Monday, February 28, 2005
Doing a little back of the envelope calculation (and leaving aside that the trendline on casualties is actually getting worse, not better), this would mean that unless the U.S. develops an exit strategy, we are headed toward something like 10,000 deaths and 100,000 additional casualties.
And, oh yeah, by the way, Iraqi casualties are averaging about 10x U.S. rates....
The article is a fascinating study in how the French elite operates and replicates itself. Clara, the daughter of a famous right-wing doctor and intimate family friend of the Chiracs. Hervé, the boy from the provinces who comes to the big city and scores with the privileged bourgeoise, who bears him 8 children in 13 years while pursuing her own high-powered career. And of course they are both "enarques." A French version of the Clintons, you might say -- though both the similarities and differences between them and the Clintons speaking volumes to the differences between the political cultures of the two countries.
It would take a Stendahl to do their biography justice.
Saturday, February 26, 2005
One of the things the article alludes to only tangentially is that whoever wins the battle to dominate the search market will have a truly frightening power over private individuals, or at any rate, knowledge of individuals. As the "dark web" becomes increasingly available to search engines, privacy will be eroded to a degree and in ways that is very difficult to comprehend. Let's hope that whoever wins is indeed forced not to "do anything evil" with the power they will have.
Hat tip: JS.
- always seize the moral high ground
- concede nothing
- change the subject
- be utterly shameless
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
What we see here exemplifies a characteristic tactic on the part of the contemporary Right: accuse the Left of something you are blatantly yourself guilty of, not so much to convince people, as to muddy the waters about the difference between the left and right, thus creating a sense of false equivalence among the bovine masses, e.g. "Yeah, well, they're all like that, so what's the difference?"
The real point about paranoid stylists is that they don't just think that conspiracies exist in history (this is clearly a fact), but that they think that history itself (History with a big H, if you will) is a conspiracy. No doubt there are people on the left who subscribe to such beliefs (people in the anti-globalization crowd, for example, who see "capitalism" as such a conspiratorial force). But there are just way, way, WAY more people on the right who subscribe to this pattern of belief: eschatologists, antifluoridationists, antiworldgovernment (or anti-U.N. wingjobs), anti-Catholics, ultrazionists, anti-Masons, and so on. All these people think there is some sinister conspiracy of shadowy but nearly all-powerful individuals and organizations who secretly are trying to manipulate the course of history. People who ascribe almost supernatural powers to Al Qaeda are victims of this thoughtway.
But it's a completely different thing to think that Karl Rove is engaged in a secret plot to try to manipulate the course of history. First of all, that's his job! Second, you don't have to consider him all-powerful, sinister, sensual, cruel, and luxury-loving to think that he's trying to manipulate the political situation in this country. I for one don't consider him all-powerful. Yes, he's very powerful, he's very smart, and he's got odious policies; but he's hardly the fulcrum of history, and neither is his boss. They're just a couple of middlingly evil caesarists. (Think Tiberius, not Caligula.)
Anyway, it's probably stupid of me to represent the Wall Street Journal's op-ed pages as a source of ideas (though frighteningly many mouth-breathers do). Rather, it's a place that issues rightwing smears in the form of easily-digested talking points, without any regard for intellectual coherence or integrity.
Traditionally, these committees were supposed to be nonpartisan. The notion was that the conference committees ought to honor the spirit of the political compromises that had been made during the debates over the legislation in each chamber. Obviously this was a crucial procedural job, but given that the goal was essentially to find common ground, it was ultimately a rather boring bureaucratic function.(For more on this procedural issue, check out this useful C-Span site.)
Over the last couple of Congressional sessions, however, this formerly boring function has changed quite dramatically. While it might be excessive to say that reconciliation committeework now reeks of derring-do, it has certainly become a less purely bureaucratic function. Since the Republicans took control of both chambers, these conference committees have become a place where the goal is not to split the difference between Senate and Congressional versions of bills, but rather to continue the partisan battle under nonpartisan, bureaucratic cover. On numerous occasions, Republicans have used the "reconciliation" process to purge bills of language or clauses that were inserted to help bring centrists and Democrats on board with the initial vote.
The goal in this transformation of the conference committess has been very calculatedly political. Centrists and Democrats have repeatedly been faced with the very uncomfortable prospect of having to "vote against a bill after they voted for it." For the Republican congressional leadership, the goal has been to try to expose these centrist legislators to charges of "flip-flopping." What's worse, with Republicans commanding very strictly voting discipline from their rank and file, they've often they've been able to simply forsake the Democratic votes during the votes on reconciled bills. The political goal in these cases has often to get a few Democrats to vote for the first version of a bill (thus providing political cover for Republicans against charges of partisanship), then to create a much more partisan "reconciled" version of the bill that passes along a strict party-line vote.
The result of the Republicans' habit of amending bills in conference in this manner, of course, is that it has made it all but impossible for Democrats to consider seriously making any kind of compromise on important issues. Any time Democrats agree to any legislative compromises, they now know they run a significant risk that the Republicans will drop their own concessions in conference. In short, the habit of amending bills in conference has led to the not unfair impression that the Republicans essentially bargain with the Democrats in bad faith.
For a very insightful take on how this may play in the struggle over Social Security, check out this fine piece of political reasoning from Matt Yglesias:
You reap what you sow.
Some dastardly Democrat is contemplating a deal with Lindsey Graham wherein "current payroll tax revenues are left in place for now and private accounts are funded in whole or in part from new payroll tax revenues generated by raising or even lifting the payroll tax cap." This is a moderately bad idea on policy terms, and a simply terrible political idea.
Most crucially, the House Republican leadership has already ruled it out. Thus, the only possible effect of brokering a compromise of this sort with moderate Senate Republicans would be to create a conference committee in which whatever concessions the GOP makes to turncoat Democrats will be purged from the bill. Then, having already conceded the high ground on the need to "do something" and on the point that the "something" ought to involve private accounts, turncoat Democrats will be forced to argue that the only problem with the conference report on the phase-out is that it doesn't raise taxes. This will, at best, transform a political winner for the Democrats into a political loser and, at worst, lead to the passage of a bad phase-out bill.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Between 1967 and 1973, when Thompson was at his best, he wrote with crazed, out-of-control, phantasmagoric violence. But he was living in crazed, out-of-control, phantasmagoric, violent times. A nation that had been placid suddenly raged with race riots and assassinations, manipulated by a crooked, villainous president and trapped in a terrible war.That last sentence drew me up short. It made me realize that what our own time lacks, quite precisely, is a Hunter S. Thompson figure. We desperately need someone who can shatter the pretenses of both the angry and passive, someone who can implode the perfervid fantasies that grip our country today just as surely as parallel fantasies gripped the country thirty-odd and fifty-odd years ago.
But hey, maybe it's better for the men. How does the old Beatles ditty go?
Me used to be angry young man
Me hiding me head in the sand
You gave me the word
I finally heard
I'm doing the best that I can...
I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her
and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man, I was mean but I'm changing my scene
and I'm doing the best that I can
I've got to admit it's getting better
a little better all the time
A small linguistic clue: you know you're dealing with fascistoid obstructionists whenever you hear the West Bank referred to by the maxi-Zionist terms "Judea" and "Samaria," the old Torah names for the right bank of the Jordan river. It's the equivalent of a German referring to the region between Gdansk and Kaliningrad as Ostpreußen.
Monday, February 21, 2005
That strikes me as just right. If anything, parsing the Churchill and Summers cases with relation to the institutional issue of academic freedom tends to lead me to the conclusion that Churchill should be defended more strenuously than Summers, since the criticism of Summers is at least in part based on the fact that he is an administrator with the power, presumably, to hire and fire on the basis of his ideas. Churchill's ideas, however, are just the ideas of one man among many others, and a man with no power.
Academic freedom is not an individual civil right, but rather an institutional prerogative. When we support academic freedom, we mean that colleges and universities, scholarly associations, journals, and presses should be free to set their own standards for expression without (much) state interference. In other words, the ideal is autonomy for certain professional associations, not rights for their employees as individuals.
Tenure causes confusion: it makes us think that the central commitment of a university is to the individual autonomy of professors. But tenure only applies to senior faculty (not to students, junior faculty, or administrators). Moreover, it is part of a larger system. It is aimed against one problem--invidious political pressure on professors not to teach or publish unpopular ideas. That is a real threat, but universities also worry about "free speech" that is incompetent, undisciplined, or irrelevant. To address that problem, they put academics through a lengthy and grueling socialization process before they grant tenure. And even after tenure, they apply all kinds of pressure to make faculty express themselves in particular ways.
Which brings me to the two cases of recent weeks. I haven't made a study of Ward Churchill's writing, nor do I have time to do so. But there are tenured professors--possibly including Dr. Churchill--who are radical blowhards: offensive and totally lacking in rigor and discipline. Such people are one price we pay for the tenure system. (Some other costs are the burnouts and timeservers on our faculties.) If tenure makes sense, it's because the advantage of protecting trenchant, insightful radicals outweighs the cost of all those blowhards and timeservers. I don't know for sure that this price is worth paying--it probably is. In any case, we should evaluate tenure overall, and not let particular cases dominate our thinking. Thus Churchill may have to be allowed to speak offensively and foolishly in order to uphold an institutional rule that is valuable, overall.
But with no one interested in defending both Summers and Churchill, instead the Plen-T-plainters are just using the two cases to rile up the masses about those damn liberal elites in advance of the push to abolish Social Security (e.g., Jonah Goldberg, and more sadly, since he ought to know better, Andrew Sullivan).
Update, 9:51 pm: As an aside, it amazes me that someone as asinine as Goldberg can continue to get published. By his own testimony, his only qualification for his job at the WSJ is what he calls his "good political judgment." But what are we to make of the political judgment of someone who, when asked him why, if he was so in favor of killing people abroad, he didn't make the sacrifice of signing up to go do it himself, replies that his family needs the money he gets from his work and that he has a daughter?
As Juan Cole tersely put it, "This response made me embarrassed for him.... A young man (and this applies to W. and Cheney too) who mouths off strongly about the desirability of a war is a coward and a hypocrite if he does not go to fight it." No doubt there will be cowardly pro-war people who balk at this and talk about our professional army, comparative skill advantages, the importance of manning the homefront, and so on. But the notion that the army is just another professional group is pretty hard to square with all the patriotic fervor that these same wingers invest in the military, not to mention with the fifteen-hundred-plus-and-counting bodybags that have come home from Iraq. (Is counting bodybags a sign of bad political judgment?) Would it be bad political taste to point out to Goldberg the unprecedented difficulties the active-duty army is having meeting recruitment goals?
Then again, I guess no one should be surprised that a chicken-ass like Goldberg continues to get published. As Cole concludes, "Rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies."
This is exactly why anyone reasonable should hesitate before advocating a war: in advocating war, one is affirming scenes of precisely this nature. Presumably even the chickenhawks who promoted this war knew that they were advocating this sort of thing; but does anyone today look honestly at Iraq and say to themselves that, as of today's reckoning, the positive results of the war have made these sorts of scenes worth it, especially for the men and women who have committed these acts and who must one day come home and one day to live as civilians among the rest of us (let alone the victims)?
One day the reckoning may be different, but it's like a guy who drops the first five big hands at the table at the start of the night: to get back anywhere remotely close to even, he's going to need a long winning streak, based not just on great bets, but also on wild luck.
If George Washington returned from the dead and attempted to recapture the presidency of the United States, he would beat incumbent President George W. Bush by nearly 20 percentage points, 55%-36%, according to a new national poll conducted for Washington College by the public affairs research firm of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, Inc. Asked to choose between George Washington and George W. Bush, Republicans supported Bush by a margin of more than 2 to 1....Hat tip: GD.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
This man was neither particularly religious nor pro-Saddam before the American invasion, but is now an important leader in an insurgency made up of men from Saddam's disbanded army and members of his Ba'athist regime, rebellious desert tribesmen, fierce nationalists, common thugs, and (yes) roaming fanatics from around the Muslim world -- all united by their desire to challenge American domination of their land.
What is certain is that no matter what the long-term outcome in Iraq, the insurgency itself is providing a training ground for a new generation of ruthless anti-Western militants.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
In other words, even the Bushists themselves on some level are recongizing the illegitimacy of their actions, which is why they're going back to the U.N. to ask for more than just troops. What they're asking for is legitimation. I don't think this is a cynical ploy, either: the Bush regime would love any help it can get in Iraq, both in practical physical terms, and in terms of legitimation.
With that said, conservatives aren't exactly wrong when they say that there's little chance that the U.N. will respond in any useful way to Negroponte's pleas. I say "not exactly wrong" because what they are wrong about is in the implication that garnering more international help is inherently impossible. Receiving such help is in fact, I believe, very possible -- but only if the Bushists are willing to concede political-diplomatic ground to the position of the international community on the original legitimacy of the war.
However, it is true that the international community will do nothing to help legitimate the initial decision to go to war, which so many of them opposed. In other words, as long as the Bushies insist that the war itself was legitimate in the first place, the international community will allow us to continue stewing in it alone.
If the Bushists really want help, I would suggest, what they ought to do is say, "We renounce the doctrine of preemption; we admit the war in Iraq was a mistake; we admit that we violated well-established and worthy international norms in going to war without the Security Council's approval; and we promise we won't do anything like this again." If the Bushies were to do something like this -- in other words, if they were to concede the diplomatic defeat of their hyperimperial ambitions -- then I believe the international community would be much more likely to provide significant material and moral support in the ongoing situation in Iraq.
Needless to say, the proposal is a nonstarter. These guys would rather have a dozen Americans get killed in the Mesopotamian sands every week for the indefinite future than concede a political point to those dastardly Old Europeans and their fellow travelling Third Worldistas.
Friday, February 18, 2005
...and then hooks you with this stunning observation:
The occupation has presented Israel with a "demographic" threat. Maintain the occupation, the argument goes, lose the "Jewish majority" between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and Israel must become either an apartheid state or a binational state—a "Jewish state" or a "democratic state"—not both.
Less commonly asserted... is an argument about Israel irrespective of its occupation. A Jewish state cannot be democratic, this argument goes, because a state in which the world's Jewish people and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges is inherently discriminatory against non-Jewish citizens. Some kind of binationalism, if not inevitable, is more or less preferable.
A quarter of Israel's schoolchildren are Arabs. Were the West Bank and Gaza to disappear, and Israel did nothing to reform itself, it would face another intifada in a generation, this time from within. Israeli Jews know this in their guts, if not from their debate. Listen only to them, and the "situation" seems hopeless. Israel’s deficiencies as a "democratic state" were always most transparent to Arab Israelis.No two state solution resolves the issue of how Israel, in the long term, will treat its 1.3 million Arab citizens; only getting rid of laws and customs that favor Jews over Arabs can resolve this ethical cancer within Israel's democracy.
Now this is funny:
Treason: it’s all the rage these days! From treasonous news executives to treasonous former Presidents everybody’s doin it. In fact you may be a traitor and not even know it! "That is silly Fafnir I could never betray America I love it an eat twelve flags a day" says you. Well a lotta traitors start off not even tryin to be traitors, it is just that easy to do! Treason isn't just providin aid an comfort to the enemy. It's providin not-aid an discomfort to America. Treason is hurting America's feelings.
Now you may think "oh well Fafnir America's a big country it can take care a itself" but in fact it is very sensitive. When you say its mom's ugly or criticize its foreign policy or kick sand on its face at the beach it is just as hurt as if you'd sold its state secrets. Like every emotional young superpower America needs love and care from its citizens. We've put together a brief guide to treason so you can understand it a little better.
Q: Which of the following is treason?
- Not wishing the President a happy birthday even when he is clearly wearing a party hat and a "Kiss The Birthday Boy" shirt
- Questioning the progress, purpose, or justification of the Iraq war
- Providing material aid to a hostile enemy of the United States
- Telling America "Hey America yo mama's so fat by the time she bends over it's Daylight Savings Time."
A: All of them are treason but number four is the worst treason of all on account of America is real sensitive about the fatness of its mama.
Q: I'm at a formal dinner party when the President shows up half-naked and stinking of rum. Can I tell him he is inappropriately attired without committing treason?
A: No. By embarassing the Commander-in-Chief you're providing aid and comfort to
our enemies such as Osama bin Laden and Al Franken.
Q: What if it's the Vice-President in a muu-muu reeking of ether?
A: No. By embarassing the Vice-President you are a heartbeat away from providing aid and comfort to our enemies.
Q: What about the President Pro Tempore of the Senate? Nobody cares about the stupid ol President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
A: No, that's three heartbeats away from treason which is still dangerously naughty.
Q: The Secretary of Agriculture naked and smeared in monkey dung?
A: No. By embarassing the Secretary of Agriculture you are providing aid and comfort to the enemies of agriculture, like potato blight and Dutch Elm disease. Are you on the side of Dutch Elm disease?
Q: Assistant to the postmaster general wearing a suit of old condoms and whale blubber?
A: Now you're being silly. Where would the assistant to the postmaster general get a hold of whale blubber?
Q: Oh no, I've accidentally committed treason! What do I do!
A: Don't worry there is still time to make up for it! America's very forgiving an there's always another second chance to cheer up your country after you've gotten it down. Here's a few examples:
- Calling America an illegal occupier --> three God Bless Americas, two public denunciations of Ted Kennedy as an Islamist sympathizer
- Voting against tort reform --> four America the Beautifuls, three strident blog posts on Why We Must Win
- Selling nuclear technology to North Korea --> four National Anthems, one delicious chocolate ice cream cake especially for the President
- Leaking a CIA agent's identity to Robert Novak --> one fifteen minute segment plugging White House policy on the Sunday morning talk show of your choice
- Leaking a CIA agent's identity to Robert Novak to get back at her treasonous husband --> Totally not treason! Buy yourself a taco.
Now you're ready to go out there and respect your country's boundaries and feelings! Punishment may otherwise include fines of at least ten thousand dollars, emprisonment of at least five years, and the death penalty.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Frustrated FBI investigators, like the French Sûreté before them, are lobbying to take recalcitrant suspects down to the scream-proof basement where the batteries and electrodes are kept. For the first time in American history there is a serious public campaign to justify torture in police interrogation. With the op-ed support of leading liberals like Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, the FBI wants access to methods that the Washington Post euphemistically characterized as "employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators." If US courts balk at such rough work, the alternative is to export the task to overseas professionals like the Mossad. "Another idea," the Post explained on 21 October , "is extraditing the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture."These suggestions turn out to have been largely implemented, as we can now read in the paper every day. But rereading Davis's passage also reminds us that anyone who claims that they couldn't have known that Bush's version of the GWOT included torture as a core tactic is simply being dishonest -- either with us, or with themselves. The mainstream press--Newsweek, the Washington Post -- were discussing it right there, in the immediate wake of the bombings.
In short, before the dust had even settled from 9-11, a debate was joined in the mainstream media about the merits of the use of torture (a debate which, incidentally, all but ignored that no amount of torture would have prevented the attacks). It was a debate that was really a litmus test concerning the American people's willingness to be ruthless with anyone even suspected of sympathizing with the 9-11 perps. While politicians for the most part avoided joining this debate, the Bushists made the shrewd political judgement that the very fact that such a debate could take place without eliciting a backlash was evidence they would be able to get away (politically speaking) with quietly giving the nod to torture. That we've all known from the beginning that torture was taking place also explains the lack of outrage (among Americans) to the ever-wider reports of the use of torture. Since we didn't react with outrage when the torture plans were first proposed, who are we to mime outrage now as we learn how it actually got implemented? In sum, Andrew Sullivan's "I'm shocked, shocked" routine just doesn't wash: we who did not voice outrage then are all complicit now -- and we know it.
Like Jefferson, I tremble for my country.
Garratt's perspective reminds me of Ronald Reagan's famous bon mot that what makes America great is that "there's always somebody getting rich."
Just over a year ago, on my last visit, I was able to drive north to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and south to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. These were not drives where you sit back and enjoy the scenery. But the journeys were feasible, at high speed and some risk.
Today, no Westerner with any vestige of sanity would contemplate making such trips. It is not merely that images of beheadings prey on the mind. It is not simply that this month's kidnapping of Giuliana Sgrena of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto formed part of a pattern. It is that, by any rational assessment, the danger is unacceptable.
By that crude yardstick, things are getting worse. Jonathan Garratt, managing director of Erinys, a British security company with over 1,000 employees here, says Iraq is "the worst operating environment as far as safety goes anywhere I've ever known." That, of course, is not bad for his firm. Security is Iraq's main growth industry.
The insurgency in Iraq continues to baffle the U.S. military and intelligence communities, and the U.S. occupation has become a potent recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, top U.S. national security officials told Congress yesterday.
"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism," he said. "They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
This is where the wingjobs are at these days: casually accusing ex-Presidents of treason. And no one on their side cries foul.
- General F. S. Maude, 1917, at the British occupation of Baghdad
"I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using [it] against uncivilised tribes."
- Secretary of State Winston Churchill, British War Office, 1919, authorising use of chemical weapons against Iraqis
The article points out that in order for a new constitution to be approved, it must obtain the approval of at least one-third of the voters in sixteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces--effectively guaranteeing the Kurds a veto over any new constitution. And since any permanent constitution will doubtless reduce Kurdish power compared to the current arrangement, there is really no reason for the Kurds ever to approve any new constitution. And until there's a new constitution, the U.S. retains control. In other words, the U.S.'s main clients in Iraq have an effective veto over the creation of any new constitution which might actually compromise U.S. legal authority. Hmmm....
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
To reduce each of their positions to a single phrase, Ali claims that the "Iraqi people don't like being occupied. They may have loathed Saddam, but they don't like being occupied by the United States." By contrast, Hitchens claims that "this is an enemy across the globe and in our own society, there is no possibility of surrender with it or of negotiation with it."
That strikes me as, indeed, the fundamental debate at this point in Iraq.
It won't surprise you which side I come down on. Let me just say that Hitch might do well to remind himself of the old Tip O'Neil rule: "all politics is local."
The first position, more or less the one I subscribe to, is that the Bush regime is quite serious about his faith-based initiatives, but that its first priority is to destroy state-run programs for the poor. This is the first priority, because destroying the welfare states is a necessary priori condition to getting people to back faith-based initiatives. That is, the Bush regimes believes that the state is "crowding out" private sector initiatives, and the only way to drive the poor back into the arms of the church is to make state-funded programs unavailable. In this view, it's a matter of political sequencing, and the disillusioned complaints of faith-based program directors like David Kuo (original article here) or John DiIulio (of "Mayberry Machiavelli" fame) are simply expressions of impatience.
The other position, advocated most clearly by the likes of Thomas Frank, is that the Bush regime uses all the faith-based stuff essentially as a ruse to rally the benighted Christians to support a program which has as the sum total of its ambition to cut taxes for the rich. From this perspective, all the rhetoric about replacing government-run programs with faith-based initiatives is cynical guff, aimed at duping stupid Christians into voting for a party that consistently promotes policies that undercut their material interests. In Frank's view, Kuo's stated hope that when Bush "became the president, there was every reason to believe he'd be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor" just shows what a sucker Kuo and all the rest of Bush's Christian supporters are.
Frank's position may, of course, be the correct one. However, I am not convinced. It's hugely unlikely that one would ever find a smoking gun to support his perspective, of course. But in absence of such a smoking gun, I have a general tendency to be suspicious about what therefore amounts to a conspiracy theory.
A reconciled position is that since both the wealthy backers and the fundamentalist rank and file of the Republican Party agree on cutting taxes and destroying the state social sector, Bush is willing to spend political capital to promote this part of the initiative, but that Bush is unwilling to spend political capital on promoting the faith-based initiatives part, which has less wide backing within the Party. This what DiIulio was complaining about when he claimed that "politics trumps policy" every time in this White House. Such a position has the advantage of not assuming that the Bushies are intentionally using their faith-based blah-blah to deceive stupid Christians. After all, Bush's inattention to promoting the interests of the poor does not prove that he is acting in, ahem, bad faith when he speaks of faith-based intiatives. Rather, it just goes to show what we've always known about Republicans: most of them don't actively want to make the lives of the poor worse so much as they just don't give a damn about the problems of the poor.
Whatever one makes of this debate, the net result is that what the Bush regime is actually doing is to undercut programs for the poor, without promoting any alternative whatsoever. The whole thing reminds me of this funny clip from Mel Brooks's "History of the World, Part I."
Monday, February 14, 2005
"The idea that the United States would get a quick, stable, prosperous, pro-American and pro-Israel Iraq has not happened. Most of the neoconservative assumptions about what would happen have proven false," [said] Rami Khouri, Arab analyst and editor of Beirut's Daily Star....
"The big losers in this election are the liberals," said Stanford University's Larry Diamond, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation government. "The fact that three-quarters of the national assembly seats have gone to just two [out of 111] slates is a worrisome trend. Unless the ruling coalition reaches out to broaden itself to include all groups, the insurgency will continue -- and may gain ground."
By adamantly refusing to do anything to improve energy conservation in America, or to phase in a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax on American drivers, or to demand increased mileage from Detroit's automakers, or to develop a crash program for renewable sources of energy, the Bush team is - as others have noted - financing both sides of the war on terrorism. We are financing the U.S. armed forces with our tax dollars, and, through our profligate use of energy, we are generating huge windfall profits for Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, where the cash is used to insulate the regimes from any pressure to open up their economies, liberate their women or modernize their schools, and where it ends up instead financing madrassas, mosques and militants fundamentally opposed to the progressive, pluralistic agenda America is trying to promote. Now how smart is that?Friedman makes the outlandish suggestion that a greener politics might also be a more moral politics.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
My friend Bill Barnes also wrote the following letter to Geras, which apparently got almost as warm a response as my own more public comment:
As I've mentioned before, the fundamental difficulty the left faces today in articulating its position on Iraq is that while everyone agrees that it is crucial to stabilize and provide security for Iraq, we must nevertheless do everything we can to ensure that the Bush regime does not secure political benefit from any improvements in the situation in Iraq. (If you like business analogies, then imagine a CEO who drives a company into years of bankruptcy, litigation and losses, and then wants to be feted not just for his efforts in securing the fiscal turnaround, but also for the original decisions that led to the disaster.) This tension can sometimes lead to a quandry whereby attacking the political activities of the Bush regime can appear as an effort to undermine the worthy shared goals of stability and security in Iraq. Certainly the Bushies make a lot of effort to portray political opponents in this light.
Your piece in the current Dissent constitutes a powerful critique of certain segments of the Left. But it suffers from one-sidedness in a number of ways. Let me point to two: First, your total focus on the sins of the Left without any substantial mention of how it was understandable that some form of such sin would be common on the Left, given the real world-historical crimes of Western governments and militaries (e.g., U.S. and Israeli support/excusing of the mass murder of Guatemalans for 30 years by forces fully as evil as the Iraqi Baathists; see also the new revelations on the British in Kenya). The real problem is how far such sin has been carried and persisted in, what the continuing failure/refusal to learn shows about the part of the Left you're talking about; and even more, the failure of a different Left to coalesce around a left-liberal- democratic socialist position and act as a powerful pole for the reeducation/marginalization of the portions of the Left you're talking about.
Second, You fail to note how diverse the left side of the political spectrum is re the degree of such sinning. Much of the Left is, in a variety of ways, "in between" where you are and where Ward Churchill is. On blogs like Crooked Timber people have been talking about how they've been active on the Left all their adult lives and they've never even met someone like Churchill, never heard anyone say the kinds of things about 9/11 that he has said. That's more than a bit naive of course, but it is true that most on the Left are in at least some ways ambivalent, equivocal about the sinning you skewer. Different versions of such sinning wax and wane among this great "middle". Relatively few were unambivalently "anti-American" re Clinton in Bosnia and Haiti or on Sept 12, 2001, or re the justification for some military action in Afghanistan (I realize this is probably somewhat less true in Europe).
More generally (and being unfair to you, for the sake of simplicity, in the same way you have been unfair to the Left), your moralism is a mirror image of that which you condemn. You reify your enemy's past (both of your enemies' pasts, that of the offending segment of the Western left and that of the Iraqi Baath), and your present cost/benefit calculations are based on extrapolating such reification through the present and into the future, without an adequate evidentiary basis. It is my impression that you are historically incorrect in saying that the practice of major, horrendous atrocities by the Iraqi Baath regime has been continuous, uniform, and on-going, as opposed to episodic and mostly pre-2000. (I do not mean any minimization of those atrocities or of the lower level day-to-day brutality of the regime; Sadaam and his hencemen were monsters and should have been taken out at any opportunity. But we still have to pay attention to the factors I'm pointing to -- such day-to-day level of brutality is entirely unexceptional in our world and time; the U.S. could not possibly set out to remedy or punish all such.
It is one thing to urge/insist that others pay any price, bear any burden, kill and die as much as necessary, to stop monstrous crimes that are ongoing or demonstrably imminent. It is quite another to do so to punish such crimes committed in the past or to preclude such crimes that might be committed in the future. There is a burden on you to demonstrate that the policy you support really does forestall more human suffering than it generates. There is a burden on you to demonstrate that it is highly unlikely that lesser measures would have produced a better balance of costs and benefits in terms of human suffering. Dropping a nuclear weapon on Baghdad in order to get rid of Sadaam would not have been justified no matter how wonderful a democracy might have eventuated in Iraq by the year 2020. (Would history have looked at such, and several million dead, maimed, seriously debilitated, as simply a tough-love form of democracy-building, or as a major-league war crime?)
The fall of the Baath regime has in no way ended the brutalization and murder of Iraqis (by all sides) — not to mention the killing and maiming of Americans and international workers — and such pacification is no where in sight. I agree with you completely in condemning anyone who welcomes or relishes this outcome because all they really care about is the U.S. or Bush administration looking bad (or for any other reason). But just as you call upon the left to look the reality of Sadaam's brutality in the face, so you must look the reality of war, ongoing war, in the face. For me what was decisive was that I knew from the beginning that the particular people making U.S. policy and directing the war and the occupation could not be trusted to conduct operations in a way that respected innocent human life or took account of human realities — not because of the nature of capitalism or imperialism or "America" but because over the last 40 years the American political system has been substantially taken over by a militaristic rightist ideological movement married to religious fundamentalism and popular chauvinism (see, e.g. Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong; Chris Hedge's "On War," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04). At this moment there is very little left in the way of effective checks and balances against this. You underestimate the danger of this situation.
As I wrote a year ago to Paul Berman and Dissent in response to the Berman piece you mention: We enemies of fascism cannot simply pronounce a death sentence against all fascists, much less all anti-liberals (we cannot simply "put an end to" the mass base of Islamic fascism, as Christopher Hitchens would like). Lets avoid debate about the death penalty and grant for the sake of argument that the lives of Sadam Hussein, his sons, Osama bin Laden, the gurus of suicide-bombing, and other leaders of torture and murder have no value; killing them is purely positive. But how far down the hierarchy of a "fascist" regime or movement can we maintain such a judgment? Are we not obligated to weigh the lives and suffering of mid-level functionaries and army majors and captains? is it only once we get to clerks and noncoms that "fascist" lives count? And what about the families of such people, and those living and working in close proximity? What about the "good Germans?" (We are all "good Germans" to some degree some of the time.)
Does "collateral damage" count as a serious negative only if and when it hits the entirely innocent? Does being in a "war against fascism" mean that we need have no compunction about helicopter gun-ships strafing the "Arab street"? If ten times — or fifty times— as many Iraqis die violent deaths and sustain serious injuries in 2003-04 as did in 2001-02 (there is no evidence of mass killings after the mid-1990s), can Iraqis be required to accept Liberalism's judgment that they are nonetheless better off because they no longer live under "totalitarianism" and many of those killed and maimed were anti-liberal, and Sadaam and his henchmen richly deserved what they got? (Remember when certain U.S. conservatives took the position that war with the Soviet Union was justified because every last Russian was "better dead than Red"? Does the reality of the Gulag make that true?) None of this is to say that no efforts should have been made to bring down Sadaam and his regime, nor is it to deny that deadly force is sometimes necessary in fighting fascism. But left-liberals must always fight to deny people like Bush and the Neocons control over the required cost-benefit, means-ends, strategic analysis and decision-making, because such right-wingers are congenitally incapable of cnducting such analysis and decision- making in a manner consistent with what left-liberals take as the core values of Liberalism.
There are lots of people in the Middle East, and indeed all over the world, including in the United States, who are ambivalent but not extremist enemies of left-liberalism, who identify their anti-liberalism with national patriotism or religious piety — just as there were in the Central Europe and the Japan of the 1930s (and South and Central America of the 1970s and 80s). For the left to fight the proto/quasi-fascist tendencies among these populations, to declare war on fascism, should not be to advocate wholesale violence against them — even if at times it is necessary to take some kind of military action against core extremists (as I believe it was for the left in Central America and for the U.S. and others in the Balkans and Afghanistan and against al Qaeda). Despite the obvious need to go to war against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes (and the left in South and Central America frequently over-militarized the struggle against "fascism"). Left-liberalism must always oppose dehumanization of "the Enemy," "the Other." t some points Liberal Hawks come dangerously close to such blanket writing off of what they homogenizes into the mass base of "totalitarianism"-- they give aid and comfort to those who declare that in fighting such enemies, the end justifies the means. Ends-justify-the-means thinking is a slippery slope leading to a gradual descent into "fascism," and, when combined with great power and the moral obtuseness of (one or another kind of) fundamentalism or war fever, to monstrous crimes.
Islamic fascism is not the definition of 21st Century evil. The insistence that it is makes it impossible to engage other equally threatening realities. We now face a coming half-century of increasingly catastrophic environmental and public health disasters, amidst unrelenting poverty in much of the world, which will likely result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. If the rich societies do not act to head this off, they will find themselves surrounded by "fascisms" and subjected to unrelenting terrorism — and perhaps succumbing to "fascism" themselves. Continuing power for the likes of Bush & Co. and the Neocons will make realization of such nightmares all but inevitable — not because these people are fascists, which they are not, but because they are willfully blind fundamentalists and sworn enemies of left-liberalism.
However, it's worth noting that the Bush regime faces an obverse tension; they want to ensure that they get political benefit from whatever outcome happens in Iraq, even if this means sometimes doing things that undermine the practical chances of success in stabilizing and securing Iraq, in order to better guarantee that whatever political benefits there are accrue strictly to them and their cronies. The most publicized instance of this sort was the decision immediately after the invasion to refuse to award reconstruction contracts to private firms from countries whose political leadership had refused to toady to the Bushies -- presumably eliminating some of the more competent reconstructors. Likewise, Bush would never consider renouncing the preemption doctrine in exchange for getting U.N. and NATO commitment to securing and stabilizing Iraq. Even now, after nearly two disastrous years, securing political benefit is still Bush's primary goal.
Geras comes to the dramatic conclusion that anti-Americanism is at the root of "the left"'s dislike for American militarist activism. To this strikingly original idea, Geras adds that, for some reason, "leftists" apparently "lack any genuine grasp of, or feeling for, the meaning of extreme forms of evil and oppression."
The article ingratiatingly begins by debunking some of the more hysterical right-wing explanations of the left's dislike for the war in Iraq. Pointing out that before the war in Iraq, the left was also against interventions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq in 1991, Geras argues that hatred of George Bush, Israel, or Jews can't be the driving force behind the left's anti-interventionism, since none of these issues applied in the Balkans. Somewhat more cleverly, Geras suggests that the left's anti-capitalism, along with its tendency to see the United States as the embodiment of capitalism, has made it reflexively against whatever the U.S. does.
Normally, I wouldn't respond to this sort of nonsense, but at least one person whose political acumen I respect has expressed the opinion that he considers Geras's argument to be a "powerful critique of the (far) left." Personally, I thought Geras's argument was complete nonsense.
The first thing that's worth pointing out about this argument is that it's about no one in particular: he doesn't mention a single supposed lefty by name. That's partly because this is not an argument, but rather a political hit-piece. While Geras's argument may apply to the Ward Churchills of this world, he's not trying to attack certain outliers, but rather trying to tag the entire left as morally stunted, anti-capitalist America-haters. In short, Geras's goal is a political rather than intellectual one: to conflate all those who oppose the war into one common, noxious camp.
While I would not deign to speak for "the left" as a whole, let me say that Geras's description of why "the left" opposes American interventionism bears no relationship to my own opposition to the war.
To make it clear why not, let me explain, as simply as I can, my own opposition to the current Iraq war. Before I go there, however, it's worth noting that of the wars that the U.S. has waged since I reached my majority -- that is: Panama, Iraq I, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq II -- I have indeed been against all of them, with the singular exception of Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan exception is extremely important, not least because my support was not unambiguous. Once the Taliban was unwilling or unable to hand over Osama, it became obvious that war was necessary. However, I still had deep reservations, ones that would foreshadow my strident opposition to Iraq eighteen months later. My first worry was that Afghanistan would turn out to be a humanitarian disaster that the U.S. would now be responsible for -- the "Pottery Barn principle" before it was so named. Secondly, and more importantly, I was deeply nonplussed by the jingoistic, religiously-tinted rhetoric with which Bush sold the war. He seemed to me to be whipping the country into an utterly unnecessary frenzy. 9-11 had been a horrible crime, and the goal ought to have been, quite simply, bring the perps to justice (as he put it) dead or alive. But the axis of evil stuff, the "crusade" stuff, the general chauvinism, all that made me deeply uneasy: why exactly did George Bush feel the need to act as if Al Qaeda posed an existential threat to our country, when quite clearly, it was nothing of the sort?
Leaving aside Afghanistan, the reason I was against all the other wars was, at root, very simple, and it had little if anything to do with anti-capitalism. It has to do with the fact that in none of these cases was there any case of self-defense. What James Baker said of the Balkans -- "we ain't got no dog in that fight" -- seemed to me to apply equally well to Iraq. Once you accept Baker's argument about the Balkans, it leads to the question of what the "dog" was that we were fighting over in Iraq/Kuwait (or should I say, Rumaila?) in 1991. Here I will confess that a certain degree of anti-imperialism comes into effect for me. I do think it is immoral, as the movie "Air Force One" put it, "to murder 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas." In a nutshell, I consider self-defense to be the only legitimate grounds for war. And Iraqi in 2003 was clearly not a case of self-defense, as even the Bushies conceded: it was a case, at best, of preemption.
Which brings us to Geras's second slander, namely the left's alleged inability "to digest the meaning of the great moral and political evils of the world and to look at them unflinchingly."
The first thing worth noting, since apparently the likes of Geras seems to need this reassurance, is that I am (along with many other leftists) in fact very aware that terrible, awful things are happening in the world every day. And yes, Saddam did some of the worst things to his people (and other people) of any of the monsters of the twentieth century. Likewise, Bosnia too was horrid. I followed the Balkan wars closely, and even attended Milosovic's trial in the Hague a couple years ago. We're all reading the same newspapers, Norm, and I suspect I read the pages about atrocities in the Third World with more attention than you do.
But does an ongoing or unfolding set of atrocities mean that we should necessarily intervene? Why does no one suggest we invade Sierra Leone? Myanmar? Zaire? Nepal? Liberia? To say nothing of Sudan, which everyone now describes as a genocide? Atrocious things are happening in all these places right now (not just ten years ago), but for some odd reason all these great pro-war moralists seem not to beat the war drums for these cases. Who is it who really lacks the moral imagination here? Everyone seems to acknowledge, tacitly, that atrocities alone are not grounds for intervention. In fact, we need to have a dog in the fight.
(Let me be clear that I am not advocating that we intervene in all these places. The causes of these evils are, mainly, not systemic, but local, and I just don't believe that Washington can parachute--or carpet-bomb--its way into these places and effectively resolve these local horrors. Geras calls this a lack of moral imagination. I call it humility.)
With all this said, however, I must now confess that my opposition to this current Iraq war has been far more strident than my opposition to the earlier interventions. So what was it that made me oppose to this war so much more virulently than I opposed these earlier wars?
I won't be shy. The answer is, indeed, "George Bush."
Let me unpack that answer. As anyone who reads this blog knows, my dislike of Bush is not rooted in a hatred for his character, or even for his foreign policies, so much as it is a product of my loathing for his domestic policies. What has outraged me about his conduct of the so-called GWOT is the way he has used the specter of war and terror to shore up political support for his domestic agenda.
The evidence of this manipulation of foreign policy to serve domestic political ends is everywhere. Just consider what's happened since his reelection. Much as it irks me, I personally believe that the election was in fact largely a referendum on his conduct in the war on terror, including Iraq. (Some pollsters suggested that was also about his "moral values.") But coming out of the reelection gate, what policy has he decided to promote with the supposed "mandate" he received in the "accountability moment"? That's right: rolling back Social Security.
Indeed, it is hard not to assume that Bush chose the Iraq war specifically to have it serve this effect of shoring up his domestic political success. What else can we conclude from the way he and Rove repeatedly say they are trying to recreate the success of William McKinley, another President who chose a needless war in order to shore up domestic political support? Bush honestly thought the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk" (if he'd realized how hard it would be, he'd have been much more hesitant about the political gamble) -- which is also why he didn't think there was much need for postwar planning. It would be a splendid little war, just great for the election.
In short, I see nothing moral whatsoever about Bush's aims in Iraq. Bush is all about "think local, act global," with the political always trumping policy. Global policies are this mainly a way to shore up political support for an odious domestic agenda.
And thus what we discover is that the so-called "liberal hawks," among which I presume Geras counts himself, are not so much moralists as dupes, victims of a political bait-and-switch. While they believe that by supporting Bush they are aligning themselves with the geopolitical angels, what they are in fact doing is providing Bush with the political cover from the left that he needs to push through the domestic agenda which presumably (as nominal liberals) they oppose. They're the P. G. Wodehouses of their particular political moment, but without the wit.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Boxer wasn't great on Condi--I thought Chris Dodd was far better, since he went after going-forward policies--but at least she went after Rice and voted against her. And now she's going after Bush's Social Security balderdash. Her method is straight-forward: unearth statements made by the target of her attacks, and hold them to account.
Let me call attention to one particular passage in the Social Security speech, since it's related to a theme I've been hammering for months now:
These guys want to roll back the twentieth century. It's not an exaggeration.
[Bush's] initiative is not about meeting the challenges of Social Security to keep it sound; it is not about bringing together Democrats and Republicans as Ronald Reagan did to ensure that full benefits will be there for all Americans.
It is about one thing and one thing only: destroying Social Security. How do I know that? Am I being partisan? Am I being unfair by stating in a very clear way that I believe the true goal here is to destroy Social Security?
Not at all. I am simply telling the truth as told by this very White House. On January 6, 2005, the White House wrote a Social Security memo. Although marked "not for attribution," fortunately, we have it.
The most telling sentence in the entire memo is this: "For the first time in six decades the Social Security battle is one we can win – and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country."
Imagine: for six decades – that's 60 years – the right wing has been after Social Security.
Update: If you want to see the whole memo, the WSJ helpfully reprints it.
Who can not feel sympathy for the wife of one man who was kidnapped by (disguised) U.S. agents after the Bosnian Supreme Court ordered him released, and sent packing to Guantanamo, where he has for more than three years been held without charges or right to communicate with his family, despite his declarations of opposition to any terrorism. She writes:
Dear Friends, I am so shocked by this information that it seems as if my blood froze in my veins, I can’t breathe and I wish I was dead. I can’t believe these things can happen, that they can come and take your husband away, overnight and without reason, destroy your family, ruin your dreams after three years of fight. . . . Please, tell me, what can I still do for him? . . . Is this decision final, what are the legal remedies? Help me to understand because, as far as I know the law, this is insane, contrary to all possible laws and human rights. Please help me, I don’t want to lose him.
Imagine it was your husband, or son, or father. What does this woman tell her five children?
Even more chillingly, the article makes clear that one result of torturing suspects is that it renders them essentially impossible to try in ordinary courts. By constructing a new category of human being--the "illegal enemy combattant"--with the express intent that the Geneva Convention would not apply to them (since Geneva refers only to soldiers and civilians), the Bush regime's lawyers has cast these people into a literal no man's land. There is virtually no choice for the regime but to hold these people forever without charges.
To call this a disgrace to our country is laughably inadquate: it is a sin without precedent in the history of our country. Unless the Bush regime or its successors pursue the Caesarist option, Bush seems certain to go down as the most morally bankrupt President in our history. Right now, only Andrew Johnson has Bush worsted.
On a related note, check out this nice obituary of Ernst Mayr, the man responsible for explaining how the process of natural selection leads to speciation. The short answer: physical separation of members of a single species into separated environments, each with distinct environmental pressures, in conjunction with the biological processes of random mutation and natural selection, plus enough time....
To appreciate that even something as amazingly functional as the eye (not to mention consciousness itself) can result from such a random process, the only thing left to understand is just how long geological time really lasts. Stephen J. Gould once observed that geological time can probably only be comprehended metaphorically. For example, if the entire history of life on earth were a mile long, then recorded human history would be 1/3 of an inch. The other 63359.65 inches leave plenty of room for a lot of other amazing stuff to develop randomly....
Then again, if you believe that the earth is only about 6000 years old, then evolution would indeed seem impossible. (Along the same lines, this useful little Web site shows that a literal interpretation of the Bible strongly suggests that the earth must be flat.)
Friday, February 11, 2005
For the purpose of political comparison in this regard, we therefore lucky to have the nice contrast of Texas, controlled by the Republicans, and California, controlled by the Democrats (Arnie excepted). In Texas, the GOP is proposing legislation that allows a committee of political appointees to quash the prosecution of politicians being investigated--legislation being promoted specifically to protect the former bug-exterminator, Majority Leader Tom Delay. In California, by contrast, the corrupt Democratic Secretary of State has been forced to resign.
It's worth noting, incidentally, that the activities for which Shelley was forced to step down are similar to the activities for which the various Tom DeLay-run GOP organizations are under investigation: in both cases, it is about misappropriating funds to help promote political causes within the state, the typical activity of a hegemonic party looking to consolidate its stranglehold on the state.
One of the reasons I've been quite pro-Arnie is that he has helped put the breaks on Brezhnevian tendencies of the Democratcs in California. Texas could do with a dose of the same.
The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie ... that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece. [But the] Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth ... while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.Read the whole piece.
It's a somewhat tangential point, but it's one worth asking: can this country (or any country) hang together if its citizens no longer share a common understanding of the major contours of the nation's history? As numerous historical studies have shown, compulsory primary education with a focus on civics, along with compulsory military service, has been decisive in the formation of coherent nation-states. Creating a shared national narrative, in other words, has been indispensible for creating a shared national identity and shared sense of national solidarity. (For a wonderful account of this process in late nineteenth century France, check out Eugen Weber's wonderful Peasants into Frenchmen.)
Insofar as having a shared national narrative is essential to creating a shared national identity, then I think it's not unfair to observe that the American home-schooling movement can be described, quite precisely, as an "anti-American" movement. After all, isn't the movement motivated, almost by definition, by a desire to withdraw one's children from exposure to the dominant narratives of the country?
Needless to say, the sponsors of the movement think of themselves as preserving a purer kind of Americanism (for example, the authors of the above suggest that "the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our founding document") and seek to promote this new narrative as the new "master narrative." But since such wingjobs will never succeed with imposing this freakazoid narrative on the historical profession, what we instead see is the historiographical analog to the linguistic fragmentation created by Babel's fall. And with that fragmentation of the national historical narrative will likely come the fragmentation of the nation itself. And this is an outcome that the homeschoolers, like the Southern secessionists in 1861, are perfectly willing to live with. In short, I regard these homeschoolers, and all their fundamentalist symapthizers, as committing treason by historiography.
Before this begins to come off as just another one of my anti-fundamentalist screeds, let me hasten to point out that the historical profession itself deserves much of the blame for having allowed this situation to become acceptable. If the United States over the last forty years has witnessed the destruction of the very ideal a singular, universal, shared sense of national meaning, then the historical profession itself, overwhelming populated by political liberals, has been largely complicit in allowing this to take place. In many cases, they've egged it on.
Among historians nowadays it's unquestioned conventional wisdom, even a cliche, to suggest that singular all national historical narratives are "constructions." "Polyvocality" is the name of the game, and all nations in fact have multiple narratives that are not only incommensurate, but which both cannot and should not be neatly reconciled. The historiographical big tent makes plenty of room for the Theocrats and the Ward Churchills, along with liberals, feminists, Marxists, classical conservatives, and any number of other idiosyncratic methodological or subjective preferences. (Personally, I've always been favorable to the view that American history can be well and truly told as a history of real estate speculation and swindles.) The accepted standard in history departments today is that there really is no "one right way," no single narrative that can encompass all that is important on a period or a subject. For example, historiographical wisdom today deems that there is no way to establish that a history of, say, the conditions of cotton production in the nineteenth century South is a more or less important strand of the history of the United States, than, say, the legal history of the interpretation of the Constitution during that same period. Only the narrativizing power of the individual historian adjudicates.
As I say, this polyvocal understanding of historical truth represents the conventional wisdom in the historical profession today--and I must say that I agree with this view on an academic and epistemological level. Even so, one must admit that historiographical perspectivalism raises very troubling political questions for the cohesion of the country. Can the country hang together if there's not a shared national identity rooted in a shared sense of the national narrative? I really don't know, but I feel no confidence that the answer is surely "yes."
This problem of how to sustain national unity in the face of a polysemous historical self-consciousness in turn relates profoundly to the issue I raised a couple weeks back about anti-foundationalism: even if anti-foundationalism is philosophically unimpeachable, it must be thrust aside by anyone who wishes to act. As Kant points out, the moral question, "What should I do?" is the most basic and important philosophical question, and Kant also knew that anti-foundationalism provided no succor in answering this question. While I've never found Kant's answers to this problem convincing, he does put his finger on the essential problem.
I don't want to suggest that we should try to return to some (mythical) golden age when everyone ostensibly agreed on what American history was and meant. Even insofar as such a time existed, the narrative that was dominant at the time (the 1940s?) would be absurd to try to impose today; could anyone credibly stand up in front of today's typical multicultural classroom and claim that we are all descended from the Puritans? No one wants to go back to the last hegemonic perspective, before the historiographical Babel fell, when American history was represented as a steady upward march of progress based on consensus and compromise. Indeed, it was garbage like this that gave the whole idea of a master narrative a bad name.
Nevertheless, as Americans we have a political need for a master national historical narrative. The country needs to have an above-board fight about what the country's history stands for -- and the result of that fight must be to produce losers who will be excluded from the conversation and not allowed to participate in the creation of the national narrative. In the same fashion that Creationists have been ruled out of the conversation in evolutionary biology, so the Rapturites should be ruled out of the process of narrativizing American history. And their kids should be forced to learn some proper history, because their willingness to shatter the country is far more dangerous to our long-term national health than the violent efforts of their Middle Eastern fundamentalist analogues.
Most of my historians friends are probably reading this aghast: is he really suggesting that we impose a single dominant narrative on everyone? Let me be clear that I am not arguing that everyone has to do the same kind of history -- professionals should still follow many threads in their specialized research agendas. What I am arguing, however, is that there should be a national history textbook for nonprofessionals, and that everyone should have to internalize that version of American history when they are getting their primary education.
Why do I believe this? I believe that this is necessary, because I believe in the value of national solidarity, and national solidarity requires a shared sense of history. If people no longer believe in the same stories about the country, what are the chances they will see themselves as part of a single community, and thus be willing to make individual sacrifices for the collective good? Would I want to pay taxes to support building roads in communities where people believe that the goal of U.S. history is to prepare for the Rapture? Would those guys want to have their sons enlist to fight on behalf of people who think America stands for the progressive struggle to liberate more and more oppressed minorities, including, say, gays and lesbians? And the worst-case scenario is the one that is currently emerging, with the two Americas (commonly referred to as "red" and "blue") simply ignoring each other. (For graphical evidence of how much these communities ignore each other, check out this image, or this one.)
As some of you are no doubt discerning by now, I see the decline of shared national historical narrative as profoundly related to the privatization of security and risk-sharing (indeed, to the privatization of everything), a topic I've also blogged about in the past. As the American people increasingly believe they have less and less in common with their fellow citizens, they will naturally enough be less and less inclined to share anything with each other. There are good reasons why welfare states have worked best in small, old, homogenous nation-states: the people of such countries have a very strong sense of collectivity, and are thus willing to make individual sacrifices on behalf of the whole. These are countries with a very strong shared sense of national history, national symbols, national unity -- and thus a sense of collective responsibility for the entire national community has come naturally.
Finally (and with this I'll end what by now has indeed become a free-association screed), it's not a surprise that immigration, by decreasing homogeneity, has put pressure on the desire to risk-share via the welfare state everywhere in OECD countries everywhere. (Likewise, it's not a coincidence that the heyday of American welfare-state-building coincided with the period when the country had all but turned off the immigration spigot: for evidence, check out page 9 of this Census Bureau report.) Contrary to the belief of neoliberals, the primary challenge facing the contemporary welfare state is not economic. The way welfare states sometimes hamper productivity is a relatively minor issue, compared with the ideological erosion of a sense of national collectivity which provides the political underpinning for the welfare state.
As someone wrote on talkingpointsmemo the other day, in reference to the struggle to preserve Social Security, "We are facing a galvanizing moment in America as we decide if we are to be a country that understands and lives the humanistic concept of being one's brother's keeper, or if we decide instead to adopt a ruthless, me first, sink or swim approach to dealing with our citizenry."
And yes, historiography has a role to play in this drama.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Juan Cole explains why:
The old Sunni Arab power elite, mainly Baathists or the officer class, has not reconciled itself to the political ascendancy of the Shiites and Kurds. They still think they can destabilize the country and take back over. I would compare them to the Phalangists, the fascist Maronite Christians in Lebanon, who fought tooth and nail 1975-1989 against recognizing that Christians were no longer a dominant majority in Lebanon. Eventually they had to accept a 50/50 split of seats in parliament (which is generous to the Christians, given that Muslims are now a clear majority). That the Sunni Arab elite might be quicker studies than the Phalangists is possible but a little unlikely.
Looking at these two headlines, you just have to wonder what evidence neocons would require to admit that their beliefs are nonsense. Keep in mind that what distinguishes rational, scientific thinking from religious or ideological thinking is the ability to define conditions of falsifiability for one's beliefs. These guys like to think of themselves as conservative rationalists, but in fact they are neo-jacobins, or perhaps neo-leninists, and one suspects that nothing they can experience in this world will change their minds.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Friend: A reasonable compromise position on all of this Social Security stuff would be to raise the maximum annual contribution. As you know, this could potentially cost people like you and me several thousand dollars. I'm conflicted...
Small Precautions: gee... raise taxes as a solution to insolvency? ya think?
Friend: You're right, it's pretty unlikely.
Small Precautions: The real issue is that Bush is sadly right that people our age have no confidence that we'll ever collect from Social Security -- mainly because we look at the vultures trying to dismantle it and we figure that eventually they'll more or less succeed. Bush's political rhetoric about the insolvency of the system, the need to dismantle it, tends to create its own truth, not on a financing-policy level (on that level it's merely a lie), but rather on a political level. On a political level, the Club-for-Growth soak-the-poor rhetoric erodes the confidence of younger workers in the long-term political viability of Social Security. (And of course, as we know, the Bushies think that the political level is the policy level)
The Bushies' political-ideological campaign against Social Security makes anyone under fifty leery, to say the least, about the prospect of having our taxes on the system raised, given that any such "solution" seems likely merely to mean that we'll pay even more before we still end up not collecting. (All those people born in the 1950s, who thought they were being saved by the 1983 reforms, must be bitter as hell right now, for precisely this reason -- Bush has basically told them, yeah, you've been paying double for 20 years, and now we're going to abolish the system.)
That leeriness in turn makes it far harder to create the political will to develop reasonable proposals for dealing with the underfunding of parts of the program. If many of the negotiators make it clear that they are ideologically opposed to the system, then it becomes very difficult to pursuade people to make painful choices today to help preserve the system. It's a basic principle of bargaining: you can't compromise with people who are negotiating in bad faith. Why make painful sacrifices today for a system that some right-wing ideologue will simply eviscerate in ten years? And this political sentiment, of course, is precisely what the Bush regime wants to create: by orchestrating a political de-commitment from Social Security, thus making people unwilling to make tough choices, the Bush regime is potentially creating the fiscal and policy crisis condition it claims is the basis for their political opposition.
Of course, their opposition to Social Security is actually ideological, rather than based in policy, exposing the essentially mendacious nature of the entire political stunt.
This political logic accounts for why the first condition of any meaningful Social Security reform (as opposed to abolition or privatization), as Josh Marshall's blog has made abundantly clear, is an absolute ideological commitment to maintaining the program in more or less its current form, i.e. a mildly redistributionist, pay-as-you-go system of old-age income insurance. With that commitment in place across the political spectrum, policy-makers can then think about how best to preserve that system, and make the necessary choices. This was precisely the situation in 1983, for example, that led to the very reasonable creation of the Social Security Trust Fund, which put into a place a system that even now may be sufficiently funded forever.
Friend: Agreed, but I'm not sure the confidence of the young should have any relevance. I'm sure most of the people collecting Social Security as their only income never thought they would need it. It's social insurance, that's the point.
Also, as I have said before, absolute ideological commitment to Social Security is great, but it's not a plan, it's defense. Until the Dems come up with some affirmative points, and figure out what they stand for, they will lose every battle like this.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Forget about empowering women entrepreneuers, building microcredit institutions, fostering "institutions," challenging international brands, or the rest of the crap the Porto Alegre crowd promotes. By far the simplest, at-one-stroke act that rich nations can enact to improve the welfare of the people of poor nations is debt relief.
With that said, putting some limits on the kinds of loans bankers are allowed to issue these countries would be a wise counterpart to a debt moratorium.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Well, recently we spent a little time with reader RWM to formulate a draft of what such a Democratic Party elevator pitch might look like. As a template, we considered Josh Marshall's suggested that the Republican elevator pitch consisted of the claim that, "They're for lowering taxes in exchange for giving up whatever it is the government pretends to do for us, (at a minimum) riding the brakes on the on-going transformation of American culture, and kicking ass abroad."
For the Democrats, this is what we came up with:
The Democrats are for promoting fairness and the rule of law at home and abroad, for keeping government out of the morality business, and for ensuring equal access to economic opportunity and political power.Does that work?
Incidentally, my wife is writing a book that deals inter alia with evolution, and she tells me that whenever you seach the Web on anything related to Darwin or evolution, creationist websites flood the results.
These wingjobs may believe the earth is 4000 years old, but apparently even they can run search engine optimizations.
The New York Times in 2000 offered an article on Marvin Olasky, the deep thinker behind the "compassionate conservative" phrase that was the hallmark of Bush's first campaign for the White House, that described him as a leader of "cadre of thinkers on the right had been trying for years to fashion a form of conservatism that rejected the welfare state but did not turn its back on the poor." In an introduction to one of Olasky's books published while Bush was governor of Texas, Bush describes Olasky as "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker." So, step one of the argument is that Bush explicitly puts Olasky's ideas at the center of his own domestic policy vision.
So what does Mr. Bush's house intellectual for his domestic welfare agenda believe in? The article explains that the ultimate goal is to replace government welfare with state-funded but church-administered welfare:
In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Mr. Olasky, whose personal pilgrimage led him to become first a Marxist and then an evangelical Christian, concluded that 19th-century America's religious-based charity was preferable to the welfare state. He thought that the social revolution of the 1960's was "disastrous" because it emphasized public assistance as an entitlement, asking nothing in return. The "key contribution" of the War on Poverty, he wrote, was "the deliberate attempt to uncouple welfare from shame." Religious charities of the last century, he argued, were more effective because they made demands in exchange for aid and because they required donors to give time as well as money. The attack on the counterculture struck a chord with Mr. Bush. "It really helped crystallize some of my thinking about cultures, changing cultures," he said in the interview.When I say that these clowns want to roll back the twentieth century, I'm neither kidding nor exaggerating.
Bush had begun implementing some of Olasky's ideas when he was in Texas, for example promoting "hostels for welfare mothers and legislation that encouraged religion-based drug treatment centers and prison ministries." Once he entered the White House in 2001, Bush operationalized this philosophy with his Office for Faith-Based Initiatives. The way conservative think tank Heritage Foundation describes it, Bush's goal with the OFBI was to "confront the deepest flaws of the welfare state" by shifting "resources from failed secular programs toward those with a moral backbone." In other words, to churches.
Now, that's not to say there's not a debate on the right about all this. From the start of the Bush regime, Capitalist Magazine argued that Bush's effort to promote "faith-based initiatives" amounted to a concession that government-funded welfare was here to stay, but that at least it might be put to conservative uses. Other wingjobs went further in their criticisms, arguing that any state-directed effort at redistribution is essentially forcible robbery, and therefore at odds with Christian ethics. Then there are many Christians who, wisely, worry about the long-term consequences for religious freedom of Bush regime's erosion of the line between church and state. (For evidence, just google "separation and church and state" and look at the Christian sites.) Finally, there are those like John DiIulio, who quit as director of the OFBI when he concluded that Bush was subordinating the moral imperative of dismantling the secular welfare state to the political goal of destroying the Democratic Party. It was this bitterness that led DiIulio's to coin the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis" to describe the current White House.
DiIulio may be right. It's possible that Bush and Rove want to roll back the welfare state not because they believe this would be a morally good thing, but because they wish to help the kinds of people they hang out with in Kennebunkport, and they've seen that the only way to justify the rollback is to find an alternative to the moral discourse of secular social solidarity which historically has provided the bedrock of support for the welfare state in the West.
(Theda Skocpol is also right that the American secular left made this opportunity available to the likes of Rove by intentionally reading the contribution of churches out of the historical record of welfare achievement in the United States. To get a sense for what Skocpol is pointing to, just contrast the way Americans think of the history of social welfare to the way, say, the Dutch or the Italians narrate the history of social welfare in their countries.)
Whether you prefer to think of Bush as a fundamentalist fanatic, or simply as an amoral politician serving the vested interested of his social and economic class (and the evidence can probably support either position) it's transparent that his aim is nothing less than to roll back the secular welfare state and replacing it with church-based charities.