Saturday, August 30, 2008

Palin

I have to say, I'm just stunned. And I think I'm stunned in a non-partisan way. I just think that this is what has to be going through people's heads is something like this, no matter what their party affiliation:

  1. Who the hell is this person? What happened to Kay Bailey Hutchinson?
  2. Oh, OK; I didn't know Alaska had a female governor ... why haven't I heard of her? Oh, I see, she's only be governor for two years.
  3. Let's look up the bio. Beauty queen. Not long ago she was mayor of a town with a population of 8,000. Wow, she's quirky. Pink outfits. Loves hunting -- her couch is covered in a bear skin. Likes to wear fur. Lots of kids, including an eight-month-old. Kids with weird names, including "Trig" and "Track" the latter somehow related to where the child was conceived. Lots of kids.
  4. McCain just turned 72 and has had skin cancer. I have to be able to imagine his vice-president as commander in chief, as president. As someone either very wise or very experienced or both. Someone with gravitas. Someone who can handle foreign policy and sit at the table and hold her own with the leaders of other nations. (And he met her once?!)
I think it's at step (4) that has many Americans, including many Republicans, will face a profound gut-check, (and for Republicans, however much they want to get on board and defend the decision). You need merely try to imagine Palin as president to be disturbed (more on why below). And again, I think the reaction transcends partisanship. Begala put it well on CNN in his attempt to describe the kind of shock that goes beyond mere politics: "as a democrat I'm happy about this. as an American I'm petrified."

Let's look at a hypothesis of some of the reasons behind McCain's decision:
  1. I need a woman to peel off embittered Hillary supporters
  2. I need someone from as far outside the beltway as possible -- anything inside of Neptune is fair game; the more eccentric and mavericky, the better
  3. I need someone who shores up the base with the solid right-wing credentials that until recently I lacked -- pro-life (with a Down's Syndrome child to prove it), creationist, Buchanan supporter, hunter (with bear skins to prove it), folksy, etc.
  4. Biden was attempt to out-McCain McCain and balance the ticket with a seasoned maverick; so I'm going to out-Obama Obama: so she's 44 and inexperienced. She's also beautiful, youthful, energetic, and exciting. The Obama campaign won't be able to touch her on that without reminding everyone of Obama's own lack of experience and without igniting charges of sexism.
  5. I need something big; a shocker

(2) and (3) will be effective to one degree or another. About (1) and (5) I'm simply unsure. But (4) is a poison pill that hobbles every other reason -- that makes the decision as a whole look like the most unprincipled, dangerous pandering.

McCain seems to believe that Obama's inexperience makes Palin untouchable. But Obama has extremely powerful qualities that make up for his lack of experience: charisma, intelligence, depth, gravitas. And this trade-off has been tested, in a hard-fought political battle with one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Palin, by contrast, feels young and inexperienced. Replace gravitas with a quirky cuteness.

You may think that her becoming governor of Alaska belies this analysis, but Alaska is a politically eccentric state with a population about 9 times the size of Obama's Invesco audience, and about one-fiftieth of the size of the pool of voters that tested Obama. Enthusiasm about a young and quirky governor focused on domestic affairs is much different than enthusiasm about a young and quirky potential president engaged in foreign affairs. The former is a fun experiment with local color and state budgeting. The latter is terrifying.

It's the arrogance of McCain's pick that is most disturbing, its contempt for the actual needs of the country. It utterly belies the notion that McCain is a man of honor who puts "Country First"; his decision is the kind of pandering that actually is dangerous for the country.

(I've left out other problems, such as the potential disaster that the exposure of a relative unknown to the national press, including this brewing scandal).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Did Russia Initiate?

Interesting account according to which Russia actually initiated the conflict with Georgia: http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/08/the-truth-about-1.php

It's long, so the basics: the Russians move all their guys to Ossetia with clear designs; move the Ossetians out of their villages while irregulars play tit for tat with the Georgian side; Russians then start bombing Georgian villages; Sasshkavili declares unilateral cease-fire as a way of backing off; then he learns of a Russian column on the move and tries to nip it in the bud; but that requires fighting through the Ossetian town of Tskhinvali; so there's the appearance of Georgia starting the war on Aug 7 as an invasion of Tskhinvali.

Highlights:
Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn't start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.

"So fast forward to early August. You have a town, Tskhinvali, which is Ossetian, and a bunch of Georgian villages surrounding it in a crescent shape. There are peacekeepers there. Both Russian peacekeepers and Georgian peacekeepers under a 1994 accord. The Ossetians were dug in in the town, and the Georgians were in the forests and the fields between the town and the villages. The Ossetians start provoking and provoking and provoking by shelling Georgian positions and Georgian villages around there. And it's a classic tit for tat thing. You shell, I shell back. The Georgians offered repeated ceasefires, which the Ossetians broke.

"So back to the 3rd of August. Kokoity announces women and children should leave. As it later turned out, he made all the civilians leave who were not fighting or did not have fighting capabilities. On the same day, irregulars – Ingush, Chechen, Ossetians, and Cossacks – start coming in and spreading out into the countryside but don't do anything. They just sit and wait. On the 6th of August the shelling intensifies from Ossetian positions. And for the first time since the war finished in 1992, they are using 120mm guns."

"Can I stop you for a second?" I said. I was still under the impression that the war began on August 7 and that Georgian President Saakashvili started it when he sent troops into South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali. What was all this about the Ossetian violence on August 6 and before?


That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel ... They had to stop that column, and they had to stop it for two reasons. It's a pretty steep valley. If they could stop the Russians there, they would be stuck in the tunnel and they couldn't send the rest of their army through. So they did two things. The first thing they did, and it happened at roughly the same time, they tried to get through [South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali, and that's when everybody says Saakashvili started the war.


If you go back and look at the archives you'll see plenty of calls from the Georgian government saying they're really worried. Even some Russian commentators agree that this is exactly what happened. Don't forget, they sent in a lot of irregulars, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians, Ingush – basically thugs. Not normal Chechens or Ingush – thugs. Thugs out for a holiday. Many Western camera crews were robbed at gunpoint ten meters from Russian tanks while Russian commanders just stood there smoking their cigarettes while the irregulars...that happened to a Turkish TV crew. They're lucky to still be alive. Some of the Georgians were picked up by the irregulars. If they happened to be female, they got raped. If they happened to be male, they got shot immediately, sometimes tortured. Injured people we have in hospitals who managed to get out have had arms chopped off, eyes gouged out, and their tongues ripped out."



(See Greenwald's send-up of the McCain response: http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/08/26/russia/)



The Democratic National Convention Teeters ...

I haven't been impressed by the complaining of Carville, Begala, and pundits that Monday ought to have included more attacks on McCain. In fact, I don't think that making the first day of what should be an uplifting gathering largely about your opponent is a good idea.

But such attacks are necessary at some point -- as Eugene Robinson noted on MSNBC, "I'm waiting for someone to mention torture ...." And attack or not, Mark Warner's keynote speech is the opposite of what's needed. Conciliatory -- even Republican in its bureaucratic tone -- and boring.

Very, very boring.

Chris Mathews Blows his Lid at Keith Olbermann, Live

Update: Video

I've been putting very little up on this blog, because I've been waiting for something just this trivial: Chris Matthews had a very intemperate on-air moment with Keith Olbermann.

Here's what happened, as far as I could tell. Matthews was going on and on about women feeling passed over because of Clinton's loss. He was getting awfully sentimental. Then the producer apparently tried to get him to wrap it up, because he said "I'll wrap it in a second, this is important," or something like that. So he goes on again and finally wraps it up; Olbermann starts the segue with some reference to the long-windedness of "pundits like us" (or something to that effect) -- which sounded like typical Keith self-deprecation, but I think Matthews took it as directed at him. Matthews frankly looks a little drunk -- with his hair out of place, his sentimentality; but apparently he's been sober x years and doesn't touch the stuff.

Anyway, I was delighted to do a Google blog search to find that someone else had noticed this and immediately written about it:

http://www.politicalbyline.com/2008/08/26/chris-matthews-just-jumped-on-keith-olbermann-on-the-air/

And then:
9:15
Just got back from walking the dog. Amy has paused a segment on MSNBC where Chris Matthews gets snippy with co-host Keith Olbermann. This is classic. Apparently Olbermann was making fun of a long-winded diatribe by Matthews, and Chris just got testy with him right on the air.

The ongoing friction is obvious and oft-reported:

My new found purpose of the evening is to track reaction as it happens:

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden: Out McCaining McCain

imageOf those recognizable nationally, Biden is definitely the smartest, and he can definitely attack the hardest. And he is one of the most intellectually honest and frank politicians in Washington. Why he didn't blow everyone away in election primaries past I don't know, except that such honesty can seem "hot-headed." That he's a verbose "gaffe-machine." You begin to see the similarities to the Old John McCain -- and that's a subtlety to Obama's decision that the media have missed for now. In fact I wonder if Obama was thinking half-ironically about all this when he used the word "complement" -- he has picked a sort of mirror image of his opponent who will stand up to Obama provide him with unflinchingly honest advice. He's picked someone who will provide a stark contrast to the McCain's dubious transformation into a political panderer. He's picked someone who can beat McCain at his own game.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgian Crisis Roundup

More analysis of what's going on between Russia and Georgia:

What remains is an absolute determination not to be defeated by Georgia and not to suffer the humiliation of having to abandon Russia’s South Ossete client state, with everything that this would mean for Russian prestige in other areas. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin made it clear again and again that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would fight. Georgian advocates in the West claimed that Moscow was only bluffing. It wasn’t.

But the United States was bluffing. Russia was antagonized by the mulling over of a Georgian Nato membership, and remained unimpressed by American commitments to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, especially in light of its current military over-extension:

Saakashvili, an apparently quite idealistic 40 year-old former NY lawyer, seems to have erred too much in thinking that giddy summitry with Western big-wigs might pay dividends (or too his far too excited involvement in the Iraq adventure which, incidentally, looks to be coming to a quite precipitous end) but unfortunately, insufficiently appreciated the disastrous waning in U.S. power these past years, despite his constant hankering for NATO membership (which a resurgent Russia will never accept

In a phone conversation with him concerning South Ossetia, Putin told Saakashvili that he stick American reassurances about their dispute up his ass (really). A sad indication of the waning of American power under Bush -- this reassurances were worth precisely what Putin thought they were. Sadder yet, McCain suggests that we heighten the crisis by reconsidering Nato membership for Georgia and engaging in more posturing unlikely to backed by war with Russia. Meanwhile, we have Bill Kristol suggesting that we threaten to de-normalize relations with Russia and Cheney promoting the vague idea that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered" without "serious consequences for its relations with the United States...." It's the Bush administration's foreign policy one-two punch:

  • First, help create a crisis through a failure at diplomacy
  • Second, make this crisis worse through belligerent "diplomacy"

Fred Kaplan wonders, "Is there some third way, involving a level of diplomatic shrewdness that the Bush administration has rarely mustered and, in this case, might not have the legitimacy to pursue?" And:

it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military. Did they really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?

It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times—officials, soldiers, and citizens—wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would.

Gorbachev agrees. It's part of a long history of failed policy in the region:

But the seeds of Russia's aggression lie in the sense of humiliation that Moscow's proud power elites have felt at the hands of the West going back to the Clinton administration's unceasing efforts to bring what used to be the Soviet bloc—and post-Soviet Russia itself—into the West's sphere of influence. The policy started with the high-handed (and mostly failed) economic advice we gave to Moscow on free-market economics in the early '90s—the era of "privatization" (the Russians called it "grabitization"), which led directly to the reign of the hated oligarchs.

Since then we've seen the obliteration of Chechnya, the poisoning of Viktor Yuschenko, and Russia's backslide to authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, Georgians continue to suffer the consequences.

A template for how not to deal with Iran, despite its relative weakness.

Georgia, Oh Georgia

An ally we might have protected through preemptive diplomatic action if our administration weren't so intept and focused on other irrelevancies (like Iraq). According to Scott Horton, all very predictable:

Four and a half years after the Rose Revolution, the Georgians have constructed what may be the most vibrant democracy on former Soviet soil. Their economy has been modestly but surprisingly successful. They have steered a sharp Westward course, pushing for NATO membership and aligning themselves with America even in its more unpopular undertakings, such as the war in Iraq. For Georgians, the choice was simple. America stood for the ideals of an open society and a free market. It offered the promise of transformation. And America was the paramount military power on earth, a power they could depend upon. But Georgia’s confidence in America, and specifically the Bush Administration, may well prove tragically misplaced.

*****

Now at the moment of truth, Bush will almost certainly let them down. He has overextended America’s military presence around the world, whittling down America’s uniformed professional military just as he has undertaken two simultaneous wars. The Pentagon is telling Bush that he has stretched the nation’s fighting force perilously close to the breaking point. A conflict involving a major military power, like Russia, is beyond the realm of contemplation. Vice President Cheney, whose bellicose rhetoric has done much to provoke the problems now bubbling in the Caucasus, says that the Russian acts of aggression in Georgia “must not go unanswered.” But thanks to the serial strategic misadventures that make up Bush-Cheney foreign policy, there is little prospect of Russia’s actions being answered by a flex of military muscle of the United States or of NATO. Putin’s calculation is that an America bogged down in two conflicts in the Middle East will let him give the Georgians a whipping. Putin is probably right.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Language & Politics: Antecedent and Voice

I'm not a fan of pedantic language columns -- I'll take the colloquialism and neologism over "standard English" and grammar Nazism any day. I don't have time to carefully proofread this blog, which is probably rife with errors -- but I try to avoid the kinds of errors which I think are important.

And there are errors in language that I consider important, because I think they have something to do with clarity of thought. Take this one from a story on yesterday's NPR (I hear little tidbits like these all the time):
"the material has not been made public, but officials expect to do so later today"

The subject of the first clause is "material," the subject of the second is "officials." The active "do so" has a passive antecedent -- "made public." Officials are not expecting to be made public.

So what's the big deal?

First, there's the failure to think about antecedents and the internal logical consistency of sentences. The writer, editor, and proofreader didn't notice the reverse of voice from one clause to the other. Most proofreaders will catch more obvious grammatical mistakes. But in this case you're more likely to catch the mistake if you're thinking about the logic of the sentence, and that requires more than rote grammatical catechisms. (One way to achieve that understanding is through the study of highly inflected languages like Latin and Ancient Greek -- where much of what is grammatically hidden in a time-weathered language like English is made explicit).

And I can't help but think that carelessness is related to failures to carefully scrutinize the soundness of other kinds of connections -- e.g., the administration's rationales for the Iraq War.

Second, there's the use of passive voice and vague attribution. Passive voice is not always a bad thing, but it's often a way that bureaucrats and academics make sentences sound more technical and "objective" than they are by hiding the personalizing subject. For journalists, there's also the matter of concealing a lack of specificity caused either by anonymous sources, reporting on reporting, or the substitution of the reporter's opinion (or shit-stirring) with some vague attribution (e.g., "some say"). In this case, the vague "officials" is buried in the second clause, resurrected at the last moment when it's clear that "materials" won't simply take care of themselves. And that's what gets the sentence in trouble -- essentially, it's the result of a journalistic gambit to avoid specificity. Either the reporter took this bit of info from anonymous officials, or the report is so far along the grapevine that a specific attribution has been lost. While that vagueness is not a big deal in this case, it certainly is in many others.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

McSmeagol Knows the Way!

McCain the Nominee, McSmeagol: We wants it, we needs it. Must have the presidency, precious. They are stealing it from us. Sneaky little Democratses. Wicked, tricksy, Obama!

Old McCain, McGollum: No. We're Mavericky. Democrats are our friends!

McSmeagol: No, precious -- Obama will cheat you, hurt you, LIE about you. Nasty, nasty Obamatses. Tricksy celebrity.

McGollum: But we must run an honorable campaign!

McSmeagol: Nobody will voteses for you if you do! You must you go negativesy ....

Two by Maureen

I'm not a fan of Dowd's rambling fusillades of cleverness, but these are fun:
Now John McCain is pea-green with envy. That’s the only explanation for why a man who prides himself on honor, a man who vowed not to take the low road in the campaign, having been mugged by W. and Rove in South Carolina in 2000, is engaging in a festival of juvenilia.

More

And:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Barack Obama must continue to grovel to Hillary Clinton’s dead-enders, some of whom mutter darkly that they will not only not vote for him, they will never vote for a man again.

...

The odd thing is that Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.

More

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Uyghur Insurgency -- Separatist, not Islamist

It tells you something that the main terrorist threat to the Chinese government is Islamist.

I hope Sullivan means it tells you about the Chinese government's brutal repression of Uyghurs. And I hope he's not merely repeating Chinese government propaganda equating attacks on the Chinese army -- right or wrong -- with "terrorism." Finally, I hope by "Islamist" he meant to say "separatist." (And most separatist Uyghur political parties are peaceful).

One example of how unhelpful it is to use a looks-like-a-duck categorization-by-religion approach to the evaluation of varied violent movements; should we lump together the IRA and Lebanese Christian militias as well?

Obama: Too Cool for School? Too Sexy for his Shirt? Too Good to be True? Too presidential to be president? Too intelligent to be loved by morons? Too black to be loved by hard working white Americans? Too white to be loved by Jesse Jackson? Too loved by Foreign leaders to kick some French ass? Too deserving of respect not to seem arrogant? Too accomplished not to make me feel insecure? Too faithful to his wife to be the chastened champion of family values?

Milbank, who is often wickedly revealing, last week seemed mostly wicked as he turned benign campaign tableau -- an Obama motorcade, a talk with the Treasury secretary, a "pep rally" with congressional Democrats -- into evidence that Obama thinks he's already the winner.

Los Angeles Times: Obama's crime? Acting too presidential

What motivates such idiotic press antics? First, they need stories. Essentially tabloidal in their coverage, they need the verbal equivalent of celebrity paparazzi photos.

Second, they take their own intellectual laziness as a form of cleverness. Once a meme is out there, you will find a few thousand columnists merely repeating it, as if it something oh-so-clever and new. The legitimacy of the idea depends not on evidence but how salacious it is, how much controversy it can stir up. That the idea du jour is unoriginal is precisely what makes it so clever and repeatable -- the way has been paved, it should effortlessly produce agreement as the received wisdom. That is is unoriginal doesn't mean it is not new, any more than the fact that Stonehenge has been around forever means that your first visit isn't a new experience. The collective wisdom is just out there, and just because you're no the first to visit doesn't mean that you're not oh-so-clever for having made the visit.

Bad and stale ideas, parroted as original insights by lazy columnists.

I haven't had time to stop being astounded by the breathtaking herd mentality of these "opinion-makers" and "analysts," their lack of intellectual self-confidence and independence, their entirely unreflective shallowness, and the almost pornographic nature of their ruminations.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bruce Ivins and the Fear of Actual Counter-Terrorism

A question that currently preoccupies me: why is there so little regard for the identification and pursuit of actual "terrorists"? Why so many side-shows -- Iraq, the predominantly innocent population of Guantanamo, the very possibly innocent Bruce Ivins? It's not enough to talk about the need for scapegoating, or even the current aversion to law enforcement in relation to terrorism. Try self-destructiveness. Far from being afraid of terrorism, Americans are positively averse to confronting it:

Just as they did with Steven Hatfill (and Iraq before him), government sources continue to try to convict Bruce Ivins in the media of being the anthrax killer by anonymously leaking incriminating claims about him (all while insisting that they can't unveil their evidence against him because the case isn't yet closed). If this latest leak is indicative of the FBI's case against Ivins -- "The top suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks was obsessed with a sorority that sat less than 100 yards away from a New Jersey mailbox where the toxin-laced letters were sent, authorities said today" -- then it's no wonder they are reluctant to tell the public the basis for their accusations against him.

Additional key facts re: the anthrax investigation - Glenn Greenwald - Salon.com

Regardless of Ivins' guilt or innocence, this fascinating case is a window into some very ugly cultural pathologies.