Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Outta Here...

O.k. everybody, I'm outta here until July 2nd.

I've decided to try to talk to ordinary people I meet along the way in Madrid and Greece to see what they have to say about the U.S. and especially our actions since 9/11. It's unlikely that I'll turn up anything new, but it'll be interesting for me, anyway.

Sadly, I couldn't finish a post I've been working on for awhile before I left. To the effect that, though liberals perhaps haven't backed the war effort as much as they should have, much of the blame for that must be laid at the feet of the administration. If the war against terrorism were really as important to them as they say it is, then they'd do more to unify the country. At the very least they'd quit pushing policies that are so radically divisive. Seems that the war on terrorism is important enough to take away some of our civil rights, but not important enough to warrant delaying tax cuts for the super-rich. The war against the terrorists only seems to be important when it impliest that right-wing policies should be passed.

Argh...I'm not going to get all worked up about this right now...

I'm off to Europe!

All best,


Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Rice, Torture, Evasion

Too busy to read blogs right now--?packing and all, as you know--and I'm sure that everybody and his brother must be commenting on the following, but I canÂ?t help myself. This weekend on Late Edition on CNN, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Condoleezza Rice. A partial transcript follows:

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit, in the moments we have left -- we don't have a lot of time left -- about torture. Did the president of the United States authorize what some might call torture against certain suspected terrorists being held by the United States?

RICE: Wolf, what the president authorized was that everything would be done within the international treaty obligations and within U.S. law. Those were determinations made by the Justice Department. That's the guidance that he gave, and that's the guidance that he expected people to follow.

BLITZER: Can we go through some of the specifics? What was permissible at Abu Ghraib or at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba? For example...

RICE: No...

BLITZER: ... sleep deprivation? RICE: I'm not going to get into specifics here, Wolf. We are in a situation in which we are in a different war, and in which the American president is determined to do what can be done to protect the American people.

But protecting the American people and getting intelligence information was to be done within the confines of American law and within the confines of our international treaty obligations. The president was clear on that. That's what was authorized.

BLITZER: And in terms of the investigation, where does it stand right now?

RICE: Well, the investigation is still ongoing. As a matter of fact, there are multiple investigations under way, of various charges of abuse.

I think one of the most important lessons out of this is that, in a democracy, there is no guarantee that people will not do bad things. But what can be guaranteed is that there will be transparency, that people will investigate the matter, and that people will be held accountable, who are guilty of whatever they might have done outside of the lines of their authorities.

And so those investigations are under way, and I'm certain that they will be coming to fruition. I just remind people that some people -- there have already been punishments meted out in connection with the Abu Ghraib situation.

What follows might sound a bit cynical, but it isn't. I'm not cynical, I've just learned that we can't trust this administration to shoot straight and tell the truth. If they don't answer a question directly, they're almost certainly trying to mislead us. If they sound like they might be bullshitting, they're bullshitting.

Note that Blitzer asks Rice a direct question:

Did the president of the United States authorize what some might call torture against certain suspected terrorists being held by the United States?

Rice does not answer this question. Instead, she says:

Wolf, what the president authorized was that everything would be done within the international treaty obligations and within U.S. law. Those were determinations made by the Justice Department. That's the guidance that he gave, and that's the guidance that he expected people to follow.

Blitzer asks whether Bush authorized torture, and, instead of answering that question, Rice changes the subject slightly, asserting that everything Bush authorized was legal. We could give many administrations the benefit of the doubt here, but we'?ve learned only too well that this is not such an administration. The fact that Rice refused to say 'no'? means that, in all probability, the answer is 'yes.'? That is, it strongly suggests that it is likely that the president of the United States, George W. Bush, did authorize the use of torture against helpless prisoners in the custody of the U.S.

Rice'?s response (roughly: everything the president authorized was legal)to Blitzer's question is consistent with two possibilities:

Possibility 1: Torture is illegal (under U.S. and international law), and (so) Bush did not authorize torture.


Possibility 2: Bush authorized torture, but that'?s o.k. because torture is legal.

But Rice'?s response to Blitzer, that everything Bush authorized is legal, does not tell us which it is, ergo it does not tell us whether Bush authorized torture. Anybody out there naive enough to think that this administration would have answered in this equivocal fashion if the true answer were unequivocally in the negative?

And, in fact, the point of recently-disclosed memos does seem to be to argue that the president can legally--in some sense of '?legally'--?authorize the use of torture. This is more evidence that it is possibility 1 and not possibility 2 that is actual.

At this point--?bless 'im--Blitzer wisely moves to specifics. Say what you will about the guy, but he gets it right a good bit of the time, and he got it exactly right in this case, asking:

BLITZER: Can we go through some of the specifics? What was permissible at Abu Ghraib or at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba? For example...

And then:

RICE: No...

BLITZER: ... sleep deprivation?

RICE: I'm not going to get into specifics here, Wolf.

And why not? Again, if the specifics were innocuous, this administration would eagerly reveal them.

But everything up until now is, perhaps, just tail. Here's the dog part:

RICE: We are in a situation in which we are in a different war, and in which the American president is determined to do what can be done to protect the American people.

Too much cynicism is a bad thing, and we are not entitled to put words in Dr. Rice'?s mouth, but I have to wonder whether what she really meant was this:

the American president is determined to do whatever can be done to protect the American people.

That is, he'?s willing to do whatever it takes. And that could certainly include torture.

But in the end Rice seems to rule that out:

RICE: But protecting the American people and getting intelligence information was to be done within the confines of American law and within the confines of our international treaty obligations. The president was clear on that. That's what was authorized.

This would be comforting if it were not for the fact that the administration apparently had legal experts telling it that torture was legal.

And, of course, we know how this administration conducts its inquiries. Intellectually bankrupt, it does not find the best experts, provide them with the best evidence, and seek their considered judgments. Rather, its modus operandi is to employ the method of inverse criticism, starting with a preferred conclusion, seeking out "experts" who will provide arguments for that conclusion and discounting the conclusions of those who will not. It is this epistemic irresponsibility and viciousness that led us into Iraq. Now it threatens to lead us down the road to perdition.

Furthermore, the administration has given us ample reason to doubt it when it gives such equivocal, indirect responses. As Richard Clarke notes in his book, when Bush was asked whether plans were being made to invade Iraq, he said "there are no plans on my desk," an answer which was, technically speaking, true--the plans were not physically on his desk, they were being formulated elsewhere. This slippery, indirect answer was, of course, intended to make us think that the answer to the question was in the negative when the true answer was in the affirmative.

And Rice herself has employed similar deceptions in the past. When asked whether the administration had been warned about al Qaeda's plans to attack us, Rice responded, roughly, that we had no idea that they'd fly those planes into those buildings on that day, an answer intended to make us think--falsely, as it turns out--that the administration had no reason to think that al Qaeda was planning to attack us at all.

Especially against this background, Rice's refusal to answer Bitzer's question speaks volumes.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Hooray for The Pledge Ruling!

Too busy right now to say anything too extensive, but I will say this: I'm extremely happy with the pledge ruling. This was actually the outcome I'd hoped for. As a non-lawyer, I don't know whether Newdow had standing or not, though my layperson's guess was that he didn't. The important thing, I think, is that this ruling leaves the door open to similar challenges in the future, while failing to stir up the right wing before the upcoming election.

There's no doubt in my mind that having 'under God' in the pledge is inconsistent with the principle of the separation of church and state; but I think this is a bad time to press the issue. We'd lose that fight and probably lose the election, too as a result. In fact, though I think that Newdow is clearly in the right, I have to confess that I've been rather irked at the guy for bringing the case when he did.

But my objections to the Pledge go far beyond even the reprehensible 'under God' clause. I find the whole idea of a pledge of allegiance insulting, and I refuse to recite it or stand when others do so. The very idea that anyone would ask me--let alone require me--to make such a public profession of my loyalty to and love for my country is despicable. The pledge, it seems to me, represents a kind to say...meretricious patriotism. And the very idea of pledging that allegiance to the flag rather than the Constitution is utterly preposterous...bone-headed...completley out of the question as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway--O frabjous day! A happy ruling, IMHO.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Beach Reading Query: 'nuther Request for Help

O.k., so we're off for Madrid and Greece on Wednesday, and I've yet to identify some good vacation/beach reading. I've got my non-fiction lineup all set, but I'm not sure I'm going to want to lay on the black sand beaches of Santorini reading Peirce or _The Necessary Angel_ (by Wallace Stevens, in case you've never heard of it, as I hadn't until recently. It's stunningly interesting, incidentally.) I'm definitely not a literature snob or anything, I'm just out of the habit of reading fun stuff right now...and by 'right now' I mean for the years or so... I used to be nuts for sci-fi, but don't even have any idea what's out there anymore. Last stuff I read was _Neuromancer_ and _Snow Crash_, both of which were kind of cool. I kinda like that Tom Clancy America saves the world kinda stuff...though I've only seen the movies and never read such a book... I've heard great things about _The DaVinci Code_, but here's the other thing: I sorta need a paperback on account of space and weight considerations.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
Politics and Cognitive Science (1)

I liked this post on politics, confirmation bias, and the blogosphere by Hal at Hellblazer. As I guess I've said before, I think that studying the results of cognitive science can help us in our conduct of our inquiries, especially our political inquiries.

I want to nit-pick a bit with Hal's post, though I don't think that this nit-picking undermines the substance of his point. Hal seems to claim that confirmation bias is our tendency to look for and/or prefer evidence that supports our preferred or antecedently-held beliefs. If I'm not mistaken, Hal is actually conflating two different phenomena. Confirmation bias per se is, as I understand it, our tendency to conclude that whatever hypothesis is under consideration has been confirmed. Confirmation bias affects us even when we don't give a tinker's damn about the hypothesis and have no antecedent opinion about whether it is true or false. For example (I'm doing this from memory, so I hope I don't botch the details here), experiments have been done in which people were asked to evaluate the hypothesis practicing the day before a tennis match increases the likelihood that you will win the match, and they were given a set of ambiguous data to use in their evaluation. The subjects tended to conclude that the hypothesis was true. However, another set of subjects was given the same ambiguous data and asked whether it confirmed the hypothesis practicing the day before a tennis match increases the likelihood that you will lose the match. But again, the subjects concluded that the hypothesis was true! This is not an isolated experimental result; that we suffer from confirmation bias is well established.

We also have a tendency to favor hypotheses that we already believe to be true, and to favor hypotheses that we want to be true...but these are different cognitive shortcomings. Remember: we've got a million of 'em...

Confirmation bias often works together with these other cognitive biases, of course...and this (undoubtedly) often happens when we are thinking about politics and other emotionally-charged issues. And when you are fighting multiple cognitive shortcomings at the same time...well, the deck is really stacked against you.

Anyway, as I said, I don't think that these technical points detract significantly from the value of Hal's post.
The Return of Abject Funk

Quasi-Anonymous Seattle Lawyer Dude is back online at Abject Funk. Welcome back, Quasi-Anonymous Seattle Lawyer Dude, welcome back...

Saturday, June 12, 2004

George Bush, Moral Relativist?
A Wee Poll

Via the estimable Statisticasaurus Rex comes our question: Is George W. Bush a moral relativist? It is, I believe, W's re/actions re: Abe Ghraib/Torturegate that S. Rex has in mind. I don't want to say too much about this before getting (I hope) some feedback, but I believe that the issue is raised because (a) there is the suggestion that one set of rules is to apply to Americans and another set of rules to others and (b) the President gets to make up those rules.

I'm not going to weigh in on this yet, but I'd sure appreciate it if you all would. Even the briefest of comments in response would be appreciated. Needless to say, this is not what you'd call a scientific poll...but some feedback is better than no feedback. Even 'that's a stupid question' would be appreciated...

Friday, June 11, 2004

Update: The Non-Murderer, Etc.

Gotta make this quick:

Turns out that the manhunt in Chapel Hill was for the wrong guy. Just some jerkweed who ran away from the cops because he had so many traffic violations, and was mistaken for a guy who murdered a guy over in Durham. So a 3-hour manhunt involving every cop in Chapel Hill and two helicopters hovering overhead the whole time was just for some bad driver.

Can you believe that? I hope they make the guy pay for the whole thing. What an idiot.

Blogging will be light for awhile b/c my machine is infected with some spyware or something that I just can't seem to find and eliminate. It seems to be evading Symantec, Spybot AND Adaware. I think that the writers of spyware and viruses should have that tatooed on their foreheads and then be released back into the population. Surely they would not survive long... Anyway, this particular bug keeps hijacking me to some site called Never have anything to do with that site, and if you can think of any way for me to harm the site or the people who sustain it in any way, please do let me know.

Oops. Something is trying to elicitly load even as I type...


Thursday, June 10, 2004

Murder Suspect at Large in Chapel Hill

Weird news from Chapel Hill/Carrboro... The law is ALL OVER my neighborhood. They're EVERYWHERE. There are TWO police helicopters circling overhead. According to WUNC there's a murder suspect at large in our little community, and the local schools are on "lock down," meaning that the kids and teachers can't leave, parents can't enter or pick their kids up, they have to keep the schools' blinds closed and they can't even answer the phone. (!)

This, I guess it goes without saying, is a very weird occurrence, especially for Chapel Hill and Carrboro...

Dang, sirens all over the place...

I started down my running route and saw two policemen, one apparently wearing a kevlar vest. (!) One of them motioned me back saying "sir, I think you're goin' to want to go back thattaway," thus suggesting that they would prefer it if I stayed back thattaway. And also that they might be particularly interested in the apartment complex through the woods and across the tracks (but only about 100 yards away). So what's this guy look like, I ask? They're not telling us anything on the radio. "Tall black male, no shirt, no shoes, thick dreads," he says. No shirt? No Shoes? WTF? Is this guy like feral or something? Too weird.

Man, those police helicopters are circling and circling right over us!

So I go back home and then I remember that we never did put a padlock on the door of the crawl space under the apartment. Hmmm, I thinks to slackassedness has irresponsibly provided a possible hiding place for the feral killer. Way to go, dumbass. Obviously I'd better...whoa, man, those helicopters are flying low!...lock it up. It's a big crawl space...more of a crouch space...about 5 foot high...almost a really crappy basement with a dirt floor.

Actually, it'd serve Mr. feral killer right if he went in there. The previous owners were such home improvement morons that they screwed up about fifty jobs around this place, one of them being the installation of the insulation under the floor. (On the other hand, I thought that you didn't have to insulate the floor if you had a crawl what do I know?) The crouch space is a jungle of hanging streamers of insulation...looks almost like Spanish Moss. Really, really itchy pink Spanish Moss.

So I sez to Johnny Quest "I'm going to go check out the crouch space and lock it up."

"O.k.," she says, not looking up from what she is doing, "take the gun."

"I'll just take a baseball bat," I sez.

"Take the gun," she says, looking up from what she is doing.

So I took the gun.

But anyway the feral killer wasn't in the crouch space, and now it's all responsibly locked up, and the helicopters are still circling and the sirens are still whoop-whooping from time to time. On the news there're aerial shots of our neighborhood, and of the woods around Bolin creek where everybody (and I mean everybody) goes mountain biking and running, and where everybody takes their dogs.

Oh--according to the news, this guy killed somebody in Durham, but was sighted here.

So now I'm sitting in my locked up house, and I have to tell you, it's a little weird. I'm not saying that the reaction I'm about to try to explain makes any sense and I'm not saying it doesn't. I'm just going to try to report on it.

I feel kind of like when I was a kid, not quite old enough to be of any use in a crisis. If there was a fire along the railroad tracks or a particularly vicious pack of wild dogs or a big cottonmouth in the watering hole...something like know when you're not quite a kid anymore, but not quite old enough to be more help than worry in a dangerous situation? Man, I hated that time. Well, although I know it's irrational and I know that the police know what they're doing and I know better than to get in the way, but I feel like, you know, this is my community and if there's some evil bastard running around, some threat to it--killing people fer Chrissake--then I should be out there helping out somehow. Not like they need me, and not like I know what I'm doing or anything. I'm just saying that's what I feel like.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Freepers Creepers 6/9/04

Oh, just don't even check this out. And if you do anyway, don't say I didn't warn you...

This exercise in sophistry, "The University of the S**th" by Gail Jarvis, is the kind of story that makes me regret it every time I go check out the goings-on in Freeperville. (Note: I'm not linking to that damn site. I'm just not gonna do it.)

Jarvis's argument is about the re-naming of The University of the South, now apparently officially called 'Sewanee'. Here's the core of Jarvis' it is:

Recently, Sewanee retained a Chicago marketing firm for advice regarding recruitment of students. The firm recommended that: "the school should downplay its ‘Southern’ identity because it has negative connotations for some prospective students." Of course, arguments for eliminating Southern heritage are nothing new. But now the argument has been taken a step further. The marketing study warned against the word "South" in the University’s name stating: "Our research has revealed the ‘South’ can often raise negative associations" and "has a particular resonance with prospects of minority, ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as with others who have not experienced life in the South."

So now, the very word South is politically incorrect. To me, this is not only absurd but also a little scary. A perfect example of how Kafkaesque the PC affliction has become.

Of course, Sewanee’s administrators immediately kowtowed to the Chicago consultants. To downplay the word South, the name of the school has now been changed to "Sewanee: The University of the South." The University’s President has denied rumors that the word South will eventually be eliminated altogether and the college will be renamed "Sewanee University" or "Cumberland Plateau College." However, he has been careful to note that the "University of the South" is "just a mouthful to say" which seems to leave the door open for future changes.

Now, let me make it clear that according to some ways of slicing things up, I grew up on a farm in the sort-of-South--Jefferson County, Missouri in Northern part of the Southeastern part of the state. I didn't consider myself a southerner, but rather a rural Midwesterner. I went to college farther south in MO, and moved to North Caroina for grad school, whereupon I realized that I had almost as much in common with Southerners as I did with Midwesterners. I've lived in North Carolina and Virginia ever since. According to some of my Southern friends, I'm Southern, according to most I'm not. (To the extent that I consider myself anything at all I think of myself as rural simpliciter, neither particularly Midwestern nor particularly Southern, but more the former than the latter.)

Anyway, the point of all of that: I understand full well how rural and Southern people are treated, especially in the academy. For instance, you'd better lose your accent asap upon attending college and learn to speak Standard Collegiate (or try to sound like you came from New York or something) or no matter how smart you are, people will still, on some level, think of you as if you were basically a trained monkey. The South, like rural America, is, for many people, an object of derision, and it has often been said that the last remaining Politically Correct prejudice is one against white Southern males.


Jarvis's story is not a story of the evils of PC, but, rather, a story of the evils of the coroporatization [er...make that 'corporatization'...(don't blog tired...don't blog tired...) (although 'coroporatization' is a kind of cool-sounding word, don't you think?] of the unversity. If a slick Chicago consulting firm comes in and tells you that, in order to attract more students (or 'customers' as my own beknighted institution now refers to them) you need to dump the word 'South' because their focus groups give it the thumbs down... Well, it's the corporatization of America in general and universities in particular that's to blame. Political correctness has nothing whatsoever to do with it. There are no political objections at issue, only financial ones. It's about advertising, not about politics.

It's astounding how adept some people are at twisting things around to fit their antecedently-accepted view of the world. Really amazing, actually. And depressing.

Jarvis does go on to say that another academic consultant did goad the university into teaching women's studies courses and the like, and that's more PCish, but it isn't the thrust of the story. In case you are interested, I have a rather low opinion of such courses (I did audit one once, so I have at least some idea whereof I speak). They're probably over-emphasized at trendier institutions, but I do think it's a good idea to have one or two around. But again,this wasn't the main point of the story.

So there's my gripe about tonight's excursion into the Freeplight Zone.

And let this be a lesson to us liberals, too: just about the worst thing you can do is succumb to cyberbalkanization and web-interact only with other lefties. When you interact only with those with whom you agree, incestuous amplification takes hold, and Freeperdom or an analogous left-wing condition can't be far behind... We probably can't do anything to help out the Freepers, but we can avoid falling into a trap analogous to the one they've fallen into. I was over commenting at Eschaton last night, and I've gotta say, things weren't all that much better over there.
HELP! Please send travel advice re: Madrid, Crete, Santorini

Greetings, raptrons. In a week Johnny Quest and I will be taking off for two weeks in Spain and Greece. We'll spend three days in Madrid and then meet her folks in Athens and go galavanting around Greece. Now, her dad's from Greece (came over here when he was eight...very cool story, actually), so he speaks fluent Greek and knows his way around, but he's never been to Crete or Santorini, and we'll be spending lots of time there. Of course we're reading up on our destinations, but if anyone has any advice about these places--Madrid, Crete, Santorini--I'd be obliged if you'd pass it along.

P.s. Please note new e-mail address, in case you want to send info in that way:


p.p.s. As a card-carrying member of the ACL-you-know-what, I'm a little worried about privacy issues associated with gmail. Anybody have any thoughts on that?
An Homage to Greed, Mindless Palliatives, and Sticking Yer Head in the Sand

Here it is, "Burying Carterism," by a fellow named Duane D. Freese at TechCentralStation, via Free Republic.

I just want to make it clear that I did NOT go over there looking for something to make fun of. I try to listen to those people. They're not ALL nuts, you know. But the first thing I see is this, in which Mr. Freese, in essence, denigrates Carter's "malaise" speech, ridicules his plans for energy independence, and praises Reagan's optimism. The basic point is that Carter shouldn't have called a malaise a malaise (though, as Freese points out, he didn't actually use the word). Freese prefers Reagan's don't worry, be happy approach, and, of course, his laissez faire energy "policy." Reagan trusted the market and made us all optimistic, and we all lived happily ever after...

Except, of course, that nothing of the kind happened. If we'd listened to Carter we would have long ago weaned ourselves from dependence on Middle Eastern oil, we wouldn't find ourselves forced to intervene militarily there every ten years or so, we wouldn't have had to prop up tin-horn dictators there, we wouldn't have to station troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden would probably be just another anonymous religious fanatic, 9/11 might very well not have happened, we would no longer be the world's biggest oil glutton and the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases.

Carter was right on this one, Reagan was wrong. Reagan convinced the country to stick its head in the sand, and the consequences have been disastrous. Electing Reagan was like hiring a doctor who tells you "Aw, shucks, you don't have to do any of that newfangled exercise! There's no need to cut down on the beer and bacon! Just be happy, believe in yourself, and read the Bible. You'll be just fine, pardner!"

Jebus, these people...I just don't get it.
Kerry Demagogues the Gas Issue

I was surprised and disappointed that Kerry elected to demagogue the issue of gasoline prices, suggesting that we open up the strategic petroleum reserves. I'm utterly baffled by the fact that so many people refuse to acknowledge that we are, in all probability, rapidly depleting the Earth's oil supply and may be irreparably harming the environment while we're at it. Kerry, however, seems to recognize this, and has, in the past, advocated higher taxes on gasoline, a policy I advocate. Americans use far too much gas, and higher prices are the only thing I know of that might change that. Kerry's call to tap the SPR to keep prices artificially low is, perhaps, good politics but it is bad policy.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Governing Heads

There have been comparisons of W and Reagan flying around since the latter’s death—some flattering, some not. But one similarity that’s interested me for years is that both project an image—perhaps veridical, perhaps not—of anti-intellectualism. In fact, it was Reagan’s apparently anti-intellectualism against which I think I reacted most strongly when he ran for president in ’80.

These reflections, combined with the fact that Bush ’43 brought with him a coterie of henchmen from the Reagan and Bush ’41 administrations led me to hypothesize that the Republican party may have adopted a kind of network news approach to the Presidency. The networks seem to have realized that attractiveness and likeability are the keys to ratings, and, consequently, they’ve tended to put attractive, likeable talking heads up front while keeping the more serious journalists—no doubt rumpled and bespectacled—out of sight in the newsroom. The Republican party, filled with savvy ad men, has, perhaps, adopted a similar strategy. Perhaps they’ve decided to nominate likeable, attractive, electable dunces, backing them up with a cabal of real, serious policy-makers with bad hair and beady little eyes. The candidate, then, becomes little more than a front man, a governing head who only serves the purpose of giving his back-up men the ability to do their thing, i.e. make policy.

Bush ’41 and Dole don’t fit this mold, and that counts against my hypothesis. But then again, the governing head strategy need not be employed in every election, and many Republicans wouldn’t support such a policy.

On the other hand, neither Bush ’41 nor Dole is considered terribly successful by the Republican establishment. Furthermore, the Republicans have never been able to give us a convincing story about what it is that W is supposed to do, anyway. He’s allegedly the first “CEO president,” meaning that he doesn’t know anything about governing, but he gets to make the decisions anyway. But (as I've noted before) given his demonstrable and even admitted ignorance about both foreign and domestic policy, one wonders what his role in decision-making could possibly be. Either he just rubber-stamps the decisions of Rice, Cheney, and the other real policy-makers backing him up--in which case he is unnecessary--or he doesn’t--in which case he is worse, since we then have a person who doesn’t understand what’s going on overriding the decisions of people who do. And if he’s there just to be a tie-breaker when the experts are at loggerheads, he could be replaced by a fair coin or a Magic Eight-Ball (“Scott, are there any plans to send more troops to Iraq?” “Well, Neil, signs point to yes.”)

So there’s some food for thought. Probably false, but perhaps worth thinking about.
Accentuate the Negative:
Confessions of a Nattering Nabob

1. Liberals have tended to accentuate the negative about the war in Iraq.

This is not to say that the SCLM have presented a skewed picture—since they are virtually the only source of information for people like you and me, we have little idea whether the picture they present is skewed or straight. What I mean is this: given the information available to us, liberals have tended to focus on and perhaps even exaggerate difficulties, dangers and failures associated with our efforts in Iraq.

This is a charge that is easy to make and easy to deny. Many who make the charge are the usual collection of right-wing ideologues who equate any criticism of American with hatred of America, defeatism, etc. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and even those guys will eventually get it right.. The charge is easy to deny, and I’m sure that many of the denials are true and many of the false denials are nevertheless sincere, since it’s a hard thing to admit even to yourself.

Speaking from my own case, however, I must confess to experiencing a certain degree of schadenfreude as a result of our difficulties in Iraq. I am not proud of this—far from it. I’m not defending this reaction, I’m merely trying to be honest about it. I judge myself to be a decent observer of American politics, and I think that my reactions are shared by a significant proportion of American liberals.

2. Accentuating the negative increases the likelihood that our efforts in Iraq will fail.

If we focus inordinately on or exaggerate the difficulties, dangers and failures associated with our efforts in Iraq we raise the likelihood that we will demoralize the American electorate and give hope to Iraqi insurgents.

3. Failure in Iraq would be disastrous.

Failure in Iraq would be disastrous for the people of Iraq. It would also be disastrous for American prestige—it’s prestige in the eyes of the rest of the world, as well as in the eyes of Americans themselves. The Bush administration’s mendacity, unilateralism, and bullying have already damaged our prestige in a far more profound way, but military-political failure in Iraq would, it seems, put the icing on the cake.

4. Regardless of how we got there, winning is imperative.

I have a strong inclination to agree with what I take to be Tom Friedman’s position, which I understand to be roughly this: we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, and we definitely shouldn’t have gone in the way we did, but we’re there now and we have to accept that and try to do what’s best given the hand we’ve been dealt—or, rather, the hand we’ve dealt ourselves. And I’d add the following: the world would be a better place today had Clinton or Gore or McCain or Bush ’41 or virtually anybody else been president on and after 9/11. The world would be a better place had we focused on defeating al Qaeda and rebuilding Afghanistan rather than undertaking ill-advised Iraqi adventure. Supposing we did attack Iraq anyway, the world would be a better place if we had worked with NATO and the UN and other Arab nations. The Bush administration has foolishly and irresponsibly put America and the rest of the civilized world in a precarious position. (Only the civilized world, though; their actions have been a boon for bin Laden and other Islamic extremists.) Anger at the Bush administration is richly warranted. But none of these things justifies us in irresponsibly exaggerating the difficulties and failures the U.S. is experiencing in Iraq if those exaggerations are likely to make things worse.

5. We must separate our assessment of the Bush administration and its case for attacking Iraq from our assessment of progress in Iraq.

Liberals must be careful to separate their justifiable anger at the Bush administration from their assessments of the progress in Iraq. Speaking for myself, this is harder than it might seem. It’s as if I walk around under a cloud of disgust at the actions of the administration, and this seems to infect my opinions about progress in Iraq. Disgusted at the irrational and dishonest manner in which our troops were sent there, I find myself half-expecting us to fail there.

Worse, I sometimes find myself half-hoping that we do. I hate Saddam and wished that we’d gone after him in the first Gulf War. I am a liberal hawk—I think that the U.S. should use its military to defend human rights and make the world a better place. I recognize the importance of winning in Iraq. I want our soldiers and the Iraqi people to be well, live long, happy lives, and die at ripe old ages. And yet I find it difficult to wish whole-heartedly for success in a project with such a sinister and despicable genesis. But if you find yourself in a sinking boat, the thing to do is bail with all your might rather than sullenly refusing to help on the grounds that you advised against the outing in the first place.

6. We should emphasize the irrationality of the policies rather than exaggerating their failures.

I imagine that I detect similar thoughts among my fellow liberals, and I expect that these thoughts are in large part responsible for our negativity about progress in Iraq. But a proper respect for humanity demands that we do what we can to insure success. At the very least, we must do no harm; and that means, at least, that we must refrain from accentuating the negative and thereby undermining morale and thereby undermining the will to succeed and thereby lowering the likelihood that we will do so. We must simultaneously work for success in Iraq and success in America. The former means winning the war and the latter means winning the election. And there’s the rub, of course: success in Iraq increases the likelihood that Bush will be re-elected, and that opens to door to four more years of epic blunders. And that may be part of what is at the root of much liberal negativity about Iraq--the thought that some degree of failure there is an acceptable price to pay in order to remove from power the architects of the Iraqi misadventure.

I must confess some sympathy with these thoughts, but I want to suggest a higher road for the loyal opposition. As Tom Friedman has said, the left needs to become more morally serious about this matter. We must emphasize our commitment to and expectation of success, while making it clear at every opportunity that this mission should never have been undertaken in this way. We must neither exaggerate failures nor successes in Iraq. We must make it clear that al Qaeda should have been our real target, that there is no link between al Qaeda and Iraq, and that, even though we expect to succeed in Iraq, the administration’s policies took us far nearer to failure than we should ever have been. In short, we must tell the truth. It’s a harder case to make—people like a winner no matter how foolish the gamble. But if we take the high road, at least we’ll be able to look at ourselves in our mirrors on November 3rd without remorse.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Well, Waddaya Doin' Here?

How many times do I have to tell ya, ya need to be over at the (indispensible) Agonist. In particular for the following links:

1. Back to Iraq 3.0: Heart of Darkness

2. The Smoking Memo, re: permission to torture, sir!

3. An account ofRichard Clarke's assessment that instability in Saudi Arabia is as big a problem as Iraq.
The Blogroll: A Partial Update

Note, if you're interested, two additions to the blogroll, the inimitable Happy Furry Puppy Story Time and Erasmus's Civic Dialogues. There are some other blogs that deserve to go there, and that I intend to put up soon, but the blogroll updating around this joint is decidedly haphazard on account of the extreme half-assedness of the guy to does the updating...
Deification and Related Types of Exaggeration on the Right

I've long wondered why the right wing has deified Reagan. I started thinking about this more after the righties started trying to move W into the pantheon, too. (Well, deifying W may be too big a stretch even for them, but they have radically exaggerated his alleged virtues, referring to him as, among other things, "churchillian," believe it or not.)

My default guess about such things is that they are characteristic of extremists generally rather than one end of the political spectrum in particular. And, since the right seems to have moved farther right than the left has moved left, this would explain their greater propensity to canonize their leaders. But I'm not sure. So one question is: are conservatives really worse than liberals in this regard? Liberals do seem to have a warped and radically exaggerated opinion of JFK's virtues, though I'd guessed that this was a psychological reaction to his tragic death. But maybe not. On the other hand, despite Clinton's excellence as a president, liberals didn't seem to have any inclination to deify him, seeing him rather clearly as the complex character he was.

And speaking of Clinton, there's the bizarre phenomenon of seething, frothing-at-the-mouth Clinton hatred to be explained as well. It seems that the right has a tendency, more pronounced than that of the left, to exaggerate the virtue of their own leaders while exaggerating the vices of their opponents.

But this doesn't seem to be limited to their opinions of leaders. Although the right and the left each seem to have low opinions of the other in general, again this tendency on the right seems more pronounced. It is not uncommon for those on the right to attribute to liberals every imaginable vice, including contradictory ones--liberals are stupid, yet they are effete intellectuals; they are wimps yet vindictive and prone to the use of political violence; they are overly-emotional, yet heartless and soulless, etc. It is even common now for prominent voices on the right to characterize liberals as traitors.

So, is the conservative mind more inclined to these types of exaggerations? Or is relative extremism, rather than conservatism, the culprit? Or is the left really as bad as the right? WTF is going on here???
My Alternative Counter-Terrorism Plan for the $200 Billion We've Spent in Iraq

Here's my plan for the $200 billion we've spent in Iraq. The plan is designed as a counter-terrorism plan, and, since our actions in Iraq are alleged to be part of the "global war on terror," my plan constitutes an alternative to the administration's strategy of invading Iraq.

My Plan for the $200 Billion:

Burn it. Put it in a big fucking pile, pour gas on it and burn it up. Reduce it to ashes. Scatter it to the four winds.

Wasteful, you say? A foolish allocation of funds? Au contraire, mon frere. Speaking purely from a national security perspective for a moment and ignoring humanitarian considerations, my plan is far, far more efficient and cost-effective than that of the Bush Administration. Had we employed my plan, at least we wouldn't be spending our own money to help our enemies, we'd merely be wasting it. It's rather like the difference between throwing away $1000 on the one hand and using it to buy $1000 worth of cigarettes on the other--at least if you do the former, you aren't wasting money and killing yourself. But since smoking cigarettes can at least provide you with some pleasure, that analogy doesn't really work. A better one: It's like the difference between throwing away that $1000 and giving it to the Aryan Nation for its recruitment drive. By comparison, throwing the cash away is positively thrifty. By comparison, it's a brilliant plan.

Sadly, we didn't adopt my plan. Instead, we used the money to fund a spectacular recruiting campaign for al Qaeda. Think about it: a TWO HUNDRED BILLION DOLLAR RECRUITING CAMPAIGN for an organization dedicated to destroying Western civilization in general and the United States in particular. $200 billion to attack a country that posed only the most minimal threat if any to us, while the man who wants to destroy us plots and schemes. Bin Laden formulates his plans against us, safe we know not where, while we expend our blood and treasure deposing one of his enemies and destroying a regime that posed no real threat to us.

Even if we find bin Laden now, what does it matter? He's in large part al Qaeda's financier...but now we're doing that job for him. And doing a much better job of it, I must say. I mean, the guy's rich, but I'll bet he doesn't have $200 billion at his disposal now does he? Bin Laden's a piker. Uncle Sam is al Qaeda's biggest financier now.

My plan also has the advantage of saving a large number of lives and innumerable life-destroying injuries. It does not, of course, address humanitarian concerns, but, then, that was never the real aim of the administration's plan, either. It is still possible that we will make life better for the Iraqis, and our blood and treasure will not have been worse than wasted. I fervently hope that will happen.

But so far as the struggle against terrorism goes, we'd have been a lot better off if we'd adopted my plan instead of Bush's.

Sunday, June 06, 2004


I was sad yesterday when I heard the news that Ronald Reagan was dying, sad when I heard he was dead. I think that Reagan was a nice person who in many ways did his best for the country, and who did some good things for it. It is heartbreaking that he spent the last ten years of his life afflicted by Alzheimer's, a hateful disease if ever there was one.

I do not think that Mr. Reagan was a good president, but I think he tried to be and I think that matters. I also think that, upon a person's death, it is reasonable to emphasize accomplishments rather than failures. Although Mr. Reagan is in many ways the man most responsible for shifting my sympathies away from the Republican party, he was certainly right when he called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" and certainly right to exhort Gorbachev to tear down the wall, and both of these things resonated powerfully with me. If you read about him joking around after being shot, or read his letter in response to the boy who wrote him asking for a federal grant to clean his room (because his mother had referred to it as a "disaster area") you can't help but be charmed by the man. I only recently discovered that Reagan was a good writer who did much of the work on his own speeches. His hyperbolic optimism, although not something that I myself found helpful, apparently buoyed the spirits of many and helped much of the country out of a sort of malaise into which it seemed to have fallen.

Some on the right have chosen to try to deify Mr. Reagan. This is unfortunate. It's unfortunate that the right has this inclination to deify its heroes, but it's especially unfortunate given that these efforts only serve to emphasize Mr. Reagan's shortcomings as president. He was charming and avuncular and he did his best, but it is folly to pretend that he was heroic, or that he was, in the words of some on the right, "the greatest president since Jefferson." I suppose that it is inevitable that the right will be apoplectic in its outpouring of adulation for Reagan in the coming days and weeks, and the left will not. The right will then be apoplectic about the left's lack of patriotically correct apoplexy, and so on. It would be heartless to relentlessly emphasize the profound failings of the Reagan administration upon the man's death, but it would be equally irresponsible to ignore them completely. Instead, I think we should simply be sad at the death of our former President, a man who loved and served his country. Now is, perhaps, a time for emphasizing what was positive in his life and administration, recognizing that such assessments, made at times like this, are in some sense not intended to be fully accurate and objective. Maybe--just maybe--a person's death is not the occasion for perfect objectivity.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

David Brooks on Partisanship and Polarization

I try not to just post links here, but I heartily endorse David Brook's op-ed Circling the Wagons in todays NYT. I continue to think that, for all his errors, that guy's got something. One of the things that's important about this post is that it actually deploys data from the social sciences in a useful and informative way. I've been screwing around with some posts about similarly relevant findings in cognitive science...maybe this'll inspire me to finish those up. But for now, read it with me one more time:

"A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,--the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right."
-- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Iraq, Yugoslavia, the American Right, and Humanitarian Interventions
Plus: A Prediction

Almost everyone I respect is furious about the fact that the administration switched its rationale for the war from a WMD-centered one to a humanitarian one. The fact that this only happend after WMDs turned out to be the phantom menace is, of course, more than mere coincidence. And after listening to Republicans repeat their we-can't-be-the-world's-policeman mantra for the last 30 years or so, their sudden conversion to the cause of international human rights strains credulity.

Think back less than a decade to the apoplectic reaction of many on the right to our humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia. Tom DeLay and his crew, for example, were relentless critics of our intervention. Quoting DeLay:
“President Clinton has never explained to the American people why he was involving the U.S. military in a civil war in a sovereign nation, other than to say it is for humanitarian reasons…”
The clear implication here is that humanitarian reasons are not sufficient for justifying the involvement of the U.S. military in a sovereign nation. DeLay contrasted these interventions with those of Gulf War Episode I, in which
"...our national interest...was clear. In the gulf we had a country that was invaded [Kuwait], and an oil interest to defend.”
This argument contains a moderately interesting confusion, so it may be worth examining in slightly more detail. DeLay is making a wee argument which, in textbook form, looks like this:

(1) In Gulf War Episode I Kuwait had been invaded
(2) In Gulf War Episode I we had an oil interest to defend
(3) In Gulf War Episode I our national interest was clear

But why is premiss (1) supposed to be relevant here? Either the invasion of Kuwait is relevant on humanitarian grounds or on the grounds of national interest. But DeLay is arguing that the former are insufficient for sending troops, so that can't be it. Even more obviously, if the invasion of Kuwait is supposed to be justified on humanitarian grounds, then premiss (1) is irrelevant to DeLay's conclusion, (3). (3) says that we had reasons of national interest for undertaking the war, so pointing to humanitarian reasons can't establish that conclusion. Unless, of course, we were to add that acting on humanitarian grounds is in our (narrow) national interest, a premiss that DeLay cannot accept without undermining his case against intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

So (1) is really irrelevant to the argument. When this distracting premiss is eliminated, DeLay's position becomes clear: the first gulf war was justified because protecting the oil supply is in our narrow national interest. But the more important point left implicit is this: promoting our narrow national interest is (at least) necessary (and perhaps sufficient) for using our military. This is the position known as "Foreign Policy Realism." It is a version of ethical egoism at the level of nations: we never have a reason for acting unless there's something in it for us.

So how to reconcile this position with the right's new-found fervor for human rights? Some suggestions:

1. Not everybody on the right believes the same thing. One way that we go wrong in political discussion is that we sometimes cull one comment from this person on the right (or left) and one comment from that person on the right (or left) and then pretend that we have caught "the right" (or "the left") in a contradiction. Bush often speaks as if he is not a realist/national egoist about foreign policy. In fact, in a recent speech he explicitly criticized such "realism".

2. Few people are, in fact, strongly committed to "realism"/national egoism. Most people seem to think that the use of our military can only be justified if there is some measure of national interest at issue and at least some humanitarian considerations. And, I think, most people are pretty inconsistent about what the mix of these two types of considerations should be. This leads us to:

3. Many people are driven by their political affiliations to support or oppose a given war, and they choose to emphasize different considerations on the basis of which considerations tend to generate arguments for or against the war. In the case at hand, the right put its support behind this war relatively early on, probably at least in part because it was supported by a popular right-wing president. At first they supported it on grounds of national interest, but when those grounds failed they switched to humanitarian grounds.

(Liberals shouldn't be too smug about that last point, as they do the same kind of thing. It's common these days, for example, to hear liberals making complaints that sound like complaints against humanitarian interventions in general.)

But 2 and 3 only "reconcile" the right's new-found fervor for humanitarian interventions with its historical opposition to them in the sense of explaining, not in the sense of justifying. I, for one, would be ecstatic if the right had decided that our foreign policy needed to be conducted in a more humanitarian, less nationally-egoistic manner. The entire Iraq debacle might be worthwhile if it served to enlighten the American right, to make its view of foreign policy more like that of Jimmy Carter, and to banish foreign policy realism from Washington. But I doubt that Iraq signals the ascendance of right-wing humanitarianism. I expect that attempts to justify our Iraq adventure on humanitarian grounds are explained more by the considerations in 3 (above). One sign that humanitarian appeals are ad hoc political expedients rather than an expression of an emerging right-wing humanitarianism is that there was so little planning for post-war Iraq. An intervention can only be justified on humanitarian grounds if there is a reasonable expectation that the people in question will be better off after the war than they were before the war. But so little energy went into insuring this that it is hard to believe that helping the people of Iraq was really one of the administration's major goals.

So, when those on the right trot out their shiny new humanitarian justifications for this war, we should make it clear to them that they are thereby admitting that they were wrong about Clinton's interventions in the former Yugoslavia. More importantly, we should make it clear to them that by employing this justification for intervention in Iraq they are committing themselves to a hawkish humanitarianism that will oblige us in the future to undertake military operations that, pre-Iraq, the right would have opposed with all its might.

Epilogue: A Prediction

The right's use of it's back-up humanitarian justification for Gulf War Episode II is far more canny strategically than it appears at first glance. I predict that the right will actually appeal to this war in future arguments against humanitarian interventions, by pointing to how costly the war has been in blood and treasure. ("You silly liberal idealists... We tried one of your 'humanitarian' interventions in Iraq, and look what that cost us...") If the war ultimately goes badly, then it will provide them with an even stronger argument against humanitarian interventions in the future. So the right has put itself in a position such that even it if loses, it is more likely to win future debates about military intervention. By pretending that it undertook the war on liberal principles, it can blame those liberal principles for the failure of a conservative war.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Some Stuff

Hey everybody. I just got back from Missouri, where I was visiting the parental units down on the farm. And when I got back...voila!'s high-speed 'net access all hooked up! Woo hoo!

While I was at RDU waiting for my flight to MO, I finally picked up Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies. It's really weird that I've waited so long to read it, but (a) I had a frantic end-of-the-semester during which, as you can see, I didn't even blog, and (b) I had sorta thought that I'd read enough about it that reading it would be rather a waste of time. Well, I was wrong about that. It's an extremely fast and extremely interesting read. Despite having little time to read while I was away, I had finished it by the time I got back to Chapel Hill. I'm not going to try to write anything involved about it right now, but: every American should read that book. No matter how big a news junkie you are, no matter how much you've read about it, you really must read it. Clarke comes across, as always, as an extraordinarily straight shooter and all-around virtuous fellow. I don't mean that he says those things of himself, of course, I mean that that's the sense of the man one gets from reading his book. Such judgments are, needless to say, fallible, but they're far from worthless.

He doesn't hesitate to say positive things about the Bush administration when he believes positive judgments are warranted...but he doesn't often believe they are. His assessment of this administration's efforts against al Qaeda is almost uniformly negative, and his reasons for these assessments are cogent. In fact, I'm sort of proud of the fact that many of Clarke's judgements agree with many of the judgments I expressed in my last post. Of course, I may have absorbed those conclusions by osmosis since his stuff was already in the air, and since other people had expressed similar thoughts, and of course his judgments about these matters are worth far more than my own...nevertheless, I was pretty proud of myself for, I believe, having come to some of the right conclusions. I'll crow about my own inferential prowess some more in the future, but for right now all I really have to say is: