the devotion to "states" as political entities frustrates democracy. First, there's the Senate, which doesn't require much explanation. Second, there's the Electoral College. Third, there's the Article V amendment procedure. Fourth - and here's the one that may make a reappearance next week - if the election is tied or disputed (in such a way that no one gets a majority), it will wind up in the House. And again, Wyoming's 500,000 will then get one vote, just like California's 34 million. All of these measures make sense as a way to get reluctant, independent states to join into a union, but do they serve any purpose today? Or are they products of cultural lag - an anachronistic regime ill-suited for today's modern ex/sub/urban world.

Now, to be fair, there are some good things about federalism. First, if it does nothing else, Article V slows down the process and prevents us from passing something stupid in a mad frenzy (see, e.g., Iraq). But there are more democratic ways to achieve that goal. For example, what if the Constitution could be amended by a 75% popular vote two years in a row? Or three? Or perhaps in two consecutive congressional elections (two-year gap). That gives a year or two to deliberate, which would continue one of the great insights of the Constitution (that a democracy doesn't work well when it moves fast).

Don't get me wrong - I love the Constitution. I get all sappy for James Madison (who, ironically enough, initially thought that the Constitution was a failure because states had too much power). The Constitution is the most perfect embodiment of Enlightment rationalism. The fact that advanced monkeys could create such a thing is a marvel of history. But the genius of the Constitution wasn't that it created states - it was that it created gridlock. It created internal tensions between the branches of government, and forced shifting majorities. It slowed things down. It frustrated majority tyranny.

But my point is that perhaps the challenge for the next great generation of thinkers is to devise a system of gridlock that doesn't rely on such anachronistic mechanisms as the states. For example, I think the militia protections in the Second Amendment are quite important - but you don't need states for that. You just need the right to bear arms and join militias.

If you really want to protect states, the Senate provides more than enough protection. But there's simply no reason why the idea of "states" should play such a prominent role in choosing the national executive. The House shouldn't be voting by state, it should be voting by member. The Electoral College should not include these two meaningless Senate points.

But the biggest obstacle of all is Article V's reliance on the states, though the thought of changing it is scary. It really makes you ask how much you trust the people. Before progressives get too excited, or conservatives get too furious, you should keep this in mind. Would the First Amendment's division of church and state hold up under a 75% amendment regime (even over consecutive years). Would the gay marriage amendment pass? It's hard to say.

If the Framers were anything, they were scared of the people. And I think they were right to be. Majorities can do stupid things in a frenzy. Also, I think the reliance on states with respect to certain government procedures made a lot of sense in 1789. I'm just not sure why they do today.

Thursday, October 28, 2004



From ABC News:

The strongest evidence to date indicates that conventional explosives missing from Iraq's Al-Qaqaa installation disappeared after the United States had taken control of Iraq.

Barrels inside the Al-Qaqaa facility appear on videotape shot by ABC television affiliate KSTP of St. Paul, Minn., which had a crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when it passed through Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003 — nine days after Baghdad fell.

Experts who have studied the images say the barrels on the tape contain the high explosive HMX, and the U.N. markings on the barrels are clear.

. . .

After the bunkers were opened, the 101st was not ordered to secure the facility. A senior officer told ABC News the division would not have had nearly enough soldiers to do so.

In all fairness, though, Kerry is a windsurfer.



There are two ways to approach the right-wing's uproar over al Qaqaa and the NYT. On the one hand, you could engage it and show why their facts are wrong. I think Josh has done that well enough. What's more interesting to me is what this entire incident says about the state of our current political dialogue. If you take a step back and try to view it from a more disinterested perspective, it's fascinating. It says so much about where we are, and where we seem to be heading. I'm not talking about the weapons looting itself, I'm talking about the dialogue surrounding it - and the split-screen realities that each side has set up camp in.

Now, I don't doubt for a second that Matt Drudge posts a lot of things that he knows aren't true, or at least are just barely plausible enough to be represented as true. But what's interesting about al Qaqaa is that many conservatives (and commenters on conservative blogs) actually believe in the reality they have constructed. They're not being dishonest. In that world, the al Qaqaa story has collapsed. To them, it's a product of a malicious press bias. And they're not lying. Condi lies, but these people believe it. And they would even say that I'm the one living in my own constructed self-serving reality. (Perhaps - but this poll doesn't help that argument.)

So, how did we get here? How did we get to a place where the different political parties aren't merely disagreeing, but are actually occuping two separate spheres of reality? I don't know. But it's a serious problem. And it's getting worse.

If you'll allow me to get a bit abstract, I think what we're seeing is a breakdown of some of the invisible background rules that make debate possible in the first place. Take a baseball game for instance. People don't think about it, but the game itself is only possible because both sides have committed themselves, ex ante, to a set of governing rules. Three strikes you're out. Ground rule doubles, etc. Law works the same way. Society doesn't break down because we have agreed to abide by certain background rules (e.g., murder is punished).

Democratic dialogue works the same way. If there aren't "invisible" background rules in place, it doesn't work that well - or at all. For example, political debate only works when there's an invisible background rule - i.e., some sort of shared understanding - in place that limits how dishonest a candidate is allowed to be. (This is where a real media would help - they should be umpires.) Similarly, political debates won't work unless both sides are willing to submit (ex ante) to some sort of shared empirical reality, or perhaps a reality that can be shown empirically. For example, if I say, "That's an apple" - and you say, "That's an orange" - then there must be some mutually agreed upon methodology or epistemology that would allow us to settle this dispute. Without that common understanding, we might as well be speaking different languages.

But the current political atmosphere is so poisoned that we're not only disagreeing about issues, we're disagreeing about the fundamental rules that allow us to debate those issues in the first place. It's not much different than a baseball player turning to the umpire and saying, "No, I get four strikes!"

Our political thinking has become completely results-driven. The idea is that, first, our favored candidate or position is always correct - about everything. Period. Second, if the facts refute that, then we change the facts that we're perceiving. If the facts can't be refuted, we impugn the source. It's more of a pathology than it is dishonesty. And people on both sides do it (though I think people know that I blame one side more than the other).

I'm not sure why these background rules are breaking down, though I would welcome comments. In my opinion, it's a secondary effect of polarization on a number of substantive issues such as the war, impeachment, Bush v. Gore, taxes, and gay marriage. For whatever reason, these issues have split America into two camps and the two camps have come to despise each other. And when the animosity gets this high, the background rules themselves begin to melt under the pressure. If the facts support the other side, then by God the facts are wrong. And if saying the facts are wrong requires suspending empiricism, then so be it.

I think we've reached a boiling point of sorts. But I honestly believe that a Bush defeat would go a long toward relieving the pressure. As I've said many times, the real reason why Bush is so despised traces back to his exploitation of 9/11. Following the trauma of impeachment and Bush v. Gore, I think the country was longing for such a moment of unity. It seems like a distant faraway world now, but I remember watching Bush throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium and thinking "fuck yeah." I was proud of him, and for a moment, I believed in him. I got swept up in the collective unity and reflection. It was refreshing to be a nation again in light of recent history. And I am generally skeptical of overly emotional patriotism.

But then Bush used that capital to not only push for an unnecessary war, but to create a frenzy in which those who opposed him were somehow being untrue to those who died on 9/11. He used 9/11 against us - he exploited it for his own political gain. And in doing so, he robbed us of our national unity. That's his original sin, and that's why many will always despise him. I've never forgiven him. And I suspect that absent this betrayal, you may have never heard of Moveon.org or Air America Radio or Daily Kos or President Kerry. You certainly wouldn't have heard of Legal Fiction. If you're on the Right, you cannot begin to understand the sense of anger and betrayal we felt - that we still feel.

If Bush goes, then this steam will finally be released. But I think the Right will calm down too and rejoin the reality-based community after the purging of those who led them to defeat. Yes, people on the right don't like Kerry, but they don't have a burning hatred for him like they did Clinton. A Kerry victory would give us all relief - a time to calm down and reassess things. Perhaps we could reforge some of the mystic chords.

A second Bush presidency will lead to further breakdown of the national community. The political environment will get even nastier and more poisonous. Both sides will hate each other even more intensely, putting even more pressure on the background rules that govern us. The divide will grow. Objective political reality may end.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004



Posting will probably be light today. I did have one wonkish question for those who know, and then one other general comment.

First, with respect to Kerry's health care plan, one aspect of it is for the government to assume the catastrophic costs. In theory, this would reduce costs and thus make coverage cheaper and more accessible (all within the private market). But here's my question for those who have a better knowledge of this stuff. Are there states where the competition is so poor that it won't help? For instance, I've heard that some states only have one major insurance company. Can they be trusted to reduce premiums without competition? I suppose other companies could move in and what not if they didn't reduce premiums even though their costs were lower (again, in theory). I don't know - maybe I'm showing off my ignorance. My basic question is whether the market competition is sufficiently strong in this area for Kerry's measure to actually work.

Second, this whole crybabying about "Bombgate" is a perfect example of how the right-wing echo chamber works. This story is damning, no matter when the cache was looted - and it had to be either March or April. But the point is not to defend the president's actions or competence. The point is to scream and scream and scream on Drudge and Fox News and Instapundit until the press treats it as a "he said/she said." It's exactly what happened with Richard Clarke. Sometimes, the goal isn't to win, but merely to create the appearance of a partisan dispute. It never ceases to amaze how the same people who brag about their pro-military views can so thoroughly repress contradictions to the narrative.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004



USA Today:

Likely voters who cast a ballot in 2000 lean toward Bush, 50%-46%, according to USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup surveys during the past four months. But likely voters who didn't go to the polls four years ago are overwhelmingly for Kerry, 59%-40%.

These get-off-the-bench voters could be a decisive factor in the election, and they introduce an unpredictable element in a close race. There probably will be more of them than usual: Fifty-two percent of those who didn't vote in 2000 say they are almost certain to go to the polls this year — though only half of them meet the survey criteria to be identified as "likely voters."

Seven days.



I hate to jinx it, but I'm starting to get really excited about next Tuesday. Barring something crazy, Bush is done. By the way, the New Yorker's editors wrote one of the most well-written critiques of Bush's record that I've ever read. Apparently, its endorsement of Kerry is the first time it has ever endorsed a President in its history. It's just remarkably well-written, and the substance ain't bad either.

Anyway, I'm feeling good, for several reasons. First, the polls are looking good. In most national polls, Bush's level of support is bumping up against a ceiling of about 47 to 48% - and the election is in a week. Second, the tracking polls are showing movement toward Kerry. Rasmussen and the Post even have him ahead nationally. But more importantly, the battleground state polls show Kerry running stronger than he is nationally. And that was before the lost explosives story (which is truly mind-boggling, even for this bunch).

Second, the Electoral College looks promising as well. For crazy people who sit up and night thinking about the numbers, here's a good site for you. You can mix and match the states and add up the points with the various combinations. Here's why I feel good. First, Kerry is running strong in Ohio and Florida. If Democratic turnout continues to surge (more on that in a second), then Kerry will win Florida. And if he wins Ohio and Florida, that's the ballgame folks.

For example, assume that the states vote the same as they did in 2000. Against that backdrop, assume that the following states are undecided - OH, FL, NH, IA, WI, MN, NM. If Kerry wins Ohio and Florida, he wins. And he still wins even if Bush wins NH, IA, WI, MN, and NM. Of course, if Bush wins Florida, then Kerry needs Ohio plus eight (assuming Kerry wins NH). That means he has to win Wisconsin (likely), or win Iowa and New Mexico (unlikely).

This all assumes, of course, that Bush won't win Michigan or Pennsylvania. To be honest, I think Rove-the-genius is making some questionable tactical moves by continuing to stump in Pennsylvania, and especially Michigan. Of course, if Bush wins Pennsylvania, Kerry can't win, but almost every poll has shown Kerry ahead. When you get down to the last week, you have to play the probabilities (especially considering the president's level of support). Personally, I think that Rove is forgetting about the concept of "sunk costs." Yes, it hurts to lose a state that you spent much of your presidency visiting, but you can't let bull-headed emotion get to you when your time would be much better spent in Florida and Ohio. Perhaps Pennsylvania will be Rove's white whale.

But the real reason I'm increasingly confident has nothing to do with the polls or Electoral College calculations. If you'll allow me to step outside the reality-based community for a moment, I want to share with you my "hunch." And I learned it from my father.

My father has been a local elected official (Republican, though) in my hometown for over thirty years. Perhaps I'm biased, but I consider him a political genius at reading people and assessing the mood of the man on the street. And he once taught me an important political lesson - an angry man always votes. He explained, "It doesn't matter if it's raining or snowing. If they're pissed off at you, they'll always go vote against you." I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. Just look at 1994, or the 1998 secular backlash in the midterm elections. Angry people turn out.

And so, my hunch is that we're about to witness an unprecedented Democratic surge. This story out of Florida gives me hope that a tidal wave of new, angry voters is about wash George Bush out of office.

In Florida, a sampling of eight counties showed a consistent pattern of Democrats turning out to cast early ballots in greater proportion than their share of registered voters, while Republicans were going to the early voting sites at or below what their registration percentages would suggest.

You can almost feel it. I mean, just look at me. I didn't vote in 2000, and I barely kept up with the election. And nearly all of my friends did the same. This year, I don't know a single person who's not going to vote. And they're all voting against Bush - the new voters, that is. And I'm not alone. States are reporting record numbers of new registrations, and early voter turnout. I'm certain the percentage of 18 to 29-years olds (who have broken solidly for Kerry) who vote will go up dramatically. You just hear the same thing all over the country - you can see it in the pictures that Kos and Atrios have been posting. Something is happening here - and I predict it's going to be historic.

In fact, I think there are going to be a couple of big pro-Kerry surprises on Election Day. For example, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Kerry picks off a southern state like Virginia, North Carolina, or Arkansas. Arizona and Colorado are possible too. And yes, the polls give Bush slight leads in all these states, but the polls have one very important weakness. While they can track preferences, they generally cannot (or do not) track intensity of preferences (or cell phones). In all my twenty-seven years, I've never seen anything close to this level of intensity among young voters, and progressives. It's more than just excitement - it's also a cold determination. They will go to the polls this year, come hell or high water.

And Bush's base is not nearly as excited as people think it is. Yes, the evangelical nutcase types will come out, but they always come out. But other parts of Bush's base are thoroughly depressed. First, the libertarian wing has obviously had it with Bush (go read Sullivan and Drezner). But more importantly, the paleo-con wing of the party simply doesn't like Bush either. This is the American Conservative/Pat Buchanan crowd. They're religious, but they're not Dobson nutcases. They are, though, intensely pro-gun, anti-immigration, anti-deficit, anti-corporation, and anti-Iraq. Bush has pissed them off on every one of these subjects, especially Iraq. If you doubt it, go read the endorsements of the various writers at the American Conservative - from what I can gather, only Pat Buchanan endorsed Bush, and only half-heartedly at that.

This is more important than many people realize. One things I learned from a good paleocon friend of mine is that the number of paleo-cons is vastly underestimated. That's because the paleocons are under-represented in the well-known "country club conservative" media outlets like the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the major op-ed pages. Remember in the third debate when Schieffer said he got more emails about immigration than anything else? That's the paleos. And though it went unreported, the paleos wanted to lynch Bush for the guest-worker proposal in the SOTU (and notice how quickly it died).

When you add it all up - energized base against Bush; unexcited base for Bush - it could be a substantial Kerry victory. I honestly think we're about to witness a Democratic turnout like we've never seen. And if Bush is hovering around 47% support with a half-hearted base, he could lose all those battleground states.

I hate to get cheesy on you, but I have to. Yes, that's right - it's time for song lyrics. I can't help it - I mean, hell, we're only a week away. This is the like the final scene of a two-year long battle. Anyway, from Eminem and Kos's picture of Kerry and Clinton in Philly yesterday:

I never would've dreamed
in a million years i'd see,
so many motherfuckin' people who feel like me,
who share the same views
and the same exact beliefs,
it's like a fuckin' army marchin' in back of me

Eminem, White America

You've got seven days Mr. President.

Monday, October 25, 2004

BUSH'S WATERLOO? - The Looting of Al-Qaqaa 


This story may prove to be the end of the Bush presidency. But forgive me if I don't feel like popping the champagne. This is terrifying news, especially if you are riding a bus in Tel Aviv, or are patrolling the Sunni Triangle. Josh Marshall was the first to mention it on the blogosphere, and the NYT is running with it this morning:

The Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons [T-O-N-S] of powerful conventional explosives - used to demolish buildings, produce missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons - are missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations.

. . .

After the invasion, when widespread looting began in Iraq, the international weapons experts grew concerned that the Qaqaa stockpile could fall into unfriendly hands. In May, an internal I.A.E.A. memorandum warned that terrorists might be helping "themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history."

As Josh explained, the NYT story is only the tip of the iceberg. What the paper did not report (at the time of this post) - but what will inevitably be reported - is that these weapons have already been used to kill Americans, Iraqi police recruits, and Iraqi citizens. Also, in the report that Josh refers to, several sources claim that the administration and the DOD have pressured the Iraqis for quite some time to keep quiet about the missing explosives. So, not only did they know about the stockpile before the invasion, they also have known that this stuff was missing for a long time. And, if the sources are credible, they've been trying to conceal it until after the election. Josh sums it up pretty well:

It's a story that really brings together the adminstration's two cardinal sins: dishonesty and incompetence.

It also brings together the two cardinal sins of the post-war planning - (1) the failure to recognize that invasions and democracy-building occupations are two different beasts that require two completely different strategies (the failure to send in enough troops is a subset of this problem); and (2) the failure to anticipate the insurgency. Either error would have been enough, but the combination of the two resulted in a weapons "bonanza" for years to come for terrorists and insurgents across the Middle East. In both instances, the administration was warned by experts from the CIA and the State Department about the problems they would face in the post-war. But they didn't listen, and people have died who didn't need to die, and the world is less safe. And isn't that the heart of this election?

As shrill as I've become lately (and I hope to "change the tone" post-election), I do think that this story will give pause to even the most ardent pro-Bush supporters. You simply can't hide from this with the partisan blinders - not if you value the military over politics. I mean, not only have these explosives killed our troops, they've also jeopardized a mission that many people believed in so strongly that they were willing to look past Bush's other flaws because they trusted him on this one issue. I opposed the war, and I'm upset. But if I supported the war - and if I believed in it as deeply as know many intelligent people do - I would be beyond outrage. I mean, hell, the original reason for invading Iraq was to keep stuff like this away from the people who now have it.

And it's not like the administration wanted this to happen. They screwed up. But you can't screw up in wartime. People get killed when you do. And it wasn't like the looting was completely unpredictable. It was entirely predictable. The IAEA brought it up in February of 2003.

It really comes down to accountability. The looting of this cache is a very real danger, but it's also a larger, abstract symbol of the absurdity of this administration's priorities. As Tom Friedman said quite powerfully after returning from his vacation, the administration has consistently put politics over the well-being of the military and the mission. The looting of Al Qaqaa, if Josh's sources are correct, is a perfect example. Hundreds of tons of powerful explosives went missing. Rather than immediately raising an alarm and trying to trace them or even control their movement, the administration attempted to suppress the news out of fear of the political repercussions. Rather than fire someone for the incompetence, they hid the incompetence - again, because of political considerations. Tom Friedman says it better than I can:

This war has been hugely mismanaged by this administration, in the face of clear advice to the contrary at every stage, and as a result, the range of decent outcomes in Iraq has been narrowed and the tools we have to bring even those about are more limited than ever.

. . .

For all of President Bush’s vaunted talk about being consistent and resolute, the fact is he never established US authority in Iraq. Never. This has been the source of all our troubles. We have never controlled all the borders, we have never even consistently controlled the road from Baghdad airport into town, because we never had enough troops to do it.

. . .

Why? Because each time the Bush team had to choose between doing the right thing in the war on terrorism or siding with its political base and ideology, it chose its base and ideology.

More troops or radically lower taxes? Lower taxes. Fire an evangelical Christian US general who smears Islam in a speech while wearing the uniform of the US Army, or not fire him so as not to anger the Christian right? Don’t fire him. Apologise to the UN for not finding the WMD, and then make the case for why our allies should still join us in Iraq to establish a decent government there? Don’t apologise—for anything—because Karl Rove says the ‘‘base’’ won’t like it. Impose a ‘Patriot Tax’ of 50 cents a gallon on gasoline to help pay for the war, shrink the deficit and reduce the amount of oil we consume so we send less money to Saudi Arabia? Never. Just tell Americans to go on guzzling. Fire the secretary of defense for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, to show the world how seriously we take this outrage—or do nothing? Do nothing. Firing Rumsfeld might upset conservatives. Listen to the CIA? Only when it can confirm your ideology. When it disagrees—impugn it or ignore it.

What I resent so much is that some of us actually put our personal politics aside in thinking about this war and about why it is so important to produce a different Iraq. This administration never did.

You've got one more thing to add to that list, Tom. And open borders are a two-way street. Things can go out just as easily as they can come in. Foreign policy instincts.

Sunday, October 24, 2004



Once again, the Ashcroft Youth at the OLC (the most prestigious arm of the Justice Department) have focused their legal talents on finding creative ways to avoid the Geneva Convention and international law. The Post has the details here - I'll have more to say about this later, and I'm sure Phil Carter will too. Here's the money excerpt:
The draft opinion, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and dated March 19, 2004, refers to both Iraqi citizens and foreigners in Iraq, who the memo says are protected by the treaty. It permits the CIA to take Iraqis out of the country to be interrogated for a "brief but not indefinite period." It also says the CIA can permanently remove persons deemed to be "illegal aliens" under "local immigration law."

. . .

The treaty [Geneva Convention] prohibits the "[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory . . . regardless of their motive."

The 1949 treaty notes that a violation of this particular provision constitutes a "grave breach" of the accord, and thus a "war crime" under U.S. federal law, according to a footnote in the Justice Department draft.

War crimes. War crimes. We've got to get this administration outta here.



I watched Team America last weekend, and frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I think South Park is the best show on TV right now (and Parker and Stone are brilliant). And it’s not so much that I didn’t like the movie itself. It was really funny – especially the Hans “Brix” scene. My problem was with the film’s message, or perhaps with the conventional wisdom surrounding the film’s message. The most common reaction I’ve heard goes something like this, “They make fun of the Left and the Right, so therefore it’s balanced and good.” Andrew Sullivan’s reaction was typical in that respect:

The point of the movie is not nihilism - it's sanity. Sanity against the moronic ra-ra pro-Americanism of many in the Bush camp, who seem blind to any empirical evidence, prudence, or skepticism in their attempt to protect us from Jihadist terror; and sanity against the moronic Sontagian left that fails to see any danger in the first place.

And if I bet if you asked Parker and Stone about the film’s intended message, it would be pretty close to what Sullivan said. Here’s my problem with that kind of thinking. Sanity – or “balance” – implies that the errors of the two opposing sides are essentially of the same magnitude. In other words, the “ra-ra Americanism” is just as bad as the “Sontagian Left.” Therefore, the position in the middle is the proper one, or the “sane” one. In my opinion, that’s just not true in light of what we’ve seen in the past four years. This is an extremely important point, and actually gets at something much larger - and very much related to the crisis of “objectivity” in journalism. Because it’s so important, let me back up and explain what I mean more clearly.

First, the key to remember is that the fact that two sides disagree about a given issue does not necessarily mean (as a matter of logic) that the true answer is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. The point is that you have to evaluate the strength of each side’s arguments before you can know whether the position is the middle is closer to what’s “true.” For example, let’s say that I’m arguing that the earth is flat, and you’re arguing that the earth is round. If someone comes along and says, “we need to reject both extremes and take a moderate position – the earth is half-flat and half-round” – then that position would be egregiously wrong. On the other hand, if a series of experts are disagreeing about Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, perhaps the answer in the middle is closer to the truth. Again, the correctness of the “moderate” position depends on the relative correctness of the extremes.

Ok - now let’s get back to Team America. Parker and Stone criticize what they see as the excesses on the Left and the Right. Given that their satire of the Hollywood Left takes up more time than their critique of the “ra-ra’s,” it’s safe to say that they see the truth as somewhere in the middle. As Sullivan said, their message was “sanity.” I have no problem with skewering flaky Hollywood types. Richard Gere in particular makes me want to vomit. And I don’t mind that the Left was made fun of. My question, though, is whether they deserve it.

I suppose this is one of those issues where the Left and Right are hopelessly divided in that they actually perceive two different realities (I talked about these “tinted epistemologies” here). But in my opinion, it’s just ridiculous to say that the excesses of both sides are equal. They are not.

Let’s start with the Left. Now I’m sure that there are some Sontagians running around on a few campuses somewhere who are just as bad as the Hollywood people in Team America. And yes, you can always go dig up some ridiculous quotes here and there. The problem, though, is that these people are not at all representative of the vast majority of either Democrats or those who would call themselves liberal or progressive. For example, the invasion of Afghanistan had overwhelming support in both parties. Can anyone name one high-level Democrat or pundit who opposed it? Iraq was different, and opposing it was not, as Sullivan claimed, to ignore the dangers of terrorism. Opposing the Iraq invasion was understanding the threat of terrorism - and even if you disagree, you can surely agree that this is a reasonable position (and not a Sontagian one).

But anyway, the point is that the people Parker and Stone criticize in the movie are such a ridiculously small percentage of the population that it doesn’t make any sense to use them as a foil. This part of the “Left” has exactly zero political power. Perhaps this wasn’t true in 1970 when campuses became more militant. But it’s true today. Parker and Stone are using straw men, as is Sullivan. They are setting up a phony straw man in opposition to the excesses of the “ra-ra’s” and then declaring that their middle position is correct. Please.

Compare this group of Portland coffeehouse types with the “America. . . fuck yeah!” ra-ras. These people are not a minuscule fraction of the population – in fact, they make up a sizeable chunk of the House of Representatives. In an attempt for balance, Parker and Stone let the “ra-ra” Right off far too easily. Parts of the American Right are far too militant, and have far too much contempt for the rest of humanity. I mean, we’ve got a President who denounces the world every single day on the stump and promises to always go to battle in spite of what the world thinks – even though it is the world that will bear the consequences of our military actions. I hate to say it, but America has a genocidal streak – just look at some of the commentary following the burnings in Fallujah. I would like to have seen a poll on how many people wanted to raze the city (or still want to). I’m not saying that all or even most on the Right have this streak. What I am saying is that these people are far, far more numerous – and far more influential – than the Hollywood straw men presented in Team America.

But this principle is not limited to Team America. It extends to the analysis and coverage of this administration as well. What’s frustrating is that this conception that the “truth is in the middle” makes it extremely difficult to criticize the administration. I have no expectation that conservatives will agree with me on this point, so I guess I’m only preaching to the choir. Anyway, my biggest frustration is that this sort of thinking prevents people from seeing just how bad many of the administration’s policies are. And sometimes the administration has consciously exploited these perceptions. For example, everyone knew that Richard Clarke was a terrorist hawk, and that his criticisms of Bush’s terrorism policies (and Iraq) were quite damning. So, the administration collectively spun it as a partisan attack. Readers read the "he said/she said," and dismissed the whole thing as yet another partisan dispute in which the truth was in the middle. And in that case, getting people to adopt a "moderate" position was a big victory for the administration.

And that’s really the point I want to make. Sometimes, presuming that the truth is in the middle – or that both sides are equally lying – gives far too much credit to positions that are just egregiously wrong. That’s my gripe with Team America. It would have you think that America has an equally large Sontag Left as it does a Militant Nativist Right. But to strike a balance between these two is to give the latter far too much credit (by letting it off too easy).

That’s also my gripe with undecided voters - who just stun and baffle me. I’m not talking about disillusioned conservatives who are debating voting for Kerry. They’re different. I’m talking people who just throw up their hands and say, “Well, they’re both equally bad.” No, they’re not. One is far worse. Just like the “ra-ra’s” are far worse and more politically powerful than the Hollywood Left. And just like Bush’s policies aren’t “half-good and half-bad.” On everything from reckless fiscal policies, to stem cells, to Iraq, to Tora Bora, to Abu Ghraib, to the torture memos, to the environment, to international diplomacy – this administration has been a disaster. As I've said many times, you can have a good faith dispute about the war, but not about its execution. If Iraq turns out well, it will be in spite of the administration’s planning, not because of it. One can also have a good faith argument about tax cuts, but cutting taxes and increasing spending at such high levels is inviting a fiscal disaster. To me, these disasters are just objectively true – sort of like saying the earth is round.

To take a moderate position is to be wrong.

Saturday, October 23, 2004



I love Charles Krauthammer. Few people are blessed with his ability to hide such patently absurd arguments under a veneer of apparent logic. For example, Krauthammer has long used the “loaded dichotomy” rhetorical strategy that is so beloved by Bush and Rove. Generally, for any given problem or issue, there are a wide range of options available. However, Krauthammer’s strategy is to make people believe that there are only two choices – everything becomes an “either/or.” What’s worse, the two choices he presents are themselves loaded in such a way as to favor his preferred policy. It’s sort of like saying, “Logically speaking, you either have to support my tax plan or you support killing babies.” For example, in March, he opened his op-ed with this line:

When confronting an existential enemy -- an enemy that wants to terminate your very existence -- there are only two choices: appeasement or war.

In other words, you either support invading Iraq or you’re a no-good rotten appeaser just like Neville Chamberlain. If you look closely, you’ll see that he’s making two important moves: (1) he assumes a questionable “loaded” premise (that al Qaeda poses an existential threat to Western society); and then (2) declares there are only two options available – even though there are a set of options available. That’s what I mean by “loaded dichotomy.”

Yesterday’s column, though, is a new milestone for Krauthammerian logic. There’s no good way to introduce it, so I’ll just comment in brackets. He’s not exactly using the loaded dichotomy, but it’s similar, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The centerpiece of John Kerry's foreign policy is to rebuild our alliances so the world will come to our aid, especially in Iraq. He repeats this endlessly because it is the only foreign policy idea he has to offer. The problem for Kerry is that he cannot explain just how he proposes to do this.

The mere appearance of a Europhilic fresh face is unlikely to so thrill the allies that French troops will start marching down the streets of Baghdad. Therefore, you can believe that Kerry is just being cynical in pledging to bring in the allies, knowing that he has no way of doing it. Or you can believe, as I do, that he means it.

He really does want to end America's isolation. And he has an idea how to do it. For understandable reasons, however, he will not explain how on the eve of an election.

[Hmmm. I wonder if Kerry has something up his sleeve. He is a notorious flip-flopper after all.]

Think about it: What do the Europeans and the Arab states endlessly rail about in the Middle East? What (outside of Iraq) is the area of most friction with U.S. policy? What single issue most isolates America from the overwhelming majority of countries at the United Nations?

[Well, Iraq is a biggie – and is probably 90% of the problem. So, the question is kind of pointless without that option on the table. But let’s see. Our hostility to international institutions? Our total disregard for the need for international legitimacy? Our support for Middle East dictatorships? Our support for China and Russia’s actions against Muslims?]

The answer is obvious: Israel.

[Oh, right. Israel. Not any of the other stuff. Just Israel.]

In what currency, therefore, would we pay the rest of the world in exchange for their support in places such as Iraq? The answer is obvious: giving in to them on Israel.


This is so ridiculous that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, regardless of what Krauthammer thinks, Israel does need to be reined in, for the good of Israel and our own national security. People need to understand that every time Sharon seizes land illegally or bulldozes a neighborhood, it’s a national security threat. And it’s is threat to the long-term security of Israel as well. As I’ve said before, if you criticize your friend for drinking and driving, it doesn’t mean you don’t care for your friend. But anyway, let’s get back to Krauthammerian logic.

Notice how the whole thing seems to flow like a mathematical proof. First, we assume that Kerry wants to end isolation. That’s Premise #1. So far, so good. Second, even though the world is hostile to us for a large number of reasons (most notably Iraq), Krauthammer reduces the hostility to one primary source – Israel. That’s Premise #2. Third, even though there are many potential ways or strategies to either get support for Iraq or just stop people from resenting us, there is only one way in Krauthammer’s world that Kerry could achieve this goal – sell out Israel. That’s the conclusion.

Under Krauthammerian logic, Kerry’s promise to rebuild alliances morphs into a pledge to sell out Israel. And the proof is that Sandy Berger said we need to return to the “peace process,” which apparently is code for “we’re going to sacrifice Israel.” Now why did this guy win a Pulitzer Prize?

What’s amusing is that the absurd argument – Kerry’s international rhetoric is code for sacrificing Israel – is masked by a facade of rigid analysis. Usually, Krauthammerianism is only a one-step process. But in this column, he actually has to adopt two or three ridiculous premises to reach his conclusion.

Friday, October 22, 2004



I'm still pretty swamped at work this week, so this is going to be short. I have a couple of quick points to make about why I think right-leaning hawkish libertarians should vote for Kerry (in terms of domestic policy - I trust my views on foreign policy are clear). The people I'm thinking of fall into the Drezner/Sullivan/Volokh camp.

First, a Bush victory will steer the Republican Party further and further from libertarianism. As I see it, the whole left-right divide is far too simplistic. You can also divide the country along the "order/freedom" spectrum (I've discussed this before, but I'm too tired to hunt down the link). It becomes a quadrant of sorts - you have the "Freedom Right" (Sullivan) versus the "Order Right" (Robertson/Falwell). The former is more libertarian, while the latter wants to impose "order" upon the public (e.g., school prayer, no abortion, no gay marriage). You also have the Freedom Left (me) and the Order Left (campus freaks, speech enforcers, etc.).

Anyway, under the Bush/Rove "Southern theocracy" strategy, the Republican Party is increasingly becoming the "order" party. If Bush gets his judges through, it will get worse. A Bush defeat will give moderates in the party more leverage in 2008 to nominate a McCain or a Giuliani. Remember too that the Order Left has approximately zero power within the Democratic Party, while the Order Right runs the GOP (yet another reason why I don't understand why the Sullivan/Drezner types so hate the Left).

Second, a Kerry presidency is the best hope of getting some kind of control over the drunken spending we've been seeing. That bloated corporate tax bill (during wartime no less) would never have passed if Kerry had been President. The Republican Party has proven it can't be trusted with our money. If you're worried about Kerry's spending, it faces a big obstacle - the House. It's not going to change hands - and I doubt it's going to be rolling back any tax cuts. Therefore, a vote for Kerry is a vote for gridlock, which is exactly what our federal budget needs right now.

Thursday, October 21, 2004



Random question of the day - Does anyone know how knuckle balls work? I'm looking for a quasi-physics type of explanation. What causes them to move so erratically?



It pains me to say this, because I so desperately want disillusioned Republicans like Dan Drezner to abandon Bush. But one recurring argument I hear in favor of Bush is that Kerry's foreign policy instincts cannot be trusted, or that he doesn't understand the post-9/11 world. To Drezner's credit, he seems to have come around to Kerry after much deliberation. But at the end of his post, he writes:

[H]ow can I trust that John Kerry gets the post-9/11 world? How can I be sure that Kerry's policymaking process will be sufficiently good so as to overwhelm Kerry's instinctual miscues?

I'm sorry to pick on Drezner - he's just an example. Drezner is actually far more reasonable than most. But still, you hear stuff like this all the time cited as the justification for not abandoning Bush. And let me say what's on my mind - this particular argument is insane. I-N-S-A-N-E. It annoys me to no end. It's like fingernails scraping across the chalkboard. I literally cringe when I hear it. Basically, when I hear someone raise this argument, I want to squeeze both sides of that person's head, shake it violently, and scream, "Have you seen this f***ing President we have?!? Have you read a newspaper in the last four years?!?"

I mean, good Lord. Foreign policy instincts?! Trustworthiness in the war on terror?! These are reasons to vote consider voting for Bush? George W. Bush? The same Bush who spearheaded the biggest strategic military blunder in American history? The same Bush who presided over the most incompetently run post-war operation in American history? The same Bush who pissed away the goodwill of the entire world - and brags about doing so? I, for one, consider the invasion itself to show (1) a fundamental misunderstanding of the post-9/11 world; and (2) a woeful ignorance of the most basic history of Iraq and the Middle East. But people can disagree about the wisdom of the invasion in good faith. They cannot do the same with respect to the occupation. It's been a disaster - just a disaster. The KnightRidder article summed the whole thing perfectly with the image of an empty slide that read "To be provided." Foreign policy instincts - give me a friggin' break.

There are a lot of reasons not to elect Bush. But the A-number one reason is his foreign policy "instinct" - and his foreign policy decision-making process - and his foreign policy team - and his profound ignorance about the enormous life-and-death decisions he's being asked to make. The fact that Bush's perceived foreign policy competence is what's keeping people from jumping ship just astounds me. It really makes me want to pull my hair out.

I suppose the response is that Kerry is worse. To be blunt, no one could be worse. Kerry has supported wars and opposed them (though more recently, he's been supporting them). But why is opposing war so bad? I think Kerry, having actually experienced the unspeakable horrors of combat, probably has a much higher "burden of proof" before he would use force. If that's true, then I say... good. The world would be better off today if we had all been a little less trigger-happy. And besides, why is one's willingness to go to war such a virtue? Why is an unwillingness to go to war such a vice? I haven't read War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, but I suspect it answers some of those questions.

But anyway, the point is that Kerry - with decades of experience and knowledge, not to mention a willingness to engage experts and develop policy - is very likely to be better in every area of foreign policy than Bush. I mean, what has Bush done? After 9/11, he took the obvious step of invading Afghanistan, which any President would have done (Richard Clarke and others had been clamoring for this for years, but it lacked public support). Then, he withdrew forces from there to begin the most poorly planned, poorly executed military operation in American history. He then presided over - and his officers encouraged - the Gitmo and Abu Ghraib debacles, for which exactly zero people have lost their job other than low-level reservists. Foreign policy instincts... good Lord.

When a man is driving drunk down the wrong way of a one-way street, you pull him over and take him out of the car. If he responds, "You can't remove me until you have a credible alternative to drive the car," you tell him you'd rather take your chances.

But snark aside, there's an even bigger risk. Americans, probably to their credit, lack a sense of the tragic. In other words, everyone believes too strongly in happy endings. Even though people think we've screwed up Iraq, I suspect that in most people's minds, they're thinking, "Ah, Bush screwed it up, but things'll work out. They always do." They don't. And it's not just the greater Middle East that's in jeopardy of complete destabilization and civil war. There's also the risk that the post World War II/Cold War alliance with Europe will completely break down - and that would be a great tragedy given that it helped prevent global nuclear war. People don't understand that it's not inevitable that Great Britain will always be our strong ally. Andrew Sullivan wrote just today about the disillusionment with America across all British political parties. If Bush wins, and Blair loses to some rabid anti-American from Labour or the Liberal Democrats, it's possible that great Anglo-American alliance could break down.

Things can get worse. And if you think the world hates us now, just wait and see what happens if we put the stamp of approval on the policies (and "instincts") of the past four years. By the way, what do people mean when they say "instinct?" Are they saying we should make foreign policy decisions based on our gut feelings? Uggh, some days it's tough to be in the reality-based community.

[UPDATE: Just for the record, if America had based its foreign and military policies on Pat Robertson's conversations with God, we would have been better prepared for the post-war than we actually were:

"Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties," Robertson quoted Bush as saying. " 'Well,' I said, 'it's the way it's going to be. . . . The Lord told me it was going to be, A, a disaster and, B, messy.' "

Wednesday, October 20, 2004



[Disclaimer: This post is very similar to Matt Yglesias's post here. I was playing around with this idea when I read the first three or four lines of his post (and then stopped and didn't click on the link) a while back because I wanted to write my own thoughts. Anyway, there are many similarities, but I had not read his post before I wrote mine (though "l'affaire Sinclair" could have been subconscious). Anyway, I also wrote about Dean, the blogosphere, and how it ushered in the rise of knowledge workers in February, May, July, and July. The last one is especially related and will hopefully show that I've had this stuff on my radar for a while.]

It’s been a rough week for Sinclair. Roughly eighty advertisers have pulled their ads. They’ve lost around $100 million in shareholder value since October 9th. Their stock has dropped by over 10% just in the past two days. And now it seems that they’re trying to reassure Wall Street by scaling back their anti-Kerry efforts. I don’t want to be premature, but it seems like a big win for the good guys. This whole thing is interesting on so many different levels. But what really fascinates me is the role the blogosphere played in the boycott – and what that says about the future and potential of the blogosphere. In my opinion, this whole episode shows why Billmon may have been wrong – perhaps the blogosphere is indeed revolutionary.

But first, let me explain what people are getting wrong. To begin, I’ve never thought of blogging as a new medium of journalism that is on a collision course with the “old” media. The whole Rathergate narrative – the new wave of pajama people toppling old man Rather – just didn’t seem that compelling to me. It’s a good story and all, but it’s not symbolic of some larger, emerging trend. Daily Kos, for all its merits, will not replace the CBS Evening News. I mean, there are blogs that can cover and break news. But we need to keep the big picture in mind. If the blogosphere can properly be classified as some sort of collective entity, I don’t think that entity lends itself that well to journalism. To be sure, it can provide a check on journalism, and it can riff off of thoughts expressed in articles and op-eds. But the real potential of the blogosphere lies elsewhere.

To me, the essential point to remember about the blogosphere is that it makes communication cheaper. Much like the Internet itself, it’s a communication-enhancing infrastructure that allows extremely large numbers of like-minded people to join together, share ideas, and take coordinated action. From an economic perspective, you could say that the blogosphere lowers the various “costs” of creating a new progressive coalition (or a fundamentalist Islam coalition for that matter). It lowers the coordination costs, transaction costs, and information costs of political mobilization.

For example, let’s say that back in 2000 Sinclair decided to air, “Gore: The Pot-Smoking Hippy-Boy Years.” Think of all the obstacles in place that would have prevented the sort of large-scale mobilization that we’ve just witnessed. First, the people who would be upset enough to take action would actually have had to learn about it in the first place. Second, they would have had to decide how they would fight it, and would have had to do so without the collective input and expertise of a number of others from across the nation. Third, they would have had to struggle to gather information about the Sinclair media markets and their advertisers. Finally, assuming everything else fell into place, it would have been difficult both to inform people and to mobilize a boycott. These various “costs” would have been substantially higher even though the Internet was already very much in place.

But in 2004, the word got out and it spread like wildfire across the blogging infrastructure, and thus the nation. Databases were set up. Instructions were given. It was a near-spontaneous, digital, grass-roots, “little-d” democratic movement. Kerry and the national Democrats had nothing to do with it. To borrow from John Lennon, it really was the “power [of] the people” that stopped this mighty media empire.

If you take a step back, though, you’ll see that l’affaire Sinclair is merely symbolic of a much larger development in American politics – the rise of the “knowledge worker” demographic. Before Dean, and before the anger inspired by Bush and Iraq, the so-called “Starbucks knowledge workers” were a diffuse lot. They were generally affluent, secular, economically centrist, and very liberal on social issues. In fact, I suspect this description fits many of the people reading this blog. Anyway, a few years ago, the knowledge workers had no way to meet, or coordinate, or to talk to each other – much less unite into a political force to be reckoned with. But the blogosphere provided the communications infrastructure that allowed them to coordinate and mobilize. And you can already see the results. The knowledge workers almost got Dean nominated. It didn’t work, but it certainly moved the Democratic candidates (and nominee) in a direction where they wanted them to be moved (i.e., more anti-Bush, and more anti-war). Kerry’s Internet fund-raising, along with the 527s, allowed him to stay almost even with Bush in fund-raising (which is just amazing if you think about it – Kerry was broke in March). Finally, the blogosphere (thanks largely to Kos) is playing a much bigger role in Congressional races (just think about Herseth and Schrader). And we’re barely into our second full year of existence. If the air doesn’t go out of the balloon in November, we really could be witnessing the rise of a powerful political interest group.

Of course, the blogosphere itself is a neutral tool. It can be used by progressive professionals who work at a computer all day, or it could help Pat Robertson. The point, though, is that it’s a tremendous milestone for democracy precisely because it has decreased the costs of political coordination and mobilization so dramatically.

And what we’re seeing is not without historical antecedents. The printing press changed the world by exponentially multiplying the rate at which ideas could be spread and communicated. The rise of newspapers and pamphleteering did the same thing – and strongly influenced both the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. But it’s not really about substantive ideas – it’s about a communications infrastructure that dramatically lowers the costs of coordination. Of course, there is a dark side. Because the blogosphere is merely a tool, or a neutral infrastructure (much like the interstate system), it could facilitate the growth and dissemination of anti-progressive coalitions just as easily as it could progressive coalitions.

But for now, for whatever sociological or demographic reasons, the blogosphere is facilitating the growth of a more progressive political coalition of Kos/Dean/Starbucks knowledge workers. And I do hope that this is the beginning of something much bigger, and not some tragic Summer of Love that will come to an end after the election.

Monday, October 18, 2004



If this picture doesn't capture the essence of why Kerry should win, nothing will:

By the way, I got that picture from Billmon who posted it back in March after Kerry secured the nomination. He added:

Now there's a John I could have voted for with pride. And Kerry doesn't look so bad, either.

I'm going to try to keep that picture in mind as we slog through the next eight months.

Instant Karma's gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
Better get yourself together darlin'
Join the human race.

John Lennon
Instant Karma



I thought I should tell everyone that I started my new job this week, and it's going to be consuming a much greater percentage of my time. I don't intend to stop the blog yet (and certainly not before the election), but I should inform everyone that things will probably change fairly soon.

Due to a series of lucky breaks, I've had a great deal of free time over the past year. And I'm so grateful that so many people have visited this site, left comments, and sent me emails. I've had over 500 posts and I'm approaching 250,000 visits since I started in January (when I was thrilled to get a few dozen visits a day). It's been very flattering, and I can't tell you how much this blog - and your readership - has meant to me. So thanks to all my readers. I truly appreciate it.

I've toyed around with various options. For a while, I considered making this a group blog, or joining a different group blog. But I don't think I want to do that. I like some group blogs, but most of them have too many cooks spoiling the broth, so to speak. At least for a while, I'd like to keep posting here (and by myself).

If I do, I suspect my output will decline dramatically. I've toyed around with adopting Matthew Yglesias's style on his blog (as opposed to Tapped) in that I will write shorter posts. On the other hand, I could continue to write longer, more structured, op-ed style pieces (which I greatly prefer), but write them less frequently. I could even come up with a strict schedule where I post on Tuesday and Sunday night or something. I don't know. Perhaps things won't change that much - it's possible.

My real concern, though, is not lacking the time to write - it's lacking the time to read. Blogging is 90% information-gathering. There is no way I can continue to read as many papers, magazines, and blogs as I currently do. That's my fear - without a broad knowledge base, I may have less insightful things to say. And if I start writing crap, I'll stop.

Anyway, I'm not looking for a pity-party or anything, but I did think that I owed everyone an explanation of the changes that may occur. Many of you have been with me a very long time, and I consider many of the long-time commenters as my friends even though I've never met them. Anyway, as of now, I intend to keep on writing as much as I can, though I suspect the time between posts may be longer at times. If it's going to be a ridiculously long time (like a week or two), I'll be sure and let people know so they don't keep checking the site again and again. Also, I doubt that I'll be posting much during business hours. If I do, they'll be short responses to something that pissed me off in the newspaper.

But let me make one thing clear - I'm not going to stop until the election is over regardless of how busy I am. The thought of electing a new President is what inspired this blog in the first place, and we're nearing the climax of a very long, hard struggle. And our chances are looking really good. Kerry is regaining in all the tracking polls, and Bush's percentage of the vote (and his approval rating) puts him in real danger. We can win this thing. We're so close. We are so damn close.



I’ll agree with Matthew Yglesias that the Suskind article succeeds in illustrating just how divorced the Bush administration's policy-development is from empiricism and even reality (though Kevin Drum is skeptical that Suskind successfully made this point). But I also agree that Suskind didn’t really demonstrate that this continuing failure stems from religious zealotry. Still, after reading the article, I felt a strong urge to barricade my doors and go sit in a corner, rock back and forth, and stare dumbly at the wallpaper. I guess the reality of a second Bush administration hit me – sort of like when Frodo stares into the fountain and sees the future that will come to pass if his mission fails. The thought that the United States will be led for four more years by a group of people who have divorced themselves from both reality and the Enlightenment just scares the hell out of me.

What (literally) scares me about a second Bush administration has almost nothing to do with substantive disagreement about any given policy. What’s terrifying is the process by which decisions are made and then defended. Procedurally speaking, it’s a two-part problem. First, empiricism, debate, and deliberation play almost no role in the administration’s decisions – decisions that affect both our nation and our world. In effect, the administration has abandoned the Enlightenment. But second, and more troubling, these flawed decisions are then defended and implemented by a political organization that is increasingly taking on Bolshevik characteristics. I first discussed Bush’s “Bolshevikation” in a post in August. Yglesias made a similar point yesterday, but called it the “Putinization” of America. I couldn’t agree more, and Suskind provides a great deal of evidence to support it. But first things first.

With respect to the first point, there’s not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said. For example, I’ve argued before that the administration has turned its back on Enlightenment principles:

The assault on empiricism has been particularly striking. The whole idea behind empiricism is that one begins with a question. That is followed by an empirical investigation involving experiments or debate, which is then followed by a tentative conclusion based on the evidence from those experiments. The Bush administration flips this process on its head. It begins by adopting a conclusion, and then seeks out ways to justify that conclusion. Empiricism plays no role in reaching the conclusion - only politics.

To see an example, just read the following line from the Suskind article (and remember we’re talking about a war for God’s sake):

A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, "Look, I'm not going to debate it with you."

Based on the article, it seems that a second term will include several more big-time initiatives (tax “reform”; partial Social Security privitization) that will be adopted without any real deliberation or any honest cost-benefit analysis. I have no doubt that these initiatives will be disasters, much like our current fiscal and Iraq policies.

Now, flawed decisions – and flawed decision-making processes – wouldn’t be that terrifying so long as we could depend upon the political process (the relevant “market check”) to punish and/or correct them. But I fear we can’t. We are quite literally witnessing the Bolshevikation of American politics. We’re seeing an almost unthinkable degree of consolidation of both message and action across a wide range of groups including Congress, the media, the administrative agencies, and even bloggers. I wrote about this in August in which I described Lenin’s idea of the “vanguard of the proletariat” (actually the following is taken from this website):

Lenin believed it was the job of a small group of dedicated revolutionaries to lead the proletariat in revolution without the need for a bourgeois rising first. . . . In What Is To Be Done? and in his other works dealing with party organization, Lenin articulated one of his most momentous political innovations, his theory of the party as the "vanguard of the proletariat." He conceived of the vanguard as a highly disciplined, centralized party that would work unremittingly to suffuse the proletariat with Socialist consciousness and serve as mentor, leader, and guide, constantly showing the proletariat where its true class interests lie. Lenin's view of the party was that it would be "the party of a new type," which was to be guided by "democratic centralism," or absolute party discipline. According to Lenin the party had to be a highly centralized body organized around a small, ideologically homogeneous, hardened core of experienced professional revolutionaries . . . who would lead a ramified hierarchy of lower party organizations that would enjoy the support and sympathy of the proletariat and all groups opposed to tsarism.

Suskind makes it clear that the Bush administration subscribes to a very similar theory (and fancy themselves reality-making Supermen, in a Nietzschean sense):

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

What’s most disturbing is that everything is “top-down,” especially the Iraq war (which was imposed from the top upon a public who was scared into supporting it). I won’t rehash my former post, but I will point out that the obsession with loyalty – and the implementation of that idea – is poisonous to our democracy. And it’s perfectly clear to see a disturbing trend of consolidation of power coupled with absolute loyalty spreading across our democracy. Yglesias captures the point quite nicely:

Suskind's article along with other pieces of evidence [illustrates] what one might call the creeping Putinization of American life (the Sinclair incident, the threatening letter to Rock The Vote, the specter of the top official in the House of Representatives making totally baseless charges of criminal conduct against a major financier of the political opposition [shades of Mikhail Khodorovsky], the increasing evidence that the 'terror alert' system is nothing more than a political prop, the 'torture memo' asserting that the president is above the law, the imposition of rigid discipline on the congress, the abuse of the conference committee procedure, the ability of the administration to lie to congress without penalty, the exclusion of non-supporters from Bush's public appearances, etc.)

I would add a few things to that list. First, we’ve witnessed the appointment of hacks (whose loyalty will be unquestioned) to very important positions – Porter Goss to the CIA; Frist to Senate Majority Leader; and the Heritage Foundation interns to the CPA in Iraq. Second, we’ve witnessed the rise of a major media empire that is pretty damn close to the sorts of state-sponsored propaganda machines seen in Communist countries. One branch of this empire even controls a substantial number of public broadcast stations. Third, as Frank Rich explained today, we’ve witnessed an assault on the media and communications industries (especially if they’ve challenged the administration). Fourth, we’ve witnessed the abuse of legislative procedure and even gerrymandering to thwart the democratic process by making it more of a top-down, efficient structure. Fifth, we’ve witnessed a staggering campaign of blatant deception that has gone unreported by a media who lives in mortal fear of being labeled as biased liberals. Sixth, we’ve witnessed rather obvious examples of vote-suppression and even voting fraud.

There’s an obvious pattern here. Everything mentioned above – from eviscerating the independence of the CIA to voting fraud to attacking the media – is a means of entrenching existing power by weakening those institutions or structures that normally challenge it and serve as a check upon it.

In short, I’m beginning to question whether our democratic system is still capable of providing a meaningful check on the abuse of governmental power. And I haven’t even mentioned other, equally serious problems with our democracy such as the malapportioned Senate and the increasingly ridiculous Electoral College. Both institutions thwart majority rule – and both institutions will never be eliminated so long as our Article V amendment process continues to rely on the approval of states (rather than say 75% of the people). In fact, I hope to write a more detailed post on this very point this week.

But, there’s hope. Kerry could win. I agree with Atrios, and disagree with Bruce Bartlett (first paragraph of Suskind) about the prospects of a looming Republican civil war. The civil war won’t happen if Bush wins – it will merely encourage more centralization and Bolshevikation. But if Bush loses, the head will suddenly be cut off from the beast and there will be a power struggle. And intra-party competition will help the Republican Party, and help American democracy. Even if you hate Kerry, and want him to lose in 2008, I feel that American democracy depends upon him winning. Consider it as an antitrust measure that is necessary to restore market forces, and checks and balances. Above all else, it will punish the actions by the administration and make it less likely that they will be repeated. But if Bush wins, then his administration’s behavior will have been rewarded. And then we’re in serious trouble. And I mean really really serious long-term irreversible trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2004



A few weeks ago I wrote a long post about the flawed felon list in Florida. Drawing from the excellent reporting by Chris Davis and Matthew Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I listed several pieces of evidence that suggested the exclusion of Latinos from the list was intentional. Kevin Drum provided even more support. And today, Davis and Doig offer even more damning evidence that Jeb Bush knew that there were problems and went ahead with the list anyway:

Bush said Friday that he was never warned about any problems before the list was released.

But his denial contradicts a May 4, 2004, e-mail in which Florida Department of Law Enforcement computer expert Jeff Long describes how election officials told Bush the list needed to be abandoned.

"Paul Craft called today and told me that yesterday they recommended to the Gov that they 'pull the plug,'" on the voter database, Long wrote in an e-mail to his boss, Donna Uzzell.

Long added that state election officials "weren't comfortable with the felon matching program they've got."

"The Gov rejected their suggestion to pull the plug, so they're 'going live' with it this weekend," Long wrote.

This should be front-page news, especially in light of all the other information surrounding the story. The Justice Department should open an investigation. It's outrageous, and someone needs to go to jail. Remember, if it were up to Jeb and his hack Secretary of State Glenda Hood, we would never have known about any of the flaws.

Democrats and civil rights groups, wary of the the purge list from the beginning, blasted Bush because Democrats outnumbered Republicans on the list 3-to-1 and nearly half the list was made up of black voters.

They also noted that Hood had spent more than $100,000 in legal fees fighting to keep the list secret.

After a judge made the purge list public in July, the Herald-Tribune reported that only 61 Hispanics, who tend to vote Republican in Florida, were on the list.

Hmmmmm. . . Now why would they fight so hard to keep this list a secret?

Thursday, October 14, 2004



I'm flying home today, so I doubt I'll be posting anything again until Sunday. But I do hope "Blinky Beavis" will catch on.

KERRY'S BEST LINE - And "Blinky Beavis" 


I doubt that many people will discuss it, but Kerry uttered a line last night that could completely change politics. If he developed it further, that line could eventually destroy the Reagan narrative and replace it with a progressive one. It was not only his best line, but it offered me some hope that a Kerry presidency could have the vision to break through the current stalemate and create a new progressive majority in America:

And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people.

That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith. But I know this, that President Kennedy in his inaugural address told all of us that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own. And that's what we have to -- I think that's the test of public service.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my post "Values 2.0." As I've said many times, the Republicans' success has resulted from their ability to get people to conceptualize policies and politics in terms of the post-Reagan narrative in which Republicans favor small government and God, and Democrats favor big government and are atheists. There is almost no truth to either - Americans overwhelming support large government programs (as I explained here). The problem is that when the debate is reduced to one of "big" versus "small" government, Republicans win.

But Kerry showed exactly how progressives can respond - and this has to be a long-term effort. To win a strong majority in America, there has to a coalition between the secular and those with faith (who are not nutballs). The way to achieve this goal is create a new narrative that defends progressive policies by linking them with "values." Fighting poverty. Education. Health Care. Gay Marriage. International Relations. Environment. Death Penalty. Civil Rights. Prison Reform. Immigration Reform. All of these can be justified in terms of religion or secular values. If we can stop getting people to think of these policies in terms of "big government" and "liberal," then my friends, we can reach the political promised land. This is the next big thing - I hope.

Second, if you doubt what I said last night about the paleo-cons' lack of excitement about Bush, just read last night's post from Steve Sailer (he writes for Buchanan's American Conservative). Here's an excerpt, but if you go read the whole thing, you'll notice just how angry he is about Bush's immigration proposal. Remember - this guy is very conservative:

The same John Kerry always shows up at all the debates, which is boring but reassuring. With Bush, you never know who is going to show up tonight. I haven't quite been able to put my finger on who tonight's Bush is (Casual Bush? Snickering Bush? Blinky Bush?), but he's different from the last two Bushes at the previous debates: Church Lady Bush and Overcaffeinated Rottweiler Bush. Maybe tonight was the best of the Bushes, but, still, it's disconcerting to live in a country where the President seems to be auditioning for the lead in a remake of the old Sally Field split personality TV movie "Sybil."

The base sounds pretty excited, eh? I love "Blinky Bush," but I'll add one more. Last night on CSPAN, I caught a classic line from Mike McCurry:

And he has this kind of Beavis and Butthead way of laughing, 'heh heh heh.'

McCurry went on to say that he didn't know which one it was. But given my extensive knowledge of quite possibly the greatest show ever, McCurry clearly meant Beavis. And it's true - he does laugh like Beavis a lot.

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