Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Why Won't They Just Tell the Truth, Part 2

In partial defense of the administration, I want to suggest another reason why telling the truth is overly rare—in politics in general and on the contemporary political scene in particular. I don’t think we can ignore the fact that—at least in cases in which telling the truth means admitting error—the practical costs of telling the truth can be very high, especially when the political atmosphere is particularly poisonous, as it seems to be today. If the administration were to admit error about Iraq, WMDs, and al Qaeda, there is, I believe, a very good chance that they would pay a high price in (and at) the polls.

As I mentioned in the last post on this subject, Kevin Drum has suggested that there are practical benefits to be gained by telling the truth, even in the case at hand. I think this is clearly true, but, as I suggested in that post, it’s a gamble. Were the Bush administration to start telling the truth about Iraq etc. at this point, they’d gain a certain amount of respect and support from some people, they’d lose the respect and support of others, and it isn’t clear what the net effect on their popularity would be. Let’s us be honest about it: if they did admit error at this point, those of us who are anti-Bush would seize that admission and run with it. That means that we are at least partially responsible for the current sad state of things; we ourselves are helping to make it more difficult for the administration to tell the truth. (Which is, of course, not to say that the anger and animosity that underlie our attitudes toward them are unjustified.)

Furthermore, as we all know, lies become more difficult to confess the longer one maintains them and the more elaborate they become. Lies tend to accrete; new lies are required to defend the flanks of previous lies, small lies become extensive tissues of lies, and consequently small liars become big liars. And it’s harder to confess to being a big fat liar than it is to confess to having told a relatively small, run-of-the-mill lie. Though this doesn’t explain why they chose to lie in the first place, it does help to explain why, relatively far down the path of mendacity, they have elected to stick with their increasingly implausible fabrications.

These are all rather well-known facts about human beings. And those of us who have been driven almost off the deep end with anger at these people are, I think, in danger of forgetting that they are human beings. I hope I’m atypical in occasionally finding myself thinking of them almost as if they were sinister, power-hungry robots who have invaded the White House, but I fear that I’m not. In addition to whatever desire they have to stay in power, they are human beings—human beings who have made a large number of largely culpable errors, and who have perfectly human desires to avoid the disgrace that would attend a confession of those errors. If I were magically transported into the place of Condoleezza Rice, I doubt that I would have the honor and courage to admit to my terrible mistakes.

Add to this that such emotions cloud one’s thinking, and we get a truly toxic combination. When the cost of admitting error is so high, it becomes not only difficult to make such admissions to others, it also becomes difficult to make the admissions to oneself. As Nietzsche, perhaps our greatest psychologist, reminds us: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that'--says my pride, and remains adamant. At last my memory yields.” It is likely that members of the administration at least half-believe their own untruths.

If our body politic were not so large and alienating, perhaps it would be possible to set things right. If something like this happened in an individual relationship—if one party got himself twisted up in such a tissue of lies—it might be possible to sit down and say something like “Look: I know what’s going on; you know what’s going on. Let’s drop the charade. I realize that you will be psychologically incapable of admitting to your lies unless I assure you that will abandon my anger, however righteous, and do my best to understand and forgive. So for the good of us both, and for the good of our friendship, I agree to do so.”

There is, of course, no real chance of such an accord in the present case. Given the stakes, given how far things have gone, given the nature of politics in general and the nature of the current atmosphere of American politics in particular, no such accord is a real and relevant possibility. Here’s how it will go: the administration will continue to lie, in large part out of fear of the anger and disgrace that would attend an admission of wrong-doing. Their ever larger and ever more transparent lies will make ever larger segments of the population ever more angry, thus making admissions of error ever more costly and, consequently, ever less likely.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m probably not.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Why Won't They Just Tell The Truth?

Ezra and Jesse at Pandagon and Kevin Drum in his new web-digs all wonder why the Bush administration doesn’t just tell the truth about their pre-9/11 attitudes about terrorism, the fact that there are no significant WMD in Iraq, etc.

Why? Here’s a proposed partial answer:

It seems reasonable to suggest that everybody occupies a position somewhere on a spectrum such that: on one end of the spectrum lies a theoretical point representing the position of (presumably non-actual) people with an absolute respect for the truth, people who would never lie no matter what moral or prudential ends they could achieve by doing so, and on the other end of the spectrum lies a theoretical point representing the position of people with no respect for the truth whatsoever—that is, people who recognize no reason whatsoever to tell the truth unless it achieves some independent end. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum. I myself believe that one has a strong, though not un-over-ride-able obligation to tell the truth. My friends all occupy positions pretty far toward that end of the spectrum, too, for obvious reasons—I can’t respect anyone who doesn’t respect the truth, and I’m not friends with people I don’t respect. Once we enter the realm of politics, however, we seem to move almost ineluctably toward the other end of the spectrum. People commonly say that the Bush administration has no respect for the truth; that’s a fast and hyperbolic way of making the point that their position would be represented by a point extraordinarily far down toward what we might call the “f**k the truth” end of the spectrum.

So, why don’t they just tell the truth? First answer: because they aren’t really very truthful people.

Some would say that this isn’t a real explanation, but they’d be wrong. ([blare of trumpets] Let the pedantry begin!!) It is sometimes said that such explanations are “virtus dormitiva” or “dormitive virtue” explanations Moliere (in “The Imaginary Illness”?) has someone ask, basically, how come one goes to sleep after taking opium?, and the doctor replies something like “Because it hath the dormitive virtue”--i.e. the opium’s got the power to put you to sleep. This is the point at which most philosophers and many scientists say ‘nyuck nyuck’ (or ‘har har’ as the case may be) because the doctor’s explanation is thought to be risible on account of being tautological—that is, because it is thought that the doctor’s explanation is uninformative, having the form ‘you go to sleep after taking opium because you go to sleep after taking opium.’ But that’s wrong. The doctor’s explanation has the form ‘you go to sleep after taking opium because opium has the power to put you to sleep.’ That is, your going to sleep is not an accident, but an effect of a real power of the opium. Consequently, we can predict that people will, in the future, continue to go to sleep after taking opium.

So they don’t tell the truth because they aren’t very truthful people—that is, there is a real lack of respect for the truth in them. They aren’t the kind of people who think the truth is very important, and they (partially as a consequence of that, partially for other reasons) don’t think it’s important to tell the truth. They’ve made that abundantly clear. Their acute Lysenkoism is one sign of their disregard for truth, as is their repeated lying, their habitual stonewalling, and their penchant for propaganda (like the Medicare ads).. It is abundantly clear, for example, that the last thing they want is for the 9/11 commission to find the truth.

This conclusion coheres with other things we know about them. The people in the Bush administration are from the mega-corporate and realpolitik wings of the Republican party. And those are not two groups of people known for their ardent devotion to openness and honesty. Mega-corporate types, for example, are inclined to acquire money and power, and devil take the hindmost. These undertakings, of course, require a certain respect for the truth, but only because knowing the truth is the best way to achieve one’s goals. They certainly don’t require the kind of respect for truth that prompts one to admit error, nor the kind that compels one to tell the truth even if it interferes with achieving one’s goals.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I tend to associate with particularly honest people; perhaps this kind of bullshitting is simply more often tolerated in other sectors of American culture. I don’t know. But it nauseates me to such a degree that I can barely even listen to them any more. It seems fairly clear to me that, if they are not always lying, not always stretching and warping and kneading and trimming the truth, not always dissembling and mis-leading and mis-directing us, they are at least always willing to do so. I have no doubt that they would just as soon tell the truth--so long as it would help achieve their political goals. But they seem to be unwilling to pay any political price for telling the truth. That is, they seem willing to tell the truth only if the political cost of doing so is zero.

Kevin Drum suggests that they would gain politically by telling the truth. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps it isn’t. I don’t think they’re interested in taking that risk. Perhaps that would have been a better strategy to pursue if they had done so initially, but they didn’t, and perhaps they think it’s too late now. And perhaps it is. But also, telling the truth simply isn’t the first reaction of people like them—mega-corporate and realpolitik types. For better or for worse, they went with their natural reaction, and now they seem to be stuck with it.

Note that none of this is to say that they are not acting on a kind of principle. I guess that they--to a large extent--take themselves to be doing more or less the right thing. Few people, after all, are so evil that they simply enjoy telling lies. But without a proper respect for the truth per se, any goal is worth lying to achieve, so long as you have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it. And people like them can get away with it much or most of the time.

But once someone has so clearly demonstrated his willingness to lie and distort, it is simply not rational to believe him anymore. I personally have adopted a policy of assigning an initial probability of approximately .5 to anything they say for which I do not have independent evidence. That is, I figure it’s got about a 50/50 chance of being true, but no better. That is, their words are about as good a guide to the truth as is a fair coin. And when it comes to 9/11, al Qaeda, Iraq, WMDs, the deficit, tax cuts, etc., I’m pretty sure that the probability that they’re telling the truth isn’t even that high. Rather, it should be obvious to just about everybody by now that on those topics you are more likely to learn the truth by putting a ‘not’ in front of everything they say.

There are other factors in play here, hence other true and relevant answers to Ezra and Jesse and Kevin Drum’s question. But there’s a partial one, anyway.
Clarke-Relevant Links 3/30/04

Via the Agonist:
Tim Dunlop at Road to Surfdom is going through Clarke's book chapter-by-chapter.
[Sorry...I'm having a little trouble with keeps publishing things it isn't supposed to publish...]

Monday, March 29, 2004

Clarke-Relevant Links 3/29/04-B

From Joe Conason at Salon:
"Richard Clarke Terrorizes the White House." No sleep last night...can't remember how I found this...but it's a good little interview. Once again what he says has the ring of truth, for what that's worth, and he comes across as a real straight-shooter and a man of integrity. Needless to say, our hunches about such things are eminently fallible, but they're far from worthless. I'm not the most easily-duped person in the world, I'd say. (Though studies apparently indicate that we're lots worse at detecting liars than we think we are.) (Incidentally, I got the same kind of vibe from Paul O'Neill. I didn't get that vibe from DiIulio, but I didn't get any vibe from him at all.) I'm perfectly willing to abandon this tentative conclusion about Clarke's character if the facts ultimately fail to support it, of course...but given that the members of this administration seem to be lying whenever their lips are moving, my provisional guess is that the available facts will bear Clarke out. And, since he's eager to have his prior testimony declassified and Frist has admitted that he has no idea what Clarke said during that testimony, I predict that Clarke's claims will be borne out there, too.
A Book From the Boyz at Spinsanity

Brian Keefer, Ben Fritz, and Brendan Nyan have written a book:
All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, The Media, and The Truth, due for release in August.

If you visit their site with any regularity (and you should visit with great regularity), you know that this will be a straight-up, non-partisan attempt to get at the objective facts of the matter about the topic, so I have not doubt that it'll be worth a read. To a large extent it is, of course, their determined non-partisanship that makes their (warranted, measured, dispassionate) criticisms of Bush so devastating.

Those guys are doing great work and I really think we should support them.
Clarke-Relevant Links 3/29/04

1. Again via the sadly blogless Statisticasaurus Rex:
James Linday and the great Ivo Daalder, "Trust Clarke: He's Right About Bush"

2. Via the Agonist:
Josh Marshall on Clarke, the perjury charge, and the isolation of the White House. (I also recommend scrolling down one to read the post on Rice on 60 Minutes.)

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Zombies Drive Jesus From Top of Box Office

Don't blame me. That's not my headline, it's MTV's, via Adult Christianity. The whole post goes like so:

" 'Zombies Drive Jesus From Top of Box Office' Mar 22, 2004

This was the headline at MTV's Movie House Headlines. The remake of The Dawn of the Dead came in with $27.3 million in weekend receipts, easily surpassing The Passion of the Christ's $19.2 million which held the top spot for three weeks. Audience attendance for Gibson's Passion has dropped 40%.

This is the first time in history that two movies about the undead have held the two top spots in movie rankings."
Further Thoughts on The Margolis Incident
(i.e., the attack by anti-Bush protesters against pro-Bush protesters)


What I Was Wrong About]

At one point I write that 'We're the...good guys'. Matthew Cromer calls me on this point, and Anonymous backs him thusly:

"Let me amplify on Matthew Cromer's response (ROFLMAO.) I'm not laughing because the quoted item is so damned offensive. You could have said, "I completely disagree with how we as a country should proceed", and that would be vigorous but fair disagreement. But no, you say very pointedly that your side is the good guys, and do you think we can't infer that it makes our side of the argument the bad guys? What do you want--a frickin' civil war?

Please get a grip and lets discuss this a fellow-citizens, OK, and enough with the vilification? (Yes, some of us are adept enough to realize that backhand vilification is still vilification.)"

Well, when you're right, you're right, and when you're wrong, you're wrong. Matthew Cromer and Anonymous are right, and I was wrong.

Let me offer you a fragment of my incipient theory about how mistakes like this get made--and how this mistake of mine in particular got made. Er...that Reaganesque 'mistakes were made'-esque locution wasn't intentional. That is: let me tell you how I made this mistake...

My reaction to the Margolis incident was rather more complex than I let on. Like many people on my side of the political fence, it really went a little something like this:

No way! @#^$! assholes...oh, Christ, the wingnuts are really gonna milk this one for all it's worth...probably had it coming anyway...WHOA there dude, what are you, one of them? That's the kind of thing THEY'D say...oh, there you go again, THEY are US, after all. Not all Bushies are nutty...not all Bushies are nutty... What is this, Central America? What next? Riots in the streets? Liberals don't act like that...well, some lefties do...but not liberals...but those guys probably weren't liberals...populists, out there protesting against gay marriage next week... Those construction-workers who beat up those student protesters...didn't Nixon invite them to the White House? That's the difference between them and us...ugh...there I go again...oh, man...

(This, let me point out, is a fairly typical sample of my initial thinking about political issues...)

I am (by constitution and by training) inclined to think that one should think in an analytic way, producing what we might call modular theories--the parts will interact in certain ways, but they should, to some extent, be "stand alone." It seemed clear to me that we had to make it clear that neither Liberals nor Democrats will stand for the use of political violence in support of their causes. This conclusion, I thought, had to be established independently of any other points about contextual factors that complicated the situation.

Of course I anticipated many of the typical responses from liberals: the right would be making excuses if the shoe had been on the other foot, the right does stuff like this more often than we do, etc. I think those things are true, but it sickens me when such claims are offered as excuses. Regardless of what some other guys somewhere else are like, you are as you are and you must take responsibility for your own actions. (Set aside, for the time being, the question of collective responsibility.)

This kind of excuse-making-by-comparison is, I believe, what led America to virtually lose its soul during the Cold War--the Soviet government was evil (note to liberals: it really, really was), and, consequently, we tried to excuse even our most loathsome actions simply by pointing out that the Soviets were worse. And, of course, since our opponent really was so terrible, this strategy led us farther and farther down the path toward the Dark Side (note to conservatives: it really, really did).

I believe that liberalism currently faces a similar threat to its soul. I believe that the Bush administration is more deceitful, dogmatic, and ruthless than any of us--and that includes conservatives--could have predicted in 2000. If liberals were to come to believe that our actions are justified so long as they're not as awful as those of the Bush administration, then we'd be starting down the same kind of road to perdition that the U.S. went down during the Cold War.

(Conservatives might not like the analogy. Bush is, of course, no Stalin. No one, including me, is stupid enough to suggest otherwise. Nothing in my analogy should suggest that I think they are morally equivalent. Stalin was evil almost beyond imagining. Bush is merely a very, very, very bad President. Also: to try to score points for Bush merely by pointing out that he isn't Stalin is to make the very mistake under discussion.)

So: it seemed to me that liberals needed to recognize the Margolis incident for what it was, admit wrong-doing on the part of the anti-Bush protesters in an unequivocal way and without resorting to comparative excuse-making.

The really unfortunate thing is that in the end I failed to do what I thought should be done, and, actually, did something that are in certain ways worse. (One might reasonably claim that mine was a relatively minor infelicity, but I beg to differ.) Instead of committing the relatively more minor mistake of comparative excuse-making, as Cromer and Anonymous point out, I said that liberals/anti-Bushies are the good guys, and, by clear implication, suggested that conservatives/Bushies are the bad guys. As Anonymous notes, back-handed vilification is still vilification. Mine is the kind of sloppy and divisive claim that's helped to lead American politics to its current deplorable state. I hereby admit its falsehood, reject it, and apologize for making it.

Thing is, it's easy to let yourself let comments like that slip by. Funny how stupid human beings are, and how easy it is to trick them. And it's easiest to trick yourself, of course, because you yourself are an accessory to the crime. Even so transparent a ploy as concealing your insult in a transparent but unstated implication can allow you to let something slip by that you wouldn't have allowed yourself to say explicitly. And that's what I did. Let this be a lesson to, I mean...

On the other hand, to some extent my claim was an exhortation to liberals to remember--as I now wish I'd put it--that we're good guys. Not THE good guys, but good guys. (Well, many or most of us are, anyway.) We can't let ourselves slip into comparative excuse-making, because that's not what good guys do. See, that's a good point...

The exhortation point is an important one. As I've admitted, my real thinking about the Margolis incident was more complicated, characterized by less of what has come to be called "moral clarity." ('Moral clarity' is apparently supposed to mean something like a state characterized by a lack of sophistical casuistry, but I am inclined to think that it really means a state characterized by oversimplified thinking about moral issues.) But I tend to think that simplification (though perhaps not over-simplification) is acceptable in some cases in which you are trying to exhort someone to let his better rather than his worse self come through. Thing is, my efforts to ignore the contextual factors mentioned above failed, and my irritation about some of those factors squeezed out in the form of a thinly-veiled insult. Or, anyway, that's my guess. (It's certainly not intended to be an excuse...seems like it'd be a pretty lame excuse, anyway.)

In the end, perhaps I should have adopted an approach more like that of Mark Kleiman in his comment on my original post. I don't take back anything in my original post other than the irresponsible implication aforementioned, and I don't agree with Mark completely, but I now think that we do have to take what we might call a more realistic look at the events in question. Here's what I think it's important to note:

(i) The attackers are assholes, and deserve to go to jail.

(ii) Anti-Bush sentiment--while, I think, largely warranted--is tending to get out of hand in some quarters.

(iii) A group as a whole is not responsible, under conditions like this, for the actions of a few members of the group.

(iv) The attackers are clearly not representative of liberals (or Democrats or anti-Bushies or Males or Americans or Human beings or rational creatures) as a whole. Margolis himself notes that the attackers did not seem to be pro-Kerry.

(v) Such incidents are reprehensible, but so long as they are rare and minor, they're not tragic or disasterous.

(vi) Conservatives will have a tendency to exaggerate the severity and significance of the events in question; liberals will have tendency to do the opposite.

(vii) Both urges described in (vi) must be controlled.

(viii) The problem of such political violence is not currently a major one in the U.S.

(ix) However, we must have a zero-tolerance policy toward such violence, in part in order to prevent such actions from seeming acceptable.

(x) When we take a broader view of the matter, the American right has at least as much (and probably more) to be ashamed of than American liberals. It is elements of the right that have been the most willing to use political violence. Furthermore, the current spate of mutual loathing in American politics began with anti-Clinton forces, not anti-Bush forces.

None of this excuses the appalling actions of those who attacked the FReepers in Boston, of course, and liberals must keep that in mind. On the other hand, conservatives must resist the urge to make this incident into something that it is not.

Americans can improve the quality and increase the civility of our political discourse in general by raising them a little bit at a time, starting with our discussion of this incident. And we can do that by being honest with ourselves about what happened, about how significant it really was, about what it reveals or fails to reveal about Bush supporters and detractors, and about whatever mistakes we might make along the way in trying to figure this thing out.

There is no doubt in my mind that we [Americans] can do this if we try. We are, after all, good guys.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

More on Bush's Approach to Inquiry and Policy-Making
Lysenkoism, Preposterism, Groupthink and Incestuous Amplification In Action

How Not to Conduct Inquiry and Make Policy

Via the funniest blog in the 'Sphere: "Insiders Offer Unflattering Accounts of Bush's Decision-Making Style."


Via Statisticasaurus Rex and the NYT: "Why Nobody Saw 9/11 Coming" by Peter R. Neuman.
Anti-Bush Protesters Assault Bush Supporters in Boston
(via Instapundit)

Well, like the header says. One of the victims was conservative blogger Matt Margolis. This is appalling. Sometimes I simply can't believe people. Democrats, Kerry supporters and anti-Bushies need to condemn this in the strongest terms. We have very little control over what Republicans and Bushies do, but we have at least a tiny bit of control over what our side does. Perhaps Senator Kerry should give our side a good talking-to...

Yes, of course I undestand it's an isolated incident. Yes, I also understand that this is something that is more often associated with the right and the very far left than the liberal center. Blah, blah, blah. Frankly, I have no time for anyone who is inclined to make such arguments. We're the God-damned good guys--or have we forgotten that? WE DO NOT DO THINGS LIKE THIS. We should have a lower tolerance for this sort of thing, especially in those with whom we associate politically. We don't do such things and we do our best not to associate with people who do. If somebody on our side acts like this, we tell 'em to stop or get the Hell out. We must have a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of political violence. I'd rather have Bush re-elected than see our side tolerate this kind of thing. I've got to tell you, if I were to see this kind of thing happen, a large can of extra-strength whup-ass(tm) would be opened forthwith, and its contents directed at the Democratic perpetrators. This is a human rights abuse--minor, perhaps, in the cosmic scheme of things, but that's what it is, and, as any liberal hawk should recognize, those who are capable have an obligation to intervene to protect the innocent. Though contra Insty, sounds like the the Bushies acquitted themselves well, and good for them. I hope some of those anti-Bush thugs are nursing black eyes and contusions today.

I, for one, am e-mailing Mr. Margolis to apologize--insofar as that is within my power--for the actions of the thugs and morons who have associated themselves with my political cause. A quick look around his site suggests that I disagree with him about just about everything--and so will most of you. But if you think that matters, then you are currently reading the wrong blog.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

More Clarke-relevant links

First and utmost: (via the Agonist) From the Daily Show (the only serious political analysis show left that's not on PBS), we get...well, a piece of serious political analysis masquerading as comedy. Watch this. It's hilarious, but the points it makes are dead serious.

Second: via the Reverend, an interview of Clarke by Terry Gross. (Like the Reverend, I'm not a fan of Ms. Gross, but that's irrelevant.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Just some Clarke-relevant linkx

I usually don't just post links...since there are lots better places to go for that than here. But couldn't resist.

First: via Statisticasaurus Rex, Fred Kaplan on why Clarke is probably telling the truth, at Slate.

Second: WTF is up with It runs this story, but the headline on the front page is "Panel Member Challenges Clarke's Credibility," a headline that in no way reveals the most salient content of the story, which contains lots of stunningly important stuff, and then reports some flimsy and unsubstantiated jabs at Clarke at the end.

Third: The first installment in a conversation between Tim Dunlop at The Road to Serfdom and Sean-Paul Kelly at The (indispensible) Agonist on Clarke's book.

Fourth and most significantly: Clarke takes responsibility and asks for forgiveness. Jeez, I almost forgot how honorable adults behave. Perhaps he was too far out of the loop to have been informed that this was all Clinton's fault...or Saddam's fault...or France's fault... Ever notice how it's often the only person who was doing what he was supposed to who accepts responsibility for failure? Reminds me of Romeo Dallaire.

Had to teach today, missed Clarke's testimony. Damn. Thank God for C-SPAN.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Deception and the Deceiving Deceivers who Spout It

And another thing... Here's a little bit of deception Atrios was just complaining about, and it's been bugging the crap out of me ever since the Bushies started spouting it...i.e., as soon as people started asking what they knew before 9/11. When people ask what they knew or suggest that they knew more than they claim they did, they (Rice is usually the culprit, actually) often say something like "No one could have predicted that on the morning of September 11, 2001, thirteen al Qaeda terrorists mostly from Saudi Arabia would hijack four planes (from American Airlines and U. S. Air) and fly one into each of the towers of the WTC and one into the Pentagon and that passengers on another would..." Well, you get the picture. Right, you freaking sophists, no one could have predicted EXACTLY what was going to happen. But nobody's asking about that. We're asking what they knew and whether they knew enough that they should have been able to predict that some kind of terrorist attack was likely. If you take your car to the mechanic and he checks it all out and then the thing dies on you a mile from the garage, and you ask him "hey, how come you didn't catch that problem" and he responds "Look, NOBODY could have predicted that your car would die EXACTLY at the corner of Elm and 5th..." Well, get a new mechanic... This is just another sign of this administration's utter contempt for reason and for us.

I'm planning on more and better posts as soon as this hellish semester is over. I haven't been responding much to comments because I don't have the time...but I read them all diligently and appreciate them very much. Also: in the March 18 post in which I wondered aloud and again whether blogospheric activity was a waste of time, I wasn't thinking so very much about my own time as that of ALL of us collectively. I appreciated the kind comments, and wanted to point out that I'm really honored that so many smart and reasonable people read this blog. Anyway, nobody seemed to take the comments the wrong way, but I re-read the post and worried that somebody might.
Brother Paul Does It Better

Forget my last post. Just read today's Paul Krugman.

(How could I have forgotten to name Joseph Wilson?)

I really like Krugman, and I feel his pain. He gets accused of partisanship...and I worry about partisanship even more these days since I spend almost all my time criticizing the Bush administration. But, in fact, I'm not what you'd call wild about the Democrats; and, as I guess I've made clear, I think liberals get a lot of things wrong. But agree with Krugman when he responds to charges of partisanship by noting that the Bush administration is so very, very bad that it would be absurd to give equal time to criticizing the feckless Democrats. It would be sort of like criticizing the Ewoks for being so damn cutesy as the Death Star is bearing down on you all...

Monday, March 22, 2004

Another defection from the Bush Administration, and more evidence of its contempt for the facts

How long can the Bush administration maintain any shred of credibility when insiders from the administration continue to defect and reveal that it is rotten inside? First John DiIulio, then Paul O'Neill, and now Richard Clarke. No objective observer can deny any longer that we have extremely good evidence that this is an administration driven primarily by ideology rather than an honest desire to develop rational policy.

Of course it is always possible to make up stories about the ulterior motives of such defectors. And, of course, any administration so dishonest and inept as to provoke such defections probably won't hesitate to make up such stories. (In case you were wondering, all three men named above were disgruntled former "employees" who were angry, among other things, about being "out of the loop".) And, as I see it, that's one of the rules of politics: what you say doesn't have to make much sense, it just has to give your loyal followers a bit of straw to grasp at. The rule is: no matter what the other side says, no matter how damning the evidence, just say something by way of response. Your opponents probably won't buy anything you say anyway, your loyal followers will believe whatever you say no matter how ridiculous, and most people in the middle probably aren't paying attention anyway, and they'll probably write it off as a "he said, she said" case.

But we now have three high-level defectors from the Bush administration who all tell approximately the same story (DiIulio recanted, but I think it's pretty obvious why we shouldn't take that very seriously): this administration makes its mind up first and sifts through the facts only in order to cherry-pick evidence in favor of what they've already decided to do.

American liberals (and, I hope, centrists) have long maintained that this administration is pathologically dishonest...most of the rest of the world recognizes this...and the administration's own people are defecting and confirming this.

This is an issue that should transcend party lines. This administration is an embarassment to American conservatism, and conservatives need to buck up and do their duty to the country by admitting this. We may not agree about civil rights, taxes, and other difficult policy issues, but any rational person can see that we must not tolerate an administration that puts politics before policy, polls before principle, and ideology before truth.

Friday, March 19, 2004

What if Bush lied in order to get us to do the right thing?

A probably fruitless conjecture

So by now everyone in the world except for (a) those on the more dogmatic fringes of the American right and (b) the most uninformed of the illiteratti seem to have realized that the Bush administration orchestrated a concerted campaign of deception in the run-up to Gulf War Episode II: The Phantom Menace. If, by this point, anyone is so benighted as to deny that we were deceived, there’s probably nothing you can say to him to straighten him out; I suggest you not waste your time in attempting to do so. I can say “I don’t see it” until the cows come home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it, and it doesn’t mean that you should waste your breath trying to get me to see it even if it is true that I don't. There is a kind of dialectical law of diminishing returns. There is an irreducible core of dogmatists on any issue, and expending your sincere effort on that dogmatic core is a tragic waste of the human spirit.

Although inclined to be a Kantian, I, like almost everyone else, believe that one is sometimes permitted—and sometimes even obligated—to lie. And occasions for permissible lies seem to arise even more often in affairs of state (politics makes consequentialists of us all…). The question I want to address here is this one:

Was the Bush administration justified in lying to us about Iraq?

That is, about its spectral WMDs, its phantasmal links to al Qaeda, etc. I have to admit, this is the very kind of case in which I myself would be tempted to lie were I the president. Saddam was---is--evil, and not just a little bit. Oh, he is so very, very bad. (Don’t you think that liberals have a tendency to under-appreciate his badness and needed-to-be-removedness?) If it were in my power to take him out, I’d want to do it, and it might even be reasonable to think that I would be obligated to do it. Surely there are some cases in which the president is permitted (even obligated) to lie to us in order to get us to do the right thing. So, was this such a case?

Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s not really any evidence that the administration did undertake the war primarily for moral reasons and lots of evidence that they didn’t. For one thing, the Republican leadership has spent most of the last twenty years telling us that we “can’t be the world’s policeman,” and admonishing us to be “realists” (really: sort of collectivist ethical egoists) about the use of American power—it should only be used to promote that which is in the narrow national interest of the U.S. And, of course, Bush came out against nation-building in an unequivocal way during the campaign. Even the non-“realist” wing of the party (which includes e.g. Reagan, the neo-cons, and, I suppose, Bush) seem to be crypto-realists in that they seem to be willing to promote human rights and democracy only as means to the end of promoting U.S. national interest. (This, I believe, is the main difference between neo-cons and hawkish liberals such as myownself; the hawkish liberal wants us to use American power in the service of the non-instrumental end of promoting human rights around the world).

Furthermore, a war is not just unless (roughly) the agent that initiates it has a reasonable expectation of bringing about a more just state of affairs as a result of it. But the administration didn’t really seem to care that much about what happened in Iraq after the war. At least they didn’t care enough to develop significant and practicable post-war plans. And someone who was genuinely interested in making the world a better place could have risked our blood and expended our treasure in more fruitful and less costly endeavors. Like killing bin Laden, for example. Or rebuilding Afghanistan. Or taking out Charles Taylor.

So they probably didn’t do it for moral reasons…but what if they did? What if all the weapons of mass destruction-related prevarication activities were undertaken to get us to do the right thing and free the Iraqi people from tyranny? Something we would never have agreed to go to war for. (Would we? The realist wing of the right and the pacifist wing of the left would have hit the roof simultaneously, wouldn’t they?)

Well…George and Condi and Donald “Fists of Mass Destruction” Rumsfeld and Wolfy and D-Cheney in his undisclosed location…well, I guess they’d almost be my heroes in that case… If I really believed that they did what they did in order to make the world a better place by freeing the Iraqis from Saddam’s tyranny, then I’d see them in a whole new light.

But they’d still have to go.

Though in some extreme cases presidents are obligated to lie to us in big ways in order to get us to do the right thing, I’m inclined to think that they’re obligated to resign after having done so. This will certainly seem a little strange (and could, needless to say, be wrong), but the case is perhaps analogous to that of civil disobedience. It is common to argue that the person who engages in civil disobedience must be willing to accept the punishment associated with his actions. That’s weird, too, of course, but I’m floating an idea at this point, not attempting to defend it in any kind of detail. The big idea is that there may be some things that a president is obligated to do such that, if he does them he is then obligated to resign his office. I suggest that orchestrating a campaign of lies to get us into a just war is such a thing. Perhaps the principle is: any president who orchestrates a campaign of lies must leave office; perhaps it doesn’t matter why he orchestrates such a campaign. If this is correct, it may be because democratic leaders have a profound duty to be truthful to the citizens, a duty so profound that those who violate it in sufficiently egregious ways must lose their offices, regardless of the excellence of the reasons for their violation.

This is a paradoxical claim, and there’s a good chance it’s wrong, but there it is. Perhaps I’m just so mad at Bush that I’m trying to argue that even if he’s good he’s bad… But I’m provisionally inclined to accept the principle in a fully general way—I’m certainly not suggesting that this is an obligation that binds only Bush. But, anyway, if my suggestion is right, it fills in a piece of the puzzle the completion of which yields the following conclusion:

The administration either believed its own pro-war propaganda or lied to us in order to further the narrow national interest of the U.S. or lied to us to in order to achieve the morally good goal of freeing the Iraqi people. If the first, then they are incompetent and must go. If the second, then they are evil and must go. But if the third, then, though they are good, they still must go.

So they must go.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Guaranteed to be beyond belief

Via mighty Tacitus...About three sentences into this story, my jaw dropped...I think I read the whole thing with my mouth gaping open in disbelief. Check it out. I guarantee you won't believe it. Somebody explain to me how anybody could be so morally blind. Or are they just flat-out evil? I'm astonished.
Fists of Mass Destruction

The Onion gets the scoop on Rumsfeld's Eagle Fist all-styles, hand-to-hand combat world championship...

So it's probably time to review the thousand fighting styles of Donald Rumsfeld

Hey, everybody. Sorry I sort of took an unannounced hiatus. But by the time Spring break rolled around last week, I was up to my pineal gland in work...then spent spent Spring break with the GF in Chapel Hill...who does not, incidentally, have web access in her home...but does, on the other hand, have cable television, which is interesting to watch every now and then, but bizarre as Hell...I mean, WTF is up with American popular culture, anyway...and this week again too busy for blogging. Maybe I should have posted a warning about the hiatus, but I didn't plan on it, it's just sort of happened... Oh, and the GF has informed me that her name is now Johnny Quest, incidentally. That's a little weird because I really, really liked Johnny Quest when I was a kid. But not, you know, in that way...

And, to be honest, I've also just been disinclined to blog. When I came back from break, the first thing I encountered on the web was the left-right tussling over the Madrid bombing, with the lefties screeching that it was a reaction to the dishonesty of the Aznar gov't and the righties insisting that it was capitulation to terrorism by the quasi-French Spaniards... I don't know who's right, and I don't know what facts were revealed in the first few days after the bombing, but people seemed, in general and as per usual, to be interpreting the facts to fit their preferred theory, antecedently held. But I shouldn't even comment on this, since it may, in fact, have been clear what happened...I don't know.

Anyway, I guess I've also been thinking a lot about how much time we all waste in the blogosphere... I mean, do we really need to discuss the latest wingnut quackery about gay marriage causing the destruction of Western civilization (and quantum vacuum decay...and the heartbreak of psoriasis)? We're facing a crisis...the worst, most dishonest, most incompetent, and perhaps most dangerous American administration of my lifetime... I'm starting to think I should be spending my time actively working to get this bunch of nuts and criminals thrown out of the White House instead of screwing around analyzing their obviously crazy and disingenuous arguments... In fact, I've developed a (semi-tongue-in-cheek) hypothesis about the right's strategy. It explains a lot. Here it is:

Wingnuts like Coulter and Limbaugh and Jonah Goldberg sit around and whip off stream-of-consciousness rants as fast as they can, then paste 'em up at NRO, The Weekly Standard, and similarly disreputable places, knowing that people like Ezra Klein and David Neiwert and Bilmon will then spend hours of their time on detailed analyses of mindless rants that couldn't have taken more than five minutes to write. Thus lots of smart people waste their time--time that could have been spent actively working to, for example, get the current band of lunatics and criminals out of the White House--refuting nonsense. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me, in academia we often spend more time refuting the nonsense cranked out by famous morons than the famous morons spent writing the nonsense in the first place. The wingnuts, I hypothesize, have come to realize that if they throw a really stupid argument our way, instead of ignoring it we'll drop what we're doing and waste our time formulating arguments against it. Thus their five minutes of work sucks hours of work out of some smart liberal who might otherwise have spent his time effectively.

Whaddaya think? Paranoid enough for ya?

Oh, incidentally, I'm like a semi-terminal insomiac, in case you're wondering what explains my occasional..or more-than-occasional...incoherent babbling...

Thursday, March 04, 2004


Again, via Statisticasaurus Rex:

If not Clinton, how about McCain?

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Return of the Large Canine?

Via Statisticasaurus Rex:

Might Kerry pick the Big Dog for his running mate?

The mind, she reeleth at the very possibility...

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Dennis Prager on Nihilism and Same-Sex Marriage

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism...
-- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Via Ezra at Pandagon, I discover this passage from Dennis Prager, in the context of a claim that America is at two wars:

"The first war is against the Islamic attempt to crush whoever stands in the way of the spread of violent Islamic theocracies, such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs and Hamas. The other war is against the secular nihilism that manifests itself in much of Western Europe, in parts of America such as San Francisco and in many of our universities."

There's a lot to criticize in Prager's tirade, and there are even some points worth considering. I don't have the patience to go through the whole thing and both Ezra and Jesse have already done so but I do want to briefly discuss the above passage and the charge of nihilism contained therein.

It is false that the main philosophical theory underwriting the push to legalize same-sex marriage is nihilism. 'Nihilism', like its cousin 'relativism' is an extremely unclear and slippery term, and even most scholars don't have a very clear idea what they mean when they use it. One sensible way to use the term is like this:

moral nihilism is the view that there are no moral obligations.

Not many people believe this, and there is, of course, some doubt that such a position is even coherent. Most people--most non-sociopaths, at any rate--acknowledge that we have at least some moral obligations, though there is some bit of disagreement about what those obligations are. We tend to disagree about unclear, peripheral cases like same-sex marriage, but we tend to agree about clear, central cases like recreational torture. In this respect, our disagreements about morality are analogous to our disagreements about non-moral matters. We tend to disagree about unclear, peripheral cases like the existence of God but we tend to agree about clear, central cases like the existence of rocks.

People who are moral nihilists think that there are no moral obligations. The people who get called moral nihilists, however, usually aren't nihilists at all. One usually gets called a moral nihilist if one thinks that something is permissible that is traditionally or widely held to be impermissible. But those who fight to legalize same-sex marriage, like those who fought to legalize interracial marriage, don't do so because they think that nothing is right or wrong. Rather, they do so because they think that some things are really right and some things are really wrong, and that preventing two people who love each other from marrying just because they have the same kind of genitals is one of the things that is really wrong. For the right to accuse them of nihilism is like vegetarians accusing the rest of us of nihilism because we think that it is morally permissible to eat meat.

In short, Prager has mistaken a first-order dispute about what is morally permissible for a meta-ethical dispute about the nature of morality.

In closing, let me suggest, however, that liberals do bear some (though by no means all) of the responsibility for inviting charges of nihilism and relativism. The intellectual far left is festering with postmodernism and associated maladies. The right is, unfortunately, right about that. Despite their occasional protests to the contrary, leftist intellectual heroes like Rorty and Lyotard are either relativists are something like it--though since their views are incoherent, it's hard to say what they really think with much precision. Most American liberals don't read such folk, so they don't understand what the right is so upset about. When American liberals do think about the philosophical justification for their views, they think about people like Rawls, not people like Rorty or Lyotard. If liberals did read Rorty, Lyotard & co. more frequently and with more care, I think liberals might come to realize that they have more in common with centrists on the right than they do with a big chunk of the intellectual left. And if liberals were more inclined to distinguish themselves from the more radical elements of the left, the right's charges of nihilism and relativism would lose some of their veneer of plausibility.

(Er, and I hope by now it goes without saying that everything I say could be wrong. But I'm pretty sure about this post.)
Bad Reasoning in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, Episode I:
The Polygamy Objection and Responses Thereto

I saw the following on C-Span several weeks ago (not verbatim):

Guy defending same-sex marriage (SSM):
“SSM should be legal because same-sex couples deserve the same rights as heterosexual couples.”

C-Span guy:
“So doesn’t that mean that polygamous marriage should be legal as well?”

Guy defending SSM:
“No. Polygamous people already have the same rights as everyone else. Just like non-polygamous people, they have the right to marry—they can enter into a two-person marriage. So there is no asymmetry in rights.”

Whatever the merits of the polygamy objection against legalizing SSM, this response to the objection won’t work--especially for the defender of legalizing SSM. If this response worked, then the following anti-SSM argument would work (I’ve actually heard people make this argument, in fact):

“Homosexuals already have the same rights as heterosexuals. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals are free to marry someone of the opposite sex. So there is no asymmetry in rights.”

But this symmetry isn’t the relevant one. A heterosexual can (insert obvious qualifications here) marry the person she or he loves and wants to marry. If homosexuals cannot do likewise, then they are not equal before the law in the relevant respect. So this objection to legalizing SSM fails.

But if this objection to legalizing SSM fails, then the analogous response to the polygamy objection against legalizing SSM fails, since it makes an analogous error.

But it isn’t clear how strong the polygamy objection against legalizing SSM is, so it isn’t clear how important it is to deflect it. For one thing, it isn’t clear that polygamy should be illegal, so, from a theoretical perspective, it isn’t clear that we should count the polygamy objection as an objection to legalizing SSM instead of as perfectly good argument for legalizing polygamy. From a pragmatic, political perspective, however, if legalizing SSM entails legalizing polygamy, then that’s pretty much the end of SSM; the American public is not going to stand for legalizing polygamy. (Are they?)

And, of course, it isn’t clear that legalizing SSM does mean that we must legalize polygamy as well. But some justifications for legalizing SSM do entail that polygamy should be legal. For example, one rationale for legalizing SSM goes like this:

People should be able to marry whomever they love.

But if that is true, then polygamy should be legal, since it is possible to love more than one person at a time. (And, of course, it isn't clear that we can/should make loving someone a requirement for being married to them, anyway. Talk about a principle that's a threat to the institution of marriage!) One might advocate this principle instead:

Everyone should be able to marry someone whom he or she loves.

That is, everyone should be able to marry at least one person that she or he loves. Given that some people love (in the romantic sense, of course) only people of the same sex, this principle entails that SSM should be legal. And, while it does not entail that polygamy should be illegal, it would permit us to make it illegal. But (aside from the fact that it yields the politically expedient result) why think that the latter principle is superior to the former one? This is almost equivalent to the question 'should polygamy be legal?', so fiddling around with the principles in this way doesn't really gain us any ground.

Liberals have a tendency to treat the polygamy objection contemptuously, but that’s a mistake. Unless I’m missing something, it’s a serious objection and should be treated as such.