Monday, September 24, 2007

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia (Demonizing Iran)

Today the consensus is that Iran is "evil", Ahmadinejad is a hate-monger and madman, Iran is an exporter of terrorism and is arming insurgents against American troops. Of course, Iran wasn't a "terrorist nation" when Reagan sold it arms, but needless to that's far too distant history for the American establishment to appreciate. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Among the ironies here: that Iran has not attacked another nation for more than a century; that the United States helped Saddam Hussein kill an incredible number of Iranians; that while the United States has persecuted a murderous war in Iraq, it sis not wars but words that Americans find so offensive. Glenn Greenwald reminds us just how stunning all of this is, especially the shameful acquiescence of the American press. Part of that acquiescence means accepting hook, line, and sinker, bogus claims to the effect that finding Iranian-made parts in IEDs means that Iran is waging war against the United States (which is to say, Iran is responsible for any smuggling across its border, when Americans have a miserable record of keeping arms away from insurgents, including U.S.-bought supplies). Add the outrageousness of the claim that Americans ought to be able to invade countries at will and then claim that they have been attacked if arms cross from a neighboring country, over the porous border that they have created, because of the chaos that they have created. Finally, need we mention that Iran supports the Shiite government in Iraq, and that Americans are almost always attacked by Sunni insurgents, not by the Shiites Iran would be supplying? Iran and United States are, ironically, essentially on the same side.

Lets refresh ourselves on recent history to appreciate the full force of all of this:

  • 1953: Eisenhower has the CIA overthrow the prime minister of Iran and install a repressive puppet regime

  • 1979: This puppet regime, the Shah, is overthrown during the Islamic Revolution

  • 1980-1988: In repayment, the United States supports Saddam Husein's war against the Iran and his use of chemical weapons ("WMDs"), which killed 500,000 to a million Iranians

  • 1987: Not afraid to play both sides against each other, worried about Saddam's strength, and needing to raise cash for other blood sports, the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran

  • 1992: Almost completing this turnaround, the United States attacks Iran's enemy, Saddam Hussein

  • 2003: Completing this turnaround and helping Iran reach its greatest point of strength, the United States removes Iran's enemy, Saddam Hussein, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displacing millions more, and effectively destroying an entire coutnry

Despite this history, the American establishment expresses no remorse for their complicity in Iranian suffering, or the recent killing of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of an entire country. They reserve all their energy for the words of Ahmadinejad--or for the highly prejudicial and arguably false translations of his words, despite the fact that Iranian Jews enjoy more rights and representation in Iran than Palestinians do in Israel. He is compared to Hitler--not, because like Bush, he is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands--but because he understandably dislikes the occupation of Palestine. And a great stir is made as to whether he should speak at Columbia--in fact, more outrage is expended by the establishment press on whether his words should be allowed on American soil than was expended over whether American bombs should fall in Iraq. And in exercising themselves about these words, they are untouched by the irony of the United States own bloody involvement in Iran, and completely unimpressed by Iran's relative pacifism in the face of all these onslaughts. They are utterly credulous towards the notion that Iran has become an "exporter of terrorism around the world" because of its natural alliance with anti-Israeli resistance or Shiite factions in Iraq; and despite the fact that al Qaeda is an enemy of Shiites and Iran; and despite the fact that this definition of Iran implicates both Reagan and Reagan Administration henchmen such as Michael Leeden as having traitorously shipped weapons to terrorists, when Iran was engaged in precisely the same types of sympathies and alliances at that time. Finally, they are not phased by the total inconsistency of American policy--the rapid and inexplicable switching of allegiances in order to foment one disastrous war after another; it takes almost no effort to bring the press and the American people to their intellectual knees--just a touch of demonization, the hint of a new enemy.

See Juan Cole for some sanity.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bush and the Primacy of the Political

Bush's speech is also a typical reflection of his utter disregard for the truth. That Petraeus' conclusions were predestined we all understand. (I've been hearing so much about "Petraeus and Crocker" that I wondered if they finally sent the Miami Vice to Iraq to put things right). Again, the Surge is designed to help Bush save face until he can pass the Iraq problem on to others, after which any failure can be blamed on political opponents. This is the real meaning of Iraq as an "engagement that extends beyond my presidency"--an unintentionally ironic remark to say the least. How brazen it is to ask us to take that farce seriously!

I think it's easy to lose site of how damaging such dishonest speeches can be: dishonesty ceases to register. The truth is no longer a "moral value". Instead of criticizing the dog and pony show for what it is--a show--the press take it seriously entirely on its own terms. They are willing to accept patently false premises--the a temporary, localized surge could have anything to do with the fate of Iraq--for the opportunity to debate its "effectiveness". It's an assault on basic critical thinking and common sense, but it's also an assault on respect for the truth. Bush can make such a speech because many Americans have lost the instinct to recoil from such bullshit. They are hardly aware of it; and that lack of awareness--of a basic capacity to think about the truth--is highly evident even among educated journalists.

Chalk this up to the primacy of the political: it's one thing for Bush's right wing worshipers feel like they understand him and his intentions; that he is a good man; that he respects "moral values"; that he is their strong charismatic leader. That just makes them gullible. But the press are gullible for the opposite reason: so cynical that they cease to expect the truth, and it no longer occurs to them to protest in the face of outrageous lies by those in power. That, after all, would destroy air of neutrality. "Neutrality" is the loophole through which any political manipulator can walk: invent a lie, no matter how absurd, and put it in the mouth of someone in a position of political power. As its documenters, the press naturally respect power; add to that respect the self-conception of fairness, and you have a "debate"--talking heads who "analyze" at length positions that rest on premises that no lone believes are true. They can look rationale as long as the framing premises are never touched. Inside that framework, everything is logical and consistent. Outside, you wonder if the world has gone mad.

An Engagement Beyond His Presidency

It's hard not to hear in optimistic stories of the "surge" the ironic evidence of the original crime, the obliteration of Iraq. Bush's speech:

  • Brazenly reminds us of the initial failure to establish security that destroyed the future of Iraq

  • Rubs salt in the wound by asking us to treat a mendacious political farce, the Surge, as a serious albeit belated attempt at establishing this security

Bush recounts how bad Anbar Province was, for instance, just a year ago--how "the local people were suffering from the Taliban-like rule of Al Qaeda" and "need to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods". He doesn't seem to grasp how odd that an American invasion subjected Iraqis, for a number of years, to a Taliban-like rule that followed a period when "chaos reigned". Nor does he talk about how astonishing it is that an American invasion--the disembarkation of the brave new democracy-bearing saviors--inaugurated this reign of chaos.

That's because Iraqi suffering is a useful tidbit in current PR campaign--no evocation is too shameful when Bush's thinks what is at stake are his comically deluded notions about establishing a legacy. The plight of Iraqis is, rather than an occasion for remorse, a domestic political opportunity: even if it means rubbing salt in the wound by illustrating the stark difference between what could have been in Iraq and what is in fact the case. Take one small area of Iraq, add some troops for a brief irrelevant time, and remind us in microcosm of what how important it was to quickly and comprehensively establish security: four-and-a-half years ago. The surge may help Bush save face, but it does not seem to touch his conscience that his cynical political ploy means dead soldiers and has no implication for the fate of Iraqis. But then they are all dying for a good cause: Bush's reputation.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Philosophers are Here to Save the Day! (Fish and Lilla on Liberalism)

Stanley Fish objects to the claim that "liberalism is not a substantive ideology but a political device that allows many ideologies to flourish." He argues that liberalism comprises a conception of the good life. That is at the same time its own faith, and one that "eviscerates" other faiths. These faiths do not fully flourish unless they have political as well as private effects--unless they can align "the affairs of the world" with their own conception of the good life. Hence religions that much such strong claims aren't really being tolerated--not in their natural forms, because truly tolerating a religion would mean instituting a theocracy in the name of that religion. Consequently, liberalism naturally involves a "close-mindedness with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred." Liberal societies tolerate "reasonable" doctrines, meaning doctrines that respect that line; but they suppress doctrines that would cross that line. Hence liberalism is "militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion ...."

Much of this is a good analysis of liberalism. Unfortunately, the conclusion that liberalism is incapable of "seeing the strong claim of religion" does not follow. Stanley Fish seems to appreciate this claim. And anyone can advocate doctrines that cross the line between secular and sacred. It is acting upon the those doctrines that is suppressed by a liberal society. Does Fish mean by "seeing the strong claim" accepting the claim outright? Rather, the suppression of the claim should not be surprising: a liberal society would cease to exist without this suppression. Demanding that a liberal society tolerate not just strong anti-liberal claims but strong anti-liberal deeds is, to use an example that Fish ought to appreciate, like Milton's Satan attempting to be greater than God: it's absurd.

Hence liberalism is "militantly secular" only trivially--i.e., to the extent that it resists forces that would militantly supplant a secular regime in favor a theocratic one. And as Fish notes, today there are many forms of religion that no longer make strong political claims and are perfectly compatible in word and deed with a liberal society. Liberalism may be its own kind of dogma, but it is certainly more tolerant of other dogmas than a standard theocracy; it allows any religious expression up to the point where acceding to the public claims of those dogmas would mean self-destruction. A radical Christian may feel frustrated that they force others to comply with their conception of the good life. But that's as good as it gets barring a collapse of the particular liberal society that prevents him from doing so. On the other hand, he may establish a community where there are private institutions, severe social sanctions, and other factors that approximate close to full expression of their strong claims. Fish is conflating several different senses of "public", and the public-private distinction is not as hard and fast as he makes it out to be. Living within a secular society may be frustrating, but it may not be entirely incompatible even with religions that would under ideal conditions see their strong claims acted upon in full.

Finally, Fish rejects--via Mark Lilla-- the alternatives of demonization and fighting war on the one hand; and conversion or finding common ground on the other. Lilla's flimsy conclusion--that we "cope"--does not really address the problem of the incompatibility of strong-claim religions and liberalism. It is a trite recommendation that we find "moments of mutual self-interest and practical accommodation".

What leads Fish and Lilla to such despair (or is it a nostalgic hope that nihilism not prevail)? The idea is that there isn't an inevitable drift towards secularization, but rather a resurgence of strong-claim religion (example du jour: radical Islam). And yet they provide no empirical evidence for the conclusion that radicalism isn't a symptom of backwardness. We have plenty of evidence to the contrary, including the history of drift towards secularization in Western societies, which Fish and Lilla wish to treat as an exception.

These days I am very wary of the claim that the "theologico-political problem", as Leo Strauss called it, is a persistent problem of tremendous importance--a "crisis" for the West--despite the evidence to the contrary. After all, this is a tremendously self-serving claim for intellectuals to make: if human beings cannot live without strong-claim religion (lest they lapse into nihilism), and such claims are incompatible with liberalism, it is philosophers who must be called into negotiate between faith and reason. We ought to be suspicious of claims that absurdly elevate the political importance of philosophers in this way. I can't help thinking that such positions reflect a secret wish on the part of philosophers that withdrawal from the world in favor of a contemplative life ultimately paradoxically contain its own heroic reversal; that philosophy turn out to be profoundly related to worldly practicalities after all; that these worldly practicalities consist of just the sort of situation that will allow them to swoop down from their ivory perches and, Prospero-like, apply a little rough magic before all is said and done.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Surge as Mythology

That there is a serious discussion of whether or not the Surge in Iraq is a success is a victory for the Bush administration. Because discussing the nature of something requires you believe it to be real. In this case it requires treating as real a complete fiction, a bit of mythology by an administration too weary even to give it the trappings of plausibility. The Bush Administration went into Iraq without enough troops and systematically destroyed the country, its infrastructure, and hence any hope of achieving its own aims. Are we really supposed to believe that anyone else believes that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again? And not by all the king's horses and men, but by just a few extra?

Of course not. Only naive Bush loyalists take this coin at face value, to wit: "but we must try, we must do our best, before we call it a day." If the Surge constituted our best effort, including a plan for military victory in Iraq (with "military victory" defined realistically), it would be worth a try. But like the initial invasion, the Surge is not a plan for military victory but a desperate attempt to shore up the dwindling credibility of the Republican party and the power of a crumbling American regime. Here's the plan for political victory, the real value of the coin:

  1. Delay withdrawal of troops from Iraq for as long as possible and create the impression of a sincere desire to "win" the war
  2. When the withdrawal of troops inevitably comes, blame Iraq as a whole on the defeatism of Democrats and war opposition

(2) can be accomplished whether it comes about as the result of a change in power (a Democratic win in '08) or some other circumstance that gets Bush off the hook. There is a waiting game that necessitates the Surge as a political strategy. How long must Bush wait before he seems sincere about Iraq, despite the beginnings of a troop withdrawal? Long enough that he looks defeated not by Iraq but by internal political opponents who have corrupted the American people. Otherwise he sacrifices the only persona that makes all this failure worthwhile: one that exudes single-minded toughness for as long as possible even in the face of the overwhelming defeatism of the majority. Bush wants out of Iraq; the question is how to save face.

This persistence is especially important in light of the fact that the stated aims of the initial invasion were obviously insincere. The administration's real goal in going to war had nothing to do with WMDs, and everything to do with political power at home and the project of power abroad. Bush adopted the neo-conservative fantasy that the middle east could be conquered and democratized; that it would be easy to begin with a weak and historically precedented target like Iraq; that democratization would reduce the threat of the "Islamist" menace and hence increase our security indirectly. This neocon delusion was coupled to a Bush administration creed: act tough and it will all work out; punish enemies, and reward friends. The United States would project power abroad; the Republican party would project power at home. The former would enable the latter. The latter was obviously a dominant objective--more important, for instance, than such boring pursuits as seeking out bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives in unseen caves where the PR of shock and awe would never see the light of day, or the death of bin Laden benefit Republicans for more than a news cycle.

The tough-guy attitude at the core of this strategy was extended to the very execution of the war: after all, tough guys are cool. They don't fret over practicalities. They just go in and kick ass with limitless American power--punch the jukebox, so to speak. The rest takes care of itself.

It's been well-documented that the Bush administration had a good chance of achieving its aims in Iraq. The administration systematically thwarted its own aims and destroyed Iraq--by using too few troops, refusing to establish basic security in the country, terrorizing the population with heavy-handed tactics, and dismantling its political and administrative infrastructure (including the army and the Ba'ath party). The competent experts who tried to stop all of this were ignored or fired and replaced with inexperienced political beneficiaries. The competence of the experts reeked of disloyalty, because it requires pushing back against hair-brained, politically motivated, and top-down policies in light of realistic facts on the ground. But tough guys don't tolerate disloyalty. The decider must be surrounded by naive followers.

It's not that Bush wanted to fail in Iraq: it's that he wanted to win on terms acceptable to the tough-guy mentality of his party. Again, his goals were not primarily military but political; not designed primarily to help Iraq or the United States, but to help establish the tough image of the Republican party. When you are conducting what is essentially a PR campaign by military means, you can't be expected to pay that much attention to the details of the military means.

This is why the concept of a "Surge" is so insulting. The Bush Administration destroyed Iraq by failing to use enough troops; denied the need for more troops during the years in which they might have been relevant; and then decided that garnishing the ruins of Iraq with a little extra dollop of manpower would be just the right thing; here's 20,000 more--how do things look now? And we're supposed to take that seriously.

But as Glenn Greenwald notes, the punditry do take this seriously. And we have to wonder why, as Glenn does on a regular basis.

Let's revisit our parallel case of charades being taken seriously: the case of WMDs. Years had passed and no one had worried about Iraq's well-known chemical weapons--the ones Hussein couldn't bring himself to use against the U.S. in the first war. It took very little from the government propaganda machine--just the incredible Cheney and Rice talking about "mushroom clouds"--and journalists were acting as if they had just learned of something new and terrifying. It was all taken at face value. One gets the impression that if the government made the claim that Judgement Day was nigh, it would become an object of serious discussion among pundits.

The Surge may be a mythological beast, but it is red meat to the commentariat: in so thoroughly chewing on (rather than in some cases ridiculing and dismissing) every idea that comes their way, they lend even fantastic ideas own kind of reality. People quickly forget that "Surge" is a dog and pony show, a desperate and unsophisticated bit of PR; that in context, even the shallowest minds would never take such an idea seriously. There being an argument about whether the Surge will "work" is like having an argument about whether Santa Claus will be able to deliver all his presents on time. There isn't a Santa Claus, and so of course he can't deliver his presents on time.

In the sense of a real military strategy meant to solve a military problem: there is no Surge. It doesn't exist. So of course it can't work. There are no criteria for it working, and shamefully the few contrived criteria for its effectiveness are being falsified. Serious discussion would require treating the Surge for what it is--a delaying tactic in a larger domestic political strategy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Viability of Obama (It's the Sanity, Stupid)

obama_clinton.gifI've been trying to convince friends that yes, Obama can get votes from white Americans. That's because American race relations, even when they are antagonistic, are more complicated than their typical portrayal in the media. Andrew Sullivan offers one telling example of a conservative who admits to having racist feelings at times but claims he will vote for Obama.

And in fact, Hilary Clinton will likely have more trouble winning a national election than Obama. Not just because she's a woman, but also because her public persona defies more conservative expectations regarding women.

If she were on the right, this somewhat brittle persona might in fact work to her advantage (as Thatcher's worked to hers in England). Unfortunately, the image that the left must work against is that of being unhinged, angry, and less interested in America as a whole than in certain interest groups or international amity. Conservatives can more easily get away with being unhinged because their anger and other uncomfortable emotions are directed not toward the nation as a whole but outside it (towards other countries, hazily defined "terrorists", or certain minorities who while geographically "within" are made to seem "other" and hence outside). Even a candidate like Dean, who was ironically conservative in some ways, can quickly be undone by the "angry liberal" label (in his case the character assassination had to be pulled off with great precision, including a preliminary raising of expectations).

Hilary has tried to escape the less palatable aspects of the progressive image with typically Clintonian triangulation; unfortunately, she cannot triangulate the unfeminine vibe she gives off on TV. She is caught between two possible negative media portrayals -- the first as extreme leftist (as she was portrayed during the health care fiasco in the early 90s) if she displays her passion, and the second as cold opportunist if she withholds it. In other words, she cannot appeal to less progressive voters without seeming dishonest; being a woman is part of that conundrum.

Obama is in the opposite situation. Many Americans would love to prove that they are not racist if given the chance ("I'm not a racist, I have plenty of black friends ... and I voted for Obama!).

Hence that Obama is black helps him as much as it hurts him. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are not adequate objects for assuaging white guilt, because they are much rougher around the edges than Obama (something Biden was trying to get at in his ill-advised remarks about Obama being "clean-cut" and "articulate").

In fact, Obama's superb demeanor will be far more of a factor than the fact that he is a progressive -- many Americans are more sensitive to (and more confident in their judgment of) character than issues.

After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is "it's the sanity, stupid" a possible slogan?). It's not a high standard: please, just don't be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It's part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.

Friday, April 13, 2007


“I now direct you to agree to a proposal which includes the following terms and conditions,” Mr. Wolfowitz wrote. “You should accept immediately her offer to be detailed to an outside institution of her choosing while retaining bank salary and benefits.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Thinking about going to see "T...

Thinking about going to see "The Hoax"

Friday, April 6, 2007

The British Soldiers

Here's their account:


I think the incident is at a fundamental level much more embarrassing to the Iranians, because it shows the disorganization of their government and how certain renegade military elements have powers that transcend government policy considerations; and because their violation of the Geneva conventions should be a source of shame.

Again, the propaganda videos were simply creepy; it is scary that the right wing of the United States and Britain take Iranian propaganda more to heart (by blaming the obviously coerced soldiers and trying to guess whether they look tortured enough to be complying with the Iranians) than the fact that the Iranians violated the Geneva conventions in coercing the British soldiers and putting them on camera.

That's because the right wing don't themselves take these conventions seriously themselves; they are more concerned with humiliating the enemy and making sure the enemy doesn't humiliate us; but of course, the premise of this humiliation is the value of might over right -- you can't be humiliated by the tactics the Iranians used here unless at some level you admire their power.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Brooks: Is it Safe? ("Security Leads to Freedom")

There are legitimate conservative arguments to be made, but David Brooks' latest column does not make them.

In fact, the basic point of the column is that if Republicans need to jettison every value they've ever stood for in order to get in line behind Bush's authoritarianism, then so be it:

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.

Just when you thought the right-wing in this country had really lost its mind .... Here's Glenn Greenwald's parsing:

Brooks' central point: the dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with -- it is in fact overtly hostile to -- the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism.

As Greenwald notes, Brooks is now just explicitly admitting what we have suspected about the right for some time: that they have given up conservatism in favor of authoritarianism. Here is Brooks' new slogan:

security leads to freedom

This is really, really disturbing and, as Greenwald points out, comically Orwellian. But by the way, Brooks tells us, this is a principle of "child psychology". Hmmm ... why do I see Nazi doctors in white coats observing children in cages and asking, "are you safe?"

Let's see this slogan for what it is: a plea for authoritarianism. It's a plea for the elevation of the threat of "Islamic extremism" to a level that justifies grotesque executive abuses of power (including torture and indefinite detention without evidence), abuses Americans once thought of as inconceivable and fascist betrayals of our constitution. And what do we get for that? Not even security, because we have seen, incompetently waged and murderous wars do not lead to security. How about a few luggage bomb detectors for our airports? No, the right wing tells us; we don't need to worry about preventing attacks on the United States; we'd rather concentrate on revenge, even if that means a few thousand more American lives and many thousands more innocent Iraqi lives.

Speaking of "psychological" principles, the psychological version of authoritarianism afflicts people who are cruel and controlling towards themselves and others. Many great, poems, plays, and novels have been written about the disastrous effects of this principle, political and psychological. Many chapters in history support the observations contained in these works. Brooks should go read some of these. They hardly support the notion that authoritarianism leads to freedom, unless you are reading authoritarian propaganda, in which a kind of perverse pleasure is taken in trumpeting and forcing others to acquiesce to patent contradictions of fact -- e.g., the description of a law that allow for more pollution as the "Clean Air Act."

Today's right wing (should I call them "Republicans" or "Conservatives"? -- I doubt it) is a dangerous, dangerous crew. What makes Brooks particularly dangerous his his level of mercenary intellectual dishonesty, and his noisome claim to represent "normal, nonideological people" while throwing around pitifully partisan and stupid slogans like "security leads to freedom", the kind of sentiment that has been used to do public relations for some of history's dirtiest authoritarian work, including mass murder by dictators. Security does not lead to freedom if you're Jose Padilla, against whom no evidence has been presented; or if you're an Iraqi, in which case security doesn't even lead to security.

And in fact the ambiguity of the meaning of "security" is the point. Why doesn't Brooks tell us specifically what he means by "security"? To borrow from Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man: "I can't tell you whether it's safe or not unless I know specifically what you're talking about."

Andrew Sullivan has a blow-by-blow response here.

The Seinfeld Strategy

Michael Fullilove on America’s ‘Seinfeld’ strategy in Iraq, which means doing the opposite of everything your instincts tell you to do, a tactic once tried by Seinfeld's Costanza:

First, military and diplomatic resources are finite and should be directed towards your greatest priority. An example of the opposite approach would be for a country that has been attacked by a non-state terrorist group to retaliate by removing a state regime that had nothing to do with the attack.

Second, take care not to weaken your intimidatory powers through poor military performance. Aim for short, sharp victories (such as that in the 1991 Gulf war) that get your adversaries worrying about the extent of US power. The opposite would be to launch a war of choice involving the drawn-out occupation of an Arab country – the kind of thing that gets your allies worrying about the limits of US power.

Third, you get by with help from friends. Although the powerful are sometimes tempted to go it alone, international support helps determine the perceived legitimacy of an action, which affects its risk and costs. Building this support requires discussion and compromise. The opposite would be to spurn real negotiations, slough off your allies, bin multilateral agreements you do not like and declare that you are not bound by the rules that govern everyone else.

Fourth, state-building is hard. Few of the international efforts at state-building since the cold war’s end have succeeded. Luckily there are numberless reports identifying lessons learnt. The alternative would be to do the opposite of what those reports recommend, for example by deploying insufficient troops and dismantling any extant national institutions such as the army.

Fifth, democracy is a blessing that requires patient nurturing. The opposite approach would be to seek to impose democracy by force of arms on a population traumatised by decades of vicious and totalitarian rule.

Sixth, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If two dangerous states are struggling for dominance of a strategic region, maintaining a balance between them may be the least worst option. The opposite would be to emasculate one of them, thereby greatly increasing the relative power of the other.

Finally, historians often cite the need for prudence in international relations, quoting the physician’s dictum: “First, do no harm.” The opposite would be: “Don’t think too much, just chance your arm and see what happens!”

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Skepticism, Conservatism, and War

Andrew Sullivan is right that passion and skepticism are by no means at odds. The point of skepticism is not that we should vacate (we can't anway) our passions and the irrationality that grounds, at least in part, our most examined beliefs. It's that when it comes to setting priorities, we ought to be reflectively aware of this irrationality and elevate the concept of our fallibility above the others. That way we don't reach the point where it is imperative that others either share our beliefs and values, or be killed, because their "evil" ideas threaten to out-propagate the ideas that keep our culture psychically alive.

The supporters of war are quick to turn the ideas of others into existential threats, quickly shifting back and forth between the ways in which supposed enemies are a threat to us, or their own people, or to abstractions such as "freedom" and "democracy".

We know today that "terrorists" are not much of a threat to the United States, because they cannot strike with the force and frequency of a standing army. Even terrorists armed with a nuke are not a threat to the existence of the United States in the way, for instance, that Russia still is.

9/11 was more damaging to American pride than infrastructure, and the supporters of war do everything to conflate humiliation and threat. In the meantime, they do not take seriously the gravity of killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians for the sake of ideas and abstractions -- it is enough that we call these deaths an "accident" or the "collateral" of our good intentions. They do not get the irony that spreading "freedom" on a practical level means a massive imposition of misery on an entire populace. Because Saddam was a bad man and bad for Iraq, removing him must inevitably be better Iraq, a patent non sequitur.

Andrew Sullivan is one of those who did not take the concept of war seriously, and did not apply his skepticism when it counted. And despite his change of heart, there are still hints hints that he equates the failure of the Utopian adventure in Iraq with a case of mismanagement. That is not a conservative stance. History has not been kind to such schemes. We ought to learn from it.

The "Iraq experiment" of which Sullivan's reader speaks is a phrase of ignorant, Mengelian callousness: did we ask Iraqis if they thought liberation and "democracy" weres worth dying in large numbers? Did we hold a democratic referendum? And do we really think that war can be an act of grace? Did we think to evaluate or own cultural maladies, including the murderous recent history of the United States, against those of the Muslims above whom we assumed we were so culturally elevated that we thought we could help them cure their "extremism" and "social development" and "political attitudes" -- with bombs? This is like Ghenghis Khan describing his rampages as a kind of finishing school for those who could benefit from his brand of refinement.

To some this response will seem reactionary, America-hating, and naively pacifist. Some might detect the tinge of smug radicalism -- of disheveled simple-minded hippies who frequent war protests and can't make the tough decisions required for the safety of their nation. We're meant to believe that these critics are the tough guys who love America enough to accept the inevitability of killing: they can handle the idea of war. And where this willingness to kill would normally be a sign of psychopathology, in international affairs one finds an acceptable outlet, and in these circles it is a badge of honor, and realism, a grave consciousness of what is necessary in the world. (Notwithstanding the fact that the TV appearances of such toughs often consist of of everything from puerile, insecure belligerence to coldly delivered enticements to contractual mischief (Bill Kristol)).

They are not swayed by their emotions, by the pictures of dead children with newly disorganized bodies (plentiful from Iraq). That's just war, the realists say, and there are higher ideals, not to mention the safety of the country at stake.

Safer after the initiation of the blood feud? Safer when waging wars rather than establishing security at home? Higher, more realistic ideals than the lives of innocents?

("Er, when I said "spreading freedom", did I forget to mention that you'll find your arms and legs have been freed from your torso?")

Andrew Sullivan's Conservative Soul

An accurate and in some places devastating critique of Andrew Sullivan's career of fickle naiveté:

What is baffling is why such an ardent disciple of Oakeshott came to sign himself up for the Bush program in the first place—a decision that Sullivan now says he finds "more than a little worrying." For, from the moment of its declaration, the "war on terror" ("this crusade," as Bush then defined it), by committing the United States to an indefinite future of hostilities against a shadowy and shape-shifting enemy, had all the hallmarks of one of Oakeshott's most deluded Rationalist projects. Yet even as Osama bin Laden morphed into Saddam Hussein, and Paul Wolfowitz unrolled his great plan for the democratization of the Middle East by force of arms, Sullivan was a raucous cheerleader for the administration.

I have to admit Sullivan's blog is now my favorite -- perhaps because I like the prolonged mea culpa of someone who (in Raban's words) "shilled" so long for the right. Perhaps because he's just such a personable fellow, willing to tell you what's on his mind and change it, a quintessential blogger. I can't, on the other hand, get through Sullivan's book, in which "conservatism" is defined arbitrarily as skepticism and fallibilism. According to Raban, this skepticism is really just a rationalization of fickle passions:

This may explain Sullivan's painful about-face on the liberal-imperialist conquest of Iraq, but hardly excuses it. It is a self-serving conceit to claim, as he does, that in the days leading up to the invasion, all decent people (excluding the aforementioned nihilists and traitors) were in the same boat, equally misled by what later proved to be defective intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction

Montaigne's remarks on the infinite depth of human fallibility were not meant as a license to embrace the one-day inspiration only to reject it as "the dumbest thing on earth" when it turns out badly.

Petty consistency is not a hobgoblin that troubles Andrew Sullivan's mind, and he likes to chalk up his inconsistency to his conservatism, because it is a hallmark of the pragmatic conservative to know himself to be frequently mistaken.

Ouch on all counts. And Sullivan's inconsistencies are the Republican party's, according to Raban:

Yet in its exposure of the contra-dictions entailed in being Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul rather brilliantly exposes the contradictions of the Republican Party as it is today. If two randomly selected voters who supported Bush in 2000 and 2004 were to be sat in a room and asked to unpack the contents of their heads, each would likely be appalled by the entrenched beliefs of the other. The worldviews of the Christian fundamentalist, the project-driven neoconservative theorist, and the small-government free-marketeer are, as Sullivan shows, dramatically incompatible on both religious and philosophical grounds.

These things may have more in common than they seem to at first blush.

The Spanish Civil War

Edward Rothstein writes on the ambiguities of the Spanish Civil War.

The civil war, in fact, had more to do with Spain than with fascism. Hugh Thomas’s encyclopedic “Spanish Civil War” reveals stupefying patterns of legislative failure and manic enterprise in the years before the war. Spain had no strong democratic traditions or middle class. It was an anomaly: a European nation that even World War I had passed by, its agrarian, preindustrial stagnation accompanied by rigid social hierarchies and strong regional allegiances. When a republic was established in 1931, it proved as vulnerable to revolutionary extremism as conservative reaction: land reform could mean land seizure; church reform could mean violence. Anarchism, riots and rebellion were familiar companions of the Republic’s bumbling modernity.

By 1937, after the show trials in Moscow, it was apparent to many devoted idealists that the party’s high moral proclamations were not what they seemed. This is what George Orwell fitfully recognizes in his “Homage to Catalonia.” First he fights in an independent Marxist division that was apparently kept deliberately undersupplied. Later he fears for his life in Barcelona — Republican-held territory — as the party begins a planned purge, including killings and torture. Some recent research has suggested that even members of the Lincoln Brigade — some of whom “disappeared” — were not immune.

Something about the nature of war that both the right and left should keep in mind.

Write a Dubya Speech

For fun.

Iraq War Coalition Fatalaties Chart

An amazing flash timeline of Iraq coalition fatalities (it would be nice to see something similar for Iraqi casualties).

Creepy Iran Kidnapping Roundup

Apparently the Iranians have been reading Semour Hersh articles and aren't yet satisfied that they've given Britain and the U.S. enough excuses for a round of bombing.

The whole "we'll show you by making you our captive photo-op guests and have you write letters home to your parents about how bad you've been" is simply creepy -- much more disturbing than the rhetoric of Ahmednejad, which is obviously calculated to piss people off.

No, this was not written with guidance from an Iranian communications mullah I'm sure:

Dear Mum & Dad,

I am writing to you from Iran where I am being held. I will try to explain to you the best what has happened. We were out in the boats when we were arrested by Iranian forces as we had apparently gone into Iranian waters. I wish we hadn't because then I'd be home with you all right now. I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't. I want you all to know that I am well and safe. I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day and have a constant supply of fluids.

The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm. I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for us entering into their waters. Please don't worry about me, I am staying strong. Hopefully it won't be long until I am home to get ready for Molly's birthday party with a present from the Iranian people.

Look after everyone for me, especially Adam and Molly.

I love you all more than you will ever know.

All my love,


"Dear pairs, I wish I hadn't gone to Iran, because if I hadn't I wouldn't be in Iran. One thing I'll say about going into other people's waters, there are always plenty of fluids. and they're such nice people, not creepy at all, much unlike this letter or my being put on TV. I'm sure they'll let me come home, as long as England and America don't do something naughty like I did."

Very creepy. Not cruel, like Guantanamo and indefinite detention without trial and no evidence in cages and (in the case of Padilla) solitary confinement. Rather, creepy and psychologically cruel. As a friend pointed out, "it's got that unmarried scoutmaster feel" to it.

Part of that feel comes from the "you've been bad, you must been punished" theme, where the transgression is minor, technical, unintentional, contrived, and possibly non-existent. The soldiers were "trespassing" because they got the border wrong by a few yards, assuming that's true. When the infraction depends on such precise measurement, how can you tell? Should Iran's fragile pride be wounded or not? Should the spies be hanged or not? Break out the ruler.

And then we have the gradual release, ladies first, as if Iran were held up in a bank. We know why bank-robbers get themselves into banks in the first place and why the generosity of hostage release is such a thrill: they're used to having nothing to give.

"Obviously we trespassed", says Faye Turney -- no, not obvious, though obviously you're under duress. Someone in Iran thinks they're involved in successful public relations campaign, when in fact they're revealing the creepiness and dysfunction of their government: no, your coercion of mea culpas for public consumption and the humiliation of your enemies is not sophisticated , it's stupid and naive. Your reputation sucks, your morons, and you just made it worse. You don't know how to interact with the world, and you think people are impressed by behavior that is truly pathetic.

I wish I could say the United States weren't guilty of similar stupidity. An appeal to the rednecks who would run our country like the Mullahs: going forward, let's try not look this pathetic, OK? But I fear Iran will give the Bush administration the excuse it needs.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bukowski reads "The Secret of My Endurance"

Bush to Raise our Taxes?


the Joint Committee projects that the President's proposed standard deduction for health insurance, coupled with repeal of the exclusion for employer-paid health insurance, self-employed health insurance deduction, and itemized medical deductions, would result in a $333 billion tax increase over 10 years.

Let's Revisit ...

Recent Essays:

The Travel-Raging of A. A. Gill

Two offensive classics from A. A. Gill, who writes like someone with tourette's syndrome and a gift (and is apparently severely dyslexic and has to dictate his articles):

There are other little things which tell you that, although they may look like us, they syncopate to a different beat. They can’t walk in crowds, for instance, which is surprising because they’re so good at marching. Germans are constantly bumping into each other with barely restrained looks of fury; perhaps they’re just habituated to invading other people’s personal space. But then again they’ll stand for lengthy minutes with a bovine serenity at completely empty crossroads waiting for the little green man to tell them to cross.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Berube vs Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn shows us just how nasty the internecine squabbles of the left can get:

Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq....

Sometimes I dream of them, -- Friedman, Hitchens, Berman -- like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.

Berube defends himself:

Neither Gitlin nor I lavished abuse on Chomsky for his opposition to war in Iraq. But we did criticize him for things like for proclaiming on the afternoon of September 11 that the attacks paled in comparison to Clinton’s 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa plant in Khartoum....

The real problem was that we’d criticized Noam Chomsky, which, for some people, is even worse than supporting war in Iraq.

Yes, and the followers of the high priest, like him, fight dirty. Berube takes a play out of their book and weds them to their enemies:

In the US, the Z/Counterpunch crew have a symbiotic relation to Berman, Hitchens, et al., just as in the UK the Galloway/Respect crowd have a symbiotic relation to the Eustonites. To this day, each needs the other. And it is in both camps’ interest to pretend that Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were all part of the same enterprise: all three wars were wars of liberation for the Hawks, and all three were exercises in imperialism for the Sovereignty Left.

Be a Mind-Sticker

For fun: a horrifying Tab ad in which the voice-over/jingle consists of what sounds like a mellow pedophile cajoling the ethereal, high-pitched superego of a 14-year-old, eating-disorder afflicted girl: "he wants you with a good shape" and "be a mind-sticker".

Hat Tip Beyond Madison Avenue.

Andrew Sullivan -- Either/Or

My love-hate relationship with Andrew Sullivan.

His intemperate relationship with Islam:

The current state of Islam is the problem; and only Muslims can find the solution.

His humility:

I take a few, and largely deserved, whacks at my solar plexus for various hyperbolic blog posts over the years.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Brits in New York

A very funny piece by A.A. Gill:

Indeed, Brits are rarely seen in New York without their magic cloaks of invisible irony—they think that, on a fundamental level, their calling here is as irony missionaries. They bless everything and everyone with the little flick quotation marks, that rabbit-ear genuflection of cool, ironic sterility. How often their mocking conversations about the natives return to the amusing truth that New Yorkers have an unbelievable, ridiculous irony deficiency, which ignores the fact that a city that produced Dorothy Parker, Robert Mapplethorpe, Abstract Expressionism, Woody Allen, and Woody Allen's love life has quite enough irony to build the Brooklyn Bridge.

These ex-Brits who have settled in the rent-stabilized margins of Manhattan aren't our brightest and our best—they are our remittance men, paid to leave. Not like the other immigrants, who made it here as the cleverest, most adventurous in the village. What you get are our failures and fantasists. The freshly redundant. The exposed and embittered. No matter how long they stay here, they don't mellow, their consonants don't soften. They don't relax into being another local. They become ever more English. Über-Brits. Spiteful, prickly things in worn tweed, clutching crossword puzzles, gritting their Elizabethan teeth, soup-spotted, tomb-breathed, loud and deaf. The most reprehensible and disgusting of all human things; the self-made, knowing English eccentric. Eccentricity is the last resort of the expat.

Self-Inflicted Terror

Zbigniew Brzezinski on the "War on Terror":

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves.

Roll, TIDE

But one said keeping tabs on your citizens is easy:

But in addressing one problem, TIDE has spawned others. Ballooning from fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it.

Just in case you need to put your annoying neighbor on the no-fly list:

The 80 TIDE analysts get "thousands of messages a day," Travers said, much of the data "fragmentary," "inconsistent" and "sometimes just flat-out wrong."

TIDE is a vacuum cleaner for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data.

The Sophisticated Language of Fascism

Just another bit of experimental dilettantism, to see if the police state suits us after all:

But potential troublemakers were hardly the only ones to end up in the files. In hundreds of reports stamped “N.Y.P.D. Secret,” the Intelligence Division chronicled the views and plans of people who had no apparent intention of breaking the law, the records show.

“Activists are showing a well-organized network made up of anti-Bush sentiment; the mixing of music and political rhetoric indicates sophisticated organizing skills with a specific agenda,” said the report, dated Oct. 9, 2003. “Police departments in above listed areas have been contacted regarding this event.”

Yes, it sure does take a lot of sophistication to get together and make music and speeches (perhaps there was a sophisticated use of E-vite using something called the in-ter-net). "Sophisticated" is a nonsense word that the government and social science academics use when talking about organizations, especially about terrorist organizations, to make it sound as if they're talking about something both a) complex and b) threatening. You give your discussion the aura of being simultaneously scientific, current, and urgent. It's not surprising to see such jargon put to use for lame justifications of police state actions: "gee, these people are sophisticated, just like the terrorists!" (the word can do its work in the service of typical right-wing anti-intellectualism as well).

Notice also the imprecision of the language, something we see more and more in everything from police reports to journalism: the network is "made up of anti-Bush sentiment", not of people with anti-Bush sentiment. That imprecision may seem trivial, but it is the kind of generalization that fuels poor judgment: "they bombed us, so we bombed them, it's only fair." The ability to make distinctions is critical to the ability to be humane. When mere sentiment forms a "network", as in terrorist cell, the idea is that mere sentiment is a crime -- a thought crime.

“Billionaires for Bush is an activist group forged as a mockery of the current president and political policies,” the report said.

Sadly "sentiment" and "mockery" have become data for mindless, half-literate, bureaucratic reports. And the police have been used aggressively on behalf of a particular political party by pro-actively arresting the "sophisticated" networks of sentiment and mockery -- er, I should say (in my sophisticated way) the bearers of those mocking sentiments ....

Of course, if only we could arrest mockery itself, and bad sentiment itself, all our problems would be solved. (The intruding afterthought: But can't we? There are certain techniques, ways of making someone talk, ways of changing the way they feel ... ways of reducing their sophistication).

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Scamming the Scammers

A brilliant and hilarious way to lead on Nigerian scammers (The Adventures of Wendy Willcox and her dog Willis

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bolton vs. Lincoln

Why do humorless Republicans make fools of themselves on comedy shows? Bolton is a sitting duck for John Stewart and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Christ 2.0 (A Parable of Innocence)

The death penalty and Iraq have proven that it is not killing per se that vexes right-wing fundamentalist Christians. Rather, they make a fetish of helplessness and innocence: the thought of unadulterated fetuses sucked unceremoniously back into the void is a torment. Then there is Terry Schiavo, whose being brain-dead made her especially helpless, therefore especially pure. (A corpse won't do however, the point is to have something warm and pulsing on which to hang the tatters of your heart, so when reasons start to invade your thoughts you can reply to them, "don't be so heartless!"). Under this rubric we can place some forms of worship of Jesus Christ: not as a long-haired, socialist gadfly and pacifist hippie. There are only two acceptable forms of Jesus: little baby Jesus, and Jesus with large nails connecting him to beams of wood. These Jesuses are sufficiently catatonic, whether in manger or on cross, to arouse right-wing pathos.

One might imagine that Jesus would rightly object to the millenia of abuse to which he's been subjected via such images. And perhaps he will return (grown up, mobile, brain fully intact) to put everything straight. It might involve a little heavy handedness -- showing up to sweep the baked goods of the Church bake-sale tables, for instance ("this is a house of prayer!").

By the time he gets heavy handed he's proven himself, of course -- the videos of miracles have made their appearance on YouTube. No one doubts he's Jesus; the question is, who is Jesus? And there is inevitable conflict with his own followers, right-wing or not. Why is Jesus stealing crucifixes from Churches and publicly destroying them? Why is he showing up to heckle sermonizers, carrying "Twilight of the Idols" and "The Anti-Christ" and quoting Nietzsche about the "stench" of the church? Why is showing up at anti-war protests but not at pro-life rallies? Why does he seem a little unhinged, subjecting parties of church women to his angry ranting and even lurid stares ("Oh my, I just thought we were going to spend some nice time with Jesus"), a regular Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon.

It's not that Jesus has lost his ability to be calm and peaceful and nice (a "rock"), it's just that in this brave new world, and in a world with so many worshipers, he finds himself lost and unforgiving. There are TV appearances that are just plain odd, in which he makes Paula Abdul look coherent. There are others in which he is more brooding and full of scotch and strangely articulate than Christopher Hitchens. There are bitter debates with Anne Coulter on Fox news: (her with precious, self-satisfied irony) "I think we should arrest Jesus and convert him to Christianity". We begin to wonder about Jesus -- "Jesus, are you ok?" becomes the signature opening line of TV interviewers.

And we do all wonder about his mental stability. But some now openly wonder about his divinity -- once a non-issue, but Jesus has not trotted out the magic tricks in a long time, and these days our attention span is short. "Come on Jesus," says Bill Maher, "I'm your biggest fan. I'll have you on every show if you want. But if you really are Jesus, teleport us to the Playboy Mansion right now. Prove to me that you are who you say you are. It's not that I don't believe in you, I just want to see it with my own eyes."

Meanwhile, the Whitehouse vigils have shaken the Bush administration:

Good Cheney man, they're right out side our yard
Good Cheney man, go call the National Guard

No wait ....
We need a more permanent solution
To our problem
(Besides, the National Guard are all in Iraq)

What then to do about Jesus of America, miracle wonderman, hero of fools?

Look, it's not that the world has no imagination, it's just that history tends to repeat itself. That Jesus will end up back where he belongs, on the cross, is a foregone conclusion. And the perpetrators will regret it soon enough ("Oh Jesus, how could we have done that to you again?") and fall to their knees and beg forgiveness. And Christ will have to pick himself up, dust himself off, and make another go of it. And the Christians, to their slight irritation, will have to get off their knees and watch it happen all over again. And in fact, the cycle will repeat itself endlessly, and the loop will tighten up considerably, but like dieters we simply will not be able to resist the temptation no matter how many times we experience the regret. In this Groundhog Day situation, Jesus and his crucifixion will become a regular part of our lives, and we will wonder at our own fickleness, after the foot of a cross has become a major tourist attraction, a must-see: "God, why hast thou forsaken me (for the 578th time)". And the pilgrims can't help thinking: "Jesus, he's keeping count?"

And this cycle will not end until someone realizes that we can have Jesus to ourselves -- baby Jesuslike, immobile, and totally innocent forever -- if we induce just enough brain damage and fire up the life support. It's a sad ending to the saga. Think of all those crazy times, all the things Jesus did while ambulatory upon the earth: the time he became a Muslim and changed his name to "Jesus Mohammed" and got on the no-fly list; the rumors of an affair with Lindsey Lohan (and many, many others); that crazy appearance at the Academy Awards -- best supporting actor as Judas in a re-make of "Last Temptation" where Mark Wahlberg plays Jesus himself; the trial for pedophilia ("Jesus Christ Innocent", reads the headline); the death from cocaine overdose (the only cycle in which he avoided crucifixion); and all the other times he pushed the envelope and tried to break out of that Jesus "image", that "baggage" as he liked to call it (via the kind of high-risk behavior that kept getting him crucified).

But that all comes to end, and Jesus lives out a long last life as an innocent vegetable. That really takes the joy out of eternal return, so he just stops. And then the world laments this ("how could we be so sinful as to make life intolerable to Jesus!"), and Christianity continues with quite a bit more to chew on, and there are holy wars and revivals and ever bigger screen TVs in ever larger mega-churches, and the divine never again makes an appearance upon the earth.

(Disclaimer: this gospel is based strictly on revelation and not, for instance, on a viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Liberal Education and America

A kind of education that's just no longer in fashion.

which Levine succinctly calls "the cultivation of human powers." To reach this end requires first of all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that "the purpose of school education," as John Dewey put it, "is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth." It requires the student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is, something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the future.

I Heart Huckabees (Attack)

The I Heart Huckabees blowouts, unlike the movie a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Petty Cruelties

Really just a metaphor for the Bush administration's entire tenure:

The dismissal process itself, the documents show, was chaotic and spiked with petty cruelties. Two senior officials joked caustically about U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego -- who prosecuted the corruption case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) -- calling her "sad" and saying her record was "hideous."

"This makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign?" U.S. Attorney Margaret M. Chiara writes to McNulty on Feb. 1.

Sad indeed, but also inconsistent:

the firing lists drawn up by D. Kyle Sampson, a former Gonzales aide who resigned last week, frequently changed, rarely including the same group of allegedly inferior U.S. attorneys.

Heckuva job, Sammy, let me know when we're done eating our own.

Some just laid down -- they were "distinguished" after all:

"he wanted us to know that he's still a 'company man' "

Exactly What Christopher Hitchens Means to Say

What courageous humility is exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, who ... strike that, reverse it, I misread his recent article in Slate.

To revive a different motif: what a sack of shit is Hitchens, who now trots out his anemic debate team arguments for a last stand. The bad boy of letters must not admit defeat!

We get legalistic arguments about UN resolutions, as if we didn't know those resolutions are based on U.S. arm-twisting and bribery and can be always be had for the right price. We get lines like the following:

The Bush administration never claimed that Iraq had any hand in the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But it did point out, at different times, that Saddam had acted as a host and patron to every other terrorist gang in the region.

Here's what Cheney said in 2003: "We learn more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s that it involved training, for example, on [biological and chemical weapons], that Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems." Whether Cheney avoided the technical error of saying "Hussein helped Al Qaeda accomplish 9/11," that's what these statements meant to most Americans; and that's what most Americans believe. I'm sure we could find and celebrate the technical nuances of many other examples of successful propaganda -- that is, after all, what makes them successful.

Of course, strained legal technicalities are of particular interest to Hitchens -- this is after all his self-defense. His article ends with sophistry that can be paraphrased thus: "I admit that civil war was predictable, but that's because the roots of this civil war lie in Saddam's exploitation of sectarian differences, which means there already was an "unease" that certainly would have led to civil war anyway if ... (someone invaded?).

But the icing:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

I suppose we are not to ask Iraqis this question, because manifestly they do not live in a "better or safer world". And we know historically that Saddam was a threat only to a) his own people and (when armed and encouraged, intentionally in the case of Iran and unintentionally in the case of Kuwait, by the United States and Europe) b) his neighbors, to whom he is no longer a threat; hence the primary task of the war was to improve the quality of Iraqi lives. It was not: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions, and the devastation of their infrastructure, economy, and way of life. Life was bad under Hussein; it is much worse under coalition forces.

For men like Hitchens, these concerns are just rank consequentialism: there are ideals to uphold -- what are human lives next to these grand ideals? Under this view, when countries go to war, the send only their blue-blooded patriots, and upright pure defenders of freedom; all the compassionate carriers of machine guns who would never hurt a fly if the good of their invadees were not at stake.

In fact: when countries go to war, they send a motley crew of good and bad men: they send men with fine and heroic sensibilities, and they send sadists and criminals. They send the men who are saints, and they send men who, for instance, will rape a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and set her on fire and kill her entire family. And then of course they send average men; they pour their entire, mixed bag of these men into another society -- and with them, their courage and nobility; but also, their problems, their frailties, and their crimes. And then this entire spectrum is subjected to tremendous stress and impersonal, bureaucratic militarism: so that, for instance, when they ordered to massacre Iraqi soldiers running for their lives, they will do it, as they did on the "Highway of Death" in the first Gulf War; and when they are told that rules of engagement allow blindly "clearing" houses anywhere near areas where they have encountered fire -- i.e., killing every Iraqi man, woman, and child, as in Haditha, they may well take the opportunity to do it and defend their actions afterwards; or if a car pulls up to quickly on their skittish and impromptu checkpoint, they are more likely than not to turn its occupants into dead meat. Some soldiers will enjoy these atrocities, some will be haunted by them, some destroyed: but the point is that war is so catastrophic, so spiritually and physically catastrophic for both sides, that it ought not to be entertained as Hitchens entertains his scotch or his next glib bit of copy. We ought to take seriously the tragedy of war, and its consequences; because its execution transcends and destroys the values for which it is supposedly a means, and the only value that may survive it and justify it is brute survival. The words and the grand ideals of writers and neocons are not the actuality of war; war is not the smart bombs and good guys and bad guys; the actuality is a devastating moral perversion that no amount pickled sentimentality or troop-supporting will reverse.

But beyond this: if we do believe there are ideals which justify the mass-murder of innocents as well as those unfortunate wearers-of-uniforms, we ought to ask whether we want to be the executioners, and whether our government has the kind of record of moral purity and competence that might encourage us to believe that war will in fact improve our lives and ultimately the lives of those we vanquish. As Andrew Sullivan puts it:

The real question is: if we knew then what we know now about the caliber, ethics, competence and integrity of the president and his aides, would we have entrusted them to wage this war?

But then what administration would we trust, in a country whose recent history includes killing millions of Vietnamese? In a country that has supported death squads in South America, and armed and encouraged both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, which killed more than a million people? In a country that went out of its way to defend Hussein while he was gassing his own people, right up to the eve of the first Gulf War, for the principal reason that he was needed to satisfy the war profiteers and economic interests that so strongly influence its government? You don't have to be a liberal or an America-hater to believe these things; you merely have to read history and love your country enough to be upset by it. War profiteering and corruption and atrocities and mismanagement and bungled occupations are not novel apparitions, suddenly coming on the scene to confound the theorists of the good, the true, the right-pure war. And we ought not to be confused on these points by the fact that Bush has added more brazen forms of criminality and acts that really threaten to destroy the United States by dissolving the institutions that comprise it -- torture and indefinite detention and suspension of habeas corpus, for instance.

So while we worry about the destruction our country via its values and institutions (and the traditions we thought until recently that conservatives cherished), let Hitchens tell Iraqis that the destruction of theirs was worth it because of our abstract sense of safety and their abstract sense of liberation
from a bad, bad man. Let him tell them how, consequences be damned, he was right, because by his math a world minus a bad man is a better world, notwithstanding the subtraction of a few hundred thousand lives. Let him tell them that this is exactly what he means, as if one writer sticking to his imaginary guns were itself such an act of fortitude that it redeems any amount of actual destruction.

Not Distinguished

We're surprised to learn that Prosecutor Fitzgerald is not distinguished. Notice that the Bush administration does not make competence an issue, because competence is precisely the standard you want to avoid when you're building an organization of mindless cronies. And "not distinguished" means just these things: not blindly loyal, not a "Bushie", not independent, not willing to make corrupt prosecutions of political enemies ... not incompetent enough.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Self-Hating Zionists

Soros in The New York Review of Books on playing the anti-Semite card and the recent vilification of him by The New Republic (a great magazine if you're only interested in the regurgitation of squeamishly moderate, tail-tucked conventional wisdom):

Rosenfeld resorts, without any personal knowledge of the people he attacks, to primitive accusations of self-hatred, lumping all these critics together as people who are "proud to be ashamed to be Jews."

Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. I speak from personal experience. Ever since I participated in a meeting discussing the need for voicing alternative views, a torrent of slanders has been released including the false accusation in The New Republic that I was a "young cog in the Hitlerite wheel" at the age of thirteen when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking the inventory of a Jewish estate.[5]

Let's see how long it takes AIPAC to get send in the bulldozers. After all, if being saved from the Holocaust makes you a Nazi "cog" then I suppose there are many richer insults to come.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Building the new (and massive) Airbus A380 in 7 minutes

Another amazing machine.


Pathologies of Hope

Pathologies of Hope

by Barbara Rhrenreich

Harper's Magazine Notebook (February 2007)

I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don't lose hope! Wear your pink ribbon with pride! A couple of years later, I was alarmed to discover that the facility where I received my follow-up care was called the Hope Center. Hope? What about a cure? At antiwar and labor rallies over the years, I have dutifully joined Jesse Jackson in chanting "Keep hope alive!" - all the while crossing my fingers and thinking, "Fuck hope. Keep us alive."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sontag -- Words Worth Recalling

The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Honey, I Created a Jihad

If you're interested in how a century of British and American (and generally Western) involvement in the Middle East led to the mess there we now face see Barry Lando's excellent book Web of Deceit (and ses also his blog: No Hitch and Sullivan, it's not "islamofascism"; rather, it's about oil and colonial history and the CIA. The West could not have more meticulously created today's predicament if that were its primary goal. (Lots of interesting and surprising facts, including employment of a young and murderous Saddam Hussein by the CIA, Kissinger's well-documented indifference to mass casualties, France's promiscuous arms industry, and the list goes on).

Trump to Bush: You're Fired

The Rosie treatment, hilarious, here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The language of war is victims

This will seem like a victory only to those who are not disturbed the fact that these confessions originate from a military tribunal, under conditions we can only assume include torture, in the legal netherworld of Guantanamo. Or for those who are not disturbed that the President believes he has the right to imprison in solitary confinement and torture any of his subjects (for that is what we are today) at his will and without evidence, as in the case of Jose Padilla.

A much greater victory than the "confession" of one man would be the observance of due process. This is about the difference between principles and individuals, and the fact that the destruction of our particular enemies is not worth the abdication of those principles. E.g., very simply:

His attempt to call two witnesses was denied.

And the bizarreness of the planner of 9/11 feeling the need to make these kinds of admonishments, as if to say "I thought I was heartless ...."

While not contesting his own guilt, Mr. Mohammed asked the United States government to “be fair with people.” He said that many people who had been arrested as terrorists in the wake of 9/11 were innocent.

Or the strangest tof all:

He added, “The language of war is victims.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Protecting Republicans from Themselves

"Mistakes were made," Gonzales says without irony -- by whom, we are left to guess. Have they forgotten that the phrase should be used only as parody? When those tough, aggressive Bush henchmen are put to the test, we see the miserable passivity.

And then there's the loyalty factor. For all their talk of liberal "treason", the far right does not understand that their loyalty to the current administration, come what may, is not the same as loyalty to country, and runs counter to it.

How ironic that some must now try to protect Republicans from themselves, even as they try to minimize the damage they are doing to the United States.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

This is a Wahr! (A Tale, Told by an Idiot, Full of Shock and Awe ....)

Another Washington Journal moment: "This is a Wahr," the old woman reminded us. "This" -- not two wars, the war on terror and the war in Iraq, the first a made-up fantasy and the second elective folly. The first not really a "this", but rather an unending excuse for abuses of executive power and the folly of trying to use the blunt instrument of force against hidden cells; the second not legally a war (which in our forgotten Constitution, only congress can declare) but rather an executive military "action". And neither really a war in planning or practice: no tightening of security on the first front, no establishment of security on the second.

The Republicans like to make a sentimental mockery of this notion of war and support of troops: they apply it liberally. What a boon 9/11 was to this fantasy of militarism, what an ultimate excuse for the occasional leisure aggression, to be waged with a fierce minimalism, watched from the living room, and lamented as if it were the great national sacrifice that it is not.

The great sacrifice that was asked of us, that we might have made: to find bin Laden, to target our enemies selectively, to improve our national security and intelligence apparatus, and to make rational our foreign policies. The great indulgence that we are engaged in: a prideful fantasy, a folly that is now approaching its logical conclusion -- not a wahr at all, not a war, not even a battle, but the kind of tale that idiots craft for themselves, full of shock and awe, accomplishing nothing.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Brilliant Anti-Clinton Ad


Tuesday, March 6, 2007


On vacation with minimal internet access; this blog will pick up again on mar 11!

Friday, March 2, 2007

You're a Democrat and it Shows

I wake up to Washington Journal in the morning because the irritation I immediately feel prevents me from going back to sleep. There's nothing like the application of senility to politics.

More and more frequently the elderly callers on the Republican Line complain about the bias of the moderator. This on a show that in a way is an ongoing lobotomy -- so inexpressive in its attempt at neutrality that you can practically hear the crawling line of drool. (This I wake up to? My own senility beckons).

The "Lines" (the phone lines I mean) are themselves a disappointing tactic, as if the maddened partisans must be herded into their respective stalls -- "elderly people, we respect your opinions, but not enough to discuss them with you, not enough even to disagree -- there are issues of sanitation; please just turn down your radio, say your last political words, and then click through this turnstile on your way to Republican or Democratic heaven". At is as if the show is the political version of a nursing home: "this is the logical consequence of the partisan mind," it seems to say, "we'll take care of you while your spleen deteriorates".

None of this boring sanitation satisfies the paranoia of old age -- and perhaps in the sense the show has been designed to infuriate and revitalize (a paradoxical defibrillator). One man calls to give a long complaint (with Joe Conason as guest) about how the moderator always cuts of Republicans before they're done, and one gets the impression that they mean the moderator eventually feels compelled to get away from the long, rambling complaints about "liberals" who should be "run out of the country". But the moderator patiently waits until the end and then says, as usual, "thank you caller." This only incenses a bout of octogenarian gang-banging: another old woman calls to give her point and then the final blow, oh yes, "you're a democrat and it shows" she says with great satisfaction: the show is completely biased.

You're a Democrat, you listen to us, you say nothing, secretly you despise us, and we know it; you're a Democrat and it shows. Where is the fair and balanced ranting, the huffery rush limbaugh puffery? You're a Democrat and it shows -- this infuriating pretense of neutrality notwithstanding -- show your cards, Democrat!

You're a journalist and you're not on Fox, and oh how it shows!

What Went Wrong (9/11 and Schizophrenia)


This mirror of "What Went Wrong" wouldn't be a story on the same scale, but it has the main theme in common. It would be about Westerners who had their reality bubble pricked by people from an alien culture, and spent the next couple of years stumbling about like idiots, unable to deal rationally with this new reality that had forced itself on them. Egging each other on, they predicted, interpreted, and labeled – and legislated and invaded. They saw clearly, through beautiful ideas. And they were wrong.

And then there are alien pricks (sorry) that are (in psychoanalytic parlance) "restitutional" symptoms: Schizophrenia, according to one theory, revives the world as an intrusion (hallucinations or paranoia that, however painful, balance the more troubled state of complete withdrawal from the world). This is not to say anything about desert: the point is that isolationism and paranoid meddling in the affairs of other countries are not inconsistent. "Stay away from me, I know nothing about you, but I am a realist and there will be cash and arms for the regimes that keep things tidy".

It's really fundamentally anti-imperialist and the more dangerous because of it. For a while there is isolation, and then the visuals come: 9\11 is half real, half American invention -- Hollywood has been writing these scripts for years. When conspiracy theorists obsess over made-up (and really uninteresting) theories about Bush administration involvement, they are in touch with the deeper sense in which the United States forced itself into contact with the world in the worst possible way. That is, helped bring the most maniacal elements of the "other" to its shores -- let them slip through its security apparatus, paid no attention to the hornet's nest it had been stirring, took no real precautions to protect itself, all despite the veneer of realism.

This is a brute fact, not a lesson about desert.

These comments may be mistaken for an argument about what people deserve and what America deserves: it goes without saying that such things are never deserved, and why should I have to do homage to the people who tell us we're not allowed to think about 9/11? (And on a personal note, I was near enough to the South Tower to be covered in its remains, and I nursed my anger and feelings of vengeance for long enough). No, we don't have to keep chanting "evil, evil, evil" in order to reassure ourselves that 9/11 was undeserved, or to avoid reconciling ourselves to the worst human possibilities, or to reassure fellow citizens that we're on their side.

Sometimes mere solidarity can be deadly.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Dick Cheney's Assasination - Sick, but I Understand

Andrew Sullivan on the fact that some commenters on Huffington Post took delight int he Cheney Assassination attempt:

I think some Huffposters' desire to see the vice-president assassinated is repulsive on every level, and indicative of real sickness on the far left.

I was reminded immediately of a certain classic by Chris Rock:


While Sulllivan realizes that Kristol's post is a "classic gambit" (merely expand the notion of culpability -- you are responsible for the views of your readers, or the characteristic views of your "group"; the kind of expansion of culpability behind racist and jingoist impulses); it is one of his many tautological expressions of distance from a "far left" bogeyman. Why not say that it is "indicative of real sickness of the very sick" or "indicative of real far leftism on the far left." The real meaning: we spare a range of reasonable debate in the middle, cut out and identify both ends (the far left and right), and we don't bother to ask ourselves how we know whether our views fall within that reasonable middle except to find little bits and pieces we know we can safely condemn before the herd -- they will concur. But it is critical to make these bits and pieces representative of some group out there, some substantive entity, rather than an errant few: "the far left." So we can bravely take these mainstream positions ("2+2=4!") because we have invented the 2+2=5ists. Have I given an overly complicated description of a straw man? Whew.

But then again, we might surprise ourselves when taking Herr Kristol's test:

Enlighten us, Arianna. Poll your readers. Ask them: Are they pleased that the attempt against Vice President Cheney failed? Are they grateful that he is alive and well? Do you hope the U.S. prevails in Afghanistan? In Iraq?

Yes, we are so pleased that the attempt on Cheney failed. Each day I light a candle before my picture of Cheney, and each day that his heart faithfully and gently beats him to sleep like a Guantanamo detainee, I tenderly hush the candle, thanking God, not just for Cheney but for the many blessings he has brought to America and Iraq, hoping that we prevail -- meaning, prevail in furthering our good work of establishing security and preserving the lives of the Iraqis who aren't dead or forcefully emigrated, and the good work Padilla, and all those good works, Amen.

Der Standard

I don't think we ought to underestimate the damage done by such men like Bill Kristol; and here I am going to have to do it, I feel compelled to mention the Nazis. It will seem like an extremist rhetorical trick, but really I am always reminded by Kristol of Julius Streicher (there's a physical resemblance as well), whose newspaper Der Sturmer was a vehicle for Nazi propaganda.

"Freedom of speech" did not save Streicher:

According to one of the eyewitnesses, Howard Kingsbury Smith, the execution was botched. Streicher went down kicking and fully conscious, and struggled violently at the end of the rope until the hangman, master sergeant John C. Woods, went into the concealed interior of the scaffold and "did something" that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill." Presumably Woods grabbed Streicher by the legs and pulled down hard in order to break his neck.

These sorts of executions are doubly a mistake. I suppose that once war brings ruin to enough nations and lives, freedom of speech comes to be seen as a luxury. It ought never to be seen that way, but for men like Kristol, an apologist for an almost-war he helped manufacture, not to mention "wartime" curtailments of liberties, I can't help imagining his facile standard for identifying enemies of the people gradually tightening around his own neck. (Isn't it a measure of your success as a revolutionary -- whether your generous criteria for "terrorists" and traitors become large enough to include yourself?)