Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Illusionists

New York Times:
Recent weeks have seen the insurgency reach new heights of sustained brutality. The violence is ever more centered on sectarian killings, with Sunni insurgents targeting hundreds of Shiite and Kurdish civilians in suicide bombings. There are reports of Shiite death squads, some with links to the interior ministry, retaliating by abducting and killing Sunni clerics and community leaders.
Mission Accomplished. Then there's this:
That at least some senior officials in Washington understand the gravity of the situation seems clear from remarks made at the Foreign Press Center in Washington two weeks ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrives in Baghdad this week to begin as Mr. Negroponte's successor. In his remarks, Mr. Khalilzad abandoned a convention that had bound senior American officials when speaking of Iraq - to talk of civil war only if reporters raised it first, and then only to dismiss it as a beyond-the-fringe possibility. Using the term twice in one paragraph, he spoke of civil war as something America must do everything to avoid.
Expect more of this after Rove resigns.

If a neocon is "a liberal who's been mugged by reality," then what do you get when a neocon gets mugged by reality? We'll find out soon.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Roberts

It's hard to know what to make of the Roberts nomination, but anything that pisses off Ann Coulter is probably a good thing. (I also have to admit that I liked her line about the fact that "Roberts has gone through 50 years on this planet without ever saying anything controversial [is] just unnatural." I suppose you can't get much more conservative than that.

But my overall sense is that the Roberts nomination provides a damn good piece of evidence that Thomas Frank got it right: that the radical rightists really are a bunch of dupes for supporting Bush.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Blogging off

I'm off to the Cape for a week. I'll be back blogging in August.

The Plame leak story is just too much fun, isn't it?

Roberts

I don't know anything about Roberts, but just reading the New York Times take on the man, I think the most interesting thing about this nomination is that Bush basically chose someone he could avoid a fight about. An establishmentarian.

Maybe Bush is realizing that his legacy is likely to be greatly damaged if he doesn't worry to heal the national ruptures he has exacerbated over the last five years.

Live blogging the SCOTUS nominee

Am I dreaming, or does Bush seem to have a nervous tick with his lip tonight. I first saw it when he used the words "highest integrity."

Westy's dead

Hell just got a little more crowded.

Belgravia fulminates

The neocons are really twitching right about now, what with Al Qaeda's annual bombings in the West continuing apace despite the regime change in Iraq.

One sign of the cognitive dissonance is the tendency toward revisionism, on display for example at Belgravia Dispatch. Money:
Look, it is beyond doubt that the Iraq war has made jihadist recruitment easier than before it. But this is a long term conflict, and those advocates of the war always realized that there could well be a short to mid-term uptick in jihadist activity given the destabilization and emotions that would inevitably be triggered by the Iraq war. The goal was and is to slog it out and see emerge a viable, unitary democratic polity in Iraq that would serve as an example to the Arab world of how a complex, multi-sectarian country can enshrine minority rights, the rule of law, and other tenets of political liberalism so as to help pull the region towards modernity. This, in turn, could well lead towards a long-term diminishment in radical Islamist activity.
This is balderdash for two reasons. First of all, "advocates of the war always realized" what? To repeat: what?

Second, more pertinently, this is awfully convenient reasoning: allowing the fact that things are getting worse to be merely a prelude to things getting better in the future. The French refer to this sort of logic as reculer pour mieux sauter -- to take a few steps back so as to getting a running start on a long jump. How far is this from the Chamberlinite demand that we must accept breaking eggs in order to make omlettes?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Securing our daily lives

The news about the London perps couldn't possibly be worse, I think everyone can agree: homegrown terrorists, including some who seem to be about as successful and assimilated as you can or even should reasonably hope for in today's tolerant multicultural world. The reason it's terrible is that it will provide ammunition -- and, sad to say, rightly so -- for the Nativists, Know Nothings, and mononationalists everywhere. And that is terrible because it may well result in repressive policies toward cultural minorities of all sorts, despite the fact that it's way too late to put the globalization genie back in the bottle. As a result, all of the mixed people and minorities everywhere will be under threat (and therefore likely to become only more aggrieved) while the flows of humanity will not cease. It doesn't take much imagination to conceive the multiform evil that may flow from this dynamic conjuncture.

When you consider this scenario, you realize all the more what a folly the Iraq adventure has been, what a misplacement of resources and energy away from the securing of our local vulnerabilities. For example, a friend writes this morning:


I took the train yesterday from NY to D.C. -- a first for me -- because of storms in the East. (We're getting closer to the apocalypse, my friend. Five major tropical storms by early July? Locusts are around the corner.) And not to be alarmist but I really was surprised at the lack of security. Not a single metal detector, ID check or even uniformed law enforcement. It would be easy for someone to blow Penn Station to smithereens.
To amplify the point: when I took that DC-NYC train a couple weeks ago myself, I was a half hour late into New York because some kids were fooling around on the tracks somewhere in Jersey. Just think: if some dumbass kids can do that, it's obvious that someone smart and malicious could do something awful. What really underscores the point is that the fellows who just blew up the Tube were more or less an exact sociocultural analog to disaffected New Jersey teenagers.

Guarding against these kinds of risks ought to be obvious, moreover: blowing train lines has long been a preferred guerilla warfare tactic. What we're up against in "Al Qaeda" is, in fact, a highly evolved, network-centric form of guerilla warfare.

What does that say about the way the war ought to be fought? I'm no expert, but if there's another thing that London proves, it's that "taking the fight to the terrorists" with hard military forces is obviously not the answer. Radically decentralized guerilla networks can probably (I say probably, because who really knows) only be penetrated by an equally highly evolved form of policework. What's certain is that building tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense shields (or whatever other nonsense that the 1980s Blue Skies crowd has in mind) is utterly beside the point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The immorality of the flypaper strategy

Cunning Realist asks exactly the right questions:
Has anyone thought about why we're justified in using another nation as flypaper in the first place, even if it was a viable, effective strategy? What gives us the right to use a sovereign nation as a catch basin for carnage so we can go on blissfully consuming and merrily flipping real estate here? Instead of flypaper, this should be called the "Night of the Living Dead Nation" strategy--using the undead, zombie-like carcass of a failed state for our own benefit. Beyond the sheer selfish immorality of it, has anyone thought about the potential for blowback? How would you feel if we were invaded by the Chinese on a false pretense, and they stated openly that their strategy was to attract and fight the scum of the earth in the streets of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago so they did not have to fight in Beijing?
It's not just that the flypaper theory was a post hoc rationalization for a failed strategy, for the failure of the "cakewalk" to materialize. It's that it is a morally bankrupt position to begin with.

The dominant meme developing on the right these days is that it was all okay in theory, it's just that the Bushies have been incompentent in executing it. But as Kevin Drum points out, this is at best a fudge (and I would go further and say "intellectually dishonest") in that it allows them to admit they were wrong about supporting the war, without having to come to grips with the fundamental failings of the belief system that drove their support for the war in the first place.

Will the Plame Affair screw the White House more generally?

Wonkette engages in some wishful speculation:
Will the Plame thing do it? Sure, it seems cut and dried: The NYT states plainly, for example, that the WH promised "any administration official found to have been involved in leaking the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer would be fired." Rove was surely 'involved' in the name getting out, even if Matt Cooper's email suggests Karl didn't leak the actual name. Ergo, if Bush doesn't fire Rove, then he's a big liar, everyone's disgraced, his approval rating plummets even further, mass resignations, even the copy boys get laid, Hillary in '08, etc.
Meanwhile, Kevin Drum refers back to his own wishful speculation that the second Buch term would be marked by an enfilade of scandal.

Note to Iraqi government: stay on message

The lede from a Washington Post article three days ago:

Islamic extremists have been using Iraq as a planning center for attacks around the world since losing Afghanistan as their base in 2001, the government's chief spokesman said Friday.

Speaking about Thursday's blasts in London that killed more than 50 people, Laith Kubba said "we don't know exactly who carried out these acts but it is clear that these networks used to be in Afghanistan and now they work in Iraq."

The spokesman said that insurgents in Iraq and those who carried out the London attacks "are from the same network."

Karl gets trouble for just one day and look what happens: the Iraqi government completely goes off message about the effect that the war in their country is supposed to have on our domestic terrorism. Somebody get that guy on the line!

Vetting the Exit Option

John Robb makes the intriguing suggestion that the "leaked" British Intelligence memo purporting to show that plans are being developed to draw down U.S. troop levels in Iraq in time for the midterm elections "may have been orchestrated as a way to defuse/confuse opposition to the war."

Certainly leaks are sometimes staged in order to see how the public will react to a certain idea. The suggestion that this so-called leak may be part of a concerted, transatlantic disinformation campaign aimed at domestic oppositions to the war is, however, a novel notion.

Leak

Here's a nice recording of what it sounds like when a White House that prides itself on "moral clarity" begins to go "flip, flop, flip, flop."

Once again the old adage proves true: "Show me a moralist, I'll show you a hypocrite."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Rove's rove

Speaking of Josh Marshall, he's got a nice piece of investigative blogging over at Talking Points Memo on Karl Rove's lawyer. Rove appears to be following some unwritten rule that no matter how sleazy and ethically-compromised you are, you have to find a lawyer who is more so.

The latest with Duke

The reason I've stopped blogging on the Randy "Duke" Cunningham story is not that Cunningham's troubles have ceased, but rather because Josh Marshall has taken over the task complete. Today, he provides an amusing summary of the whole sordid situation.

An interesting bet: who gets indicted first... the Duke, or Karl Rove?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Every day is a 7-7 in Baghdad

While people are meditating on the terrorist attacks that hit London this week, it's worth reflecting that such horrors are a near-daily occurence in Baghdad -- and that that too is a result of the Bush regime's botched anti-terror strategy.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

"Mission Accomplished" Dept.

From the New York Times:
The once libertine oil port of Basra, 350 miles south of the capital and far from the insurgency raging in much of Iraq, is steadily being transformed into a mini-theocracy under Shiite rule. There is perhaps no better indication of the possible flash points in a Shiite-dominated Iraq, because the political parties that hold sway here also wield significant influence in the central government in Baghdad and are backed by the country's top clerics.
If you equate liberating the Iraqis with allowing them to form the kind of government that the majority wants, then having the municipal governments be theocracies is probably about as close as you can get to true liberation.

The irony for all the rightwingers who favored the war, of course, is that this was exactly Noam Chomsky's point when before the war he suggested that, if we really wanted to liberate the Iraqis, then we ought to invite the Iranians into south Iraq. Somehow, I don't think that's quite what the neocons had in mind. But that's what they got -- at least, that's what they got in the most peaceful and calm part of Iraq.

Speaking of which, any word on when the "sovereign" Iraqi government is going to recognize Israel?

Friday, July 08, 2005

Pigeon terror

I was thinking more this morning about how I felt about the terrorist attacks in Paris that summer of 1995. Most of the time, of course, I didn't think about the fact that the city was under a kind of light siege -- it was just something you were protoconsciously aware of. Then suddenly there'd be another attack, and everyone would call each other to make sure everyone was all right.

In other words, the psychology of it was an oscillation between a low-level awareness and sudden shock -- which would again return to the baseline level of background noise as soon as you knew everyone was all right. What was most surprising, in retrospect, was how quickly the whole population adjusted psychologically to the expectation of another bomb, and learned to live with that possibility, in much the same way that one learns to live with the possibility that one might get hit by a drunk driver.

Another "background effect" of the bombings began after the first garbage-bin bomb went off some time in August. Part of the police response to that bombing was to order that all the garbage bins in the city be sealed. The result of this action was as predictable as it was gross: the instant proliferation of garbage in the streets everywhere, despite the heroic efforts of the Parisian street cleaners and garbage collectors to stay on top of the problem. The summer was warm, moreover, and as you wandered through the city, the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage would hit you more than occasionally.

A turning point in the terror campaign occurred in late September, when Khaled Kelkal, the supposed mastermind behind the July 1995 St. Michel Metro bombing, was shot outside Lyon (on live TV, no less). The French authorities claimed that this was a major break in the conspiracy, and the tension level in Paris began to decline.

By this time, however, another effect of the police response to the terrorist attacks became apparent: the explosion of the pigeon population. More garbage in the streets, of course, meant more food, and as more food became available the Parisian pigeon population (already one of the most aggressive and disgusting in Europe) began to rise exponentially. I have no objective measure of this of course, but I would guess that the Parisian pigeon population probably doubled by November.

In late November, when no further bombings had occurred since Kelkal's death, the authorities decided it was safe to reopen the garbage bins. Initially, this was a significant relief, since the amount of garbage in the streets instantly declined. Again, however, there was a feedback (or rather, literally, a non-feedback) reaction on the part of the pigeons. A doubled population now was back to its old food supply, and the result was horrific: everywhere you went in Paris there were desperate, starving pigeons, hanging around anyone sitting at a park bench, hoping for a crumb. And whenever anything remotely edible did appear, the pigeons would peck and claw at each other for every last scrap. The final straw came on 8 December, when it began to snow, auguring a frost that lasted a week. For the starving pigeon population, this was a collective death knell. The result was again nauseating and predictable: all of sudden the streets of Paris were littered with dead and rotting pigeon bodies.

Those pigeons, too, can be seen as victims of terror.

There are a couple of lessons here. The first lesson is that the experience of living in a terrorized city (that is, a city that has adjusted its way of life to the expectation of continued random terrorist acts) is very different from the experience of terror that people in Europe and the United States feel today. Europeans and Americans today have scarcely altered our routines at all, perhaps to a fault. Unlike Israel, where the whole way daily life takes place has been deformed in response to the terrorist threat, life goes on as before in the United States and Europe, except for the fact that we all know, very vaguely, that any moment there is a tiny chance that something calamitous could happen. The second lesson is that often for the majority of the population that is not directly affected by the attacks (and the majority will always be unaffected directly), the major phenomenological affect of terrorism is not the attacks themselves but the impact of how the authorities respond to those attacks. And that's a thought worth pondering at some length.

Email from London

A friend emails:

The strange thing about these events is that while they affect a relatively small number of people directly, they leave the rest of us trying to make sense of them from a distance. I was watching CNN last night and noticed that the coverage was pulling at the heart strings – not a bad thing, but I just wanted to give you a sense of how it is from here, which is that is a bit unreal, very sad, and pretty much like watching news about bombings in some other city. Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in our neighborhood and while one woman I saw in a cafĂ© had clearly had been in one of the tube stations – she had a bandage on one hand and was flushed and shaken - everyone else seemed perfectly normal. There were an extraordinary number of people on the street in suits, but that was just because public transportation was completely shut down so people were walking. I kept my ears out as I passed groups talking among themselves and individuals talking on their cell phones, expecting them to be recounting terrible moments, but I didn’t hear the bombings mentioned at all. Not once. Granted, we are a good 20 minute walk from even the closest bomb site, but, still.

As far as I can tell from here, London emergency services and transport were just as calm and prepared as the news reports are saying. I don’t know if you’ve seen any interviews with victims, but I have been extremely impressed by them, too. All are sad of course; some are very shocked; most seemed to be extremely calm and reflective, and I’ve seen no signs of hysteria on the street or on the local news. We’ll see what the coming days hold. Probably a lot of hard work by investigators and clean up crews, grieving, processing, mourning.

I was living in Paris in the summer of 1995 when there were a series of bombings over a couple of months, some planted in the metro and others in garbage bins. Over the series of five or six bombings lot of people got killed and hurt -- about 100 killed and 2000 injured in all, as I recall. But on a personal level, the odd thing was that the whole thing felt weirdly thrilling. The presence of soldiers with Uzis in the subway cars had a weird way of making me feel more connected to the material world, to the immediate, and made the horrid things happening on TV in Bosnia a couple hundred miles away seem more real and understandable (though of course, I knew this was a gross conceit on my part). My point? I don't know, it's just that human psychology reacts in unexpected ways to these sorts of events when they happen in your immediate environs.

Flypaper, or just shit?

A month ago David Warren, the author of the "terrorist flypaper" hypothesis for why we should fight in Iraq, wrote the following:
As the author of the much-mocked "flypaper theory" -- the phrase I used to describe the implicit strategy behind the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan -- I am more and more persuaded it has worked. All ground indications are that large numbers of Islamist terrorists who would otherwise remain dangerously under cover, not only across the region but in Europe and elsewhere, are irresistibly drawn towards these theatres of action, where they sooner or later get themselves killed.
I wonder how he feels looking at the TV from London today.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The inevitable dirty bomb

One of the things one can't help thinking about when one looks at the horror in London is just how much worse it could have been, a point Andrew Sullivan quotes the Economist on.

Unfortunately, given that systems disruption appears to be Al Qaeda's primary tactical approach to battling Western powers, the eventual use of nastier methods seem all but inevitable. Although the Bushies like to raise the spectre of a mushroom cloud (a symptom of the pervasive, misguided Cold War era mentality that dominates their thinking), the much more likely possibility is the use of some sort of "dirty bomb."

According to this useful primer on dirty bomb effects, a simple way to construct such a bomb would be to take ten pounds of TNT and combine it with either a pea-sized pit of Cesium-137 (found in some medical guages) or a 1x12 inch rod of Cobalt-60 of the sort used in food irradiation facilities. Although these materials are hard to handle, they are far more readily available that actual nuclear weapons, and therefore seem overwhelmingly more likely to tools that "open source terrorists" will seek out.

The above site presents disturbing graphics of what the geographical scope of destruction for such attacks would be. Although a cesium-laced attack would destroy many city blocks, a cobalt-laced bomb would be destructive at a scale that is hard to conceive: "It would be decades before the city was inhabitable again, and demolition might be necessary. If such an event were to take place in a city like New York, it would result in losses of potentially trillions of dollars."

In fact, the Federation of American Scientists provides a graphic of the impact of setting off a Cobalt bomb in lower Manhattan on a day with a south wind, by comparing it with the destruction around Chernobyl. Everything below Midtown would be irradiated at the same level as the permanently closed zone around Chernobyl, and all of Manhattan would experience the same radiation level as the permanently controlled zone around Chernobyl. Everyone as far north as Westchester would experience a half percent increase in cancer rates.

As I say, as grim as it is, it seems all but inevitable.

Too bad Bush decided that the right way to deal with this threat was to chase demons in the Mesopotamian desert instead of securing all our chemical factories, container ports, hospitals, and radiological laboratories.

Republicans and evolution

Do Republicans believe in evolution. As reported by Kevin Drum, The New Republic decided to ask 15 leading rightwing intellectuals, and the results were shocking:

  • 8 said yes: David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, William F. Buckley, James Taranto, David Brooks, Richard Brookhiser, and Ramesh Ponnuru.
  • 3 said no: Grover Norquist, Stephen Moore, and Pat Buchanan.
  • 4 waffled or declined to answer: Bill Kristol, John Tierney, Tucker Carlson, and Norman Podhoretz.

And remember, these are Republican "intellectuals" -- if anyone in the Republican party can figure out that evolutionary science is not a debatable point, it should be these folks. God knows what the percentages are in the NASCAR set.

Pictures from London

More terror, more pictures. Clearly Al Qaeda, with the signature simultaneous attacks.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Liberating your oppressor

A few days ago Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made an inspired, impassioned speech celebrating the legalization of gay marriage in Spain, in which he quoted inter alia two of Spain's most famous (and gay) poets.

Perhaps Zapatero's most important point was that this legislation did not just represent a triumph for gays, but in fact was a triumph for everyone, including even those (perhaps most of all those) who opposed the law -- for the simple reason, as he put it, that this law represents "the triumph of Liberty."

One of the most trying and frustrating things about any liberation movement worthy of the name is that it must seek not only to liberate the oppressed but also to liberate the oppressors. The need to liberate the oppressors is something that true liberators (like Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela) have understood intuitively: only in making oppressors reject their own oppressiveness can the oppressed achieve true, enduring liberty.

Needless to say, this responsibility is a terrible burden for a liberator to bear. It's hard enough to liberate the oppressed. To go beyond that achievement, to put aside one's revulsion at oppressors, so that you seek to liberate them as well those they oppress, requires a super-human level of humility and capacity for forgiveness.

It is precisely this aspect of liberation that the many pied pipers of liberation (most notably Lenin and his many, diverse followers) have failed to grasp: they have not understood that simply inverting the order of oppression is no true liberation, to say nothing of the dire consequences of seeking to "liquidate" the oppressing class.

The real activist judges

The New York Times makes an interesting point:

We found that justices vary widely in their inclination to strike down Congressional laws. Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed by President George H. W. Bush, was the most inclined, voting to invalidate 65.63 percent of those laws; Justice Stephen Breyer, appointed by President Bill Clinton, was the least, voting to invalidate 28.13 percent. The tally for all the justices appears below.

  • Thomas 65.63%
  • Kennedy 64.06%
  • Scalia 56.25%
  • Rehnquist 46.88%
  • O’Connor 46.77%
  • Souter 42.19%
  • Stevens 39.34%
  • Ginsburg 39.06%
  • Breyer 28.13%
Hat tip: RWM

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Patriotboy

I can't believe I hadn't heard of this blog till this weekend, but it's hilarious and all he does is talk smack.

Max Weber, Nietzschean

This short article on Weber perfectly captures both why I was repelled by Max Weber when I first read him (the weird Parsonian attempt to make him into an anti-Marxist proto-Modernization theorist, which remains the dominant American way to read Weber), and also why the more I read Weber, the more I've come to appreciate his profound, tragic vision of modernity, rooted in the Nietzschean insight that rationalism rests on a foundation of irrationality.

Moreover, Weber's vision of the role of ideas in history -- what the author describes as "the still-difficult-to-articulate claim that ideas have their effect not because of their logical properties, but through the psychologies and personalities they spawn" -- seems to me exactly right.

Lenin v. Mao

Arms and Influence has a useful post on the differences between Maoist versus Leninist revolutionary strategy.

Which war did we agree to fight ?

Noam Scheiber has a nice piece in the New Republic about how to criticize the Iraq War. His main point is that one shouldn't concede that the war was right to fight in the first place, and just focus on the incompetent way the Bushies have prosecuted it.

The more significant issue is that the Bush regime essentially pulled the most colossal bait-and-switch in the history of the country. We were told we were going to fight a war to put down terrorists who wanted to attack the United States. What we got was a gigantic, bloody nation-building exercise in a God-forsaken hellhole.

As Scheiber puts it, "There's a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto." He concludes:

The actual calculation members of Congress faced at the time of the authorization vote wasn't whether they believed the administration intended to bring democracy to Iraq. It was whether or not they believed the threat posed by Saddam outweighed the very real risk that his ouster would be followed by chaos. If they did, they had an obligation to support the war. If they didn't, they had an obligation to oppose it.

But, thanks to the administration's misuse of intelligence, this calculation was utterly meaningless. In a series of speeches in the fall of 2002, Bush asserted that the Iraqis had attempted to purchase aluminum tubes used to make a uranium-enrichment device and that Iraq had unmanned aerial vehicles that might be capable of targeting the United States. A White House report predicted that Saddam could build a nuclear bomb within months if he got his hands on fissile material. All of these claims proved to be false. Now, the Downing Street Memo tells us the administration knew its intelligence was flawed and didn't particularly care.

Having to vote on a war likely to produce one type of threat (chaos in Iraq) in order to eliminate a potentially larger threat (a nuclear Iraq) is an unsavory decision. But it's the kind of decision we elect Congress to make.... In reality, the administration wasn't asking Congress to make a tough call in favor of war. It was asking Congress to make a decision that, had it been apprised of the actual intelligence on Iraq, would have been a no-brainer--against authorization. That's the real scandal here.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Easy and hard questions

Texas Law professor Brad Leiter explains the difference between hard and easy questions:

America has become an astonishingly backwards and reactionary country over the last two decades, but huge swaths of the country are still not brainwashed, not cowed, not fooled by the daily servings of moral parochialism and factual distortions from Fox TV, and CBS, and NBC, and InstaIgnorance, and The New York Times, and on and on. The pathological liars and intellectual buffoons of the right haven't succeeded in making a real dent, yet, on the universities (though they have their sights set on them, as we had occasion to note many times before).

Against this cultural backdrop, it is important, in my view, not to adopt a moderate and temperate tone with respect to the purveyors of lies and half-truths, however earnest they may be. (I've addressed this topic before.) One should not be polite and dispassionate with respect to the folks at the Discovery [sic] Institute: these pathological liars and wannabe theocrats want to harm children, make them stupid, and timid, and twisted in their own image. To treat them with civility is to dignify their pretense that they are really interested in discovery, in knowledge, in honest intellectual inquiry.

So, too, one should not be respectful and calm when talking about crytpo-fascists and grinning apologists for inhumanity, even when they show up on CNN and Fox, or in the pages of The New York Times, or on blog sites with tens of thousands of visitors. Respectful, dispassionate treatment dignifies them, legitimates them, gives them a foothold in the space of reasons.

What always strikes me in debates about "tone" and "civility" is that the critics, without fail, will abandon civility and adopt a harsh tone in the presence of the views that they deem "beyond the pale." Invariably, it turns out that they simply draw the line somewhere else (a good example is here--see the last paragraph, and the second comment), and that what really galls them is not the fact of my harshness and dismissiveness--they are equally capable of that when it comes to, e.g., Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader or me--but rather that it is directed at the views they've been taught to take seriously, to think are serious, the views they've been led to believe are entitled to respect, even if one disagrees.

Unfortunately, they are wrong about where the line should be drawn. And they're not happy when I make that all too clear....

There is a more general point here, though it is one that may be hard to impress on those of limited intellectual ability or parochial horizons: not all topics are of equal
intellectual merit, and not every issue has "two sides" with equal epistemic merits. There are, to be sure, tons of "hard questions" with multiple serious answers in contention; but most of the discussion on the blog (especially the political discussion) pertains to what are "easy questions."

Start with some examples of hard questions, the kinds of questions I largely avoid on the blog (though some of them are the subject of my scholarly work):

  • Does the now orthodox thesis of the token-identity of the mental and the physical (the supervenience of the mental on the physical) have the unintended consequence that the mental is epiphenomenal? (Relatedly: is there really an intelligble kind of metaphysical relationship between properties [i.e., supervenience] that is intermediate between property-dualism and type-identity?)
  • Is there any reason to think that putative moral facts will figure in the best causal explanation of any aspect of our experience?
  • What exactly is Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power, and what role is it playing in the argument of the Genealogy?
  • Do authoritative reasons in Raz's sense really have to be exclusionary reasons, or will it suffice if they simply have more "weight" than other kinds of reasons?
  • What reasons, if any, does (or can) Quine give for his naturalism, and are they sound?
  • Is it an obstacle to descriptive jurisprudence that the concepts central to law are (as I have called them) hermeneutic concepts, i.e., concepts whose extension is supposed to be fixed by the role they play in how people understand themselves and their social world?
  • What is Foucault's view of the cognitive and epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences?

By contrast, here are some easy questions:

  • Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?
  • Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?
  • Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?
  • Is there a social security "crisis"?

These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers. Where I get into "trouble," of course, is with those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions, the ones who think that the dialectical care, caution, and intellectual humility required for the genuinely "hard" questions ought to apply to the easy questions as well. These folks are a bit
miffed when I dismiss their positions out of hand. But that is what their positions usually deserve.

Yeah, that's about right.

Divorce rate in the army rising

Here's a story no one in the MSM has grabbed yet: the divorce rate in Army is skyrocketing:
Between 2001 and 2004, divorces among active-duty Army officers and enlisted personnel nearly doubled, from 5,658 to 10,477, even though total troop strength remained stable. In 2002, the divorce rate among married officers was 1.9 percent — 1,060 divorces out of 54,542 marriages; by 2004, the rate had tripled to 6 percent, with 3,325 divorces out of 55,550 marriages.
These sad statistics are a direct result of the overstretching of our army.

These statistics highlight the central fallacy of the whole "increase the troop level" argument: namely, that our troops are already stretching to the breaking point. The "increase the troops" meme is the right-wing equivalent of the left-wing fallacy that the solution in Iraq is just to "invite in the Allies" or "invite in the U.N."

Pace of troop deaths up in Iraq

USA Today reports.

Top Gun Cunningham

The Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) story keeps getting better and better, and the hitherto obscure North Coast Times is nailing it.

It turns out that Representative Cunningham owns a little company called Top Gun Enterprises, on which Web site he sells various items, including a $595 buck knife. The problem is that apparently the knife includes the Congressional Seal, and that's a problem because, you see, we've got laws in this country that prohibit profiting personally from the trappings of office.

The odd thing is that the page that used to advertise the knife on Top Gun Enterprises' Web site has mysteriously disappeared. Seems someone decided that continuing to advertise that particular item, including the fact that it has the Congressional Seal on it, was a bit unwise.

However, thanks to the magic of Google caching, you can still see it here!

Operation Yellow Elephant

Now this is morbidly funny.

Anyone college-aged who thinks this war is worth it, should be enlisting, period. As long as the army was making its recruiting numbers, these chickenhawks could hide their cowardice behind the argument that we have a professional army and don't need more enlistees. But now that the army ain't making its numbers, if you favor this war and you're under thirty, you should enlist.

I hope someone stages a media stunt at the Young Republicans National Convention in Las Vegas next week. Maybe someone can set up an army recruiting booth with the slogan: "Iraq: just like Vegas, but with no air conditioning and real bullets."

O'Connor, the river-running justice

So Sandra Day is resigning, thus giving Bush an up-or-down chance to show whether he is a uniter or a divider. Does anyone doubt which way he'll go?

What's interesting about the WaPo article is that, after the first half speculating about a replacement, the rest of the article reads like an obituary. Despite that style, the article doesn't attempt to draw an overall judgment of O'Connor's jurisprudential legacy. That legacy, however, is quite clear, albeit quite small.

O'Connor will be remembered as an anti-theorist, a justice who consistently sought to rule based on her best judgment of the what the median national opinion was on any subject. She didn't care for ideological or principled readings of the Constitution, but rather sought to actually judge cases on a case-by-case basis, and to avoid setting large precedents. Hewing to the political center as a matter of principle, she didn't mind trampling on intellectual principles in order to reach political middle ground. In this sense, she was probably the most genuinely "conservative" justice on the bench, in the sense that she did not try to use the Court's authority either to push the country in any particular direction, or to stop the country from going in some direction.

O'Connor's political instincts yielded a curious double result. On the one hand, she was always perceived as an incredible influential justice; her instinctual centrism made her more likely than any other member of the Court to be the swing vote (i.e. in the majority during a 5-4 decision). On the other hand, because she wanted to judge cases on their particulars, and to make political judgment rather than jurisprudential principle the basis for decision, it is unclear that she will have any lasting imprint on the direction of the Court or the country. Unlike ideologues on the right and left, she did not try either to dam or to straighten the American political river, but instead tried to push the court to ride that river like an expert kayaker.