Thursday, December 30, 2004

Ah yes, Modernization, that's the thing

Washington Post:
Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says, because the enemy won't wave a white flag and surrender one day. Success will instead be an incremental process of modernization of the Islamic world, which will gradually find its own accommodation with the global economy and open political systems.
Haven't we seen this movie before? Wolfowitz, a latterday Rostow....

Think Local (as in, Texas), Act Global (as in, Iraq)

George Bush shows his statesmanship:

Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was confident he could monitor events effectively without returning to Washington or
making public statements in Crawford, where he spent part of the day clearing brush and bicycling. Explaining the about-face, a White House official said: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'"

Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark empathy. "Actions speak louder than words," a top Bush aide said, describing the president's view of his appropriate role.

Actions? Like offering aid for 5 million (overwhelmingly Muslim) disaster victims in an amount equivalent to what we spend every day in Iraq between breakfast and lunch....

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Admitting failure doesn't meant giving up the goal

Most people know that pride should go before the fall. And the wise know when they've made a mistake and can admit it. Did Reagan pulling out of Lebanon after the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing cost America the Cold War? Did Israel pulling out of the Sinai make Egypt ever more arrogant in its effort to destroy Israel? Did the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam cause all of Southeast Asia to go Communist? Did France pulling out of Algeria destroy the French nation? Did South Africa giving up on apartheid lead to a genocide of the Souther African whites?

One could multiply the list endlessly, but the point is clear. Admitting that a strategy has failed does not necessarily entail a loss of the strategic goals. Indeed, it can often clear the way to achieving those very goals.

We're losing in Iraq

One line that American "hard power" enthusiasts like to parrot is (a version of the stab-in-the-back hypothesis) that the U.S. cannot lose militarily in Iraq. Leave aside that this is at best an irrelevant claim when fighting an insurgency, since it's the political battle that matters; it's also just not true, as this piece by Georgie Anne Geyer makes clear:

Today in Iraq... our "answer" has been that we can get out when Iraqi forces are trained, when elections are held, and when Iraqis themselves win back the country from the "insurgents" or "terrorists" or "guerrillas" (or whatever we finally determine they are).

But in only the last two weeks, American generals and civilian officials are, in fact, admitting that they have... problems. In Mosul, the Iraqi police force has "faded away." American generals speak of a "virtual connectivity" of the insurgents never seen before, as they use the Internet to pass along techniques, tactics and advice to one another. American generals now admit that almost all of them are Iraqis; we have created the Iraqi terrorists who were not there before....

American generals now speak in interviews about the "cellular expansion" of the insurgents. They see a constant spread of new, small cells with no clear command and control links that can form quickly, exploit and sacrifice, rather than relying on hard-core or closed, secure cells and forces. The Independent newspaper in London estimates there were at least 190 suicide bombers in the last 12 months (one might pause to think that they had something they believed in to take such a terminal measure)....

The truth no one really wants to deal with is that this war could very easily be lost by the United States. All the insurgents have to do is hang on another year. All we have to do is what the French and the British did in their colonies: Let themselves be exhausted and finally destroyed by their hubris, their delusions and their arrogant lack of understanding of the local people. (Emphasis added)

Might an iota of historical consciousness have helped? Perhaps not, since the problem with this regime is not exactly a total ignorance of history, but rather an understanding of history just shallow enough to divine spurious lessons, but not deep enough to understand the contingency and sheer luck that underpins so many historical success stories. (Which is precisely why war should always be a last resort.)

With that said, I suspect Geyer's timeline may be wrong: the United States can and (now that George Bush has been reelected) probably will hang on for a very long time without suffering a Dien Bien Phu, i.e. a final cataclysmic military defeat. The temptation for the Bush regime to hang on as long as possible is very high, for an elementary psychological reason: as long as one does not admit to defeat, one can always hope against reason that some deus ex machina will arrive to vindicate a losing cause. It's the same reasoning that causes people to stay in marriages for long after it is obvious they have failed, tailing into ever more interpersonally destructive behavior; or why companies engage in ever more reckless financial gambles as they see themselves sliding toward bankruptcy, with the result that the final balance sheet is even more catastrophic.

In this respect, the right-wing critique of Kerry may have been justified: since his own historical fate would not have depended on the perceived wisdom of the initial decision to go to war, but only on the proper handling of the postwar, he could have made decisions without the having to consider whether it would vindicate the original decision. In other words, a President Kerry would have been much more psychologically able to pull the ripcord on the burgeoning disaster. By contrast, Bush is in a much more tenuous position: just as Johnson had to keep escalating the Vietnam War to vindicate his initial decisions, Bush will be sorely tempted to keep raising the stakes on his own Mideast gambles.

Aceh quake may have made Earth wobble

Earth takes one on the chin:

The deadly Asian earthquake may have permanently accelerated the Earth's rotation -- shortening days by a fraction of a second -- and caused the planet to wobble on its axis, U.S. scientists said Tuesday.

Richard Gross, a geophysicist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, theorized that a shift of mass toward the Earth's center during the quake Sunday caused the planet to spin 3 microseconds, or one millionth of a second, faster and to tilt about an inch on its axis.

When one huge tectonic plate beneath the Indian Ocean was forced below the edge of another "it had the effect of making the Earth more compact and spinning faster," Gross said.

Bush's "mandate"

The most unpopular just-reelected President since they started running the polls.

Just underscores what a poor candidate Kerry was.

What a Tsunami looks like

Amazing photo gallery from Phuket.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag Dead

Sontag wa one of the great ones, a true moral force, equally condemning of all imperial hubris, whether fascism, Stalinism, or America's own hegemonic pretensions.

Like everyone else who ever read or knew her, I had my beefs with Sontag (she once called my graduate advisor, the most excessively reasonable of liberals, a Stalinist), but in general her moral sensibility was far more right than wrong. In particular, her immediate response to 9-11, printed in the New Yorker, and the subject of almost endless howls on "anti-Americanism" on the part of the frothy-mouthed right, was as acute as anything that was written in that first week:

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

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

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

Damn right. And also sadly prophetic: not only is "strong" perhaps the only thing our country has been since 9-11, it is precisely the lack of even a shred of historical awareness that has led us into the inextricable disaster in Iraq.

At least Bush is winning one GWOT

USA Today reported today that the Bush regime has decided not to renominate the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, the official responsible for internal auditing of departmental practices. I guess we shouldn't be too surprised, though, given that this guy (the impressively named Clark Kent Ervin) said in an interview last week that

airport security isn't tight enough and that little has been done to safeguard other forms of mass transit. Ervin said ports remain vulnerable to terrorists trying to smuggle weapons into the country. He added that immigration and customs investigators are hampered in their efforts to track down illegal immigrants because they often lack gas money for their cars.

"There are still all these security gaps in the country that have yet to be closed," Ervin said. Meanwhile, he added, Homeland Security officials have wasted millions of dollars because of "chaotic and disorganized" accounting practices, lavish spending on social occasions and employee bonuses and a failure to require competitive bidding for some projects....

While in office, Ervin made some scathing findings. He reported that:

  • Undercover investigators were able to sneak explosives and weapons past security screeners at 15 airports during tests in 2003.
  • Federal air marshals, hired to provide a last line of defense against terrorists on airlines, slept on the job, tested positive for alcohol or drugs while on duty, lost their weapons and falsified information in 2002.
  • Department leaders should have taken a more aggressive role in efforts to combine the government's myriad terrorist watch lists since the department was created in 2003.
  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gave executive bonuses of $16,477 to 88 of its 116 senior managers in 2003, an amount one-third higher than the bonuses given to executives at any other federal agency.
  • The TSA spent nearly $500,000 on an awards banquet for employees in November 2003. The cost included $1,500 for three cheese displays and $3.75 for each soft drink.
Damn backstabbing disgruntled ex-officials. Oops... except, he made these observations while he was still on staff.

Whenever the Bush regime is exposed for its failures in the Global War on Terror, the response is to re-up his offensive in his undeclared Global War on Transparency. That's one war where he's not afraid to put plenty of troops in theatre.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The world according to Google

A round-up of what people wanted to get from the Web, country by country, in 2004.

Losing myself in this site brought to mind Nietzsche's aphorism about how sometimes when you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you....

Red and Blue Jews

Here's a nice piece on how the American Jewish community is being fragmented by Republican electoral success. But I cite the piece mainly because I liked this passage:
How can America accept the religious right's reduction of morality to issues like homosexuality and abortion, which are scarcely mentioned in the Bible? How do we get the American public to see such issues as poverty, protection of the weak and the ill, protecting God's creation through environmental safeguards, basic human dignity and equality - far more pervasive biblical themes - as the great religious and moral issues confronting America?
How easily American evangelicals forget Matthew 19:24.

Flyover country begins at the Altamont pass

Here's a graphic that shows how flyover country has been creeping ever closer to the coast. The graphic is part of a nice L.A. Times piece on how, despite the lock that Democrats seem to have on California, the state is trending Republican.

As usual in stories of this sort, the article focuses on one particular community, Murrieta (located here), and walks through all the cultural signs of "redness"--veneration for the military, churchifying, and so on.

What this article just barely touches on, however, is the latent class issue. The reason why people live in these far-flung, fearsomely hot places, instead in the milder climes of the coast, is because they've been priced out the nicer parts of the state. What makes them become Republicans, however, is that they don't want to admit that it's their downward economic mobility which is forcing them to live in places that no one a hundred years ago would ever have considered settling in order to get a middle class lifestyle. Money:

"People come here with their families, and they want a conservative lifestyle that they can re-create," said Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Seyrato, who moved here nearly 15 years ago with his wife from Los Angeles County so they could buy a house and start a family. "We were able to recapture the fresh neighborhood of the '60s feel…. It had a lot of promise out here."

The article then goes on to describe one Rick Reiss, a Hummer-driving prison engineer:
Reiss has a libertarian streak and hates taxes, particularly measures like Proposition 63, which proposed a levy on Californians earning more than $1 million a year to pay for mental health care for the poor. The measure won handily statewide last month; tellingly, it went down to defeat in Riverside County, even though there are only 446 people here who meet that income threshold.

"Whenever I hear politicians say they're going to raise taxes on the rich, I think, 'What's rich?' " Reiss said, and he's not alone. "To some politicians, it's $80,000. In California, that's just getting by."
I can appreciate it when people feel like taxes on the rich are all too likely to creep down the income scale till it affects them too. But to draw the line at not wanting to tax millionaires because they might come and get the prison engineer salariat... well, I can only say that this is someone who is a little out of touch with the reality of his own economic prospects.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A rightwinger with integrity

Greg Djeregian is a man of the right, but he has the moral and intellectual integrity to tell it like it is regarding the widespread Bush-mandated torture of prisoners.

Even more apposite is the first comment to Greg's posting:
This officially approved torture is appalling. We are becoming the enemy, the terrorists. I object on moral grounds, patriotic grounds and even on strategic grounds.

I will, however, point out to you, Greg, that the left has been objecting - speaking loudly - since evidence of systematic torture first appeared.

It has been the right that has attempted to diminish the significance of what occurred. Some on the right have even justified torture. I'm sure they will continue to do so. And that includes those in the Bush administration.

Now it appears that the order to torture came down from the White House. The story is breaking as we sit.

Again, this is what the left is talking about when we refer to the right as "brownshirts", "nazis", etc, etc. You don't like the name calling, but we've seen this tendency toward morally compromised barbarism on the right for years; from Allende to the death squads of the contras to the gitmo. From foreign policy to domestic.

No, the left has been speaking out; even predicting this sort of thing from Bush and his cronies. The right called us traitors, cowards, brie eating surrenders, pipe-dreamers, etc, etc.

Just like we were right about the lack of WMD in Iraq prior to the war, we are right about Bush's refusal to go along with international courts and such for fear of being brought up on horrendous charges for crimes planned and planned well in advance.

The left has been correct and vocal. The right has been incorrect and has tried to silence the left.

This is exactly right. The rightwingers have made a horrid, world-historical mess in Iraq, and they deserve and will receive eternal historical opprobrium for what they have done.

But this commentary raises an issue I must confess I've been struggling with. The bottom line is that no matter how criminally insane it was to attack Iraq, at this point we've made our geopolitical bed and now we must sleep in it: we have no choice but to work to improve the situation in Iraq.

The problem arises, however, in that any improvement in the situation in Iraq will instantly be seized upon for partisan purposes by the Bush regime -- to increase its overall political capital in the service of promoting the wingnut domestic agenda.

Hence the dilemma: despite the fact that we all need to achieve success in Iraq, it is almost impossible for any moderate to root for any Republican-led policy to be successful anywhere, since any success they have they will use to further destroy what moderates hold dear domestically. In short, the intensity of the partisanship of the other side makes it hard to support them even when they are a lo largo right. (To reiterate: the choice to go to war was a complete calamity; but now that we're in there, leaving just isn't an option.)

I mean, Hitler believed in re-planting deforested parts of Germany. But would you have signed up to support him in that effort?

The Bush regime cannot be bartered with in the normal parliamentary sense: Bushists believe that 27% "majorities" give them the right to do whatever they please. And this intense domestic partisanship on their part makes it very difficult for their domestic political opponents to do the right thing by Iraq. The sad fact is that any progress we experience in Iraq can only serve to give Bush the political capital to do even worse things to America.

In other words, supporting the right thing for Iraqis (i.e. stabilization, peace, and democracy) is directly contrary to my interest as an American, since such progress in Iraq will strengthen the political hand of the dire enemies of what I hold dear about my own country.

What I am describing, in short, is the backlash -- perhaps payback is a better word -- from Bush's use of the war as a partisan tool in domestic political battles.

Update: The oil and gas industry worker quoted in this NYT article gets it exactly right: "I would never have gone there from the beginning, but that's beside the point now," Mr. Spear said, his jaw clenched. "We upset the apple cart and now there's pretty much no choice. We have to proceed."

The outstanding question, of course, is how to proceed. And even in this, as with everything else about its foreign policy, the Bush regimes is continuing to get it all wrong.

Bush may have personally authorized torture

In addition to clusterfucking the mainstream GWOT, Bush appears also to be losing his "other GWOT": the Global War on Transparency.

The ACLU yesterday released an FBI document that makes reference to an Executive Order authorizing torture, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, the use of military dogs, and sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.

Here's a link to all the documents.

Thank God for the Freedom of Information Act. Don't be surprised if the Republicans try to repeal it.

The Reality-Based Community

It appears that, after all, one may be able to repeal the law of gravity!

I gotta say, this makes me feel much better about our prospects and progress in Iraq.

OpEd vs. OpEd

This WSJ op-ed piece claims we're "doing the lord's work" in Iraq. And this one concedes that we're, uh, losing.

Faith-based community, say hello to the reality-based community.

Les extremes se touchent

Frank also includes a footnote on p. 277 that reminded me of something my father told me years ago, when I was in college in the 1980s and campus identity politics were nearing their apogee. My father said that identity politics was basically a right-wing phenomenon, in that it effaced class and thus masked from people their true interests. This seemed an odd observation at the time, given the strident leftist posturing of the early identity politicians. But here’s Frank:
In denying its own agency, as well as in many other ways, the backlash is a precise mirror image of the pseudo-leftist academic discipline known as cultural studies. According to this theoretical tendency, the most banal and routine culture-products are intensely political and subversive; the left is constantly but silently winning the war over everyday life; and even the lowliest of consumers are endowed with massive quantities of agency, with a stupendous power to exert their radical will in the world. For the backlash, on the other hand, nobody has agency except for people on the left. We, the Middle Americans, are utterly powerless to change our culture—to ban abortions or outlaw sodomy or build Ten Commandment Monuments—or to prevent the left from wrecking everyday life. And yes, the backlash agrees, everything is politicized—the way you mow your lawn, the color you paint your house, whether or not you ride a bicycle—but politicized negatively. Everything offends; everything is calculated to advance liberalism’s plot to make the culture more to its liking. Backlashers are, in fact, just about the only people in the world who would agree with the professors who find all sorts of subversiveness in Madonna and Britney and Christina Aguilera. A final, telling commonality: neither movement bothers seriously to consider the role of business in American life or culture.
In making this observation, Frank puts his finger on the fundamental and salient point about wingjob politics: this is the identity politics of the right. And right-wing identity politics is just as loathesome as "leftist" identity politics -- and just as self-defeating from a "self-interest" perspective.

Then again, identity politics have never been about self-interest -- though the leftist variety tended to connect a little more easily to self-interest by advocating various forms of preferential admissions and hiring practices. Rather, identity politics is about expressive individualism, in other words, about finding a way to make yourself known and heard and understood: a Hegelian quest for recognition much more than a Nietzschean will to power.

What's frightening -- or, alternatively, amusing -- about the current Republican Party is that it has managed to hitch the angry masses' desire for Hegelian recognition to the plow of a corporate will to power. As Frank concludes:

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targetting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting a black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

Monday, December 20, 2004

Hey, I made an Amazon list!

I even get the #1 spot....

What Frank gets right

Frank's thesis is simple enough. The Democratic Party, under Bill Clinton's strategic leadership, tried and largely succeeded in becoming as much the pro-business party as the Republicans. This DLC-ification of the Democratic Party has had two essential effects: first, to accelerate of the economic destitution of the low-skilled and low-educated, and second, to take economic issues off the political table. The result of the first effect has been ever-growing class resentment on the part of the downwardly mobile ex-middle class, and the result of the second is that these resentments have no political outlet except for cultural issues.

In this analysis, Frank gets to the essentials of what ails the Democratic Party. The reason that Clinton disgusted me as a politician was that he sold out the working class. Here was a man from humble origins himself, who took over the Democratic Party – which with varying degrees of effectiveness had since FDR’s time stood for the defense of the working classes within the limits set by an essential embrace of capitalism – and turned it into a party whose industrial and economic policies were, at bottom, a more fiscally sound version of Reaganism. It was this move by the Democratic Party that led me personally to cast protest votes in both 1996 and 2000. And it's not just me; the working classes also decided to cast protest votes: since neither Party actually represents their interests, the downwardly mobile may as well vote their resentments (excuse me, "values").

Frank also helps explain exactly how the Republicans (especially under Bush) have harnessed cultural resentments to pull their tax-cutting anti-statist wagon. With that said, I don't think Frank proves his case when he claims that the "Con" wing of the GOP is manned by sincere "movement" sorts, but fronted by opportunists who just want to use the power of the movement to achieve other purposes. In particular, as I argued earlier, I believe that there is more ideological congruence between tax-cutting and theocracy than Democrats have generally acknowledged.

Finally, Frank’s clearly right that the way out for the Democrats is not to compete on "values" – to lurch even further to the right than Bill Clinton dragged them – but to get back to the bread and butter that defines the Party, which is an industrial policy that is meaningfully more friendly to working people than the one espoused by the Republicans.

What Frank gets wrong

Unfortunately, Frank’s argument is excessively monolithic. He seems to claim that everything that’s wrong with the culture from the point of view of the wingjobs can be laid at the doorstep of the profit motive of the culture industry – which is why, in Frank’s view, the right’s softness on regulating business shows they are not serious about actually winning the culture war.

Now, it is certainly true that the coarsening of popular culture is attributable to the profit motive of the culture industry. But how exactly was Roe v. Wade a result of Hollywood (or any other corporate executives) pursuing profits? How is the science establishment’s demand that Darwinian theory be taught in school the result of capitalist imperatives?

Leaving aide the argumentative overreach, there’s also a bit of a contradiction at the core of Frank’s argument. He seems to argue that the paranoid-stylists – what he sometimes calls the plen-T-plainters – are foolish to vote Republican when all they get for their efforts is accelerated personal economic ruin. Then he turns around and argues that the Democrats are responsible for this situation, since the DLC-ification of the Party means that the Democrats are really not much better for the working classes than the Republicans anyway. But wait a second. If the Democrats don't represent the interests of the working classes any more than Republicans do, then what's irrational about cultural right-wingers voting for the candidate that at least proclaims their "values"?

These quibbles aside, Frank's fundamental point is clearly and profoundly right: the Democrats need to clearly differentiate their economic platform from that of the Republicans in a way that shows how they better represent the concerns of the working classes. A good place to do that is in the burgeoning debate over what to do – if anything – about Social Security.

The Matter with Kansas

Part of the reason for the light blogging is that I spent the weekend reading a really worthwhile book, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, a dissection of contemporary rightwing populism done by way of a cultural tour of his home state of Kansas.

What’s best about the book is its evocation of the details of the contemporary culture war, and the related personal resentment, that feeds contemporary rightwing politics. One of Frank’s main rhetorical methods for accomplishing this trick is to ventriloquize the language and sentiments of the wingjobs. I’ll be blogging later on the many big political things the book gets right (and a few of the things that I think it gets wrong), but I’ll note here merely that the book is worth reading both for its poignant evocation of the pathos at the root of contemporary wingnut politics, and also for its laugh-out-loud humor. Here’s a sample from p. 146, describing Frank’s youthful political awakening to Reaganism in the late 1970s, that had me rolling:

Our politics, I figured, had become as inauthentic as our culture, with its plastic and its refined sugar and its shoddy suburban buildings. The nation had departed from the course clearly indicated by God and nature, otherwise known as free-market capitalism. We had gotten above ourselves. We were prideful. We were playing God.

Amping up this adolescent political conviction was my feeling that we in the late seventies were living in some political equivalent of biblical end times. There was more to this presentiment than the millenarian religious stew in which Kansas City always simmers. Recall for a moment the distinct sense of terminal crisis, of things coming apart, in the culture of those years: the endless hostage situation, the powerless president with his somber pessimism, the gasoline shortage, the crumbling cities, and, of course, the deliberately apocalyptic imagery of punk rock, which we in KC knew only from scaremongering news items. In 1979, the bitter self-made men were hoarding gold and reading How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, a
personal-finance best seller as recklessly gloomy as the best sellers of the nineties were senselessly optimistic. For a kid who had been raised on tales of the GI generation’s heroic accomplishments, it was obvious that our civilization was in decay, that we had gotten too far away from the natural order of things. As anyone could see from the movies, America was rotten with sycophants and dope and processed foods and entire classes of public hangers-on. The tyranny of fashion required the city’s entire population of fifteen-year-old boys to dress like sexually troubled middle-aged swingers, carefully shaping the feathered hair-dos that made 90 percent of us look like fools. We were clearly approaching the end.

In this climate I undertook my first literary effort….

As someone who came into worldly consciousness around the same time as Frank, I can testify that this is as true a portrait of the way the world looked to a teenager of the time as anything you’ll find.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Christian values

It tells you something about American Christianity today that after Lisa M. Montgomery murdered and cut the fetus from the womb of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, she went to visit her pastor.

It's also typical of the (literal) bad faith of people in the so-called heartland that the reaction of one person who knew Montgomery was to proclaim, "It blows you away when it's here. This stuff is supposed to be in New York City or Los Angeles." Actually, not: murder rates are much higher and maternal mayhem more common among the religiously-inclined than among the secular.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Out with Social Security, in with the Church

Last month I blogged on how abolishing Social Security represented the cornerstone of Bush's domestic political ambitions. I argued that right-wing hatred for the Social Democratic state is deeply related to the view that the rise of the welfare state is tied to the decline of religion. Social Security "reformers" (i.e. abolitionists) believe that making social services the domain of churches will force the masses to become church-goers.

Evidence that this is the true agenda of welfare-state-rollback is everywhere, but today appears in an article on how an article on the politico-cultural landscape around Bakersfield. (I expect this posting represents the first in what will be an occasional series on how "Flyover country begins at the Altamont Pass.") Money quote:

The conservative vision of ideal government, which few locals question and which the Republicans have made part of their low-tax mantra, sees government as a kind of infrastructure guarantor only, even when the conversation turns to America's admittedly troubled health care system.

"I don't think the government owes people health care," says youth pastor and newly elected public high school board member Chad Vegas. "If we were doing things ideally in this country, it would be churches' responsibility to provide health care, using Christian doctors."

Let's be clear on two things: the goal of Social Security "reform" is to abolish it -- as a first step in rolling back the entire social safety net; and the goal of abolishing the safety net is to drive people back into the arms of church. Social security reform is thus deeply intwined with the anti-secularist, fundamentalist agenda.

More credence for the astrotrolling hypothesis

Last weekend I wrote about about how one needs to beware of getting one's "news" from blogs, because it's very possible that some of the "baghdad bloggers" we're seeing may in fact be plants by the U.S. proaganda machine. A couple people wrote me telling me this was another example of paranoia.

Turns out that the day after I wrote that blog entry, the New York Times published an article entitled, "Pentagon Weighs Use of Deception in a Broad Arena":

The Pentagon is engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad, senior Defense Department civilians and military officers say.

Such missions, if approved, could take the deceptive techniques endorsed for use on the battlefield to confuse an adversary and adopt them for covert propaganda campaigns aimed at neutral and even allied nations....

The efforts under consideration risk blurring the traditional lines between public affairs programs in the Pentagon and military branches - whose charters call for giving truthful information to the media and the public - and the world of combat information campaigns or psychological operations....

Pentagon and military officials directly involved in the debate say that such a secret propaganda program, for example, could include planting news stories in the foreign press or creating false documents and Web sites translated into Arabic as an effort to discredit and undermine the influence of mosques and religious schools that preach anti-American principles....

Administration officials say they are increasingly troubled that a nation that can so successfully market its cars and colas around the world, even to foreigners hostile to American policies, is failing to sell its democratic ideals, even as the insurgents they are battling are spreading falsehoods over mass media outlets like the Arab news satellite channel Al Jazeera.

"In the battle of perception management, where the enemy is clearly using the media to help manage perceptions of the general public, our job is not perception management but to counter the enemy's perception management," said the chief Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita....

Mr. Di Rita said the scope of the issue had changed in recent years. "We have a unique challenge in this department," he said, "because four-star military officers are the face of the United States abroad in ways that are almost unprecedented since the end of World War II."

He added, "Communication is becoming a capability that combatant commanders have to factor in to the kinds of operations they are doing."

Much of the Pentagon's work in this new area falls under a relatively unknown field called Defense Support for Public Diplomacy. This new phrase is used to describe the Pentagon's work in governmentwide efforts to communicate with foreign audiences but that is separate from support for generals in the field.

At the Pentagon, that effort is managed by Ryan Henry, Mr. Feith's principal deputy for policy.

"With the pace of technology and such, and with the nature of the global war on terrorism, information has become much more a part of strategic victory, and to a certain extent tactical victory, than it ever was in the past," Mr. Henry said.

However, a senior military officer said that without clear guidance from the Pentagon, the military's psychological operations, information operations and public affairs programs are "coming together on the battlefield like never before, and as such, the lines are blurred." This has led to a situation where "proponents of these elements jockey for position to lead the overall communication effort," the officer said....

Mr. Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, says that even though the government is wrestling with these issues, the standard is still to tell to the truth.

The standard is still to tell the truth. Wow.

Hat tip: The Short Cut.

"They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented"

This site depicting the results of "US Air Strike on Iraqi Civilians" is undoubtedly anti-U.S. propaganda, not in the sense that the photos are doctored, but rather in the sense that they show nothing of the U.S. but its brutality and nothing of the other side but its nobility.

The truth is that war barbarizes all involved. Many right-wingers assume that nobility of purpose, like military strategy, can survive contact with the enemy unaltered. It's just not true. That's why to fight a war your purposes need to be clear and unvarnishedly noble from the outset, and your means of achieving those purposes equally so. This is why Afghanistan was a reasonable war, and Iraq not.

The main reason to look at the site, however, is not to realize that war is hell, which we all know. The main reason to look at this site is that this propaganda makes you realize what the United States is up against: this propaganda represents the dominant image of the war for many in the Arab world, just as surely as the equally biased Fox-News-sanitized version of the war represents the dominant view of the war for American wingjobs.

And that's a huge problem for the Bushist ambitions in the Middle East. U.S. doesn't control the media representation of the war, at least outside the United States. Edward Said was right to suggest that a cornerstone of colonialism's efficacy was, as he quoted Marx from The Eighteenth Brumaire with regard to the French peasantry, "they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." The inability of the lumpenproletariat, or colonial subjects, to represent themselves -- an inability partly technological, partly ideological -- was crucial for allowing classical 19th century European imperial powers to be able to rule without constant application of force, in short with the grudging consent of the governed.

But that world is gone, by force of technology and ideological evolution. Now (really for the last fifty years) the unwashed postcolonial masses can represent themselves, and by God they do and will. They no longer put up with being represented the way we (that is, the Bushists) want to represent them. And if we cannot control that representation, is it possible for us to win their hearts and minds? To repeat, has any Western power won a guerilla war in the global South since 1965?

For reference purposes, here's the whole quote from Marx:
The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by France's bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants.... They [have] no national bound and no political organization among them. They do not form a class. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.
Italics added.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The rightwing backlash against Rummy begins

With the election (and thus the need for dissembling and disingenuousness) in the rear view mirror, the Republican party intellectual establishment has begun a campaign for Rumsfeld's head, especially after Rummy's comments about how the lack of adequate armor was a result of having to "go to war with the army you have" -- as if the Army we have is not the Secretary of Defense's responsibility.

Now even elected Republicans, like Trent Lott, are piling on. Bush shouldn't be surprised that Lott's the first public critic: Bush had Lott thrown under a bus (well out of the majority leader's chair) for racist comments last year. Bush is probably wishing he'd sent the guy packing back to Mississippi, but then let him linger on in the Senate because Bush needed the vote in the tight Senate. There's surely some appropriate line from The Godfather for this kind of mistake: if you're going to kneecap someone, you may as well whack them altogether so they can't come back and getcha.

Even more shocking, in a story which hasn't gotten nearly enough play, the Army's own (much more honest and accurate) response to the "lack of armor" problem was to explain that, actually, the real problem is that the insurgents are becoming "more effective":

The assessment from Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, second in command at U.S. Central Command, was a stark reminder that the capture of Fallujah has not stopped a well-organized and resourceful insurgency from continuing to kill coalition members and disrupt crucial supplies of food, fuel and bullets.

The enemy is getting better at manufacturing and placing its weapon of choice, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), he said.

"They have gotten more effective in using IEDs," Gen. Smith told reporters at the Pentagon. "The enemy is very smart and thinking. It is a thinking enemy. So he changes his tactics and he becomes more effective."

The IED is a variety of roadside bombs hidden amid debris and detonated by remote control when Americans come near. The terrorists also put IEDs in vehicles driven by suicide bombers recruited by a terror organization led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.

In a briefing before Gen. Smith spoke, an Army officer said the insurgents have found ways to pack more explosives into each bomb, increasing lethality. It was the appearance of IEDs in the late summer of 2003 that signaled to commanders that a deadly insurgency was under way and that lightly fortified vehicles were particularly susceptible.

As the U.S. death toll mounted, the Army launched an unprecedented effort to put armor on all Humvee multipurpose vehicles and supply trucks.

The Defense Department also set up an IED task force at the Pentagon to design countermeasures. To date, the tactics have resulted in foiling about 40 percent of planted bombs, according to U.S. officials.

"We have been hoping that our technology would be more effective than it has been," Gen. Smith acknowledged. Countermeasures have included driving fast past areas suspected of being booby-trapped and using electronic signals to blow up the remotely controlled bombs at a safe distance. Iraqis use a variety of electronics, such as parts of cell phones and radios, to send a signal for detonation as convoys pass.

"They may use doorbells today to blow these things up," Gen. Smith said. "They may use remote controls from toys tomorrow. And as we adapt, they adapt." Gen. Smith also said Central Command now believes that Zarqawi, who has organized cells of suicide bombers and personally beheaded captives, is moving around Baghdad rather than operating out of Fallujah.

"Baghdad would be the most likely area, but these guys are getting very, very good at concealing ... making it difficult for us to track them," Gen. Smith said. "He can operate pretty safely, we think. In some areas of Baghdad there are those that would hide him and those that would passively allow him to operate."

Sure sounds like things are moving in the right direction, doesn't it?

It's not Rumsfeld's fault that we will are losing the war in Iraq, any more than it was McNamara's fault we lost in Vietnam, or Goering's fault that Germany lost the Second World War. Each was a unwinnable war, launched for ignoble reasons by megalomaniacs, and supported by the benighted majorities of their countries. Like McNamara and Goering, however, Rumsfeld must bear responsibility for the particularly horrid nature of the way we are going about losing -- the incredible damage we are inflicting on our national reputation in the course of losing the war.

How the Bible helps

Marx observed that religion is the opium of the masses, but the bible-belt version appears to be somewhat more akin to the PCP of the masses.

Dena Schlosser, who cut off her baby's arms last month, cited Matthew 5:30 as the reason for her action:
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell....

I guess that's what you get when you take a literalist approach to the Bible.

What's really disturbing, however, is that there have recently been several other similar cases of highly religious families whose mothers have slaughtered their children. Remember Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children saying she wanted to "give them to God"? More recently, there was Deanna Laney, who said the Lord told her to bash her child's brains in with rocks -- giving a whole new sense to the term "bible-thumping."

The (religious?) authorities have gone to pains to claim that in each case these women were suffering from post-partum depression. But as the Dallas Star Telegram puts it drily, PPD is "difficult to prove in court." Why not take the simpler explanation, namely the one that the women offer themselves?

Funny, us left coast pinkos don't seem to do this sort of thing to our children. Maybe it's because we say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Flood of Troubled Soldiers

I don't even know how to react to this story. A preview for an unfolding disaster:

An Army study shows that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000....

What was planned as a short and decisive intervention in Iraq has become a grueling counterinsurgency that has put American troops into sustained close-quarters combat on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. Psychiatrists say the kind of fighting seen in the recent retaking of Falluja - spooky urban settings with unlimited hiding places; the impossibility of telling Iraqi friend from Iraqi foe; the knowledge that every stretch of road may conceal an explosive device - is tailored to produce the adrenaline-gone-haywire reactions that leave lasting emotional scars.

One has to honor the troops for this sacrifice, which as this article makes clear goes far, far beyond the immediate field of duty in which they served.

But has it been worth it? Any war that is only worth it if you win, is a war that wasn't worth it for the soldiers who fight in it. And we're not winning.

This is why Rumsfeld and Perle and Wolfowitz and the rest will, if there is a God, burn in a special place in Hell for all of eternity.

"Logistical issues" with Iraqi election

Leave aside the continued security catastrophe in Iraq, or the on-again, off-again commitment to participate in the vote by Sunni and some religious Shi'ite parties. Even more insuperable challenge (related to the security issue) facing the Iraqi vote is logistical. The lede:

With less than eight weeks remaining before Iraq's national elections, preparations are so far behind it will be virtually impossible to carry off a proper vote, according to several consultants involved in the planning.

Although public attention has been focused on how to make the country safe for the Jan. 30 parliamentary election, logistical problems could undermine the vote just as seriously as the lack of security. Preparations are stalled on many levels, ranging from delays in hiring and training thousands of election workers to deciding what kind of ballots and ink to use.

Then again, "logistical issues" with voting didn't seem to bother the Bush regime much in Ohio or Florida either.


Right-wingers talk (and talk and talk) about the anti-Americanism of anyone who opposes George Bush’s foreign policies. But in fact, many of these wingjobs feel at least as much antipathy toward Europe and Europeans, and have just as malformed understandings of the objects of their hate, as any European leftist has toward the United States or Americans. This much-linked blog entry is case and point:

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is totally sick of reading these polls:

"President Bush’s re-election was viewed negatively by a majority of people in several European countries — including those in Britain, America’s strongest ally in the war in Iraq, Associated Press polling found. The president was not the only one viewed unfavorably. Americans generally were seen in an unfavorable light by many in France, Germany and Spain, countries not supportive of U.S. Iraq policies."

When the fuck are there going to be opinion polls done asking Americans their opinion of France? Why are we never given the opportunity to express our displeasure with these gutless European twats? Why can’t we talk about how much we hate the French as a people? Yes, Europe hates us, fine. When do we get the chance to speak?

It’s a self-parody of what Timothy Garton Ash refers to as the "anti-Europeanism" of the American right. Bummer that it's not just the French.

In fact, the only non-haters are those who reside in the intersecting part of the European and American ideological Venn diagram.

The political ironies of the Civil Rights movement

This LA Times article documents at a fine degree of granularity the lock that the GOP has developed on the South over the last generation, but especially with the ascendency of George Bush. In the election last month, Bush "carried nearly 85% of all the counties across the region — and more than 90% of counties where whites are a majority of the population." The tendency of the South the vote as a bloc has of course made it very effective at getting its way despite representing views out of the step with the a majority of the country. It's worth pondering why the South, of all regions, has once again emerged as a place of such polar and solid political loyalties, just as it was for the century after the Civil War for the Democrats.

The effect of "the Solid South" on the Presidency is also an interesting subject. Since the Civil Rights era began in the 1960s, the only non-Southerners who have won a presidential race have been candidates from California: Nixon and Reagan. That's interesting because between the Civil war and the 1960s, the White House was occupied exclusively by Northerners (with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian by birth who made his career in the North) -- largely because Southerners were out of step with the mores of rest of the country, and therefore incapable of winning national office. Before the Civil War, of course, the Presidency had largely been occupied by slaveholders and other Southerners.

What the Civil Rights movement did was to pull the South's race laws, if not its social attitudes, into line with those of the rest of the country. At the same, however, the South (somehow, for some reason) managed to retain its unity and "exceptionalism," permitting it to re-assume its historic hegemony over the White House and the country. By hiding from view the most visible aspect of the South's core "values," the Civil Rights laws allowed Northerners to feel comfortable with Southerners as Presidents for the first time in a century. Thus the ironic result of the Civil Rights movement was to allow Southern whites, with their only partially reformed social attitudes (think: Trent Lott), to once again assume disproportionate national influence.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Judge Suspended for Wearing Blackface

This is a nice one: a judge in Louisiana showed up at a Halloween party in blackface. The party's host, the judge's brother-in-law, dressed as Buckwheat.

Do we even need to ask which political party these people belong to?

Man bites dog

CNN: Man bites dog, police say.

U.S. military deaths during Iraq war

Calendar of US Military Dead during Iraq War.

Google to revolutionize academic research

One can only cheer at the news of Google's decision to index the contents of the world's biggest libraries. It will undoubtedly revolutionize academic research in the humanities, rescuing obscure texts, and making it far easier to assess the scope of certain themes and topics. In my own research on modernization theory, one of the main tools I used was JSTOR, an ever-expanding index of key American academic journals, dating back in many cases to the nineteenth century, which allowed me to track quite precisely the radical transformation of the idea of "modernization" from the first to the second third of the twentieth century.

However, a small precaution: Google's efforts may enable lazy researchers to rely monolithically on keywording as a research methodology. If this takes place -- that is, if academics allow their undergraduates to do this -- it will represent a withering of important research skills and a truncation of historical sensibility. One invaluable research habit, as I discovered in my own work, is to walk through the aisles of a library and look at the other books filed next to the book you originally sought. Likewise, when doing historical research, one helpful way to contextualize an old article in an newspaper or magazine is to read other articles that appear in the same issue or week -- to help get a sense for the overall structure of sentiment in which a given topic was being discussed.

In other words, if relied on exclusively, keywording risks divorcing words from the wider contexts in which they initially appeared. And dematerializing and decontextualizing texts in this way cuts readers off from a key source of textual meaning. The point is not that Google's indexing is a bad thing: it's absolutely not. But it does give lazy researchers the rope with which to hang themselves.

Monday, December 13, 2004

An Iraqi Hitler?

The London Times reports that Iraq's interim President worries that "an Iraqi Hitler" may emerge if things continue in the current vein in Iraq:
Mr Yawar said that the continuing instability and violence presented a long-term threat to the prospects for democracy in Iraq, where nationwide elections are scheduled for January 30. "This could in the long term create an environment in which an Iraqi Hitler could emerge like the one created by the defeat of Germany and the humiliation of Germans in World War I," he told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in remarks published today.
In other words, it's not Germany 1945 that the U.S. is recreating, but rather Germany 1918. Mission Accomplished!

I'm going to the store now to buy some popcorn to eat while I watch my favorite rightwing contortionists try to spin this one to indicate that things are actually going in the right direction over there.

Spurious attempt at "fair and balanced"

Last week the Washington Post ran a piece reporting that "Humans May Double the Risk of Heat Waves". Overall, it's good to see the papers reporting on the issue of human-induced climate change.

However, I'm linking to this article for a different reason, namely that it seems to me to exemplify a certain liberal pathology regarding what "fair and balanced" means. Now, right-wingers (Fox News) have a perfectly clear understanding of what "fair and balanced" means to them -- it means promoting their views. For liberals, however, "fair and balanced" means presenting "both sides of an issue" -- even when one side is rooted in fact and the scientific method, and the other is rooted in ideological claptrap. This article typifies this self-destructive liberal reportorial bias.

After summarizing the findings in the Nature piece (for those readers who don't know, Nature is one of the two most prestigious general science journals, along with Science), the article goes on to quote a fellow named Myron Ebell, who disputes the substance of the Nature article, poo-pooing it as "a small potatoes paper" and claiming that "modeling is not science."

This clown has no standing to comment on this issue as an equal to the scientists quoted. As even a simple Web search can tell you, Ebell runs a Republican-funded think tank and is the author of such wonderful observations as, "the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are probably thickening rather than melting" and "higher fuel efficiency standards costs lives." He's a partisan hack whose life is dedicated to providing quotes that dispute indisputable scientific findings. What he's saying is something about as rooted in science as the claim that the earth is flat.

On the issue of climate change, if the WaPo wanted to achieve "balance," it ought to quote from Bjorn Lomborg or one of his proteges. Lomborg argues that human-induced climate change is real, but that the mainstream policy proposals for containing greenhouse gasses (i.e. Kyoto) are unjustifiably expensive. Now, that's a legitimate scientific opinion, and it deserves a hearing and debate. A partisan arse like Ebell deserves no hearing.

So why does the WaPo give a wingjob like Ebell the time of day? Mainly, because they've given him the time of day before. He can be reliably wheeled out to make a bold bullshit claim designed to confuse uninformed readers or viewers, thereby providing cover for the right-wing clear-cutting, strip-mining, gas-guzzling, ANWR-drilling agenda. Hacks like Ebell exploit the media's desperation to avoid seeming "biased" by reporting that the Bush regime's environmental policy is based, pure and simple, on bad science -- or actually, on anti-science. Giving people like this a hearing is a form of self-destruction -- in this case, not just liberal self-destruction, but self-destruction on a planetary scale.

The Bushist position on climate change is yet another example of its habit of lying about the future.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Astrotrolling in Iraq

Since at least the Nixon days, the Republican Party has had serious comparative advantage in the various darks political arts. I must admit that I say this not without some grudging admiration -- even though such behavior is obviously lamentable from an ethical perspective.

What kind of skullduggery are we talking about? Perhaps the best known are so-called push polls, in which you hire a telemarketing firm to call voters, ostensibly to gather their opinion on a subject, but in fact to spread some rumor. The most famous use of a push poll was by George Bush's primary campaign in South Carolina in 2000 against against John McCain. Karl Rove had telemarketers call SC voters and ask, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" (Sometimes the pollsters made reference to McCain's appearances on the campagin trail with a dark-skinned little girl: his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. Nice.)

Another classic dark art is phone jamming -- using mass phone-bank spamming to block the telephone-based get-out-the-vote operations of your opposition. Bush's 2004 New England campaign manager, James Tobin, was just indicted for allegedly sponsoring such an operation in New Hampshire in the 2002 campaign.

Yet another good one -- originally pioneered by the tobacco lobby -- is the creation of what Josh Marshall calls astroturf organizations -- i.e. fake "grassroots" (hence: astroturf) campaigns operated by professional services organization that set up fake activist groups, media campaigns, phone banks to call congressmen imitating irate citizens, and so on.

So far, the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, has simply been one more vehicle for helping to create an astroturf organization. But as Martini Republic explains, something more sinister may be now beginning to take place, which we may refer to as blog trolling. In Internetspeak, "trolling" refers to people who lurk on discussion boards and make deliberately false or inflamatory remarks in order to throw the community into a tizzy. Made possible by the inherent anonomity of the Internet medium, effective trolls can get a whole community up in arms, distracted from its main goals. Blog trolling, as the name suggests, is an analogous idea to trolling, but in the blogosphere. It involves setting up blogs that pretend to express the voices of real people, but are in fact are potemkin villages designed to create an intentionally misleading impression of the scene they are commenting on. Blog trolling exploits two facts: the blogosphere's penumbra of personal authenticity, and the fact that the blogosphere is, in fact, just as anonymous as any Internet chat room.

That combination of apparent personal authenticity with what is in fact total anonymity makes blogs an almost perfect operational environment for agents provocateurs. For people working in psy-ops, blogs provide a perfect medium for spreading false information -- which can then be fed to more legitimate and widely-consumed media channels. All of this is especially important in the case of the war in Iraq, where blogs have become a truly important medium, widely cited both for facts and interpretations of the chaotic situation in Iraq.

The problem with blogs is they are completely unverified and unprofessionalized sources of news. For example, who knows who the "Baghdad Bloggers" who write for observes of the two brothers who write this blog:

the brothers are celebrated in the right-leaning weblogging world of the US, even though opinion polling shows that their views are far out of the mainstream of Iraqi opinion.... Their choice of internet service provider, in Abilene, Texas, is rather suspicious, and wonders whether they are getting some extra support from certain quarters.
People have started turning to blogs as a source of news because of the information void created a lack of quality professional reporting coming out of Iraq. (This informational vacuum is the joint creation of the insurgency's uniquely murderous attitude toward reporters, and the Bush regime's "other GWOT" -- global war on transparency.) In the hunger to figure out what's really happening in Iraq, people are now turning to bloggers as an alternative news source.

Unfortunately, as the problem of blog trolling illustrates, the cognitive legitimacy of bloggers in no way matches that of the professional, real media. The right-wing media have made a concerted case that no difference exists between "opinion" and fact-based reporting, but the truth is that, despite everything, the New York Times and the Washington Post are far more reliable sources of news, and give more reliable perspectives on the news, than any blogger out there.

The reason why this is so is pretty obvious, if you give it a moment's thought. It's not just that news organizations employ professional reporters, who are extraordinarily talented at finding and contextualizing interesting sources. It's not just that news organizations have a large number of these reporters, who can share sources and scoops, and follow-up on stories in a much more far-reaching and panoptic way than any individual blogger ever could. And it's not just that these reporters have editors, who vet and fact-check to keep the reporters honest.

What's most important is that these news organizations have a reputation to maintain. The Jayson Blair story at the New York Times was indeed a disgrace, as was the failure of news organizations to sufficiently question the Bush regime's rationale for war. But at the end of the day, when you take the longer view, professional news organizations are far more trustworthy than any other news source, for the simple reason that they have something very big to lose if they are exposed as being intentionally and consistently deceptive.

A lot of bloggers, in hyper-self-satisified mode, and some of the mainstream right-wing media, seem to believe or hope that the blogosphere will eventually displace the mainstream media -- providing a populist grassroots replacement for "elitist" news sources. This is nonsense. We need the validation of information by professional reporters. Blogs are useful for framing issues, and for helping to keep certain stories alive which might otherwise die in today's compressed news cycle. But anyone relying on blogs for the substance of their news is inviting themselves to be duped by professional dupers.

This is why the Bush regime's effort to exclude professional reporters from the news cycle is so sinister: it aims to exclude from the creation of the news the people whose expertise and reputation is based on their ability to sift and parse information. Without organizations dedicated to distinguishing what is real from what is false, or what is important from what is trivial, individual citizens cannot help but become overwhelmed by the overflow of information, or to adopt cynical attitudes about all news.

Even leaving aside the deliberate efforts to create false impressions about what is happening, this destruction of the fourth estate's function as a quality filter for information is a disaster for a democratic polity. It's also the intended result of the Bush regime's efforts to contain and control the news cycle.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Hypocrisy alert: presidential pardons

Remember the outrage when Clinton pardoned the fugitive financier Marc Rich in the waning hours of his Presidency? Well imagine how the media and the right-wing establishment would feel if a new Democratic administration were to give Rich the post of, say, an SEC commissioner?

Well something very much like that is going on in the current Bush regime, with regards to Iran-Contra felons. A number of these felons, you may dimly recall, received lame-duck pardons by George Bush senior, who noted that these men had paid a "disproportionate price" in terms of, inter alia, lost careers.

Turns out that their careers weren't compromised all that much at all. In fact, several of these confessed felons and liars are now back in senior policy positions in the current Bush regime. In particular, Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty October 7, 1991, to two misdemeanor charges of lying to Congress, and was pardoned by the current President's dad in the waning hours of his presidency, was appointed in 2002 to be special assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs -- a role for which he has no qualifications other than ideological congeniality, a publication record of strong support for the Likud, and (obviously) a personal loyalty to Republican Presidents so fierce he is willing to perjure himself before Congress.

To reiterate: the first step in cutting off the possibility of political rationality is to suppress information. When politicians refuse to release information, they are undermining the cognitive foundation of effective democracy.

It's a sign of how little respect the Republican Congress has for its own institutional integrity that they would confirm someone who confessed to lying under oath to them about a matter of high policy. Let's not forget that these are the largely the same people who voted to impeach President Clinton for lying under oath not to them, but to a grand jury, and not about matters of state, but about personal pecadillos.

P.S. Here's a prediction: Bush's last acts will include, inter alia, pardoning Enron criminals like his buddy "Kenny Boy" Lay, noting that these people paid a "disproportionate price" as the result of a liberal witch-hunt.

The wingjobs go on the offensive

In relation to my recent post about how the steadily unfolding failure of Bush's strategy in Iraq has led to a PRC-style attack on transparency, my friend Robby Mockler comments that, "The fact that reporters have to use subterfuge to ask real questions of government officials (e.g., asking Rummy about those armored cars) demonstrates the sorry state of affairs."

Good point.

It's also worth noting how the right-wing punditocracy has been frothing at the mouth over the "planted" question from reporter Lee Pitts about the lack of adequate armor for American troops in theatre. Here, for example, is Rush Limbaugh:
Was [Pitts] on television last night? Anybody see him on TV? This guy has not yet stepped forward to answer questions as Rumsfeld did? Haven't seen him on TV, huh? I asked this question yesterday: Will Lee Pitts show up on television to answer questions about his actions just as Rumsfeld did? ... He knew what he had done was over the line, over the edge, and across the line. It was not journalism. It had become activism.
The first thing to note is the way Rush apparently feels as if reporters need to be scrutinized the same way that Secretaries of Defense during wartime do.

But what's really interesting about this transcript is what happens next. A caller named Karen calls up and takes umbrage with Rush, accusing him of "attacking the messenger."

When Rush launches into his usual bullying act, Karen stays on point, finally managing to get in, "What the soldier asked was a legitimate question. I personally don't care who said it to" -- at which point Rush cuts her off again, almost hysterical. He screams, bizarrely, that he is on the side of a "revolution" and that the caller fits "the full-fledged mold of a liberal caller," before finally, in a magnificent piece of pot-calling-a-kettlism, accusing her of turning her critique of his statement into a personal criticism of him.

When Karen denies any personal motive, noting simply that she knows parents of soldiers in Eugene, Oregon who "have been assembling pieces [of armor] to be sent over to Iraq," and that therefore the question, whoever posed it, is legitimate, Rush responds that since he hasn't personally met anyone in West Palm Beach, Florida, who is assembling armor, it can't be a serious issue.


Read the whole transcript. It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder, really wonder. As Rush himself suggests, only a bunch of idiots can believe anything this guy says....

But let's leave the personal ridiculousness of Rush aside. The real issue, which thus far I've heard no one remark on explicitly, is that the reason why this reporter needed to "plant" a legitimate question with soldiers, is that reporters can't get straight answers when they themselves ask the Bush regime the questions. It's only when the Bush regime is caught on tape treating American soldiers with the same contempt that they treat reporters to on a daily basis that it becomes a major international news story.

The truth is that the Bush regime, and Rumsfeld in particular, doesn't feel as if it needs to answer to anyone in the public -- certainly not the media. It's precsiely the contempt for the media's role as a conduit in the free flow of information that leads to the sorry state of affairs that Robby describes.

Even now, I bet Rumsfeld, like Rush, views what's going on as essentially a PR problem, rather than as a symptom of the pathology of his approach to transparency -- not to mention of the substantive problems with his strategy and tactics in the war itself.

The fact that Bush is keeping Rumsfeld clearly indicates that he concurs with Rumsfeld in these essentials.

Photos from Iraq

Here are some pictures of what it's like in Mosul and Fallujah this week.

I'm pretty sure that must be what it looks like when you're winning the hearts and minds.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Beyond Mars and Venus

Ian Buruma is one of my favorite writers, and this article on what divides Europe from America illustrates why. As a writer, he has a delightfully light touch, erudite yet personal, with a keen eye for personal anecdote and telling detail.

The main point of this article is to describe the much commented-upon differences between the United States and Europe. Like Timothy Garton Ash, Buruma believes that Robert Kagan's oversimplifed EuroVenus/AmericoMars diptych overplays the distinction. Here's how Francis Fukuyama summarizes Ash's argument:

It simplifies and falsifies reality by suggesting that a uniform point of view holds sway on each side of the Atlantic. In actuality, he writes, Europeans are themselves divided into Euro-Atlanticists and Euro-Gaullists; the former want political ties with the U.S. and worry about the statist tendencies of the European Union, while the latter see the EU as a competitive counterweight to the U.S. and champion the Brussels version of the welfare state. ("Janus Britain" is schizophrenically suspended somewhere between the two.)

Americans, for their part, are divided between what have come to be called red and blue voters. The Left (or blue) side of the American political spectrum corresponds to the Right, or Atlanticist, side in Europe, while such quintessentially American characteristics as anti-statism, gun ownership, and pugnacious hostility to international institutions are typically to be found only on the red side, the side that tends to vote Republican.

The resulting political Venn diagram thus half-overlaps. Although Europe is largely devoid of anyone resembling a Republican, and America has no socialists, both Europe and America have the equivalent of American Democrats. It is in that intersecting space that Ash sees the “surprising future” he proclaims in the subtitle of this book—the space where John Kerry’s America makes common cause with Euro-Atlanticists. These two forces can, he believes, nudge the U.S. toward greater multilateralism and Europe toward closer trans-Atlantic cooperation. (Italics added.)

A small precaution to my readers: the intersection of the Venn diagram is certainly the place where I feel most at home myself -- as do Buruma and Garton Ash.

Buruma glosses the point a bit differently, however, explaining that the reason for the trans-Atlantic rift is that in America, populists have taken over and have made "European" into a codeword for anything that smacks of elitism or liberalism:

The main difference between Europe and the US is political: the former is still governed by elites, especially on the level of the EU, while populism has swept the US. Senators often used to be courtly figures with old-world contacts and tastes. Now many have the manners and opinions of backwoodsmen, and have difficulty telling one European country from another. And even when heartland Republicans are not really yokels, they often pretend to be, for they know which side their bread is buttered. This shift is illustrated by the differences between Bush father and son.

The elder Bush was still of the courtly school, an old-fashioned Atlanticist who travelled widely and liked to manage the world in the manner of a gentleman’s club - discreetly, politely, cautiously. I believe he spoke French and his religion was a private matter. Bush the younger, private boarding school and Yale notwithstanding, swaggers like a Texan loudmouth, has barely travelled and wears God on his sleeve. He regards internationalism and consensus-building as something strictly for sissies. And he picked up a little Spanish from his youthful high jinks across the Mexican border.

Buruma then goes on to explain that it would be a mistake to believe that this American neo-Know-Nothingism is merely a matter of personal style. Indeed, contemporary American populism's loathing of "Europe" bespeaks a radical hostility to the political and cognitive world occupied by those in the middle of Fukuyama's Venn diagram.
Many Bush supporters are as contemptuous of "the Europeans," whom they regard as a bunch of effete, godless, homo snobs, as the newly assertive Europeans are of Bush’s people, whom they dismiss as ignorant, philistine cowboys. But "Europeans," as Garton Ash has pointed out, is often code in Washington for something else: for the old liberal, Atlanticist elite, represented by Democrats such as Kerry, but also country club Republicans such as Bush the elder. To be "European" means to be on the side of secular liberalism at home, and cautious diplomacy and alliance-building abroad. To be "European" is to be sceptical about revolutionary schemes, about global missions to free mankind from evil, about ideological wars. And to be "European" is to speak French, hence Kerry has to hide this facility.
Understanding how a certain brand of right-wing populism has hijacked the United States's culture and politics is thus a crucial matter for international politics. As German historians used to argue to explain their own history of aggressive militarism, understanding American foreign policy requires understanding the Primat der Innenpolitik, i.e. the primacy of domestic politics.

This is what I think Tony Blair fundamentally didn't appreciate when he chose to support Bush. By supporting Bush, he was supporting not just Bush's international agenda -- an agenda which Blair for better or worse seems to have truly believed was the right thing to do, even as he must have secretly grimaced over Bush's lack of diplomatic skill in promoting the agenda. Rather, by supporting Bush internationally, Blair also backed a particular brand of American populism and nationalism which is anathema to every European, including Blair himself.

To this point in his argument, I am with Buruma. I part company, however, with his concluding point. Buruma tries to double back, arguing that "the Bushist project," as represented by the likes of apparent secularists like Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle, in fact is not simply a form of reactionary populism, but in fact presents an opening to the Enlightenment, in that these are men of reason who believe in, to paraphrase Rousseau, forcing men to be free.

I agree that the neocons are Jacobins of a sort, and as such represent a wing of the Enlightenment project -- the least savory part of the Enlightenment, to be sure, but enlightened nonetheless. However enlightened these men may be, however, they are not the representative, majoritarian element of the right-wing movement in the United States today.

The numerically significant part of the Republican party is the populist wing (the neocons, mostly, distrust populism), which hates the main values of the Enlightenment: scientism, secularism, social tolerance, cosmopolitanism, freedom from narrow prejudice, promotion of universal education, universal provision of health services, state guarantees for the poor, and so on.

That neocons believe in many of the things which the neopopulist voting masses find anathema -- reason, science, and secularism -- merely indicates their Faustian willingness to make any political deal to gain power.


The failure of the Bush regime's strategy in the "Global War on Terror" leads inexorably to an acceleration of its Global War on Transparency:

While American officials and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government are touting the retaking of Fallujah and upcoming national elections as blows to Iraq's insurgents, the guerrilla fighters look as deadly as ever, carrying out ambushes and bombings seemingly at will.

Since last Friday, dozens of Iraqis, many of them police and national guardsmen, and 13 Americans have been killed in attacks throughout the country. Another 70 Iraqis have died in Mosul during the past two weeks in what appears to be a campaign to intimidate Iraqi security forces.

There is no comprehensive way to quantify how rebel activity has been affected nationwide by the Fallujah assault. American officials no longer make available to reporters a daily tally of the number of incidents reported around the country.

Italics added.

Reality-Based view of climate change

The "reality-based community" has started a group blog on climate change. Today they note, rather plaintively:
Climate science is one of those fields where anyone, regardless of their lack of expertise or understanding, feels qualified to comment on new papers and ongoing controversies. This can be frustrating for scientists like ourselves who see agenda-driven 'commentary' on the Internet and in the opinion columns of newspapers crowding out careful analysis.
Those pinko cultural elitists...

How the troops see the progress in Iraq

A sobering article in the London Times about the many reasons for and symptoms of American troops disgruntlement: over 5000 desertions, including American soldiers fleeing to Canada and taking their story to the media; ire bubbling up against Rumsfeld in a public Q&A session; accusations that forced extensions of duty amount to a bait-and-switch from the one-year tours soldiers believed they were signing up for; and declining re-enlistment rates despite significantly increased re-enlistment bonuses. And then there's this:
At 10 per cent, the death rate among war casualties is the lowest in history. But maimed men and women are flocking home with horror stories about the war, which is claiming more and more casualties. Between June, when the Iraqi interim Government took over, and September, the average monthly casualty rate among US forces was 747 a month, compared with 482 during the invasion and 415 before the coalition government was disbanded. With elections looming next month, the toll is expected to mount.
Progress, optimism, will, faith...

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Modernization theory's influence on the present

For those of you interested in the last post, I just added a couple more postings from my book on my other blog.

I'm posting sections from my conclusion in reverse order, so that eventually you'll be able to read the whole chapter from top to bottom on the blog.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Nation-building from the 1890s to the 1960s

Recently someone wrote to ask me, "Is there any link between the open door expansion of the 1890s, as discussed in Williams's Tragedy of American Diplomacy, and modernization [theory in the 1950s and 1960s]?"

Michael Latham discusses this subject at some length in the opening chapter of his Modernization as Ideology. I basically agree with Latham's take that postwar modernization theory was but an updating of a pretty old tune. One might say that the score always remains a variant of cosmopolitan Victorian progressivism, with each era applying a different libretto.

In each era -- including our own -- American internationalism has been predicated on the notion that U.S. interests and international interests were not in conflict, and that the salutary benefit the U.S. provided the world was to make them become more "like us." But this idea of being "like us" immediately raised the issue of national identity: who and what was the "us" that we were trying to help foreigners achieve for themselves? As such, this strand of foreign policy reflected national identity politics, always suggesting a complex and unstable interplay of domestic and foreign policies. As Latham explains, in both the 1890s and the 1960s (and he might have added the 2000s), ideologues of progressive foreign policy believed that, "America's domestic vitality would depend on continued expansion through either commercial or colonial means."

Three big things changed from the 1890s-1900s to the 1950s-1960s:

  • the mechanism by which this transformation would take place: The 1890s expected that religious and moral suasion along with commerce would drive the transformation, whereas by the postwar period the state was seen as the primary driver of modernization.
  • the formal language used to articulate this process: in the 1890s the process of transformation was described primarily through journalism, travelogues, and private economic association literature, whereas in the postwar period it was the language of social science -- economics, political science, and sociology -- that provided main linguistic vehicles.
  • the vision of what "like us" meant: here we enter into a discussion of the national identity that I go into at length in my own book and that Latham also discusses, from a somewhat different (though agreeable) vantage point.

One thing I hoped to add to Latham's account was the idea that while Victorian progressivism has been present at every stage of American foreign diplomacy, at certain times -- notably the 1890s-1900s, the 1950s-60s, and the 1990s-2000s -- this presence has been particularly forceful and effective. The reason why this style of foreign policy came into force and effectiveness at these particular times, I believe, is that in each of these eras the country was undergoing a national identity crisis -- very different sorts of crises, to be sure, but all crises that called for a foreign policy capable of speaking to the national identity crisis by emphasizing the essential moral goodness of the United States. Conversely, politicians who failed to use foreign policy debate to express a clear position on the domestic national identity crisis were in each era marginalized. In short, one domestic faction used moralizing foreign policy as a club with which to beat domestic ideological enemies: ambitious foreign policy was linked via moralizing rhetoric to the promotion of sweeping domestic reforms.

More on lying about the future

Someone commented that my phrase "lying about the future" had a certain "Philip-K-Dick-paranoid quality" to it. That's pretty fair. Think Man in the High Castle.

Except of course, the Bush regime isn't science fiction. It's anti-science reality.

Buy Blue

A useful site for those of you looking for non-denominational but not non-partisan gift-giving-holiday gifts.

The other GWOT

Another front in the global war on transparency.

After a month of blogging

This marks the beginning of my second month of blogging. I'm still getting used to the medium, as you've no doubt been able to tell. Thanks to everyone who has sent me stuff they thought I should blog on. Keep it coming!

It's been a slow-news week, which is part of the reason I haven't blogged quite as frenetically. Another reason I'll be blogging a little less frequently is that I'm working on a few longer posts, one on the challenge of nation-building (just finished Francis Fukuyama's excellent book on the subject), another on the transformation of American populism, and a third on the alleged problem of "excessive liberalism" on American campuses.

Also, in what I hope will be an ongoing series on "why knowing history matters," I'll be posting on specific examples of how misreadings of the past often provide spurious "lessons" that end up justiying poor policy decisions in the present. Specifically, we'll show how two crucial geopolitical episodes, namely the Marshall Plan and Ronald Reagan's role in the end of the Cold War, have been consistently misremembered and mischaracterized. These mischaracterizations provide the essential background for understanding why the Bush regime and its intellectual sycophants have backed such a disastrous policy in Iraq and the GWOT: they're trying to replay scenarios that never happened in the first place.

The larger point will be to amend Santayana's overquoted and much-misunderstood insight: it's not just that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but even worse, those who do not understand the past will be unable to repeat the parts of it they want to repeat.