Monday, May 29, 2006



A no-broadband land at least. And I don't like it. I spent Memorial Day weekend moving and the progressive cable company responsible for getting me wired (a little outfit called Comcast, I think they call themselves) isn't arriving until Wednesday. In the meantime, I'm experiencing the Trainspotting-esque withdrawal symptoms of not having internets. Not pleasant. Stage one, preparation. For this you will need one room which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. . .

Anyway, I may not be able to post anything until Wednesday night. Until then.

Friday, May 26, 2006



Charles Krauthammer thinks it's a horrible idea.

It is an obvious trap. We should resolutely say no.

Except on one condition. If the allies, rather than shift responsibility for this entire process back to Washington, will reassert their responsibility by pledging support for U.S. and/or coalition military action against Iran in the event that the bilateral talks fail, then we might achieve something.

In light of recent history, Krauthammer's disapproval of an idea should give rise to a presumption that it's a good idea. Of course, disapproval of an idea by Michael Ledeen is the strongest evidence currently known to man that something is a good idea, but we'll save that for another day.

On Krauthammer's uncanny ability to exercise the wrong judgment regarding every issue he writes about, I'll stick by what I said last year:

There are many conservatives who I regularly disagree with. Some of these people I enjoy reading (George Will, Ross Douthat), others I don’t (K-Lo). But there are a select few “conservatives” (generally neocons – thus the quotes) who I don’t just disagree with, I actually stand in awe of their wrongness. Members of this small but elite group have attained transcendental wrongness – the rare distinction of being wrong about everything all the time.

Michael Ledeen is probably the president of this elite “always wrong about everything” crowd. But Charles Krauthammer is usually right there with him. Krauthammer isn’t just wrong – he’s transcendentally wrong about practically everything he writes. That’s hard to do – being objectively wrong about everything itself suggests an underlying intellectual coherence that only increases my curiosity for this rare breed of pundit.



I'm on the road for work today, but I'll leave you with this question - is there any justifiable reason for the CBC to be defending Jefferson? Frankly, I'm not seeing it. In fact, I'm not seeing anything remotely justifiable.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006




I'LL SAY IT NOW [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

Katharine McPhee is going to win on American Idol and it's because she's a girl.



The Post recently reported that “white conservatives” are the group most hostile to Bush’s “plan” for immigration reform. Meanwhiles, Yglesias links to a poll finding that people are more likely to view immigrants favorably if they live in areas with higher immigrant concentrations. If you dig a bit below the surface, I think you’ll see that these two phenomena stem from the same root cause. In fact, I would argue that the “root” connecting these two stories also explains many of the political preferences of white social conservatives on a host of other social issues from gay marriage to national security (which I consider to be part of the “culture wars”). Call it my unifying theory of the culture wars.

What I often find fascinating when I discuss cultural issues with social conservatives (or read their writings or listen to them on TV) is how systemic our disagreements are about cultural issues. Yes, there are obviously some unspoken shared values that we share just by living in an English-speaking democracy or being human. But on the hot-button social issues, we seem to be diametrically opposed on almost all of them.

For instance, think about the following issues – immigration reform, gay marriage, school prayer, flag-burning, abortion, abstinence education, affirmative action, invading Iraq (in 2003), nationalism, and contraception. At first glance, these issues cover a range of seemingly unrelated subjects (though sex comes up a lot). But if I did a poll of, say, you-the-readers versus a random group of white social conservatives, I think a huge percentage of you-the-readers would be in 100% disagreement with social conservatives on these issues. And even if it wasn’t 100%, it would still be high.

And that’s what’s interesting. Assuming I’m right about the results of my hypothetical poll, it suggests that there’s something much deeper and systemic to this disagreement – a fundamental cognitive or cultural difference that isn’t readily apparent.

I suppose this will sound snotty, but I think the source of this fundamental difference is parochialism. I don’t mean that in a pejorative or a religious sense, but only a descriptive one – i.e, I mean it in the sense of “having little exposure to that which is different from you.” Parochial isn’t the best word because it’s loaded, but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at. (Maybe “insularity” is a better word.)

Anyway, the fundamental problem with parochialism is that it tends to make people equate the contingent with the universal. The contingent social norms of your part of the world become elevated into universal moral codes. The contingent social practices of your community become the baseline for “the good.”

I think that’s really at the heart of a lot of America’s cultural debates. For example, with respect to immigration, white conservatives tend to see themselves not as one of many groups, but of true “America.” The contingent characteristics of their community have become the universal characteristics of America.

And that’s what binds the two stories I linked to above. When people live somewhere with a lot of immigrants, it becomes clearer that what they thought was universal was actually contingent.

Same deal with gay marriage, contraception, and the other “sex” culture issues. There are many insular communities whose social norms (reinforced or perhaps reflected by religion) are such that homosexuality and premarital sex are not publicly acceptable. The problem, though, is that the social conservative lobby (often representing insular communities) treats these contingent social norms as universal moral imperatives that must be imposed via legislation. In doing so, they mix up the "is" with the "ought."

Same deal for religion more generally. The more you are around people of other faiths (or no faith), the more you come to see your own religious faith as somewhat contingent. That inevitably makes you more humble about the correctness of your views. Of course, I’m not making any claim as to religion’s validity, I’m just saying that where you happened to grow up is an important part of it. There aren’t many Hindus in Alabama, and there aren’t many Southern Baptists in India.

Same deal on national security/nationalism issues. Because many Americans have little contact with the rest of the world (or with people from other parts of the world), they tend to view contingent American motives and actions as universally good. They also tend to equate America’s interest with the world’s interest. More disturbingly, the rest of the world seems less real, like an abstraction. All of this is a function of American insularity.

This unifying theory also explains why attending college seems to matter so much in modern elections. It’s not – NOT – that college is any sort of a proxy for intelligence or values or anything like that. But college forces you to remove yourself from the world you grew up in. You meet gay people. You meet foreign students. You take classes that make you reassess once-solidified mental concepts. If you grew up in a more insular community, you suddenly (though slowly and in fits and starts) recognize that what you always thought of as universal was merely contingent. And when you do that once, it’s hard to ever regain the absolute certainty you had before.

The “insularity theory” also explains some current political trends, methinks. Look at the 2000 and 2004 elections. The “blue” states tend to be the coastal, urban states that are less homogeneous. The “red” states tend to be less urban and more insular. And the states that the GOP may soon lose are the ones that either gaining an influx of minorities or have big urban centers. (That’s why I think Texas and Georgia will ultimately go blue.)

On a final note, I want to be clear that I’m not picking on rural communities. Although there are rural communities that are insular, rural communities are often very diverse in other ways. For instance, all-white exurbs are among the most insular communities in the nation in terms of race and income. And quite predictably, those areas are hotbeds of social conservatism (e.g., mega-churches). In rural communities, by contrast, there’s less opportunity to segregate yourself. Everybody is your neighbor whether you like it or not. But that’s a good thing. People all across the economic spectrum interact with each other on a daily basis – indeed, must interact with each other. In Southern towns, there is also a lot of black-white interaction – far more than in Alexandria where I now live. That’s why rural people are so nice. In game theory lingo, they are necessarily repeat players – they can’t permanently segregate themselves from people they don’t want to be around, so they must learn how to get along with everyone and develop the social skills to do so.

So there you have it folks – my unifying theory of the culture wars. (And if my theory is correct, the Democratic Party should be pumping money into student foreign exchange programs.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006



I'm not sure the blogsfere is old enough for lifetime achievement awards. But if it is, I nominate Bob Somerby for his tireless effort to remind everyone how god-awful and wankerous the press coverage of Gore was from 1998 to 2000 (and continues to be). Here's a recent gem:
In today’s Post, Mallaby discusses Gore’s new film too. And quickly, he gets to the joke:

MALLABY (5/22/06): Gore stars in a movie that opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. The film features the once and maybe future presidential candidate lecturing about climate change: There are charts, bullet points and diagrams; there are maps of ocean currents and endless iceberg pictures. It's hard to say which menaces the nation more: movie stars who go into politics or politicians who go into movies.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh boy, that was good! For reasons only a pundit could grasp, Gore is a “menace” by paragraph 2. And yes, the portrait here is familiar—iconic, ubiquitous, deeply-scripted. Poor Mallaby!

That's good stuff. There's actually a more substantive post I've been meaning to write on this, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 22, 2006



Fresh off from taking compromising photos of Scott Lemieux, Lindsay offers a thoughtful reply to the post below (and here's another one). Putting aside the academic debate, the crux of whether Rohe was effective turns on whether her attacks punctured McCain's bipartisan healer schtick or whether, as I say, they bolstered his conservative street cred. Tough call, but I'm going to stick with the latter.

I fear that John McCain has one and only one obstacle keeping him from the White House -- the GOP primary. Regardless of what I may think of him as a candidate, it's going to be very difficult to stop him if he gets through (just like it would have been in 2000). And he knows this, and his advisors know it too. In their heads, they're saying "just gotta win the primary." (On an aside, if he does get beat in the general, I think his unwavering support for the Iraq War will be his Achilles heel).

Maybe I'm too cynical about this stuff, but I think everything John McCain does for the next two years must therefore be seen in the context of winning the GOP primary. He doesn't need to win the heart of the nation -- he thinks he has that already. But what he ain't got are the hearts of GOP primary voters.

Thus, he doesn't really need the New School to bolster his "bipartisan healer" image. But he does need Liberty University. And he also needs more liberals denouncing him.

All that said, I doubt he was playing chess this far in advance. I'm sure his initial motivation for speaking at the New School was to get some political cover for going to Falwell U (which would make heckling more justified). But regardless of his intentions, the consequences of what happened, on balance, helped him. And I think his advisors have realized that in the last few days. That's why I suspect it was a conscious decision of McCain's aide to elevate the issue by attacking Rohe.

Maybe they're wrong, but I think McCain's team is confident that the "middle will hold." Thus, he thinks he can risk alienating liberals to capture what he sees as the real prize -- the GOP primary crown. Expect to see more of it in the months ahead.

[UPDATE: Commenter Adam makes a fair point - namely, that I said in March that many of McCain's stands appear to be principled whereas today's post indicates that he's politicking 100% of the time for the GOP primary.

In retrospect, my language above was too strong. I would certainly disagree that all of McCain's post-2004 actions have been solely about jockeying for the GOP primary. As I explained in the March post, that's a very tough argument to make. But going forward, I think we're going to see less and less of this. Again, these past actions gave him enough "bipartisan points" for the time being. Now he needs primary points, especially considering his support for immigration reform (which I would bludgeon him with if I were George Allen). And so going forward, I expect to see very little from him that would alienate primary voters.]



It looks like Jean Rohe (age 21) became a minor celebrity this weekend for her speech attacking McCain at the New School University commencement (right before McCain spoke). She even penned a post at HuffPo that, unfortunately, had a 60s “truth to power” chic to it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to pick on a 21-year old, especially one with enough guts to do what she did. But I did find her speech (and McCain’s heckling) troubling – not because it showed disrespect, but because of its utter futility as a method of dissent. In fact, the event illustrated a much larger and troubling difficult problem for the so-called American Left – it can’t dissent.

Before I get to that, a quick word about the appropriateness of the New School students’ conduct. My initial reaction was that it was inappropriate. If you don’t like the guy, fine. But at least let him talk and listen to him. It’s not like he’s drafting torture policy or something. But as I thought about it, I realized that the students might have a point. From what I’ve read, the McCain invitation was a top-down invite imposed on the students. Commencement is supposed to be the students’ day – not a chance for McCain to use the students as a tool in a political campaign. To the extent the students were being incorporated against their will into McCain’s “I Can Unite the Extremes” schtick, then maybe heckling was appropriate.

Anyway, to understand my criticism of Rohe’s speech, you need to know a little bit about the New School. Contrary to what you hear on conservative talk radio or even The New Republic, there really isn’t an American Left in the true sense of the word “Left.” There’s never really been a socialist party and, in general, the outer bounds of acceptable debate are extremely pro-market, pro-inequality, and pro-war.

That’s less true of the New School. It’s more of the real deal. In a popular sense, it’s more radical and activist. In an academic sense, it’s also more “Left” than most universities. For instance, its philosophy department (unlike many universities) fully embraces, and offers training in, “continental philosophy.” It therefore incorporates a lot of “critical theory.” To be grossly (grossly) general, the idea of critical theory is that the objective of your academic or intellectual critique is not merely to describe a given issue (or get at the truth), but to cause societal change through your critiques. The goal is to show the flaws and contradictions in “the system,” and in doing so, change it. Dissent is therefore critical because it exposes the flaws and moves History forward. [On an aside, a lot of the popularized “dissent” themes of “the 60s” trace back to the founders of modern critical theory – the Frankfurt School, a group of largely German Jewish professors who fled to America prior to World War II (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc.)].

To be true dissent, it must be more than disagreement. It needs to expose and undermine the very foundations and assumptions of the object of critique. In this sense, the Colbert speech was true “dissent” in that it exposed the ridiculousness of the event (see Billmon’s post for a fuller discussion). [It's also similar to the way that Shakespeare's jesters (including Mercutio) often stood "outside the play" exposing the absurdity "inside."]

You can see some of these strands of thought in Rohe’s post at HuffPo. When she saved the speech on her computer, she named it “mccain speech subversive.doc.” She said she felt nervous the day of her speech and “felt like an infiltrator.” And finally, there’s a variation of the “speak truth to power” imperative:

I think we must remember that as big as this moment may seem to me today and perhaps to other supporters who are reading this article, this is a very small victory in a time when democracy is swiftly eroding under the pressure of the right wing in this country. . . . I hope that other people found strength in my act of protest and will one day find themselves in my position, drawing out their own bravery to speak truth.

The objective here is not merely to object but to be “subversive” – to undermine McCain through dissent and, in doing so, to inspire change.

Don’t get me wrong – on some level, I’m a sucker for this stuff. And the real struggle going on inside me is whether I want to laugh at this speech or ask her to marry me for being awesome. My 22-year old self would have opted for the latter. At 29, well, it’s a tougher call. Anyway, my point isn’t to attack Rohe – this was an incredibly gutsy thing to do. I just want to use her speech as an example of the larger problem with the Left. To be blunt, its dissent is impotent.

As I’ve written somewhere before, I was really into this stuff in college – i.e., the idea that all dissent had been neutered and co-opted. For a good summary, you can check out this collection of essays from the Baffler called Commodify Your Dissent (it includes a lot of Thomas Frank's earlier work). The basic argument is that the dissenting ideas and slogans of “the 60s” had been co-opted by the market. Thus, “revolution” and “change the rules” became slogans for companies like Nike and Burger King rather than viable dissent.

Fast forwarding to 2006, the problem is that “the Left” has been so stereotyped and caricatured for so many years (often aided and abetted by people like Lieberman or even itself) that true Left-wing protests don’t undermine anything (in the Lefty sense of undermine). In fact, they usually do precisely the opposite in that they further the interests of the target of protest. Rohe’s speech and the hecklers are Exhibit A. Despite their intentions, they actually helped John McCain’s presidential chances. He wanted to be booed and heckled there so he could use that example to skeptical Iowa conservatives. See, liberals hate me. In this sense, the “dissent” is precisely what McCain needed. Oddly enough, a roaring reception would have been more “subversive” to his campaign than the heckling. George Allen: Well, I'll tell you one thing Wolf, they wouldn't have cheered me at the New School.

So what is to be done? I certainly don’t want people like Rohe to drop out or become inactive. I also don’t think that liberals (and even true Lefties) should wholly ignore critical theory and its assumptions. What I do think is that the (real) Left's efforts should be redirected somewhere new – somewhere far away from 60s cliches.

I’d welcome thoughts here, but if I could recommend one area where the Left should focus, it would be our electoral and legislative processes. And in particular, the underlying structure of these processes.

If the hackneyed cliche “the system” has any application to anything, it’s to the structure of our current electoral and legislative processes. Sorry to say it, but the system is whack (I wasn’t really sorry – I’ve been waiting to use that one). As I fear we’re about to see this November, the preferences of the country cannot be expressed through the electoral system (the medium) currently in place because of its significant structural flaws.

The Senate, for instance, is so malapportioned that I think it’s fair to question its democratic legitimacy. That’s one a tough one to fix though. A slightly less unrealistic goal is eliminating the Electoral College and its disenfranchisement of urban voters. Finally, a realistic goal that we should all be going to the mat for right now is ending gerrymandering.

The structure of our legislative system also has its problems. The procedural rules need to be brought under democratic control and the rule of law. There should be no DeLay-esque holding open of votes; the conference committee system needs a complete overhaul; the leadership has too much power over legislation; bills should be previewed by the public for a set amount of time before voting. And that’s just at the federal level – I’m sure you could rattle off structural flaws in both the electoral and legislative processes at the state and local level too.

The point of all this is that process is important. To borrow from the womens' rights movement, the procedural is political. Voting (both electorally and legislatively) is the foundation of all our other rights. If the underlying process in place is flawed, then everything else that the process produces will also be flawed. And that’s where some old-fashioned Leftist critiques might pay off. The current system is so bad that Americans need to be reminded to look at it from time to time from the outside rather than within.

Indeed, Left Blogistan should keep that in mind if November doesn’t work out – i.e., that the GOP has an enormous amount of structural and institutional advantages right now that result from these structural flaws. And so, if you were going to be a Lefty about it, you would say something like the drama surrounding the 2006 election legitimizes – and distracts people from – the flaws in the system.

If nothing else, the existence of a more extreme argument would perhaps shift the center of gravity toward electoral reform. Lord knows we need it.

[UPDATE: Ezra Klein makes the case for putting her in the "marry for being awesome" camp.

Thursday, May 18, 2006



You probably didn't know, but I do a little advertising consulting on the side. I'm about to pitch an ad to a potential client (the Competitive Waste Disposal Enterprise Institute) and thought I'd get your feedback (link via Kevin Drum).


Soft music plays as video spans across an urban park with lots of people lounging on the grass.

There’s something in these pictures you can’t see.

Shift to a young attractive girl blowing bubbles and laughing in a carefree way. The wind blows through her golden hair.

It’s essential to life.

Shift to children jumping rope in the schoolyard. Warm soft music plays throughout.

We push it out.

Shift to woman running on a beach, then to a small child blowing dandelion seeds into the wind.

Plants absorb it in. It makes them grow strong.

Shift to frolicking gazelles in the meadow.

Dogs eat it.

Shift to ocean crashing on rocks.

It is part of the earth.

Shift to an image of the earth from outer space.

It’s called human shit. F-E-C-E-S.

Shift to a very romantic image of a toilet (perhaps as part of an old 1930s WPA mural with the toilet working in golden fields with farmers and railroad workers).

Human shit makes the plants that we eat grow. It has freed us of a life of death and starvation.

Shift to an image of (white) children loading into a van to go to soccer practice – add happy, laughing (white) mother.

The plants that we eat grown from human shit give us the energy to go to the places we want to go, and to visit the people we love.

Shift to darker music with storm clouds.

Now some politicians want to ban dumping human shit in water supplies because of recent widespread dysentery outbreaks in the area of our waste disposal facilities. They want to label it a “pollutant.”

Shift to picture of Al Gore -- fat Al Gore with beard circa 2001.

(ominously) Imagine if they succeed. What would our lives be like then?

Human shit.

They call it pollution. We call it life.



Murtha's comments about the execution of innocent Iraqi women and children has all the makings of a howling lynch-mob storm coming from the nationalist wing of Right Blogistan (links via the invaluable Memeorandum).

One reason I say that is because it fits the pattern I described here -- i.e., it's an attack on the messenger regarding a message that causes cognitive dissonance. People don't want to think that Americans could do such a thing, so they attack the messenger.

Stay tuned - but I think this one is going to get ugly.



Via Josh Marshall, I saw that Greg Djerejian was documenting the growing bipartisan consensus among foreign policy experts that the U.S. should have direct talks with Iran. A-friggin’-men. Of course, the fact that opening talks would be good policy means that there is zero chance of it being done – at least while Dick Cheney is running our foreign policy. But putting Deadeye aside, I agree with the emerging consensus, albeit for a somewhat different reason. To me, talks are important because they would allow Iran to “save face” to its domestic audience. And “saving face” is a sorely underestimated aspect of international relations.

I have no clue whether I’m a liberal or a realist on international relations issues (in fact, I’m skeptical that this dichotomy is even coherent). That said, I share a number of the realists’ traditional assumptions – that humans aren’t very good; that they act to increase their power; etc. Accordingly, because nations are led by humans (and are humans), you must expect that nations will exhibit the same characteristics (and flaws) as humans. Thus, “nations” will be vain, proud, subject to fits of passion, etc. Leaders and diplomats must take these human traits into account when dealing with other nations.

One particularly important human trait that surfaces in international relations is the desire to avoid shame – to avoid “losing face” before others. As I learned from watching fights and near-fights in high school, fights can often be avoided by allowing others to “save face” in response to a challenge. For instance, when I was in high school, two of my friends got in a dispute about something. One guy was bigger and clearly would have kicked the other one’s ass (he had a reputation for fighting too). The bigger guy eventually asked if he wanted to fight and the smaller guy said, “hell no, you’d kick my ass.” I’m sure my friend wasn’t thrilled about acknowledgeing that, but it accomplished two very important goals: (1) it immediately defused the situation by giving the bigger guy an opportunity to withdraw without losing face; and (2) it allowed him to avoid an ass-kicking.

This “saving face” principle is a little trickier in international relations for a couple of reasons. One, the potential fight isn’t a fist-fight, but a military one. And so there's more at stake. Two, no leader is ever going to say “hell no, you’d kick my ass.” One reason is that, in economics lingo, leaders don’t fully internalize the costs of a war. If a fight ultimately breaks out, Bush or Ahmadinejad aren’t going to have a fist-fight in the schoolyard (awesome as that would be). If a fight breaks out, other people will die and the populace will, initially anyway, rally around the executive.

But if they back down, however, they will internalize the costs of their action in the form of domestic nationalists (clerics in Iran, Michelle Malkin in America) calling them wussies. (On an aside, if Bush thought that one of the consequences of botching Iraq was a public ass-kicking, we might never have gone to war.)

Anyway, here’s my point. Once these international pissing contests get started, they are (1) notoriously difficult to stop; and (2) very susceptible to escalation. That’s because once a dispute starts, it won’t really stop unless both sides can back down in a way that allows each of them to save face.

History is full of examples of what I’m talking about. Look at Vietnam. The war was recognized as a mistake and a loser by American leaders many years before it ended. But because there was no good “face-saving” way out, we had to keep sending young men to their death just so America (and LBJ) wouldn’t “lose face.”

To go back a few decades, perhaps the most tragic war in history (World War I) – a devastating war fought for no reason – was essentially one big pissing contest that spiraled out of control. Every country was so petrified of losing face before the others that no one backed down from anything. And when Austria-Hungary (the Vice President’s Office of the Central Powers – i.e., the incompetent bumblers) made their fateful strike against Serbia, the other countries felt compelled to follow to save face. They ended up losing a lot of face though – about 300,000 faces in the Somme mud to be exact (total casualties were over a million - and that was just one battle).

Henry IV, Part I, V.1 (slightly revised)


Well, 'tis no matter; [hawkishness] pricks
me on. Yea, but how if hawkishness prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can hawkishness set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Hawks hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
a hawk? a word. What is in that word hawk? what
is that hawk? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead.

On a more positive note, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved largely because we had leaders who knew enough about the Soviet Union and Soviet psychology to prevent a second Holocaust. As McNamara explained in the Fog of War, the key to defusing the situation (which was, on balance, a defeat and embarrassment to Russia) was allowing the Soviet leaders to go back and say that they saved Cuba from an American invasion. Thankfully, that allowed them to save enough face to back down from a potentially catastrophic pissing contest.

Fast forward to 2006 – we have a new international pissing contest between Bush and Ahmadinejad. One says stop enriching or else and the other says screw you, we’re enriching. There are a number of problems with this dispute, but the one that I’m most concerned about right now is that it’s not clear there is a face-saving escape for both countries (especially Iran given that the right to nuclear technology is akin to the right to drive an SUV here, politically speaking).

But Ahmadinejad’s rambling letter provides an opening – and we should take it. It opens the door to allow both sides to talk, and even to meet. Who knows – maybe they could even strike some meaningless agreement that can be seen as a symbolic victory for each (which is fine because Iran is years and years away from a bomb). Hell, the very act of talking to Iran would help their ego and defuse the tension – especially if you (like me) think that what Iran is really seeking is economic integration with the West and Western markets. Further, both Bush and Ahmadinejad have Nixon-in-China potential. It would be much harder for a Democrat and a reformist to have this meeting. But because these guys are both “hard-liners,” they have more domestic license to meet with the other one.

The bottom line is that talks would give both sides an acceptable justification for toning things down and working out a few compromises.

On a final note, America must realize that Iran is going to be the powerhouse of the region. We helped bring that about and we can’t change it now. The Iranians must be dealt with – and they certainly can’t be ignored. And so this is an important time – wise steps now can prevent bad things in the future. That’s why I’m psyched Bush and Cheney are in charge – they have such great foreign policy judgment that I know they won’t screw this up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

MORE "PARTY OF DEATH" - A Reply to Feddie 


Southern Appeal proprietor, and noted Blanton’s aficionado, Feddie Esquire penned a response to my recent “Party of Death” post. I’d encourage you to read his entire response to get a different perspective on this stuff from a more thoughtful party of lifer (ed. Didn’t he call you "selfish" and "hedonistic"? Yeah, he does that sometimes.)

In reading Feddie’s response, the main critique I have is the same one I had of Ponnuru – both are too quick to treat disputed (and logically antecedent) questions of what constitutes “life” as undisputed truths. Putting aside euthanasia for now, when you boil down the dispute over stem cell research and abortion, it’s really a question of whether embryos and fetuses constitute “life.” My point was that people like Ponnuru simply assume that they do without justifying this critical assumption.

For instance, Feddie comes perilously close to question-begging here:

Abortion and embryonic stem cell research unquestionably destroy innocent human life . . . . What leap of faith is required to acknowledge that a viable baby partially removed from his/her mother’s womb is a human being with the right to live? What leap of faith is required to acknowledge the scientific fact that life does indeed begin at conception? (emphasis added)

That doesn’t really answer the question of why I should consider an embryo to be “life.” And establishing that premise is the foundation of Feddie’s entire argument. So that’s the key question – why are these things considered “life.” Everything else can and should be stripped away.

The source of our dispute may be linguistic. The word “life” itself is a vague and overbroad label for the various biological states we’re discussing. (It’s similar to the word “snow” – apparently the Eskimos have multiple words for the different types of things that we generically call “snow.”). Because of an imprecise label, people may be projecting human characteristics onto biological entities that don’t possess them. Regardless, the challenge for Ponnuru and Feddie is to explain why this particular linguistic label is an appropriate one to describe both me and an microscopic embryo with undifferentiated cells.

The first argument they could raise is a biological one – the embryo is alive in a strictly biological sense because it exhibits established characteristics of life (e.g., growth, metabolism, cellular organization, etc.). The objection, though, is that embryos are not “life,” but potential life because they can’t do any of this stuff on their own. They are still for all practical purposes inchoate life that are extensions of the mother. This is a key point and one that the Ponnuru/Feddie camp cannot summarily dismiss.

But even assuming that embryos (and first trimester fetuses) exhibit characteristics of life, that alone is not enough. After all, plants and bacteria also share these characteristics, but that doesn’t mean they deserve legal protection. As Feddie notes, “life” in the sense that we’re discussing means more than simply possessing certain biological characteristics:

What Publius is really saying is that in some cases the law should not recognize life as being worthy of legal protection, i.e., that some lives are more meaningful than others.

Sort of, though Feddie is again begging the question. What I’m saying is that society should not recognize certain biological states as “life,” not that some “life” is not worthy.

In assuming that “life” exists, Feddie is also jumping back and forth between the descriptive and the normative. Just because an entity exhibits biological characteristics of life in a descriptive sense (e.g., viruses, bacteria, plants, embryos, adult humans), that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be treated as “life” under the law.

Anyway, in my opinion, the key characteristic for treating an entity or biological state as “life” is consciousness (i.e., advanced brains and nervous systems). It is the possession of consciousness that puts an entity into the “life” camp. The reason I disagree so strongly with opposition to stem cell research is that the embryo has no brain, no nervous system, and thus no biological foundation of consciousness. The embryo feels nothing and thinks nothing. That’s also why I’m ok with first-trimester abortions (which is when the overwhelming majority happen) and oppose third-term abortions except in the most extreme circumstances. At seven months, you have a conscious, viable human. At two months, you don’t.

To jump to the other end of the spectrum, that’s also why I think Michael Schiavo did the right thing. Terri Schiavo died a long time ago. Her shriveled, decimated brain provided no foundation for consciousness. Not be to crude, but the vegetable in that Florida hospital was not Terri Schiavo. True, it exhibited characteristics of biological life, but it was no longer “alive” because it had no consciousness and no ability to feel pain. Even if Americans didn’t think through all the philosophy, they knew this in their gut – and that’s why they overwhelmingly opposed Congress’s intrusive intervention.

In fact, the argument that humans instinctively use consciousness as the dividing line gets additional support from our treatment of animals. If you think about it, the more intelligent an animal is, the better humans treat it. Dogs and chimps and dolphins are treated much better than say cows or insects. The reason (in my opinion) is that the former have a more advanced consciousness (i.e., greater mental capabilities and awareness).

To take an even bigger step back, though, I think the true crux of the dispute between Feddie and me relates to something that David Brooks identified during the Schiavo debate (sorry, no link). His basic point was that some people see “life” as a black-or-white issue. Something either is life or it isn’t – it either fits in the box or it doesn’t. Others (like me) view “life” as existing along a spectrum.

Feddie calls me a “line-drawing kind of guy,” but I’m not sure that’s right. Fuzzy-headed liberals see spectrums. For instance, I would argue that there isn’t pure heterosexuality and homosexualty, but a spectrum – and everyone falls somewhere along that spectrum. Similarly, I don’t see a magical line at conception or the end of the third month of pregnancy – I see a spectrum. For that reason, I think the embryo shares far more with the unfertilized egg than with the nine-month old, not-yet-born human.

In short, the existence of a spectrum isn’t a deal-breaker for me – it’s a conception I’m comfortable with. For reasons both sociological, cultural, and psychological, many social conservatives are not. They like to draw clear conceptual lines. Something is life or it isn’t. Something is wrong or it’s right. Marriage is between a man and a woman, or it is not marriage. A court opinion is consistent with original understanding, or it’s not. Social conservatives don’t do shades of grey (or at least do them less than many liberals). My point today isn’t to say that his sharp line-drawing is worse than fuzzy spectrums – for now, my point is just that social conservatives and I often think in fundamentally different ways even where our positions ultimately converge.

And perhaps that’s a question that needs to be addressed before we can even get the “life” question – do you have enough confidence that the human brain can draw these sharp conceptual distinctions and draw them accurately? Do these concepts correspond with objective reality better than spectrums? If not, it’s hard to justify banning life-saving research on microscopic embryos (not to mention criminalizing doctors and young women for abortions).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006



Frankly, I'm getting sick of all these commenters challenging my points and engaging in constructive discourse about complicated issues.

Thus, from now on, every commenter at Legal Fiction will either agree with me completely on all issues, or not comment. If you refuse to abide by this new policy, I will have no choice but to unilaterally amend your comments. Below is a summary of the potential amendments under this new policy.

Comments disagreeing with any of my opinions will be amended to read, "My Publius is an awesome Publius. His awesomeness is surpassed only by the awesomeness of His opinions. Great post."

Comments challenging my assumptions will be amended to read, "Never before I have seen such unshakeably sound assumptions. Great post."

Comments making fun of my economics posts will be amended to read, "You are second only to Coase in the depth of your economic insights. Great post."

Comments alleging factual errors will be amended to read, "Your unerring and thorough factual research continues to astound and amaze me. Great post."

Snide remarks about cheesy puns in my post titles will be amended to read, "Your resplendent wit shines down once again in the form of ingenious puns. Great title."

Commenters can avoid unilateral amendments only by amassing a sufficient number of "Publius Points." If your comment includes a sufficient amount of praise and adulation, you will be awarded 1 Publius Point. Commenters who collect 10 Publius Points will be allowed to make one snide comment in exchange for turning in those 10 Points.

If you have a problem with this new policy, I suggest you take your comments elsewhere.



Sunday’s NYT included an unflattering portrayal of fellow Kentuckian Hal Rogers (R-KY) and his diversion of Homeland Security money and projects to his home district and political donors (with few results). Garance Franke-Ruta calls it “yet another burgeoning Republican corruption scandal.” She’s probably right, but to be perfectly honest, I felt ambivalent about it – irrationally ambivalent. In particular, this line triggered the irrationality:

Mr. Rogers, 68, whom The Lexington Herald-Leader last year called the Prince of Pork, has never been shy about using clout gained over 13 House terms to steer federal dollars to his sparsely populated, poor corner of southeastern Kentucky.

Anyone who has driven through southeastern Kentucky will soon recognize that it needs all the money it can get. Call it irrational loyalty to my people; call it the hippy liberal in me; call it whatever you want – but part of me felt happy that rural Appalachia was getting some much-needed investment.

I realize, of course, that this is an irresponsible and irrational position. And I have little doubt that I would be denouncing it if it involved steering Homeland Security money to some corner of western Kansas fit only for tumbleweeds and Truman Capote novels. But as I sat there feeling pleased in spite of myself that SE Kentucky was enjoying some capital investment, I recognized why it’s so hard to eliminate “pork” – pork is good. More precisely, obtaining pork is a rational political strategy and even a public benefit at the local level. In this sense, an individual legislator’s battle against pork in the name of more abstract principles (e.g., limited government) is, strictly speaking, irrational.

A lot of this is tied into our constitutional structure. Members of Congress are elected by the people in their district and no one else. Although outside interest groups and the party’s leadership can influence a legislator’s activity, at the end of the day, the people who matter are the constituents. They decide between political “life” and “death.”

With that in mind, let’s turn to Stevens’ bridge to nowhere, or Rogers’ Homeland Security spending. There are many strong and persuasive arguments against spending federal money this way – efficiency, maximum utility, limited government, etc. But to be coldly rational about it, why should an individual legislator care about any of these abstract principles? Why should he care when the opportunity cost of “standing on principle” is that his home district will lose money and jobs? The structure of our government is such that Hal Rogers’ incentives are to help his home district regardless of the effect on the greater American public.

In other words, it’s a big collective action problem – i.e., a situation in which individually rational decisions produce harmful results for society. One classic example of the collective action problem can be seen in overfishing. Individually, it is rational for each fisherman to snag as many fish as possible. “Collectively,” however, these “actions” are a “problem” for society because they will decimate the fish population. That’s why one of the foundations of liberal (modern, not classical) thought is that certain laws are necessary to correct collective action problems (overfishing laws; pollution laws; taxation; etc.). As I mentioned the other day, law often makes individually rational conduct irrational by attaching negative consequences to it.

Anyway, Congress and the federal budget are basically one giant overfishing problem. Individually, the legislators need to grab as much as they can regardless of whether it harms the collective good. In fact, it is rational for them to do so. On an aside, that’s why the executive branch is the institution best suited (structurally speaking) to reining in profligate federal spending. (Absent a vigilant executive, divided government helps too.)

Stepping back from the issue of “rational pork,” however, Congress’s love of pork is interesting for a few other reasons too. First, it shows once again that Americans don’t really – deep down – believe in limited government. Americans’ view of pork is pretty much “pork for me but not for thee.” Not only do constituents not get upset about it, they demand it in exchange for continuing political loyalty. Check out any local campaign ad near election day and it will often include a laundry list of the public benefits (some call it pork) that the legislator has brought home to the district.

And that leads to a broader point (that I think I’ve seen Jonah Goldberg and Yglesias make somewhere out in the unlinked-to cloud). Despite the hubbub about conservative ascendancy, the real secret to conservatives’ success is that they’ve internalized and incorporated the goals and rhetoric of liberalism. Bush’s policies are terrible, but he sells them as helping the little guy (relying as he does on Americans’ failure to understand the difference between median and mean). In other words, in selling his policies, he incorporates the rhetoric and assumptions of liberalism, and not Goldwater “tough love.” (See, e.g., last night’s speech).

Another interesting aspect of all this is that the Coburn/McCain opposition to pork, while admirable at times, is more symbolic than substantive. The pork projects that these people oppose are statistically insignificant in terms of the overall federal budget. The bridge to nowhere, for instance, is a drop of a drop of a drop in the bucket. Until you're ready to talk about entitlements, defense, foolish wars, and multi-billion dollar tax cuts, the griping about fiscal irresponsibility rings a bit hollow.

Finally, there is actually a good side to pork. As the NYT article explained, a lot of that money goes to economically deprived rural areas that are represented by powerful legislators. Collectively, this is bad policy – money should be spent efficiently and on more highly-populated areas. But on a local level, this spending really is the lifeblood of many of these regions’ economies (or at least a major organ system).

In fact, one reason that pork spending might be so popular is that it’s necessary to correct the general lack of overall investment in our nation. If, for instance, fiscal policy was more rational and provided better health care and education opportunities, perhaps there would be less demand for funding in these deprived areas. The problem, of course, with using pork spending to fill this gap is that the funding is distributed inefficiently and irrationally. If you are represented by the powerful, you get funding. If you’re not, you don’t. That's why cities currently languish under GOP rule.

If, however, Democrats win in 2006, you can expect a lot more money to flow into the urban areas represented by Democratic legislators. (Another reason for you yuppie terrorist-enablers to go vote).

Monday, May 15, 2006



Assuming this ABC News story is accurate, this is precisely the sort of activity that I was describing in my prior post (via Billmon):

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

That's now how these programs begin, but that's how they end.

Sunday, May 14, 2006



Attempting to explain the apparent public apathy following the latest revelations about the NSA program, Michael Tomasky concludes: “A lot of Americans are still very, very scared of another terrorist attack. And they think, Hey, whatever it takes.” Like Ezra Klein, I’m not sure I buy this explanation. To be perfectly honest, I think people (law-abiding people) don’t really care if the government sees their phone records. They’re probably not thrilled about it, but they don’t seem upset either. Maybe this is a product of living in the digital age, maybe it’s that people are boring and have little to hide. Whatever the reason may be, I just don’t think many people feel that threatened by a review of their phone records as part of a search for terrorism.

That’s why I think civil liberties advocates should view this controversy as an opportunity to return to first principles. To bring a complacent public around, they need to explain not merely what the civil liberty laws are, but why we have them and why breaking them is a big deal.

The mere fact that something is against the law isn’t enough. For people to get upset, they need to understand WHY a given legal violation is bad — i.e., it consequences, how it harms others, how it may ultimately harm them. The rule of law is an important concept, but most Americans simply won’t get that worked up about violating it if they’re not worried about the consequences of the given violation.

That’s why, for instance, Americans didn’t get that worked up about Clinton’s perjury. It was about a private affair and one that affected no one other than sex-crazed Ken Starr. If the perjury had related to national security (e.g., leaking a CIA operative’s identity for political revenge), that would have been a much bigger deal. To see another example, look at college campuses. Technically, plagiarism, marijuana possession, and downloading music are all illegal. But the only thing that college students get worked up about is plagiarism because they understand why it’s illegal. In particular, the consequences are more real to them. Because they don’t really believe that violating the other two laws is a bad thing, they don’t get worked up over violations when they see them.

Even the Metro in DC (the subway) seems to have caught on to this aspect of human nature. It is against Metro regulations to eat or drink on the Metro. However, Metro posters have recently appeared that also explain why it’s a good law — namely, that it will attract critters. The posters show pictures of bugs and rats along with slogan — “It’s the Law — For a Good Reason” (I may not have the exact wording right, but you get the point). In my opinion, this is a more effective campaign than merely saying “it’s against the law so don’t do it.”

Applying all this to the NSA debate, I think many Americans simply don’t have a concrete sense of why the government’s illegal review of phone records is that big a deal. It’s not so much that they spend their waking hours worrying about terrorism, it’s that they have little reason to hide their phone records. Think about it — why should I really care that the government is seeing that I call my parents every Sunday night? Don’t get me wrong, people should care — a lot. But to persuade the public, civil liberty advocates must have an answer to the question — “why should I care?” And that’s the question I’m going to focus on today.

First, and most obviously, the NSA program will inevitably be abused. In fact, the assumption that man (without law or oversight) will abuse power is the philosophical foundation of both our Constitution and conservative thought more generally. Even if the program begins as a purely innocent “terrorist surveillance program,” the law of human nature suggests that it will ultimately be used in improper ways if it remains unchecked and outside the realm of public oversight (see, e.g., torture; communism; the Vice-President’s office).

One way that it might be abused is if it is used for political attacks, retribution, or even blackmail. Think about John Bolton. My understanding (relying on Steve Clemons) is that his requests for NSA intercepts of certain people’s communications wasn’t related to this particular program. But it’s not hard to imagine a situation where this program could be used for that. The individuals running this program are not angels, but fallible human beings who have political agendas and belong to political parties. Thus, you can imagine a situation where an angry administration official might search Dana Priest’s or Leslie Cauley’s phone records to seek out and punish their sources. (See also Richard Nixon). Indeed, if there are no consequences or oversight, such snooping would be (literally speaking) rational. After all, that’s why we have law in the first place — to make individually rational acts that harm the public irrational by attaching punishment to them. And maybe I’m wearing the tinfoil too tightly, but I’d be shocked if the NSA program has never been used (at least a few times) for improper purposes. We’ll have to stay tuned on that, I guess.

Yglesias has offered another reason why we should care — one that focuses on the consequences of ignoring the law and the slippery slope that follows. His basic point is that one unlawful act inevitably leads to another. Let’s say you obtain the information illegally and thus can’t use it in court. That gives you a strong incentive to avoid the courts entirely and set up “military tribunals” and so on. Yglesias explains:
So the whole process starts again and soon enough there's an entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules.

And that's the optimistic scenario in which all of the relevant people are maximally honest, honorable, and competent. Leaving aside the reality that nobody with a single shred of honesty or basic human dignity would be working for George W. Bush at this point, that's simply not a realistic picture of any large-scale enterprise. Things are bound to go wrong -- badly wrong -- when you have all these people operating outside the law without any checks or scrutiny.

Exactly. And what’s crazy is that we’ve already seen this play out right before our eyes — Gitmo and Abu Ghraib are textbook examples of what happens when you set up these parallel “justice systems” with neither law nor oversight. Oversight and law aren’t hippy concepts — they prevent things like wrongful arrest, torture, and even wrongful execution. God only knows how many innocent people are stuck in Gitmo just because some pissed off neighbor of theirs reported them to the Americans. That stuff doesn’t happen as much in America anymore because of the strong evidentiary and other constitutional protections that the criminally accused rightfully enjoy.

Maybe these examples aren’t all that concrete but the basic point is that, as civil liberties advocates denounce this illegal conduct, they need to focus not merely on the abstract right of privacy or the rule of law, but on the concrete consequences that will follow if this program goes unpunished. They need to make Americans understand not only that the law was broken, but why it matters. People need to see that this program really is violating foundational principles of Western liberalism and our constitutional order — those foundational principles being distrust of government for the public good. But it’s difficult to make this threat real for Americans because people have forgotten that the lack of government abuse that they experience is not woven in the natural of order of the universe, but is a contingent product of courageous efforts and struggles by people who came before us. In that sense, maybe another way to make people understand is to show them what the government does with this information in countries like China. We’re a long way from there obviously, but there’s no reason to be complacent about it.

Friday, May 12, 2006



Wow — spent the day traveling yesterday for a wedding so I’m just now seeing the latest revelations on our terrorist surveillance program. I’ll have more substantive comments later after I’ve digested everything.

To be perfectly honest though, I laughed when I first saw the story — and the magnitude of purely domestic calls that our protectors have been monitoring. I mean, good Lord, these people just don’t tell the truth about anything. Anything. I know us crazy unhinged moonbats say that a lot, but we keep getting proven right. When the news broke, we were told it was a targeted program focused on international calls. Now we learn it’s not targeted at all and has swept up millions of domestic call records (or in Section 222 lingo - “customer proprietary network information”).

Here’s Bush on December 17 (via NYT timeline graphic):

I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.

And our new CIA chief-to-be on February 5:

We are not out there -- and again, let me use a phrase I used in the comments -- this isn’t a drift net out there where we're soaking up everyone's communications. We're going after very specific communications that our professional judgment tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who want to kill Americans.

. . .

It's also about, as I tried to suggest in my comments, a balancing between security and liberty. And one of the decisions that have been made collectively, and certainly I personally support it, it's that one way we have balanced this is that we are talking about international communications, so it not only plays to the strength of N.S.A., it’s an attempt to balance these consistent continuing legitimate questions of security and liberty.

None of that was true. And even if you buy the highly legalistic argument that “intercepting communications” means actual listening versus sweeping up call records (disclosure of the latter is strictly regulated by Section 222 of the Communications Act), the impression they clearly intended to give was that the program is much smaller than it is. Just add it to the list I guess. (By the way, that whole Feingold censure thing is starting to look a lot better.)

Anyway, I’ll have more later. I also know a bit about Section 222, so I may try to discuss that as well.

(One last question - has anyone called for Leslie Cauley to be thrown in jail yet? I gotta think the over/under on that was about 6 hours.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006



I’ve got to give the early rounds of the Sullivan-Ponnuru blog-o-rumble to Sullivan. Even if it helps sales, and even though Ponnuru is a smart thoughtful writer, his Coulter-esque title is a joke. And he invited whatever flak he catches for it.

Exhibit #A that Ponnuru isn’t getting the best of this fight is in his rather strange argument that “party of death” doesn’t refer to a “political party,” and certainly not the Democratic Party. Responding to a Sullivan jab, Ponnuru explains:

I had no veto over the book jacket, didn’t see it until it had gone out, and didn’t much like it. The title and subtitle, on the other hand, I’m perfectly happy with. . . . As I’ve said many times now, what I call “the party of death” has influence in both parties but more influence among the Democrats.

He said something similar here.

I’m sorry, but that argument won’t fly. Yes, I suppose in theory that the word “party” in this context could refer to a group of people (e.g., hunting party) rather than a political party. That said, I think about 0.00001% of people read it that way when they see it – especially when it’s coming from a political writer from a partisan magazine (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I also suspect that approximately the same number of people intend that particular meaning when they write it or slap it on the cover of a book. But to remove all doubt, the full title is “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.” I can’t imagine where people got the idea that the title refers to the Democratic Party.

(To his credit, I hear he did reject this title: The Party of Death: The Democrats, Vampires, the Bubonic Plague, Dragons, Babylonian Whores Riding Dragons, Satan, Orcs, Orcas (i.e., “killer” whales), and the Creepy Villain Guy From The Movie The Crow Who Blows a Lot of Coke.)

Let’s be honest – of course he meant to associate the term with the Democratic Party. It’s intended to stir up emotion because that’s how you get press coverage and sell books. Now, maybe that’s the sort of deal with the devil you have to cut to break out – and maybe (Willie Talos-style) that’s the “bad” early work necessary for the “good” to ultimately emerge. (Yes, I’m obsessed with that book now).

Regardless, when you consciously choose to market your book like something written by Ann Coulter, you assume the risk that you are going to be ridiculed for it and taken less seriously as a public intellectual.

That said, I believe Ponnuru when he says he doesn’t want to be a hack – and I’m sure he doesn’t want to be a demagogue either. I suspect he wants to be known as a thoughtful public intellectual with fans across the political spectrum. This poorly-chosen title, however, is going to lower his stock in the eyes of the very people he (I’m guessing) most wants to impress and speak to.

But moving on to more substantive points, I think Sullivan (or Sullivan’s reader) really hits the nail on the head here:

Ponnuru has chosen his issues (abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research) as his 'death' issues . . . . One could easily (and perhaps should) write a book focusing on US infant mortality rates, universal health care, Just War Doctrine, inhumane treatment of prisoners, capital punishment, and sex education.

I know this point has been made again and again, but it’s a strong one. If you were seriously attempting to sit down and weigh objectively what party is more “Life-friendly,” the modern GOP would not exactly take the taco. Of course, it’s hard to reach any sort of objective conclusion on these things given that they turn on subjective value judgments and religious beliefs. But that said, I would argue that any analysis that gives the modern GOP higher “Life” ratings necessarily relies on questionable assumptions.

For the GOP to “win,” issues like abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia must trump war, capital punishment, torture, and a greater tolerance of poverty and of the fifty million people (including children) without health care insurance. The problem, though, with this sort of “Ponnuru calculus” is that it assumes that hotly disputed questions about what constitutes “life” are undisputed truths. The “liberal calculus,” by contrast, requires no such leap of faith.

To see what I mean, let’s look at stem cell research. I believe as strongly as I believe anything that a microscopic embryo is not “life” and certainly not the moral or legal equivalent of a human. Others believe precisely the opposite – and just as strongly as I do. Whereas I focus on the lack of a brain and nervous system, others focus on the divine soul. Neither side can prove the other one wrong, but at the very least, we should be able to agree that there is a strong, good-faith argument about why people don’t consider embryos to be human life. In the face of this uncertainty, to classify support for stem cell research (life-saving stem cell research) as part of the “party of death” is beyond obnoxious. Same deal for abortion and same deal for Terry Schiavo.

Opposition to war and to capital punishment, however, doesn’t require you to make such a jump. Everyone agrees that these acts kill and destroy human life. There is no antecedent question about whether there is even life in the first place.

And that’s really the problem with the Ponnuru calculus, which concludes as it does that the Democrats are the “party of death.” The only possible way that he is right is by assuming that embryos, fetuses, and brain-dead Floridians are “alive” in the same sense that people who die in wars are alive. And the only way that assumption works is by assuming the existence of a divine soul that, by its very nature, cannot be observed. Maybe that's right, maybe it's wrong. But it can't possibly be proven because such things can't be empirically observed. And when you can't prove these things, you should probably refrain from accusing half the nation of supporting murder as a foundational political principle.

What really seems to be going on is precisely what Sullivan’s reader said – Ponnuru is working backwards from a pre-existing conclusion that Democrats are bad. He then cherry-picks those policies that help his argument, while ignoring the four-hundred pound gorillas in the room that should, at the very least, give him pause or, at most, lead him to switch parties.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006



NYT, “What's in a Murdoch-Clinton Alliance? Something for Both Sides”:

Strengthening a pragmatic rapprochement, Rupert Murdoch has agreed to give a fund-raiser this summer for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the latest sign of cooperation between the conservative media mogul and the Democratic lawmaker who has often been a prime target of his newspaper and television outlets. . . . Mr. Murdoch, known for his shrewd business skills and his tendency to prize political power over ideology, gave a similar fund-raiser for Senator Charles E. Schumer, also a Democrat, in 2003[.]

FT, “Rupert and Hillary”:

Forget opinion polls. On either side of the Atlantic an endorsement by Rupert Murdoch has proved a far more accurate bellwether of election outcomes. Supporters of Hillary Clinton should therefore swallow their doubts and take heart that Mr Murdoch's News Corporation plans to host a fund-raising event for the New York senator.

Ben Smith, TNR, “Hillary Woos a Tabloid”:

Beyond these bromides is a realization by both Clinton and Murdoch that their relationship can be mutually beneficial. Murdoch's history with Prime Minister Tony Blair offers the blueprint: After then-candidate Blair flew to Australia's Hayman Island to address executives of Murdoch's News Corporation, Murdoch's British papers abandoned the Tories to support him. Murdoch would go on to benefit from Blair's media deregulation.

Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men:

There was Sadie [Burke]. She had come a long way because she played to win and didn’t mean to win matches and she knew that to win you have to lay your money on the right number and that if your number doesn’t show there’s a fellow standing right there with a little rake to rake in your money and then it isn’t yours any more. She had been around a long time, talking to men[.] Some of them liked her, and those that didn’t like her listened when she talked, which wasn’t too often, because there was reason to believe that when those big black eyes . . . looked at the wheel before it began to move they could see the way the wheel would be after it had ceased to move and saw the little ball on the number.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006



Is anyone else struggling to figure out what's really going on with the Hayden nomination. I'm having trouble pinning down who wins and who loses.

What is really strange is that Hastert and other GOP legislators are voicing strong opposition. The ostensible reason is because they don't want a military leader in charge of a civilian agency. That makes sense as a matter of policy, but the modern GOP congressional caucus doesn't care about policy -- so that can't possibly be the explanation.

Some are saying that Hastert, et al. are trying to check Rumsfeld's power (the implication being that Hayden would allow the DOD to take over the CIA's responsibilities). But since when did Hastert, et al. care about checking anything Rumsfeld was doing? Steve Clemons, however, thinks that Hayden and Negroponte would actually be a check on Rumsfeld's power. If that's true, than Hastert's opposition actually helps Rumsfeld.

It's confusing. For one, why would Hayden get nominated in the first place if he was a threat to the Cheney/Rumsfeld crew? And if he helps Rumsfeld, why the opposition from the GOP? Whose water are they carrying?

I get the feeling I'm missing something very obvious here, so please feel free to suggest links in the comments.



No, I haven't quit - despite an anemic month of blogging. A vicious combination of work deadlines, work travel, and weddings have kept me in the air or otherwise occupied for the past few weeks. I'm debating becoming a farmer.

Anyway, I expect to get the ball rolling again tomorrow (Tuesday). I'm sorry for the lack of posts and updates. On an aside, I did (in the course of my travels) finally read All The King's Men and I highly highly recommend it to all political junkies.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006



CNN, "Study: Geography Greek to young Americans"(via byrningman):

After more than three years of combat and nearly 2,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map, a study released Tuesday showed.

Well, I think that's a bit of a cheap shot. Even if they can't identify Iraq on a map, I'm confident they can make informed decisions about the state of Iraq's weapons programs, the history of Iraq's inter-and-intra-ethnic strife, and the collateral consequences of invasion. In short, these people are clearly informed enough to know that war is a good idea. (And I'm sure a much higher percentage can identify Iran.)

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