Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Must Read: Conor Friedersdorf on the 2012 Election, Civil Liberties, and Thinking like Grown-Ups

Please read this (read it now--it's only like three paragraphs).

I've been trying to put thoughts together on these two points for a long time, but just haven't been able to write anything good. One point I've made before, but not nearly enough:
A. We cannot let the insanity of conservative opposition to Obama blind us to his actual failures.

And, more to the point:
B. Obama's failures are extremely serious; specifically, these failures concern civil rights and the limits on Presidential power.
 Point A:
You might think that A is so obvious that folks like us should not even make the error. But, first, to think that is to ignore some obvious facts about human psychology. And, second, it ignores complexities surrounding tu quoque arguments in political debates, especially in a two-party system. No, in a cool hour it should not matter to us that a significant sector of the American right has, in effect, gone insane. The fact that some have seriously wondered whether Obama might be the Antichrist should not affect our honest efforts at non-insane judgment about his presidency.

But CF goes on to say that his vote is the GOP's to lose in '12. I say that's a bit daft. The crazies we're trying to ignore are the very crazies that the GOP's '12 candidate will have been selected to appease. This does not mean that, in our adult assessment of Obama, we should let ourselves be swayed by our contempt for the crazies. It does mean that only someone who is foolishly optimistic should think that the GOP is likely to field a better candidate than Obama in '12. Still, the main point holds: we can't let the craziness of the crazies push us to defend Obama where he is indefensible.

Point B:
The real issue--civil rights and Presidential power. On this point, I have nothing to say...and that's why I haven't said it. I've watched Obama's policies unfold with horror and disbelief. I suppose I'm gripped by an optimism and/or a credulity that is as powerful as CF's. The hypothesis that forced itself to the forefront of my consciousness goes like this: Obama knows that the GOP can win by playing the soft-on-terrorism card, and is virtually guaranteed a win in '12 if there's another attack; he's waiting until after '12 to start cleaning up this mess. But this is the most arrant speculation, and obviously so.

Finally, I'm paralyzed by my strong belief in the following proposition:
In general, the GOP f*cks things up, and the Dems are too wimpy to stop them; but, in general, the Dems are less inclined to take the lead in f*cking things up.
The GOP has gone insane, the Dems are feckless wimps. (That's the story of the Iraq war, the story of the Patriot Act...the story of the last 15 years in American politics IMHO...) I expect this trend to continue. I expect that in '12, we'll face typical candidates--GOP candidates who will be inclined to make things lots worse, Dem candidates who aren't (but who won't be inclined to make things all that much better). And I'll go with the lesser of the two evils.

But, also, I can rationally hold out hope that Obama will do the right thing when his re-election is secure. My alternative is likely to be someone like Mike Huckabee, who inspires no such hope in me. And, of course, other option might be someone who is monumentally unqualified to be President of the United States--or, for that matter, Governor of Alaska.

So, for right now, my vote is Obama's to lose...but on all other points, I am very much in agreement with CF.


Blogger Montag said...

hard for me to say which party, if either, is less inclined to consolidate executive branch power without deference to civil rights.

the nicest(?) thing i can say about the Dems is that when they fuck things up, it seems more discordant with their rhetoric than when the GOP does it.

the Obama administration just seems like another step in keeping the mechanisms of government aligned with the ambitions of powerful interests. to me, some sort of 2nd term conversion seems beyond hope.

(if he wanted to clean this mess up, and he thought he could do it all in 4 years, why worry about a 2nd term at all?)

3:20 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...


Well said -- and thank you for the link.

I, like you, consider my vote as Obama's to lose. To lose it he would have to (somehow) appear to be more dangerous to our nation than his Republican challenger. Given the list of Republican challengers today, this is extremely unlikely.

However, given Mr. Obama's apparent embrace of the abuses of presidential power started by his predecessor, I can only consider his re-election to be the lesser of two evils. And, as per Fred Clark, I believe that:
The least evil is still evil. The least monstrous is still monstrous.

When, as will happen, you are yourself forced to choose between two bad things, then choose the lesser of the evils and choose it boldly. That will be the right choice and, if circumstances are truly as circumscribed as you believe them to be, that will be the right thing to do in that situation.

But it still won't be a good thing. It isn't a good thing and cannot be made good.

When history perversely forces us to break the rules, then we must break the rules. Violate them. But we must not then pretend that this was not a violation. We must not say that the rule did not apply or that the rule does not exist or that there are no rules.

Broken rules must be mended. They must be rebuilt and reasserted with more vigor than before. This is why we say "never again," even though every time we say it we are soon proven wrong.

Because next time we're going to need that rule more than ever. And there will be a next time. There have already been many next times -- many next times in which the rule has been honored and many next times in which the rule has been broken yet again.

The rule he referred to in his post of Aug. 9 was "It is always impermissible to deliberately target non-combatants with a weapon of mass destruction." But, his words apply equally to the rules set forth in the Constitution of the United States.

And, should there be a third party candidate who
a) Campaigns for the restoration of the rule of law, and
b) Appeared to have even a ghost of a chance of winning,
then that candidate will get my support.

I'm not holding my breath.


4:13 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Excuse me for asking, but what, exactly has Obama done that so egregiously offends our civil liberties sensibilities? I get that he hasn't exactly rolled back the PATRIOT act or anything, but has he done something(s?) horrible of which I am unaware?

I've been kinda limiting my exposure to politics lately, so I may very well simply not know what's going on.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Frederick said...

Here in is but oen example...


2:13 PM  
Blogger Montag said...

yeah, the pre-trial prolonged solitary confinement (read: torture) of Bradley Manning.

he's also claimed to have the power to order the assassination of anyone, including American citizens, without trial, oversight, or any sort of disclosure.

these are just a couple of the more horrible examples. there is also this type of thing in the works:

9:28 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

Obummer is an awful, awful human being. just awful. dePLORable. I wouldn't shake his hand.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's a really stupid thing to say, of course.

10:09 AM  
Blogger El Serracho! said...

obviously, obama, like most americans, is indeed a truly deplorable human being. he has a taste for power and little else.


6:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Wonder where these people are coming from?

7:23 PM  
Blogger El Serracho! said...

just friends of friends who follow your blog. we're nobody special. :-)

8:44 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I was really wondering where the sudden spate of "Obama is the civil rights Antichrist" stuff was coming from... I mean, as the post shows, I'm more than a little...and more than a lot...concerned... But why the hyperbolic "he is evil" stuff?

9:09 AM  
Blogger El Serracho! said...

hmmm never said evil. i do find that, based on his actions (vs. his campaign slogans), he is something to be disgusted by. he has taken the bush dream of absolute power in the executive branch places bush never went.

he has sought, and received, the authority to execute anyone. anywhere. based on his say so and nothing else.

if that isn't deplorable, i'll have to hit the dictionary to find out what that really means.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, in response to Montag, I certainly would not agree that "all is opinion," if 'opinion' there means mere opinion.

In response to el S., I'd point out that advocating a deplorable policy doesn't necessarily make someone a deplorable human being...and it's clearly false to say that Obama "has a taste for power and little else". It's also false to say that most Americans are like that.

Why exaggerate in these ways rather than focus on the facts: the policies are alarming and probably indefensible. If so, then those seem to be errors by a president who generally has the right positions.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Montag said...

i won't talk past you again on Obama. but to take up the tangent about opinion, i'll concede as an amateur "philosopher," that i'm prone to using wrong terminology.

but i meant opinion in the sense that "Opinion is the primary material of all communication," and so we have the truth (the true contents of the president's mind, his true ambitions and intentions,) about which we communicate.

opinions (about the truth) as representations without truth.

feel free to scoff.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

Why exaggerate in these ways rather than focus on the facts: the policies are alarming and probably indefensible. If so, then those seem to be errors by a president who generally has the right positions.

at what point and in what way shape or form are these "errors" not his policies? Gitmo and drone bombings of civilians in Afghanistan are what, errors? they are not. they are the logical outcome of Obama's own policies and decisions. what, Obama is simply along for the ride? I thought he was the President.

at what point do you look in the mirror and realize you are delusional?

1:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Sorry, Mr. Fundie, but I'm not the delusional one here.

You fail to stick to the proposition at issue. No one claimed they were not O's policies. The claim was that we do not yet have sufficient grounds to claim things like "he is evil," "he only cares about power," and other such extravagances.

It's a bad idea to pretend that Obama has acted optimally. It's also a bad idea to pretend that he's acted evilly. He entered office, policy-wise, in the midst of a tragedy of errors. It would have been easy to have never opened Gitmo...but once it's there, it's not as easy to get rid of it. I'm frankly surprised that he hasn't done more, but I can't yet see any good reason to jump to conclusions like "he keeps Gitmo open because he approves of it."

A little sanity here, please.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Let's keep that no looniness policy in mind folks...

9:07 AM  
Blogger Agi said...

Obama 4 Change!

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

listen, professor, you have to wonder about the internal moral landscape of such a person. you can't not! yet you remain agnostic. look at the evidence: he's nearly quadrupled the troop levels in Afghanistan, drone strikes and incursions into Pakistan are up, as are civilian casualties, he hasn't done squat about Gitmo, his secretary of state is family friends with the Egyptian autocrat. if anything his nonchalance shows a more severe case of sociopathy than the previous President, who at least acknowledged the deaths and turmoil he created. Obama is a stone cold killer, if you ask me. murder in the first!

11:49 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Whew. I thought you were serious before. Now I see you're kidding.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

it's simple really. Obama knew going in that he was going to be responsible for killing innocent people, because that is what the Presidency is about, like part of the job description. therefore he is awful.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I was going to write: "You do realize, of course, that that argument is not even in the vicinity of even minimal reasonableness..." ...when I realized that there is simply no way that you're serious about it.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Montag said...

Obama is a product of deterministic circumstance just like the rest of us. he's a member of the ruling class, in the sense that, and this is cribbed from comments elsewhere:

"The ruling class comprises those people who have their own independent means of survival, while the ruled is everyone forced to work for them.

"The salient thing about the ruling class though is that it’s a class, not a conspiracy. It arises and perpetuates itself not according to some Plan scrawled in goat’s blood in a musty grimoire somewhere, but inevitably out of certain blindly deterministic functions of economics/psychology/etc… There’s no capstone to the economic pyramid, no one ultimately pulling the strings. The system is such that the strings pull themselves. Everyone, no matter how high up they might seem to us, is replaceable, because it’s the machine that’s immortal."

still, i think "awful" and "deplorable" are fair, and "evil" is certainly debatable. but the guy's just doing his job.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

of course I'm serious about this. I don't think that there is anything that can be done about it, it is the nature of the beast.

my point stands. I'd like to read what you have to say about it.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

What I say about it is: no one could possibly assert that claim seriously. The errors are so obvious that there's simply no way you could not see them. So I conclude this is a bit of humorous trolling...

10:16 AM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...


look, you fucker, I'm serious AND sincere: give me a primer, an outline to guide me back to your version of sanity. show me the error of my ways. I'm trying to get what you're getting at so that I can maybe communicate with you in a reasonable way.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

First, you'll need to keep a civil keyboard under your fingers. But I understand your pique given my responses...but I honestly didn't think you could be serious.

Your proposed principle seems to be:

Anyone who undertakes a task knowing that his actions will result in the deaths of innocent people is a terrible person.

But I'm not sure how you can fail to recognize the mind-bogglingly large number of counterexamples to this principle. Every doctor knows that he will, in the course of his career, cause the death of innocent people (that is: he will kill people who would have otherwise lived). In particular, every President of the U.S. knows that he will cause the deaths of innocents. In even more particular, every war-time President knows this. Washington knew it. Lincoln knew it. Roosevelt and Truman knew it. But none of those people were terrible people.

The same, of course, goes for Obama.

Anyone who thinks that Obama is a terrible person is daft. He may be misguided, he may not be a moral exemplar, he may have bad policies, he may not be as good a person as he seems, etc., etc.

But it's as clear as it could possibly be that he is not a terrible person.

Even Bush--who may very well be a bad person--is bad in a complicated way; he's probably not a *terrible* person. (Cheney, on the other hand...)

7:54 AM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

a doctor swears an oath to do no harm when he starts out. . .I don't think that is what Obama swore when taking office. he knew he was going to be responsible for killing people deliberately. he is awful.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thing is, that point does nothing to undermine the point I make in the previous comment. What you've provided there is (1) a gesture at an invalid response, and (2)the mere repetition of your claim. Of course neither of those things carries any logical weight. So, as it stands, your case fails. I don't see any way to get around that, either. I can't think of any way to defend your position--it seems pretty clearly hopeless. That's why I thought you couldn't be serious about it.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Montag said...

i won't call it a straw man, but "Anyone who undertakes a task knowing that his actions will result in the deaths of innocent people is a terrible person," which yes, has many counterexamples, kind of loses it's luster if we consider the specifics of the case under discussion:

1. Obama undertook the task of being President of the United States knowing that his actions in that capacity, barring a repudiation of several (most?) existing policies, would result in all manner of bad things, including the deaths of many innocent people.

ok, so this isn't enough to jump directly to 'therefore he's a terrible person.'

2. since becoming president, Obama has continued and expanded existing policies, (that result in bad things, including deaths of innocent people,) and has instituted even more of his own.

chief among these are claims of "legitimate" power to indefinitely detain, harshly interrogate and assassinate, for the duration of a foggily defined, open-ended war, beyond any sort of meaningful oversight.

Obama sought to be president in order to wield power, and while i suppose it depends on how one judges the thing mentioned above, in my view, there is a very strong argument that he is using the power of his presidency to do evil things.

what makes this guy tick? what does his "internal moral landscape" look like? does he do evil things out of some sense of Nation? for profit? for personal gain? then he himself is evil.

is Obama making some kind of play to get into a position where he can then turn around and make everything right? isn't it incredibly shortsighted to keep these particular instruments of "legitimate" state power in place, whether or not he intends to exercise them himself, for all future presidents? then he's deplorable. he's a George Lucas character.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Unlike Mr. Fundamental's arguments, these are worth taking seriously--hence my post.

To conclude that Obama is evil, or "a George Lucas character" seems pretty crazy to me...it goes far beyond any evidence we actually have, and is inconsistent with things we have very good reason to believe about the guy.

But it's very puzzling and troubling...what's he going to do? Is he *ever* going to come out against the "Patriot" act? Is he *ever* going to start dismantling/rolling back the insane expansions of governmental/presidential power that we got under Bush and Cheney?

I just don't know what's going on with the guy...

1:39 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

Obama has ordered people to their deaths, for no good reason. he is a cold blooded murderer, and an awful person.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Repeating the same false and unsupported claim over and over again does not change the fact that it is false and unsupported. I've already explained why your claim doesn't make any sense. There are all sorts of reasons to worry about Obama's record on the matters under discussion. But I'm not going to let this blog turn into a platform for rabid, irrational anti-Obama hysteria. There are plenty of places--e.g. FeeRepublic, RedState, etc.--for that.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

I wasn't looking for a perfect little nugget of pristine logic on the matter, bubs. and yet the evidence that Obama is rotten keeps coming in. here is another data point.

Obama sought the office of the Presidency of the United States, which is kind of specific. maybe someday America will be a much kinder, gentler nation, but he wanted the reigns of the world's largest, strongest and wealthiest military/nation. . .and he is the Commander in Chief. the Chief Executing Officer. oh wait, Chief Executive Officer. sorry. you can't dress up the fact that America is what it is, and that he wanted to do something with it other than dismantle the American systems of oppression, both at home and abroad. it's like, he understands that marijuana is fine and many, many Americans use it, and it's really not bad for you, but once he takes office, he has to fall in line behind the Official rhetoric that marijuana is the devil weed, the gateway drug, ad inf. he had no choice when he took office that he had to do some nasty, illogical, insensitive, beastly, dastardly things. but he sought that position. hell, he has deported more people than Bush. he has tripled troop levels in Afghanistan. extralegal detentions continue unabated. the drug war grinds on. so on and so forth.

he has clearly taken the little red white and blue pill and accepted the "American teleology that posits our rise to great power status as the necessary forward progress of history and our maintenance of total primacy over the rest of the world as the central reason for our being."

he is an awful man who knew he was going to do some evil fucking shit once he assumed the throne. he is the most powerful man on the planet. go from there.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


As I've already shown, your central claim is false. It is not true that one is evil if one takes a job knowing that it will entail being responsible for the deaths of innocents. Everyone who takes the job of President knows he will be responsible for the death of innocents; everyone who becomes a doctor knows that.

The fact is that all you can hope to do if you take the office is to minimize the number of innocent deaths that are going to happen. Now, people might disagree about whether or not Obama has done that...but that's a different point. The reason your argument is unsound is that it is based on the false principle discussed above.

Has Obama acted optimally? Not according to me he hasn't. But tripling the number of troops in Afghanistan does not prove that--that was the right move. Iraq was an unjust and stupid war; Afghanistan is not. 9/11 was used as a false pretext for war; 9/11 was a genuinely good reason for going into Afghanistan.

One of your major confusions concerns the nature of real policy choice. Although we shouldn't have gone into Iraq, a President who comes into office with us already in Iraq has different options than does the President who invades. Even if you think that we shouldn't have gone into Afghanistan, any sensible person should recognize that one does not have to be evil in order to think that pulling out abruptly is the worse of two bad options.

Two final points: if you're talking about the deportation of illegal aliens, then, again, Obama is doing nothing wrong. People in the country illegally should be deported, and would be deported whether Obama was in office or not.

Finally, Obama has made it clear that he does *not* believe in the objectionable version of American exceptionalism you attribute to him.

So far as I can see, you're wrong on all counts, and clearly so.

Which is not to say that I am happy about Obama's approach to all the policies at issue, because I'm not...er...Bubs...

If you're not looking for logical argument--and I can see you aren't--then I don't think this is the blog for you...

12:18 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Mr.Fundamental said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Alright, dumbshit. Sophomoric reasoning is one thing, but that last puerile outburst earns you a permanent ban.

Go elsewhere.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Montag said...

Is he *ever* going to come out against the "Patriot" act?


though 3 years sets him up to turn against it at the end of a potential second term.

word verification = "reigns" LULZ!

7:53 AM  

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