Thursday, June 30, 2005

What's Going On In Iraq
What Should We Do About It?

I'm gratified to be able to answer promptly:

I don't know.

My guess is: neither do you.

I hear people claiming that Iraq is basically Hell on Earth. I hear others claiming that it's great, the people are undaunted, the violence spectacular but rare--as in the U.S. I've come to the conclusion that I simply do not know what is going on over there. A gazillion dollars worth of people and cameras over there and we still can't tell what's up. Is it just me? Does everybody else know what's going on?

And even if I did know what was going on over there, I'm in no real position to know what to do about it. I praised Beinart's Op-Ed recently because it seemed like the best guess to me...but it's rather ridiculous for people like me--and probably even ridiculous for people like Peter Beinart--to draw any very firm conclusions about these matters.

These are in large part matters for experts. There are people in the Pentagon and in the government who know an extraordinary amount about what's really going on, and who are as close as we have to experts about what to do in such circumstances. We live--thank god--in an age of expertise, and there's probably no better reason for me to be trying to figure out what to do in Iraq than there is for me to be trying to figure out what to do about a broken ankle or global warming.

People like us are interested in these matters, and we like sitting around talking about them...but sometimes it all seems like a joke to me. I know enough to know that I don't know what the hell is going on.

But here's the sad punchline: we can't trust the experts we have at our disposal. It's clear by now to those with eyes to see that the Bush administration extraordinarily dishonest--even for politicians. And there's good reason to suspect that the Pentagon is willing to let itself be manipulated by them. If we had a president who was intellectually and otherwise honest, the right thing to do here might very well be to say "We trust you; you've got the best info; do your best; we'll--within reason--back you up."

Sadly, we are not in a position that makes such a response feasible.

If only we were being governed by our best and brightest, I might have faith in our cause and our chances. At this point, I'd settle even for mediocrity in government. What I fear though is that we are being led not by our best and our brightest, but by our worst and our dimmest.
Success and Justification in Iraq
Bush Polls Us and Shrinks Us

If I read this Washington Post story correctly, succeeding in Iraq matters more to most people than whether the war is justified. That is, most people are more likely to support an unjust war in which the chance of success is higher than they are to support a just war in which the chance of success is lower. Excuse me while I go weep for my country.

I've pondered this sort of thing before, suggesting that what will determine the nature of Bush's legacy is whether the war is ultimately successful or not. Seems to me that that's the way American politics works: no matter how stupid, bad or incompetent you are, if you succeed then you're revered. If bin Laden dies of kidney failure or gets hit by a meteor, Bush will take the credit and most of our fellow citizens might just let him have it.

The story contains another interesting datum. We all know that Bush claims to ignore the polls. Many of us suspect this to be not only false but very false. This story seems to confirm our suspicion and to give us grounds for new concerns. Not only has the Bush team polled us to see what is most likely to maintain our support for the war, they have brought in experts on public opinion to advise them about how best to manipulate us. Apparently it is acting resolute that is the key.

So now we are being treated like cattle in the clearest possible way. To treat us like persons, rational creatures, free citizens, the administration would tell us the truth and allow us to decide for ourselves. By stooping to rhetorical tricks and psychological manipulation they reveal their disdain for us. But much of the fault is ours. If we allow ourselves to be treated like sheep, then that's probably how we deserve to be treated.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Well That's Just Great

Eye of Sauron found in deep space, via the vigilant folk at
Flag Desecration Again
More on Michelle K's Excellent Point

In case you missed Michelle K's comment on the flag desecration amendment, do go check it out.

My attitudes about the flag are, I suppose, rather out of the mainstream, though I'm not sure why that is. I treat the flag respectfully, though I regret that it has been turned into something of a symbol of the right wing. I observe the rules for flying the flag (this link thanks also to Michelle K), but do not--and never will--stand for or recite the Pledge Of Allegiance. I don't pledge any allegiance to the flag; my allegiance is to the Constitution and its principles. I do recognize that some good and intelligent people--Wesley Clark, for example--favor the amendment. I believe that they are rather clearly wrong, but I'm not interested in making that case right now.

But it has long annoyed me that the flag is treated improperly so much of the time. I find it particularly irksome that it is the very people who fetishize the flag who are most likely to mistreat it. Every time I see a dirty, worn out American flag flying from the roof of a car I feel a little twinge of irritation. I've seen many flags hanging mournfully along back roads in Virginia and North Carolina, often in the rain, often unilluminated at night, and I've many times been tempted to rescue them from this mistreatment.

I've complained about this phenomenon for several years, but I didn't see what Michelle K saw: that these facts can be used to help people see reason in the debate about the flag desecration amendment. Her point, as I understand it, is this: if there is to be such an amendment it MUST cover all instances of mistreatment of the flag. Any version of the flag desecration amendment will constitute a violation of the First Amendment, of course. But an amendment that specifically disallows flag desecration when and only when it is an act of political expression is too egregious a violation of the the First Amendment to be contemplated even by the most ardent flag fetishist. However, any amendment which does make any desecration of the flag illegal will be unacceptable to those who tend to support the amendment, as it will force them to stop wearing the flag on their clothing and so forth. Since one is not to represent the flag on material that is easily torn, even the popular American flag stamps would apparently be illegal under such a law. (Incidentally, I really like those stamps but have decided not to use them anymore since they do seem to be in violation of the flag rules.)

Michelle K also notes that it is illegal to use the flag for commercial purposes. So were such an amendment to be passed, Fox News would [apparently] have to remove the little flag in the upper left-hand corner of their screen. [More to the point: flags couldn't be used in advertisements.]

Cases of burning the flag for purposes of political expression are rare indeed, but instances of casual desecration like those described above are extremely common. If an even vaguely coherent flag desecration amendment were passed it would be a dark day for America and for the principle of free expression. But there would be a kind of poetic justice in it, since such an amendment would put more flag fetishists than First Amendment fans in the slammer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Brits Suspected Iraq Invasion Stupid, Illegal

Just like everybody else who was paying even a little bit of attention. Read all about it in the mighty WaPo.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Beinart: Shake Up The War Room

In case you have any interest in and doubts about where I stand on the Iraq situation, read Beinart's Op-Ed from last Sunday's WaPo. My only comment is: what he said.

It's rare that I agree with every jot and tittle of an Op-Ed, but I do with this one. This kind of (by my lights) hard-headed, common-sensical idealism and intellectual honesty is why I read The New Republic semi-religiously. My view: if you don't read TNR, then you probably don't understand what's going on.

I've occasionally mentioned that I'm in search of an analog of TNR on the right--something intelligent, open-minded, not programmatically partisan or mindlesly ideological, a publication that's willing to make the arguments carefully and follow them where they lead even when that means disagreeing with the conventional wisdom on their normal side of the fence. If you've got any ideas, please send 'em along. There's got to be something out there that's intelligently conservative. The National Review is, of course, analogous to TNR in terms of its stature on the right, but intellectually speaking you don't need me to tell you that it's a joke. Conservatives should be more outraged by it than liberals. (That sentence is ambiguous, but maybe both its readings are true...)

And let's skip the following joke my more lefty friends like to make in response to this query, o.k.?:

Me: I'm looking for something like a right-wing New Republic. Any suggestions?

Lefty Friends: Have you tried The New Republic?
Three Cheers for SCOTUS!

They got it right.
Bush Employs the (Real) Reagan Doctrine: Negotiating With Terrorists Now A-O.K.

So now we're negotiating with terrorists. (Remember: how conservatives used to whine about the term 'insurgents,' arguing that they should simply be called 'terrorists'?) This is the real Reagan Doctrine. Since the Democrats irresponsibly chose not to impeach him, I sometimes fear that people will forget that this is the most significant part of Reagan's legacy.

Although Iran-Contra does have to compete for primacy with Reagan's decision to turn tail and run after the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut in '83. That decision, after all, by the supposedly resolute Reagan is said to be often cited by terrorists as evidence of America's glass jaw.

So, here's the real Bush doctrine: refuse to negotiate with your allies, then, as a consequence, get yourself into such a mess that you have to negotiate with terrorists.


I try to be restrained in my criticisms of the Administration, I really do, but at every turn they seem to find new ways to amaze me with their incompetence and duplicity. I am a very firm believer in Roosevelt's advice (allegedly originally a West African saying) to speak softly but carry a big stick. The problem with certain prominent of my lifetime--Reagan and Bush '43, for example, though by no means Bush '41--is that they speak loudly and don't know how to use the stick they've got. Bush '43 likes to play up his cowboy demeanor--he had no trouble strutting us into this mess--but when things get tough, he apparently wimps out.

Oddly enough, I would have preferred to attack the actual terrorists who actually attacked us--al Qaeda--wiped them out, and been done with it. After that was taken care of and there was no doubt in anyone's mind anywhere that attacking the U.S. would bring swift and certain destruction, I would have then preferred that we seriously address the problem of Saddam's human rights abuses.

But, hey, nobody listens us us in the reality-based community...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Michelle K is Brilliant

(That's a quote from an e-mail I just got from Statisticasaurus Rex, incidentally.)

In case you missed Michelle K's comment on my recent post about the flag-burning amendment, do check it out. I'm currently indisposed, but will comment on it soon.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Darth Rove vs. Liberals

The most despicable person in American politics is at it again.

Now, I don't know what liberals Darth Karl has been playing with, but I believe that every liberal I know supported military action against the Taliban, even--and I want to emphasize this--two full-blown pacifists. (How can they be pacifists, then? Well, I've tried to get answers from them on that one...) There are, of course, some misguided few who oppose all military action, no matter what the circumstances, and those few are mostly liberals--but we all know that you can't let the fringe represent the mainstream of a party. In the main, we liberals were behind the President on that one.

In fact, I distinctly remember driving to Charlottesville with two of my friends/colleagues, both of whom are basically liberal (one quite so, one reluctantly so) during the air campaign against the Taliban. It had been going on for quite some time at that point, and I'd been uneasy about it. I'm no military planner, of course, and it wasn't going to be my ass on the line, but it just seemed like the wrong approach to me. The Taliban were not exactly a formidable fighting force, and I really thought that what we needed was a fast, overwhelming, crushing action against them. A little preliminary bombing, then the 82nd and the 101st and the Marines and the armored cav stomping the sh*t out of them. I knew that less preliminary bombing would mean more American casualties, but we could always argue for one more day or week of bombing on such grounds. In that case, I thought it was important to make a point: give safe harbor to our attackers, and we kill you. Fast. No screwing around.

Anyway, on that car trip, this point came up, and we all admitted that that's what we'd been thinking--at first reluctantly, and then energetically. If anything, we thought that the administration had been too timid in its response in Afghanistan.

Then, of course, when they decided to put in too few troops, take out troops before Tora Bora, let bin Laden get away, and shift our forces away from the fight against al Qaeda and into a completely irrelevant and unrelated battle in Iraq...well, those were actions supported by conservatives, not by liberals.

I think that an important point here is that liberals in general strongly supported action against those who harbored our attackers--the Taliban in Afghanistan--but opposed actions against an unrelated country. Conservatives, on the other hand, have an unfortunate tendency to be overly eager to use military force. So, here's what happened: when the use of force was rational, liberals and conservatives both endorsed it; when it was irrational, liberals opposed it and conservatives supported it. So what's that tell us?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The First Amendment vs. the Flag-Burning Amendment

It should come as no surprise that this July 4th the Republicans will launch another attack on the freedom of expression. Call and write and e-mail your Senators, folks. Those boys didn't die at Valley Forge and Iwo Jima so that we could sit on our asses and let a bunch of nuts slowly erode our rights as free people.
Back from Bear Island
Otters and Moonbeams

Back from an unscheduled camping trip to Bear Island, NC, perhaps my favorite place on Earth. Blessed is the State Park system, for only there is the coast safe from the depredations of McDonalds and subdividers. Let's hope we get through the next three years without the system being privatized...

Saw a river otter up close for the first time ever, but didn't have my telephoto lens with me, so I don't have much of interest to show. Also saw, for the first time I can recall, what must have been moonbeams. It was one night before the full moon, and the moonlight seemed to be broken into barely discernable beams by some wispy clouds. The moonbeams--if that's what they were--were so faint as to be barely perceptible and so indistinct that we couldn't even tell whether they exhibited a regular pattern. I'm pretty unobservant, but don't recall having seen such a phenomenon before.

Anway, glad to see you all didn't tear the place up while I was gone. It sure was nice to sleep out under the stars and put politics out of my mind for awhile. More later.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

NYT Letter With Which I Regretfully Must Agree

Neglected to link to this when it appeared, so I'll just have to type it all in:

From the NYT 6/7/2005:

To the Editor:

Thomas Friedman says liberals "deep down don't want the Bush team to succeed." I am, admittedly, part of that faction, and I have no doubt that there are a lot more people in this country like me. But I dare say that there are more like us, even a majority, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

We're fighting this sentiment as much as we're fighting the insurgency itself. If America were led by a more diplomatic, reasonable, respectful administration, one that was a little less arrogant and contentious, maybe we wouldn't have to win an image war as well as the war on the ground."

Mike Polikoff,
Evanston, Ill., June 15, 2005"

Hear, hear, Mike.

I'm fighting these sentiments in myself much of the time. If I could flip a magical Iraq war switch with 'succeed' and 'fail' settings, I'd flip it to 'succeed.' But that doesn't mean that I don't sometimes realize that deep down I'm sort of hoping that they'll fail. I believe that they are bad and not terribly bright people who in essence stole the election of 2000 and deceived the American public into an ill-advised war that undermined our efforts against al Qaeda. I can't help but hope with part of my heart that they get what they deserve. Then, reflecting on that and recognizing what that means for so many innocent people, I hate myself for having such feelings. But it would be dishonest to deny that they are there. And, like Mr. Polikoff, I know that many, many other people feel like I do--they, too, would flip the switch to 'succeed', but they have the other feelings, too.

So, once again, I think Friedman is right about something important.

I've been meaning to write about this for a long time, but it's a complicated and embarrassing subject. Quickly, though, I'll say this much: this whole Iraq adventure has been rather like watching a good friend make a series of stupid and immoral decisions. In the end, you wouldn't want him to suffer irrevocable tragedy...but part of you can't help being so mad at and disappointed in him that you feel some weird sense of satisfaction when you contemplate him reaping what he has so foolishly sown. Especially when you've been giving him good advice all along, and he's been not only assiduously ignoring it but making the most outlandish accusations against you for trying to convince him to do the right thing.

None of this is particularly pretty, but note that conservatives feel the same way about liberal presidents. In particular, many conservatives spent most of the Clinton presidency hoping for something--anything--to go wrong enough to bring him down. The glee in some of their voices after things went badly in Somalia was unmistakable, and it was clear that many were hoping for us to fail in the former Yugoslavia. The feelings liberals are having about Iraq are, for what it's worth, far more understandable than those.
Defending Durbin

I've been mostly out of the news loop of late, so I don't know how big the Durbin/Guantanamo story has fact, I just found out about it. Speaking of detainees being chained to the floor until they had to urinate and defecate on themselves, Durbin said:

“you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings.”

Hastert and several other Republicans described this like so:

"While speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Durbin chose to question the reputation of the thousands of brave men and women who are serving in our armed forces."

This just goes to show how far gone the Republican leadership is. Let's take the points in order:

Suppose that--before the GWOT--you had heard the accounts in question. Would you think that they could be accounts from Nazi Germany, the gulags, or from Pol Pot's Cambodia? Yes.

Suppose that--before the GWOT--you had heard the accounts in question. Would you think that they could be accounts about how the United States treated enemy combatants? No.

Conclusion: Durbin was right.

In fact, Durbin was EXACTLY right.

In fact, it seems that anyone who disagrees with Durbin here either has to have a particularly low opinion of the U.S. or a particularly high opinion of Nazi Germany, the gulags, or Pol Pot.

Re: the Republican response. O.k., look, next time I'm in one of my let's all just get along or my sure, the Republicans suck, but look how bad the Democrats suck too moods, remind me of this, o.k.? These guys have gone over the edge. Their comments suggest that they think that it is worse to report that American forces have acted immorally than it was for those forces to have acted immorally in the first place. When are you sensible Republicans out there going to start speaking out against the people who have hijacked your party? How can you allow the part of Lincoln to be dragged down into the mud like this? Would their response to reports of the My Lai massacre have been "These reporters chose to question the reputation of the brave men and women serving in our armed forces"? I especially liked their reference to "thousands" of men and women, making their claim subtly ambiguous, open to the interpretation that Durbin was criticizing everyone in the armed forces. 'Thousands' can mean tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands... And how did questioning a few interrogators at Guantanamo Bay become questioning thousands of people, anyway?

This is so sick and disgusting that I have to sign off now before I write something I might regret later. What the hell is happening to my country?
Anti-Atheist Prejudice in the Academy

Check it out at Majikthise.
Who Remembers the Armenians?

We do. We also remember the Rwandans, the Cambodians, and the victims of the Holocaust. Contact your congressman about passing the Genocide Resolution.
Lysenkoism on the March

Among the most infuriating things about the current administration and its penumbra of supporters, allies, and kindred spirits is their contempt for facts and logic. Or, more specifically, it is their willingness to subordinate facts and logic to their political commitments. Ellen Goodman's on it in today's WaPo.

Most on the right can't deny that this is going on with a straight face anymore, so they generally revert to the "everybody does it" defense. That's probably not true, but it probably is true to that the vast majority of politicians do it to some degree or other. But don't fall for this transparently fallacious reply. The point is that this administration and their pals do it more often, more shamelessly, and with greater commitment than any other administration. Differences of degree matter, and great differences of degree matter greatly. Nobody's perfect, but that doesn't mean that everybody's equal.

The administration's supporters might try to deny that differences of degree ever matter, I suppose, but that would be crazy. And they'd then have to, among other things, abandon their outrage about Amnesty International's "gulag" characterization. If mistreatment is mistreatment and differences of degree don't matter, then there's nothing wrong with calling Guantanamo Bay a gulag. (Incidentally, it isn't a gulag.) Consistency, however, is a hobgoblin of honest minds and not something that plagues the current crew in power.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Dolphin Lady Babbeleth

One thing conservatives have to admit: there's no liberal analog of Peggy Noonan. For sheer, unadulterated lunacy, she simply can't be beat. Check out this recent gem:

"What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon's ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events--the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions--millions--killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever."

Refutation of the above is left as an exercise for the reader.

Somebody needs to collect all these recent crypto-Nixonite attacks on Felt. The arguments have been so very bad that they have often revealed thinly-veiled desires to defend that great criminal. Which just goes to show you: no matter how bad you are, and no matter how heinous your crimes, you'll always have defenders. Conservatives should be concerned that there are those on their side of the fence who have such attitudes.
Bill Clinton vs. bin Laden

"Clinton left office with bin Laden alive, but having authorized actions to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on al Qaeda. He had defeated al Qaeda when it had attempted to take over Bosnia by having its fighters dominate the defense of the breakaway state from Serbian attacks. He had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America, and therefore had greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs. He had put an end to Iraqi and Iranian terrorism against the United States by quickly acting against the intelligence services of each nation.

Because of the intensity of the political opposition that Clinton engendered. he had been heavily criticized for bombing al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, for engaging in "Wag the Dog" tactics to divert attention from a scandal about his personal life. For similar reasons, he could not fire the recalcitrant FBI Director who had failed to fix the Bureau or to uncover terrorists in the United States. He had given the CIA unprecedented authority to go after bin Laden personally and al Qaeda, but had not taken steps when they [the CIA] did little or nothing. Because Clinton was criticized as a Vietnam War opponent without a military record, he was limited in his ability to direct the military to engage in anti-terrorist commando operations they did not want to conduct. he had tried that in Somalia, and the military had made mistakes and blamed him. In the absence of a bigger provocation from al Qaeda to silence his critics, Clinton thoght he could do no more. Nonetheless, he put in place the plans and programs that allowed America to respond to the big attacks when the did come, sweeping away the political barriers to action."

Against All Enemies, p. 225

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Two Op-Eds Worth A Mention... today's NYT:

1. Stupid, stupid Tom Friedman again shows his stupid stupidity by stupidly saying some (IMHO) true and important things about Iraq.

2. Stacy Schiff discusses an issue near and dear to our hearts around here in "The Interactive Truth," though I think she misunderstands Wikipedia. More on this when I'm not illegally parked.
Two Great Movies

I don't know anything about movies, and most of them that I see are dreck, but I've seen two (IMHO) fantastic ones recently, and can't resist the urge to say something about them on the off chance that anyone's interested. They're very different, one being a documentary+re-enactment, the second just being a regular (though superlative) movie.

1. Touching the Void
About a climbing mishap in the Andes. A tale of two guys made of much sterner stuff than the rest of us.

2. Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Just saw this one. Haven't read the books, was only dimly aware of their existence. This movie just blew me away. Clearly kids books have gotten lots better since my childhood fave, The Old Blue Truck. If I'd read these books as a kid who knows? I might have made something of myself. Actually, I'm about to go out and buy the first book. One great thing about the movie is that it's a well-tuned morality play, emphasizing virtues like courage, diligence, curiosity, and kindness. No sneaky religious pseudo-virtues snuck into the movie, just the genuine article.
One-and-a-Half Cheers for The President

Way to go, W. This is a good start. Liberals should applaud it and Bush should keep doing it.

The crucially disappointing fact here, however, is that he is basically only inviting dissidents from countries that count as our political foes. My suspicion about conservatives is that they have a tendency to use human rights as a stalking horse for the pursuit of mere national interest. Liberals are more likely to take human rights as an end in themselves. We should encourage the President to keep having these meetings. But they also provide us with tests of his real motives. If he keeps formulating the guest lists in this way, it will tend to confirm my suspicion about his motives. If he widens the lists to include those from our evil allies (e.g. Uzbekistan), then this will tend to disconfirm my suspicions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Anti-Clinton Madness

I won't link to Drudge, the Weekly World News of the Internet (which I will link to, you'll note), but by now you may have heard that he's reporting that a new book about Hillary Clinton by Ed Klein alleges that Chelsea was conceived in an act of rape committed by Bill against Hillary.

Now, I keep saying that I'm going to quit harping on the craziest of the crazies, but I just can't resist this one. This is the kind of thing that illustrates how unbalanced a significant minority of the right has become. Five years and two elections after Clinton left office, they are still so obsessed with him that they can't quit making up utterly insane allegations against him. Rabid anti-Clintonism is one of the things that pushed me more firmly into the Democratic camp. I've never seen anything like it in the Democrats. He's a rapist, he's a drug runner, he's a murderer... My god, these people really are--and I use the term in its literal sense--insane.

As I've written before, a large minority of the American right seems unable to resist demonizing their opponents and deifying their own politicians. The result, over the last twelve plus years, is that they have somehow convinced themselves that Bill Clinton--the only really good president of my lifetime--is the devil, while George W. Bush--one of the worst presidents of the last 75 years--is Churchillian (their word--no kidding). Of course these are the same people who said--with a straight face--that Ronald Reagan was "the greatest president since Thomas Jefferson." What does one say to people with such a radically skewed view of reality?

Note that I'm NOT saying that this is true of all conservatives. But the sane conservatives DO have to own up to this problem. A significant minority on their side is plagued by a peculiar kind of madness, and any sane and self-respecting conservative has got to be concerned by that.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Is It Good That Iraq Has Been A Disaster?

This is the kind of question I don't like asking, because it will inevitably lead many to think that I'm suggesting that it's good that innocent people--including innocent American soldiers--have died. It should go without saying that I'm asserting no such thing.

As readers of this blog know, I wanted Saddam out, and think that military action to take him out was probably warranted. Or, rather, it would have been warranted if more alternatives had been pursued first, if the action had actually been undertaken for humanitarian reasons, if the administration had been honest about its reasons, and if there had been anything like a plausible plan for post-war reconstruction.

But none of the above conditions was met. It is still possible that everything will work out for the best in the end, of course. And--again, needless to say--I hope that happens.

Funny thing about democracy is is that it's basically rule by the uninformed. Contrary to one reasonably popular belief, the common man isn't stupid; he's just woefully uninformed about politics. The average carpenter--noble though his profession might be--knows about as much about public and foreign policy as I know about carpentry. I mean, I can hammer a nail, but you don't want me building your house. Hell, I don't know that much about policy, and I'm almost a policy wonk.

It is perhaps one consequence of this that presidents are judged on the basis of the results they achieve, not on the basis of how smart their policies are--that is, not on how likely their policies were to achieve positive results. Most people don't understand the policies, and don't understand the alternatives, and so have nothing to go on but the outcome; if it's good, they conclude that the policy was good, if it's bad, they conclude the policy was, too.

It would have been a gift from the gods had W's ill-conceived Iraq adventure gone well. But gifts from the gods often carry hidden costs. My concern is that, had that happened, it would have made distortion of evidence, lying about reasons for policies, and rushing to war seem like reasonable courses of action. Or, more precisely: if things had gone well, it would have made these things easier in the future. As I've written before, there is absolutely no way that the American people are going to demand--and recognize--the truth about this war unless it goes badly in an undeniable way. Most people still have their patriotic blinders on, and those things don't come off easily.

And this is not merely (or "merely") a matter of setting the historical record straight; it's also about how America will conduct itself in the future. If this whole stupid, rotten, sordid Iraq fiasco had gone well, the long-term consequences for the country and the world might have been even worse than they will be if it goes badly. By encouraging dishonesty--intellectual and otherwise--among our leaders, painless success in Iraq might have made similar actions more likely in the future. And it is rather difficult to think of anything that would be more harmful to the nation and the world in the long run.

Note that I assert this recognizing full well that a defeat in Iraq would be devastating, a disaster of world-historical proportions. I in no way underestimate the costs of such a defeat. But such a disaster might pale in comparison to the havoc that would be wrought by an America that has decided that facts and logic are malleable things, to be bent to the will of the president, and that war is a thing that can be undertaken lightly.

It is possible, then, that the best outcome we can hope for in Iraq is a costly and painful victory. That is exactly what we seem on course to achieve. Paradoxically, such a mixed blessing may be the very best thing we can hope for.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Video of Serbian War Crimes

This is a fascinating story. I don't know which of the following facts is more amazing:

(a) Until now, most Serbs have been able to ignore the cornucopia of evidence proving that Serbian forces engaged in war crimes on a massive scale

(b) A video tape that has emerged has been able to change the minds of people so deeply in denial

(c) Some can remain in denial even after having seen the tape

Anyone who denies the power of patriotism and nationalism to distort people's perceptions is invited to reflect on this strange situation.

But this all seems to confirm things about humans that we already knew. People lie on continua with regard to clusters of issues. On one end of a given continuum lie those whose minds are easily changed (too easily, in some cases). As we move farther and farther down the continuum, we find people whose minds are harder and harder to change, until, on the far end of the spectrum, virtually nothing can change them. A large segment of any population lies on the far stubborn end of the spectrum with regard to issues about the virtue of their own country, countrymen, and leaders. They are the my country right or wrong set.

It's important to catalogue our cognitive shortcomings. Forewarned is forearmed. We know that humans tend to generalize hastily. We know that humans give too much weight to confirming evidence and insufficient weight to disconfirming evidence. We know that humans tend to ignore regression to the mean. To this list of illogical inclinations, we should add: we know that humans tend to give too little weight to evidence that indicates wrong-doing by their countrymen and their leaders.

It's also interesting that some people go too far in the other direction--they're the blame America first crowd. It's as if the impulses in play are too powerful to keep in check, as if we were wet-wired to over-react...

But there really aren't very many blame America firsters, so far as I can tell. A few scattered, stoop-shouldered types on colleged campuses, and maybe at The Nation... The overwhelming majority of those who get accused of that error are merely people who dare to criticize our leaders at all. The my country right or wrongers, of course, view anyone who criticizes America at all as a blame America firster.

At any rate, I've met both types, and they are both infuriating. (Me, I'm right in the middle, purely rational about these matters. Needless to say.) But even a passing acquaintance with history and current events reveals that it is being insufficiently critical of one's own country and leaders that is by far the commoner, by far the stronger, and by far the more dangerous inclination. The Serbian tape incident is just the latest bit of evidence for this very obvious conclusion.

On the bright side, I suppose, seeing is believing, and all but the most irrational among us can eventually be convinced by the evidence of his own eyes. We humans are not the most rational lot, but neither are we the most recalcitrantly irrational.

The bad news again is that most governmental misdeeds are not caught on videotape. This leaves the residue of doubt that counts as plausible deniability to someone resolutely committed to denying responsibility, and to those resolutely committed to believing them.
Must Read: Frank Rich on W(atergate)

Frank Rich gets it right here.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

God and Man at the Air Force Academy

You've probably been following this story already. I, for one, find it very, very frightening.

Oddly enough, I've just been pondering how we might achieve more consensus in this country, and wondering whether people like me should soften our stance on the separation of church and state. It would be a violation of American principles to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in the courthouse, but, I was thinking, it might not result in that much real, tangible harm. So maybe we should consider it, I was thinking...

Then a story like this comes along, and I'm reminded of the real dangers of mixing religion and government institutions. One thing we have to remember is that many religions, including many (especially conservative) flavors of Christianity, tend to be--intellectually speaking--especially aggressive and invasive. That is, their very nature impels them to try to expand their influence. They are in some respects the intellectual equivalent of kudzu. If you don't take active steps to keep them in check they simply WILL take over.

So for awhile I was thinking: O.k., maybe we allow the Ten Commandments in the courtroom (despite the bogus arguments in favor of it), keep 'In God We Trust' on the cash, permit organized prayer at football games, whatever. Many conservative Christians have somehow gotten it into their heads that the country is actively anti-Christian, and these things seem very important to them--and often seem not so important to me--so perhaps making these concessions would reassure them and let us all move on to more important issues. Sure, the message is clear in all those cases: you atheists aren't real Americans. But, what the heck? I'm a big boy. I could live with that.

But I was wrong. As James Madison pointed out, although having, e.g., a representation of Moses in the Supreme Court is not by itself a big deal, the real danger is that it could be used as a fulcrum by those who would try to force more religion into public life. He was, as usual, right on the mark; those who want to post the Ten Commandments in courtrooms frequently point to that representation of Moses (and to 'In God We Trust' on our money) as evidence that it's permissible to mix religion and government. They use these examples as beach heads from which to launch more significant attacks on American principles of government.

It really is true in this case that if we give an inch, they'll take a mile.

This puts us in an awkward position. If we fail to make a big deal out of seemingly insignificant issues, then we are greasing the rails for more religious intrusion into government. But if we do make a big deal out of such issues, we seem petty or churlish or anti-religious. So the trick, I suppose, is to adopt the latter strategy but make it abundantly clear at every point why we are doing what we are doing, and that it is NOT, in fact, because we are anti-religion.

Heck, atheist that I am, even I'm not particularly anti-religion, and have much more in common with intelligent, liberal religious types than I have with, say, the American Atheists or with certain unreflectively physicalistic/naturalistic scientists. In fact, more and more I think that it's fundamentalism in its various guises that's the problem, not religion per se. I expect, in fact, that there are many good things about many religions.

So long as they are kept out of government, anyway.

Finally got around to adding local gadfly tvd's new blog Philosodude to the blogroll. Although tvd (The 'Dude? P-Doody?) and I disagree about lots of conclusions, that's not how I tend to identify my intellectual allies. I consider anybody who shares a commitment to reason, open-mindedness and dispassionate inquiry an ally. Method is of primary importance, specific conclusions not. I used, for example. I consider John McCain a kindred political spirit, though I disagree with lots of his positions. Richard Rorty and I agree on most specific policy conclusions, I think, but I consider him a non-ally.

Anyway, give him some traffic--and some trouble--if you please. He deserves props for expending so much energy trying to keep me honest--a full-time job if there ever was one.

Rock on, 'Dude.
Little Help?: Vacation Destination Suggestions Please!

Let me take a little break from spouting half-baked, ill-informed bullshit to ask y'all for some help. Apparently Mr. Quest, JQ's male parental unit, has an excess of frequent-flyer miles, and has offered to give us two tickets basically to anywhere from Hawaii to Europe. (Well, he actually also suggested Bora Bora, so maybe Hawaii isn't really the westernmost boundary.) Now, I haven't been many places (Greece twice, Paris 1.5 times, Madrid)--in fact, I haven't even seen the western U.S--so that leaves lots of options... We'd wanted to go to Peru and hike to Machu Picchu, but for various reasons that's been ruled out. Anyway, we're brainstorming now but have to decide soon, so any "dude, you've GOT to check out..."s will be appreciated. (Er, keep in mind, she's a grad student and I'm a mere professor at a university that pays even less well than most universities, so economy is something of a consideration.)

(Incidentally, we like everything from hiking to laying around drinking decadently on the beach, so we're really looking for coolness of any kind--historical, archaeological, natural, whatever.)

(Extra points for anyone who can help me convince JQ that the very best use of our tix would be to fly out to Utah and mountain bike for two weeks...)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Little Green Footballs and Desecrating the Flag

Dunno whether you know about a wildly amusing site called "Little Green Footballs." Oh, man, it's a hoot. In a we're all going to die because humans are so stupid kind of way...

Anyway, if you have nothing better to do with your life, go check out the comments on this story about a radical Islamist group stepping on and tearing up an American flag.

These morons (the flag-stomping ones, not the anti-flag-stomping ones) have picked a great time for this little stunt. I'm sure it'll be used by the Republicans for their annual July 4th effort to undermine the First Amendment by passing the anti-flag-burning amendment.

I've often said that virtually the only thing that would ever prompt me to burn the flag would be passage of anti-flag-burning laws. Needless to say, I hope it doesn't come to that.

I've suggested in the past that we should establish a national sign-up list now of people who will burn the flag if and only if such laws are passed. We need to get a sufficiently large number of people to commit to this ahead of time, making it clear to the anti-free-expression crowd that there is no way they could arrest all of us.
Cross-Burnings in Durham

I haven't commented on the recent cross-burnings in Durham, primarily because (a) I figured that everybody knew about them and (b) I didn't think there was anything interesting to be said about them. But then I realized that I wasn't even sure that they'd made the national news.

The reaction around these parts was fairly predictable to anyone familiar with the area. There was plenty of outrage, manifested in large part at candle-light vigils and suchlike. (Although we're really talking about Durham here, let me just mention that you shouldn't move to Chapel Hill if you don't like candle-light vigils. They're the all-purpose response to just about everything.)

A relatively wide variety of responses to something like this are reasonable, of course, so one doesn't want to be too critical; but, for what it's worth, the responses were often a bit teary for my taste. Sometimes it seemed like the consensus response went something like this:

Oh, this is an unimaginable tragedy! (sob) Let us join hands and weep together. We shun hatred here! Hey, hey, ho, ho, racial insensitivity's got to go!

Whereas my preferred response was a little more like:

Jesus Christ, what kind of fucking idiot would do something that damn stupid? These morons need a good ass-kicking.

Don't get me wrong, I love living in a liberal area. The thought of having to go back to living in the conservative hinterlands fills me with dread. But liberals can sometimes just be so wimpy and whiny. You know what I'm talkin' about. They go out of their way to show how sensitive they are, how easily they are offended, how delicate are their sensibilities. Sometimes that's merely annoying, but other times it's actually harmful. In this case, I worry that it was harmful. If the cross-burners wanted to rattle people, then hyperbolic emotionalism plays right into their hands.

As always, I could be wrong about this. Just my $0.02.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On the (Epistemic and Possibly Moral) Obligation to Smoke Marijuana

It is obviously morally permissible to smoke marijuana. No decent arguments have ever been produced to the contrary, so there's no need for us to spend much time arguing for that conclusion. Marijuana is no more harmful that cigarettes or alcohol (and, in fact, probably a lot less harmful than either), and there is no serious debate about the permissibility of the responsible use of those substances. (It might be worth noting that irresponsible use of those substances--using a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer per day, driving under the influence, etc.--like pretty much everything else that's irresponsible, is wrong. But that could go without saying.)

Much conservative moral thinking puts one in mind of an old witticism about the Soviet Union (told by the citizens/subjects thereof): that which was not forbidden was mandatory. Non-libertarian conservatives (like many left-wing extremists) have never been comfortable with the concept of permissibility. To note that something is merely permissible but non-obligatory seems to strike them as smacking of moral slackness. They like do this's and do that's; they don't like either would be fines.

I don't want to promote that perverse way of thinking, so don't read what follows in that spirit. The most important point to make about smoking marijuana is that it's morally permissible, period. Like casual sex, it's something that is pleasurable and does not cause significant expected harm if engaged in responsibly. And unjust puritanical laws against it do nothing to change its moral status.

But it may be the case that there are, in fact, moral or epistemic reasons in favor of smoking marijuana. First the obvious moral one: If a government makes an unjust law, we may have a responsibility to break it even if we don't have any antecedent reason to do so. I don't like playing poker. However, if the government passed a law against it, you can be sure that I'd take it up. I wouldn't react that way, of course, if the law made sense. I don't murder people, for example. I've gone long periods of time without smoking marijuana, and actually felt kind of guilty about it. I imagine that if Tom Paine and Sam Adams were alive today, they'd have a hit, too, just to stick it to the man for his anti-American authoritarianism.

More interestingly, perhaps, are the epistemic reasons for smoking. I used to think that all that teaching of Don Juan-type stuff was unmitigated crap. For many years, I smoked weed just because I liked it, and mercilessly ridiculed anyone who claimed that any epistemic advantages attached to the use of drugs. A few years ago, my attitude changed. I started smoking with a philosophically-inclined friend of mine, and came to realize that I could sometimes have interesting insights under the influence of marijuana that I simply would not otherwise have had. Now I frequently keep a small notebook handy when I'm stoned, and I go over the notes the next day. About four out of five ideas are stupid or uninteresting or incoherent or unreadable as a result of having had beer Kool-Aid spilled on them. But about one out of five is interesting enough to keep thinking about. That's a pretty darned good record.

Of course there are cognitive disadvantages to being stoned. It's not a time to attempt careful logical thought. It's a time for brainstorming and gestalt shifts. It's a time to synthesize, not analyze. Of course if we only had two options (a) stay straight forever or (b) get stoned forever, anyone who chose (b) would be a lunatic. (As would anyone who chose to sit in philosophy classes forever.) But those aren't the options. Marijuana allows one to take a brief excursion into a slightly different cognitive realm, a place where things look just a bit different.

This is not a minor advantage. One of man's greatest cognitive failings is that he gets stuck fairly deeply in cognitive ruts fairly early in his life (note that an inordinate number of thinkers do their best work while they are young). Anything that can help us to break out of those ruts is to be cherished. Aside from the tendency to blindly accept government restrictions, perhaps the only thing that prevents people from fully appreciating this advantage conferred by some drugs is a puritanical opposition to coping a buzz. If GlaxoSmithKlein developed a drug tomorrow that had the cognitive effects of marijuana but no attendant euphoria, taking it would soon become a kind of sacrament.

Ah, look at the time. It's 4:15. Time for me to go.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Reasoning and Government Control: a Wee Survey

Help me out on this. Suppose that there were some activity--suppose it was a form of meditation--which left one rather disoriented for an hour or so, but also allowed one to have ideas that one would not have had had one not engaged in the activity.

Now, it would be wrong to do anything requiring clear thought and good coordination during the disorientation period, but that could go without saying. Suppose also that many of the ideas that one had during this activity were crap, but that some few of them were worthwhile. The crap ones could be easily discarded, but you'd still be left with some good ideas that you would not otherwise have had.

Now suppose that the government outlawed the activity in question, even going so far as to throw people in jail for engaging in it.

Would the government be acting reasonably or not?
The Downing Street Memo and Bush Prevarication Timeline

I was wondering when the right was going to give up and quit pretending to believe that Bush didn't lie about the WMD evidence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Then came the Deep Throat revelations and I was surprised to realize that there are still crypto-Nixonites out there...

One trick to being a good partisan or a good lying politician is to never, ever, ever admit that you lied, no matter how clear the evidence becomes. Karl Rove has this strategy down cold, as do the Reagan partisans who still deny even the wrongness of Iran-Contra. (Johnson basically admitted that he lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, but people don't seem to give enough of a damn about that nevertheless.)

At any rate, here for you amusement/angrification is a prevarication timeline from Think Progress (via Atrios). The addition of the Downing Street Memo to our evidential base will, of course, be irrelevant to those who have decided to ignore the evidence, but as for the rest of us, it's comforting to know that we weren't crazy during the Great Kabuki Show of 2003. I, for one, kept looking around frantically during the build-up to the war thinking "Am I nuts? Isn't this an obvious put-up job? But lots of people seem to be acting like this all makes sense... Christ, I must be losing it..."

No, we weren't losing it. All those red staters who took the blue pill and allowed life to go on as before, blissfully averting their gaze from the heinous logical and moral sins that stared them in the face, living in the fantasy world in which the president was honest and virtuous...well, I suppose there's little to be done for them.

As for us, what can we do? I'd suggest, first, that we renew our own resolve to never allow ourselves to be herded along like credulous sheep to accept such a mistaken, pre-ordained conclusion. Some day a liberal president will try to do the same thing. Let's hope we acquit ourselves better than did our conservative friends. Second, we can't let people forget what really happened. As with the bogus deification of Ronald Reagan, we've got to fight the inevitable attempts to spin tales about Bush's honesty and virtue, and fight the attempts by the conservative Ministry of Truth to re-write the history of the war.

That is, we have to tell the truth. And re-tell it, and re-tell it and re-tell it. Tell it as many times as they tell the lies. The evidence is on our side in these matters, but we have to speak it, or it will sit there mutely, overwhelmed by finely-honed, oft-repeated lies.

Remember Orwell:
"That the truth is great and will prevail is a prayer rather than an axiom."
Muqtedar Khan on Koran Desecration

Thanks to Statisticasaurus Rex for this other view of Koran desecration.

I'm still not even close to buying this view of the severity of the acts. It's a tough one, and I haven't thought about it nearly enough, but what we seem to have here is a case in which group A reveres a certain type of object and group B does not. It's like a case in which I revere frisbees and you don't Now, you might choose to be polite and humor me, but, given that you clearly recognize that there's nothing particularly special about frisbees, if my demands become too shrill or onerous or irrational, you can't really be expected to go along with them. As I said before, it might be prudent for us to humor the Islamic world on this one, but I doubt that we have a moral obligation to do so.

If we went out of our way to "desecrate" the book--e.g. by intentionally burning it or urinating on it--then that would be an intentional insult, and I think they'd be justified in getting pissed off. On the other hand, if they really want to demand that we all carry the thing around with gloves on...well, forget about it. It's simply an unreasonable request so far as I can tell.

Perhaps this is a decent analogy: I can reasonably demand that you not call my mother insulting names, but I cannot reasonably demand that you call her "the revered Donna Jean."

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Raptors of the (Other) Lost Ark

This, this,'s...oh, words fail one, do they not? Oh wonder...oh joy...oh (snicker) rapture! I stand in awe of the sublimity of this. Please, please, please somebody make the movie!

(Um, as you probably realize, many still-articulated dinosaur skeletons do have their necks craned far back over their backs, but that's from post-mortem drying/shrinking of ligaments. The attack-on-the-Ark hypothesis is way cooler, though! Boring old facts! Curse ye! (but isn't there a group somewhere that self-consciously "accepts" hypotheses based not on the strength of evidence but, rather, on the basis of how interesting they are? They gotta accept the Ark one!))

[Via Pandagon]
Our Rights Do Not Come From God
Why We May Be Obligated To Impeach George W. Bush

I don't read blogs much these days--a strategy a recommend to you as well, friend reader. And I'm not following the news with my usual fervor these days... But I can't believe I either missed or forgot about this:

Apparently the President has claimed that he will (only???) appoint judges who believe that our rights issue from God. (Er, yes, I do realize that NewsMax is not an actual news source, but I also heard this on NPR.)

Now, as others have pointed out, this sounds like a violation of Article VI of the Constitution. If Bush insists on acting in accordance with the assertion quoted above, he must be impeached. This is clearly a religious test given that it disqualifies people on the basis of their religious beliefs. Ergo if Bush employs such a test, he is in violation of the Constitution. Consequently, if he actually employs this test he must be impeached.

But not only is Bush demanding that candidates for office hold a particular philosophical/religious belief, he is demanding that they hold an incoherent one. Almost no one who has thought about the problem with any degree of care believes that human rights depend on God. The Divine Command Theory is perhaps the least plausible theory of morality known to man. Bush demanding that judges accept this incoherent theory is akin to a leftist president demanding that judges accept cultural moral relativism.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Revenge of the Sith and Bush's Rhetoric

Saw RotS. Loved RotS. Then went out and rented the first three episodes + documentary and special features. Got high and watched 'em all again.

Man, what a good story-teller George Lucas is. I saw Episodes I-III in a whole new light after having seen RotS (and those other two not-so-good ones, too I guess...)

Now, I'm not smart about movies, and I'm not knowledgable about them either. Consequently, I won't pretend to have anything very interesting to say about RotS qua movie. (Except I will say that it's a bit exhausting. No time for reflection or breath-catching in this one... It's like they came up with too many spectacular visuals to cram into one flick, but decided to fly the characters all over the Galaxy to show 'em all to you anyway.)

I WILL say that it's very funny that the right has got their collective panties in a wad about the movie. Anakin does say "If you're not with me, then you are my enemy." That is, indeed, (a) rougly equivalent to "If you're not with us, you're against us," and (b) a very dumb thing to say. But it doesn't get any dumber just because it is said by someone who is in the process of going over to the Dark Side. It's a dumbass thing to say, and it would remain a dumbass thing to say even if Yoda or Obi-Wan had said it. The right seems to be complaining that the line is put in the mouth of a bad guy...but they seem oblivious to the fact that it's not a line you could plausibly put in the mouth of a good guy. That's the kind of thing that bad and crazy guys say, and in a work of fiction--in which the characters are in large part constituted by the things they say--it is saying something like that that constitutes the character's badness. Were Yoda or Obi-Wan to say something like that, it would either constitute a major narrative SNAFU or it would be a sign that they were going over to the Dark Side.

Folks on the right should quit whining about the fact that Anakin said it, and focus on the much more important fact that BUSH said it.

But I guess I'm just again showing my true colors as a member of the reality-based community...
More on the Koran at Gitmo

Well, the Post report today seems to confirm that incidents of Koran "desecration" at Guantanamo Bay are mostly minor and accidental. In fact, if this report can be believed, then we're handling the book with more respect than the prisoners are.

I again assert that we need to be worrying about here is that people--some of them probably innocent--are being held without trial, and for years. We also need to be worried about the possibility that those people are being tortured. But, especially against the backdrop of these far more serious issues, it just doesn't seem very important to observe a bunch of complicated and nonsensical traditions about how to handle one particular book. The fact that the prisoners themselves don't seem to be following the restrictions very carefully gives us additional evidence that they aren't really that sensible or important.

As a sidebar here, I'd like to point out my favorite sentence in the WaPo story:

"The interrogator was fired for a 'pattern of unacceptable behavior, an inability to follow direct guidance and poor leadership,' according to the news release yesterday."

Apparently an ability to follow poor leadership has evolved from simply being the norm in America to being an outright requirement for employment by the government...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Krauthammer Gets Something Right???
And: What Are Our Obligations to the Superstitions of Others?

Usually the following is a fairly safe epistemic strategy: find out what Charles Krauthammer thinks, then think the opposite. But in this op-ed, I think he gets something substantially right. (The NYT link generator is down, so I don't know how long that link will work.)

Well, first I should note that Krauthammer dismisses most of the charges of abuse at Guantanamo Bay with a wave of his hand. That's irrational, and we don't want to follow him there. Many of the reports are probably false, but we don't know which ones yet. Krauthammer and his ilk can't be trusted on such topics as they are far too willing to exonerate the U.S. These are the same folks who compared the sexual abuse at Abu Graib to fraternity pranks...

But as for the more-or-less confirmed abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Krauthammer is right. Minor abuses of the Koran simply aren't a big deal. As Krauthammer points out, in the cosmic scheme of war crimes, this ranks just above jaywalking.

Of course one might argue that only those who revere the Koran can determine how severe is the crime of mishandling it, but this raises serious philosophical problems. Offense isn't something that can only be judged by the reactions of the offended. Even these reactions must be subject to criticism by reason. At some point, such reactions become irrational. If, for example, I am extraordinarily offended by other people touching the tops of their heads, I'm just going to have to learn to live with it. You might choose to humor me, but you are under no obligation to do so.

Questions about how to treat religious paraphernalia are weird and difficult. Some of my acquaintances are Christian, and some of them think that the Bible is the infallible word of God, and that it must always be spoken of with respect. I think it's an old book, one of many old books, more interesting than some but less interesting than others, and that it deserves only the respect deserved by any book. From my perspective, the person who thinks that the Bible deserves special respect is no more rational than the person who thinks that The Amazing Spider Man #1 deserves special respect. In fact, I own a copy of the Koran, and I can guarantee you I've mishandled it. Like most of my other books, it has sometimes ended up on the floor, and it's definitely been carried around in one hand, and handled ungloved. And I don't feel the least bit bad about this.

Now, because I'm a weenie liberal in many ways, I tend to show non-Christian religions more deference than Christianity. That ain't rational, but it's true. Other religions haven't bugged the crap out of me and thrust their most irrational doctrines in my face ever since I was born. Consequently, other religions don't trigger the same ire in my that Christianity does. But it's important to try to control these differential reactions, and be equally tough on Christianity and Islam.

I ask myself: what if some sect of Christians made these demands on us about the handling of the Bible? How seriously would I take these requests and violations thereof?

Not very, I'm afraid. If someone has a superstitious view about the status of an ancient book, that puts no special obligation on me. Under some conditions I might choose to humor them, but I have no obligation to do so. In this case we might have some prudential interest in handling the Koran in a traditionally acceptable way--we might, for example, hope to avoid making the Islamic world hate us even more. But that doesn't mean that we would be doing something moral wrong by "mis"handling it.

But these issues are hard, and there's no way to deal with them effectively in a blog post. The source to go to on such points is Joel Feinberg's Offense to Others. But it's going to take a lot to convince me that we're committing crimes by handling the Koran in non-traditional ways.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Watergate, Bush, and the Return of the Imperial Presidency

One goal of the Bush administration has been to rebuild the "imperial presidency." So far, they've done a good--by which I mean effective--job.

Now the gods send us a sign, in the guise of the revelation of the identity of Deep Throat. But what could they possibly be trying to tell us? It's a mystery...

Felt is a real American hero. He'd have been more heroic, of course, if he'd really done what he should have done and gone public, but he did enough.

I think about Watergate with some frequency. It was the first major political event I remember. I remember that it was always on TV, daytime, nighttime... When we were working on the farm our practice was usually to come in after the cows were milked, after it was dark, eat, and then sit around in the dark watching the (black and white!) television. I was a kid, and just couldn't understand what was going on. They seemed to be INVESTIGATING THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! But how could this be? The PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES was always good and George Washington. My family's analysis of the situation was invariably that "everybody did it, he just got caught." What IT was, and how that could possibly be a defense against doing it, were beyond me...

Anyway, Watergate is my first real political memory. Iran-Contra constitutes a kind of centerpiece of my political awareness. After that, then, came the relentless, rabid attempt to crush Bill Clinton--almost certainly the best president of my conscious lifetime--the virtual theft of the 2000 election, and the trumped-up case for the invasion of Iraq.

I was raised non-partisan, taught not to become overly-attached to either party...and the Democrats, God love 'em, make that easier than they have to... But how, I ask you, can anyone who has been paying attention to American politics over the last thirty-odd years trust the Republicans? The Democrats have a fairly wide stripe of sleaze running down their backs, but come on...they're amateurs by comparison, and that's something I think we've got to keep firmly in mind. The Dems are far from perfect, but that doesn't mean that the two parties are equally bad.

Anyway, this Watergate-oriented blast from the past provides us with an opportunity for reflection--about the character of the two parties, about the kind of presidency we want, and about the dangers of secrecy and vindictiveness in politics.

It's also worth remembering that a large number of Americans continued to support Nixon, despite his obvious dishonesty, until the evidence against him was undeniable.