Thursday, June 30, 2005

You hate me, you really hate me

Through the magic of the web, this URL ended up on the Centrist Coalition's blog along with a few other fledgling efforts. The reviews are in and, well, let's just say this show may not make it out of New Haven:

Wash Your Bowl. This guy self identifies as a centrist Democrat. I read the entire site in search of any evidence of his cenrism but did not find it. I am reminded of a poster on Democratic Underground to claimed that DUers are the real center and everything to the right of that is “right wing.” If that theory is true this guy is a centrist. My main issue with this site is that there is no value added. You gain nothing from reading this that you wouldn’t get from reading Kos or MyDD other than descriptions of a stranger’s trip to Target with his kids. This one rates fair to poor.

I take some of this to heart. It's hard to avoid the temptation to Bush-bash. It's hard to come up with thoughtful content that says something original. It's hard to make those trips to Target entertaining. I'm looking for ways to make the blog more distinctive - suggestions welcome.

But I do take issue with the idea that the content here is pure leftist polemic leavened only with trips to Target. (Actually, I've never written about going to Target. Target belongs to Lileks.) My criticisms could come from just about anywhere on the spectrum from moderate Republican to the Kos crowd. In some ways I'm not sure what the term "centrist" means at the moment - does it imply trying to work with Bush & Co., to find some political or rhetorical middle ground? Most, including the DLC, would agree that's pointless. By the same token, are you a "leftist" if you persistently criticize the president and Congress?

There is a large, increasingly disaffected middle out there that is tired of Bush but disenchanted with the Democrats. They will be the death of the 51 percent strategy - then things will get interesting again. This is the political story of the next few years, but it's hard to write about something that hasn't happened yet - to reflect on how the Democrats might seize the opening. Most of the commentary I've seen on the Democrats suggests vague slogans - "reform" being the top choice - as the nascent building blocks for a winning message and majority. They lack the pungency and policy heft - however misguided - of Gingrich & Co. in 1994. This is a matter of some urgency, and it's still quite fuzzy. This doesn't mean I won't write about it - just that anyone who does has to think a lot harder than they've been thinking.

Remembrance of things past

Mystery Pollster has more on the political scientists Bush & Co. are drawing on to frame Iraq policy for the public, including links to papers they've written.

The authors' quote he posts, however, is almost tautological:
We argue that the willingness of the public to pay the costs of war and to reelect incumbent Presidents during wartime are dependent on the interaction of two attitudes - one retrospective and one prospective. In particular, we show that retrospective evaluations of whether President Bush "did the right thing" in attacking Iraq and prospective judgments about whether the U.S. will ultimately be successful in Iraq are two critical attitudes for understanding how foreign policy judgments affect vote choice and one's tolerance for casualties. Further, we show that the retrospective judgments serve as a more powerful predictor for vote choice, while the prospective evaluations of mission success better predict continued support for the war in Iraq. These claims are consistent with the broader literature on how foreign policy influences voting behavior, and the literature that examines the public's response to war and casualties. However, we also show that these retrospective and prospective judgments are interactive, and that a person's attitude on one conditions the effect of the other. This interaction operates on "political" support (vote choice) as well as mission" support (casualty tolerance).

In other words, support for Bush/Iraq depends on two things - how you view the past and the future of the Iraq conflict. Your view of the past is more likely to influence your vote. Your view of the future is more likely to influence your ongoing level of support. These views interact. Perhaps there are some eye-popping results in the data, but this doesn't appear to be very insightful.

... are winning. Freedom and democracy are on the march. We are winning. Freedom and demo...

The Washington Post has a story today saying that the White House plan to sustain public support of the Iraq war focuses not on what’s actually happening in Iraq, but upon convincing the American public that we’re winning there:

The studies consulted by the White House show that in the long run public support for war is "mostly linked to whether you think you can prevail," [Dan Bartlett] added, which is one reason it is important for Bush to explain "why he thinks it's working and why he thinks it'll win."

In other words, it’s a rhetorical rather than a military or political strategy. Which is not, well, strategic, really. This approach is not limited to Iraq. It has been the Bush MO for a long time in campaigns, in fights to pass legislation, etc., a bully-boy political tactic: Act like you’re winning no matter what. Then the perception may become the reality. Rove took Bush to campaign California the week before election day 2000 to try to create the perception he was comfortably ahead. When this works, Bush looks like a master. When it doesn't, Bush looks the fool.

But a war doesn't easily lend itself to such callow political tactics. The White House approach appears to be based on faith that left as they are, things will not go totally to hell in Iraq – not a concerted attempt to actually prevent things from going to hell. Ed Kilgore elaborates on this point:

It's troublesome to learn that the White House thinks presidential spin on Iraq is more important to public support than the actual facts on the ground. All the "resolve" in the world won't help Bush if the insurgency cannot be quelled, and if the Iraqis cannot achieve a political settlement that will make it possible for a stable government to function.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Would the right answer be: Stop thinking so much and get back to supporting the president?

Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers held a global town hall meeting today for the Defense Department, with questions piped in from around the world. A friend alerted me to this question, a real beaut:

Q: You talked earlier about people who think that America's what's wrong with the world. That's of course a basic part of the extremist propaganda message. And it worries me that democracies are kind of -- it kind of scares me that democracies are susceptible to that way of thinking, because we're self-critical. If you think back to the '20s and '30s in Europe, the British and French became convinced that the Nazis' grievances against them were legitimate. And when the time came to enforce the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and to save Czechoslovakia, they were crippled by self-doubt, and instead of doing the right thing, they let their policy be guided by what might not -- what might or might not make the Nazis angrier.

What can we do, as citizens and as a department, to make sure that self-criticism doesn't turn into a paralyzing degree of self- doubt?

The questioner implicitly equates criticism of our effort in Iraq and of U.S. actions on the world stage with the disastrous appeasements of the past. It’s a sly twist of the knife – Rove couldn’t have phrased it better. Who is this questioner, anyway? Needless to say, the ability to debate ideas and question the decisions of those in power is one of the core strengths of our democracy, not a weakness. Expunging self doubt is a dark road. A little self-doubt can come in handy when you are otherwise intent on driving yourself over a cliff.

Rumsfeld doesn't take this bait, and doesn't need to - the question says it all. His answer is sort of nonsensical. He basically says, Americans shouldn’t be swayed by emotional reactions and should keep their eyes on the ball:

SEC. RUMSFELD: ... If you think about it this way, we have staked everything on the idea that people, given sufficient information -- accurate information; inaccurate information; good, positive things; terribly negative, worrisome things -- people, given sufficient information, will find their way to reasonably right decisions over time. They may move off for a period, but they'll come back.

This is a good, if inadvertant, distillation of Bush administration philosophy: Give people both accurate and inaccurate information and they'll reach the right decision.

But the tandoori chicken was to die for

Via Althouse, today's Nixon revelation:

"We really slobbered over the old witch," says President Nixon [after meeting with Indira Gandhi].

"The Indians are bastards anyway," says Mr Kissinger.

I came, I saw, Iraq

After watching Bush’s speech, I came to one conclusion: If you really think hard about the reasons we are in Iraq, as outlined by our president, your brain will explode.

-There’s the 9/11 reason. But no direct connection between al Qaeda and Saddam.

-There’s the WMD reason. But no WMD.

-There’s the Saddam-killed-and-tortured-people argument. No comment.

-There’s the Saddam-might-have-gotten-WMD-at-some-point-in-the-future argument. Maybe, but weapons of mass destruction program-related activities do not a strategic threat make.

-There’s the “flypaper” argument. This has some intuitive appeal. It is possible if would-be terrorists view Iraq as the place to be, then the United States itself is less likely to be targeted. But this is virtually impossible to analyze or evaluate. And if our national security strategy is to create more insurgencies and terrorist havens, we’re in deeper trouble than I thought.

-There’s the democracy argument. This also has intuitive and some logical appeal, and is in fact the best reason to stay with the Iraq project right now. But logically speaking, we arrive at the democracy argument only after having discarded all the above arguments and knowing that democracy was way down Bush’s original checklist of strategic reasons for the war, and that we will not be birthing more democracies in this manner.

Iraq is a rabbit hole for all debate. There is no way to have a reasonable discussion about it because there are no reasons. Even now, we really don’t know why we went into Iraq. Sure, the idea was floating around out there in neoconland, but the impulse to pull the trigger seems mainly to have sprung direct from the Bushian id. This is one reason why Democrats wanting to debate facts and make rational arguments – about training or troop levels or whatever – have been so easily mau-maued these past few years. Iraq is about instinct, not facts or strategy. Of course, a policy based on instinct alone is no policy at all.

D'oh!

How not to make friends and influence people:

The U.S.-Asia foreign policy establishment here is positively gaga over a teensy transmission error last week by consultant Chris Nelson , author of the highly authoritative Nelson Report, a must-read for those involved in foreign affairs, especially on Asia.

Nelson, who works for Samuels International, prepared an exceptionally frank "special report for the embassy of the Republic of South Korea" titled "Players on Korea Policy in Washington, D.C." Acknowledging his brutal assessments -- his survey left few untrashed -- he warned the embassy that "if ANY of this Report is seen by ANY one outside of the embassy, its humble author is going to have to receive political asylum."

Alas. Nelson, instead of sending the 22-page analysis to the Korean Embassy, hit his list for Nelson Report subscribers, administration officials, Hill folks, think tankers, media types and others -- more than 800 people, including many of whom he had skewered or identified as people who talk to him. So it's most unclear who would offer asylum.

Washington has many people like this – newsletter writers who track a specific topic and know more about it than anyone, even the players involved. They also tend to be highly opinionated to the point of being somewhat eccentric about it. How could you not be, hanging troll-like around the margins of Korea policy or trade debates for years? But they are indispensable as journalism and policy resources, so I’m sorry to see this happen and hope the damage isn't permanent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bush speech preaction

Marshall Wittman prognosticates on tonight's Bush speech:

We largely already know what to expect from the President tonight. Stay the course. The fight is hard. We will prevail.Don't expect to be surprised. There will be no accountability for the mistakes that have been made. Rummy is safe - leave no incompetent Secretary of Defense behind. Certainly there will be no mention of the British documents about the failure to prepare for the occupation...Nor should we expect the President to acknowledge the demands of McCain, Biden and others for the need for more troops. Jesus will return before the President suggests using some of his tax cuts to enlarge the military instead of fattening the pockets of his contributors. And this President has no credibility to call for national unity as his chief advisor is virtually questioning the patriotism of his political opponents.

Sadly, he's on target: Using Ft. Bragg as a backdrop is a sure sign we'll get more stay-the-course blather, stuff we have heard before. It is not the habit of the White House to offer substance where it thinks rhetoric will suffice. Surrounding Bush with soldiers amounts to big, mau-mauing dare to administration foes to criticize the president w/o appearing to be criticizing the troops.

Damn, this sounds cynical. Or it would, if you are in the habit of taking everything Bush says at face value. But it's just realism.

RIP

First Tigger, Now Piglet.

People are dead. Must ... resist ... urge ... to make ... a joke ... here.

So, I guess Eeyore finally went postal.

OK - sorry. More appropriately respectful material follows.

Referencing my post below, when Brad or Angelina voice an animated character, people don't care. What makes them stars is the whole package - voice, face, body, movement, attitude, etc. Remove one or more of those things, and whatever hold they have on the public imagination disappears. But for some actors, the synergy of voice and animated character is so strong that they - or rather, their voices - make an impression on the whole culture. Both of these men had long, successful careers that reached far beyond their parts in one Disney franchise. Paul Winchell (whose show, featuring his ventriloquist talents, I watched as a kid in the 1960s) was a genuine renaissance man who invented an artificial heart. But what lingers is their voices.

I'm sure Disney is now scouring the casting agencies for imitators. But it won't be the same. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are still around, but since Mel Blanc died they don't sound quite right, like they're trying a little too hard.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Trailerization

Having avoided Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, this weekend I got to go to a kids’ movie that I wanted to see – Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. The one problem with it came at the beginning – it was showing in an art house (which serves lattes, but to subsidize the espresso machine charges full price for matinees). The previews were not the ordinary trailers you see attached to a children’s movie – upcoming computer animated extravanzas, third-rate comic and TV knockoffs, remakes and the like for which seeing the trailer tells you more than the movie itself. (Surest sign an animated film will be a flop – when the trailer features the voice actors. Nothing against Brad Pitt's face or his voice, but they have enough trouble carrying a film together.)

Instead they were the usual art house previews of indie/edgy/serious/foreign films portraying subcultures steeped in crime, drugs and sex. This caused my wife and me some moments digging our fingernails into the armrests, eyeing our four- and six-year-olds nervously, wondering how their impressionable young minds would handle Spike Jonze material.

Surprisingly, though, cuisinarting these films into trailers results in a quick series of brief, suggestive images whose most lingering feature was smoking. Damn, whether European, Asian or American, they smoke a lot in those indie films. And the women wear loose silky clothing with no discernible undergarments. And there are a lot of penguins. Well, those were from a National Geographic documentary – but there was sex in it, so it wasn’t out of place.

But for six- and four-year-olds, I don’t know that this is any worse than the giant exploding psychotropic dragons they see on cartoons every day. Anyway, more on the movie later.

Something about Hillary

What is it about the new anti-Hillary book that conservatives don’t like? Its seaminess? Its preposterous claims? Its obvious bias? These things have never bothered the conservative punditocracy before in any of the dozens of books written attacking Bill and Hillary, at least not anywhere close to the degree of the current book.

It is possible that this kind of sensationalism has jumped the shark, that people of all political stripes are simply tired of it. That would be nice, but I doubt it. In any case, the book has to actually flop before we can pronounce the genre dead, and today it’s #7 on Amazon.

There is something about Hillary, though, that mysteriously deflects frontal attacks of this kind. She is many things to too many people, some good, some bad, and that makes sliming her harder than you’d think. It’s a positive feedback response: Hit her hard enough and the resulting earsplitting cultural noise will fry your brain. Remember that Rick Lazio tried various attacks in her 2000 Senate race and it helped her. David Brock was a conservative journalist/hit man until he tried to write an anti-Hillary book – then switched sides.

Bill drove conservatives nuts in part because of his protean ease as a politician. He could mold his persona at will, be anything to anybody. But Hillary has had to suffer and work to win support, and this struggle has played out in the public eye. She really was a victim of a bad marriage who has moved past it. She has worked for votes and won them. She is a good politician, but the mask doesn’t quite fit. This is not Bushian “authenticity” – that brush-clearin’, nucular-pronouncin’, thinkin’ ‘bout Iraq every day, every day kind of persona. But even more so than Bill Clinton, Bush glided his way to the top. In 2008, Hillary’s more workmanlike brand of authenticity could have more endurance than most people think.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Less than appealing

Jonathan Rauch makes an interesting argument about Janice Rogers Brown, the newly-approved appeals court judge for the DC circuit: That Republicans were unwilling to defend her out-of-the-mainstream libertarianism (she has likened the post-New Deal modern regulatory state to the slave regime of the Antebellum South).

Not very defensible to the ear of the average American. But they could have made a go of it. Instead, they went out of their way to reassure people that she didn’t really mean what she had said:

Republicans ran away from Brown's ideas as fast as their legs could carry them. [Sen. Arlen] Specter listed, approvingly, government regulations she has upheld. [Sen. Jeff] Sessions: "She has ruled on hundreds of cases affirming government regulations, for heaven's sake." Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.: "While she would likely describe herself as a person who believes in small government and limited regulations ... Justice Brown has voted consistently to uphold economic, environmental, consumer, and labor regulations." [Sen. Trent] Lott: "She has consistently voted to uphold regulations in every walk of life." You would almost think she was Walter Mondale.

This reflects several, none-too felicitous trends for present-day conservatism. First, in spite of all the bile heaped upon it, the modern regulatory state is pretty popular. Most people don’t want to go back to the pre-New Deal days of unregulated workplaces, unmonitored pollution, etc. Various interest groups, however, do – or at least they want to roll back the rules that individually constrain them from making more money. So Republicans must advance this agenda not on principle but by stealth or misrepresentations.

Rauch focuses on another problem: In the latter-days of the Bush administration, conservatism’s intellectual coherence continues to break down. Small government conservatism is dead. Plutocratic, nanny-state, big government conservatism is alive and well and growing every day, but in many ways isn't conservative at all. Republicans can’t make a credible argument for small government, in part because it would sound ridiculous in an era of massive government expansion, in part because they just don’t believe in it any longer.

Finally, the last trend is cynical identity politics, something Republicans once deplored but now use shamelessly. The White House picked Brown as one of its “nuclear option” test cases in part because she is a black woman whose race and inspiring life story could be used to flog Democrats as racists or worse. Something we were mercifully spared when the nuclear countdown was stopped.

All of these things point to underlying political weaknesses in the Republican monolith.

Matt Matt Matt Matt

War of the Pretty Boys:

MATT LAUER: The difference is-- (OVERTALK)
TOM CRUISE: No, no, Matt.
MATT LAUER: This wasn't against her will, though.
TOM CRUISE: Matt-- Matt, Matt, Matt--
MATT LAUER: But this wasn't against her will.
TOM CRUISE: Matt, I'm-- Matt, I'm asking you a question.
MATT LAUER: I understand there's abuse of all of these things.
TOM CRUISE: No, you see. Here's the problem. You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

URGENT: Your e-bay account has expired, and the College Republicans want to help

The Washington Post has an interesting story by veteran political reporter Tom Edsall that throws light on one of those little-noticed conservative subcultures and shows just how far gone our political system really is.

In this case, it’s the College Republicans, the organization that spawned Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and other lights in the GOP firmament. (You could say that the College Republicans are the source of all our present-day political pathologies. If someone could secure a time machine, go back 35 years, put on a bad suit, infiltrate the organization and plant some pot or Keynes monographs in Rove's pocket protector, it might change everything.)

Anyway, the College Republicans have gone from being a farm team to being a high-rolling GOP fiefdom. How did they do it? By defrauding grandma and grandpa:

The current chairman, Eric Hoplin, and [chairman candidate] Gourley have been attacked by critics for allowing Response Dynamics, the company doing fundraising, to use questionable methods. These tactics included repeated solicitations using letterheads and language suggesting that money donated would go directly to the Republican Party or to the Bush campaign. Some of the recipients of the appeals were elderly men and women suffering from dementia.

As they say, read the whole thing. At least these methods appear to be causing some controversy within the organization, though they will probably just adopt subtler approaches that accomplish the same thing.

Rooooooooooove!

You can see the strategy Republicans are going to employ in the 2006 elections – it will be the same as in 2002 and 2004, only with Dick Durbin as the poster boy. How can the Democrats counter the demagogic yet politically potent charge that they are weaselly surrender-monkeys, and that criticism of our president equals selling out the troops abroad and weakening our defense at home?

This remains a genuine problem for Democrats. The ease with which the VRWC was able to change the subject from a genuine outrage (guy chained to the floor in his own bodily wastes) to manufactured outrage about Durbin’s inartful statements is evidence enough of that.

The Democrats cannot avoid this issue, as they tried to in 2002. Nor can they be all over the map, as Kerry was in 2004. He made some headway by attacking Bush’s sunny optimism on Iraq as wildly out of touch with reality – something both politically resonant and true. But sometimes Kerry seemed to be protesting too much, as when he pointed to the flag during his convention speech and basically said Democrats were patriots too, the flag shouldn’t be used as a wedge, etc. Well, duh. Complaining about mean Republicans being divisive, as Chuck Schumer does in response to Rove, is an inadequate response, like saying “Take it back! And please don’t hit me again – nobody wants to see that.”

Democrats need to present a credible, consistent vision for defending the country from terrorists and for handling Iraq and the broader issues in the Middle East – ideally, one that can be expressed in a sentence. At the same time, they need to keep criticizing and mocking the more absurd statements and rationalizations coming out of the White House – the stuff (“last throes,” “I think about Iraq every day - every day”) that is self-evidently ridiculous. These are gifts, and criticism of them is harder to tag as somehow harming the troops.

One key tactical question is how to address the torture issue. It’s an extremely important issue. More light needs to be shed on it. But I wonder if in the context of the 2006 campaign cycle it is too politically hot to handle for Democrats, too easy for the Republicans to demagogue – something that could make a genuine political debate on it impossible, and spill over into other issues.

Are the Democrats up to facing down Rove & Co.? They smell weakness from the White House. But I worry that will only make them less willing to engage on security issues. Of course, it would help to be interested in those issues, and some Democrats are – Joe Biden and Hillary among them. But many would rather focus on traditional domestic concerns and those low Bush approval ratings could be a siren song of complacency.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A shot of epinephrine should do the trick

I was talking with a friend last night about the various predations of the Bush administration and his advice to the Democrats was to just get out of the way. Let Bolton go through. Let them pack the courts. Let them wreck the country’s finances, destroy Social Security, trash Iraq, institutionalize torture and turn the whole world against us with minimal opposition. That way, he figures, the public would quickly get fed up and the Republicans would be booted out that much faster. Of course there would be a much bigger mess to clean up.

I don’t really think Democrats should do this just as they're beginning to get their mojo back. But it’s an interesting thought experiment. Democrats have little real power, and in some ways their recent successes on Bolton, Social Security and other things may be creating the impression that they have more power than they really do. In perverse ways this may actually be helping the Bush administration, which of course is still going to do most of the things on that list (except Social Security). Democratic opposition is a kind of safety valve – it tempers the political landscape and the news cycle, at times making it appear that a genuine debate is taking place when in fact it’s not.

Here’s another, more fanciful thought experiment. Modern conservatism is largely parasitical – it depends on maintaining a state of permanent political warfare. For that, it needs liberal enemies to attack. If liberalism and liberals disappeared tomorrow, Hannity, Coulter and the rest of the VRWC would have nothing to say. You can only take up so much time attacking John McCain. More generally, the emptiness and venality at the core of the Bush plutocratic state would be revealed.

It’s a common TV and movie trope to fake someone’s death in order to fool his enemies and get them to drop the pursuit. In the season finale of 24, they did this with Jack Bauer – his heart was stopped and his body shown to the guy who came to arrest him, who then left to tell the Chinese who wanted to put him on trial they were out of luck. Then he was revived and slipped out of the country, to return next season. If liberals could do the same thing – trick conservatives into believing that liberalism is dead – they would throw the whole right-wing project into disarray just long enough to lose an election or two. As a practical matter, I'm not sure how you do this, though. Send Hillary to Canada for a couple of years?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Fristopia

Forgive me for returning repeatedly to this subject, but watching Bill Frist’s halting maneuvers is one of those train-wreck-in-slow-motion things. In this case, it’s taking place over a period of years. But the trend line is unmistakable. He won't win the GOP nomination.

Today, Frist announced he was done with the Bolton nomination, that it was pointless to hold more votes on it. Basically, he acknowledged a political reality. Then he met with Bush -- with predictable results.

Given that Frist is a wholly-owed White House subsidiary, he should have checked with his West Wing masters before making any kind of a policy statement regarding Bolton – especially a sensible one, anathema to the Rove apparatus. Yet he didn’t – and he looks like a fool, a mere functionary and an inept one at that.

Is Frist merely absent minded? Or does he still think that he can locate his balls somewhere on his person instead of in that jar on Karl Rove’s desk?

Monday, June 20, 2005

That does not make sense

Took my Father’s Day afternoon off and finally saw Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.

There isn’t too much to say about it that hasn’t been exhaustively commented upon elsewhere. Suffice it to say I agree with most critics: The opening action sequence is cool. The middle (approximately ½ of the film) – most of which takes place in meeting rooms, apartments, and a theater balcony overlooking a performance by giant pulsating bubbles playing new-age music – is quite tedious. The final half hour really rocks, though. Even though you know what is going to happen, actually seeing it unfold packs genuine emotional power. All the odd and disparate Lucasian elements – striking imagery, bad script, clunkily earnest acting – somehow all merge together into a brutal, tragic whole. I don’t know if it was worth sitting through 7.5 hours of this and the previous two films to get to, but it does recall and even surpass some of the feelings stirred up by the first trilogy.

Purely in visual terms, this movie is of course a sumptuous feast, an almost overwhelming sensory experience. Later that night I tried to watch a DVD of “House of Flying Daggers” – which of course is an entirely different kind of sumptuous visual feast – but I was done.

Aside from the standard complaints, two things bothered me. Apropos of Neal Stephenson’s critique, some basic plot elements simply don’t make sense – and not just because only geeks can understand them. At the start, Obi-Wan and Anakin rescue the Chancellor from the clutches of Count Dooku. This is all a charade set up by the Chancellor. But he and our heroes are nearly killed about six times during the rescue, as ships break apart, explode and crash into one another, etc. etc. I know the Chancellor is a Sith Lord with rare esoteric powers, but as I understand it, if a Sith Lord is on a ship that blows up in space, there’s not much even he could do about it. So why would he place himself in extreme danger? He can’t find some safer way to manipulate his way to the top?

The other thing was the Sith Lord’s latex makeup. At some point his face melts (some of those bolts of lightning he shoots from his fingers backfire). Ian McDiarmid is then equipped with latex prosthetics that look ridiculous and fake, worse than they did in "Return of the Jedi" -- like something out of the 1950s or a Star Trek episode. He’s standing there, badly lit, eyes bulging, lecturing Anakin. People around me were suppressing giggles. How is it that Lucas can weave everything else in the movie – the digital effects, the space ships, the action - into a seamless whole, but he slaps this cheesy makeup on his bad guy and wrecks everything?

More fodder for the Chewbacca Defense.

Good people beget good people

A little late coming to this, but Sunday’s David Brooks column says, basically: Bill Frist is a good guy who has sold out his principles, whatever they are, to interest group politics. Come back, Good Bill, we need you now more than ever!

But even if you believe Brooks’s take on Frist’s character – that his ambition is tempered by decency – he comes off as someone who doesn’t really know what he wants to do in politics other than be powerful, even if it means throwing the decency overboard. He also seems to listen to other people telling him how to go about this without offering much input of his own. Not promising in a would-be president.

Next up: WikiMaureenDowd

Wikitorial, we hardly knew ye.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

That dog won't hunt, but it sure is persistent

If we are going to take a hard look at whether the decision to go to war with Iraq was sound, the argument advanced by Robert Kagan in the Sunday Washington Post is not the way to go about it.

Kagan makes a show of taking the long view, the historian’s view. He pulls his chin and doffs his reading glasses for wipe-downs several times. He looks at the consequences, good and bad, of various wars past. His basic conclusion – just because things are going to hell right now doesn’t mean it was all a big mistake – is arguable.

However, all of it is just a big show to distract us from a deeply dishonest argument:

It is a great American myth, voiced by John Kerry last year, that the nation goes to war only when there is no question about the necessity of going to war. There's always a question. Even if the Iraqi insurgency disappeared tomorrow, George Ibrahim al Washington became president of Iraq and every liter of Saddam Hussein's onetime stockpile of chemical and biological weapons suddenly appeared in the desert, historians would still spend the next century debating whether the war was "worth it."

Wars remain subjects of debate not just because their "necessity" is in doubt but also because their results are mixed. No war has produced unmitigated successes. The Civil War did not completely "free" African Americans, who remained oppressed for another century. World War I destroyed Europe, and helped pave the way for the rise of Hitler and the Soviet Union. World War II defeated Hitler but enslaved half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain and introduced the world to nuclear warfare. The Persian Gulf War drove Hussein out of Kuwait but helped produce the Osama bin Laden we know today. Add to that the millions of innocent lives lost, and the toll of these wars, generally regarded as "successful," is high. Does that mean those wars were not "worth it"? Demanding unmixed results and guarantees against the unintended consequences of war is as unrealistic as demanding absolute confidence in the "necessity" of going to war in the first place.

Well, yes. All wars have detractors and produce mixed results. But this argument is so broad as to rule out any serious debate about any war within a century of its occurrence. Despite the faux high-mindedness, this is just a warmed-over defense of Bush. It's framed a little bit differently, but it's political shilling no different from that practiced by the various anti-war types and straw men Kagan attacks. Its purpose to dismiss any questioning over the decision to invade Iraq as historically short-sighted and thus invalid.

The arguments he employs are, by now, so stale the odor wafts off the page. He compares Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and Saddam’s Iraq to Germany in the late 1930s.

The main difference would be that Germany in the runup to World War II was a genuine security threat.

He continues with the old standards - Saddam killed and tortured people. He wanted to do other bad things:

For another fact not in dispute is that Hussein remained keenly interested in and committed to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, that he maintained secretive weapons programs throughout the 1990s and indeed right up until the day of the invasion, and that he was only waiting for the international community to lose interest or stamina so that he could resume his programs unfettered.

So we’re back to “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

Saddam was effectively neutered at the time the war was launched. The containment policy was working. Could it have continued to work indefinitely – for five years? Ten? Twenty? Who knows? Let’s just eliminate all effective government policies that might fail at some undetermined point in the future and see how we do! (We’d be left with policies that don’t work, but might be made to appear to succeed at some point in the future – like Iraq and the Cuban embargo.)

I am all for democracy taking root in Iraq, and don't think we should pull before the security situation improves and the political system, well, exists. But the U.S. and regional security risks for today’s Iraq are, it seems obvious, potentially much worse than those we’d be facing if Saddam were still in power. If we are going to look at where to go from here, a little honesty from the neocon front would be useful at this juncture. Kagan is capable of better than this.

Friday, June 17, 2005

I understand he didn't pay his phone bill that month, either

The Bush MO:

Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that a prosecutor has agreed to investigate why Terri Schiavo collapsed 15 years ago, citing an alleged time gap between when her husband found her and when he called 911.

Bush said his request for the probe was not meant to suggest wrongdoing by Michael Schiavo.

"It's a significant question that during this ordeal was never brought up," Bush told reporters.

In other words: Don't be magnanimous in defeat. Lash out. Punish your adversaries. Outrage your opponents. Feed your base some red meat – not a lot, just enough to keep them wanting more. This kind of politics is not only objectionable, it is exhausting. I haven’t seen any poll numbers, but after the recent revelations you have to think the vast majority of the public just wants the Schiavo case to go away.

But since most people ignore politics, this schoolyard bully approach has worked pretty well for the Bushes. You have to wonder, though, whether they have dipped into this well too many times. Everything changes, and sooner or later piling outrage upon overreach will stop working - at least on the national level. Let's hope it does in time for 2008.

I see Obi-Wan has taught you well

Using Star Wars as Exhibit A, Neal Stephenson writes in a NYT op-ed that today’s blockbuster movies have become incomprehensible to all but the geeks among us. In the original "Star Wars" (Sorry, I won't call it "Episode IV: A New Hope"), anyone could follow the action. In "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," the plot, motivations, and technologies employed have all become too complex or obscure to understand. To figure out how the Trade Federation relates to General Grievous, Internet databases, cartoons and books are available for the geeks. Otherwise, just sit back and let the imagery and the conflict wash over you.

Stephenson’s main point is to warn about mounting technological and scientific ignorance – a growing divide between geeks and everyone else that isn’t just helping to make bad movies, but leading to outsourcing to India and a host of other problems. Everything is just so damn complex, let’s just ignore it and pound ourselves silly with surround-sound! Ann Althouse counters that it’s movies that are in decline, not the United States.

While I don't agree completely, I do like Stephenson’s argument. Today’s science and engineering – and many of the things that depend on them, such as government regulations, the development of consumer items, medical care, space travel – have created a bunch of “black boxes” that nobody understands.

To use more of a 19th-century analogy, people could understand how sausages were made, even if they didn’t want to look inside the sausage maker. Today, they don’t understand how iPods are made, and even if they could look inside they still wouldn’t get it. But this is inevitable, because science and engineering are more complicated and specialized than ever before. There is more and more compartmentalized knowledge and expertise. What are we supposed to do?

This phenomenon is at the heart of a lot of political disputes – Terry Schiavo, global warming, evolution, etc. You get situations where some people know in their guts that something must be so – despite all available scientific evidence - and act accordingly. Sometimes presenting scientific evidence has the exact opposite effect it should – it’s like waving a red flag at a bull.

But I don’t know that I agree with Stephenson about “Star Wars.” The original movies were easy to understand because they were, uh, simpler. After almost 30 years of mythmaking, Internet gossip, action figures, novelizations, etc. there is just too much backstory. There's no way to squeeze it into the movie. This is not a function of technology or science but popular culture's tendency to generate lots and lots of junk.

I haven’t seen ROTS, but we rented “The Empire Strikes Back” last week because our six-year-old son has been caught up in the Star Wars fervor and wanted to see it. It’s the best movie of the bunch, and has all the hallmarks – bad dialogue, cardboard characters, fetishization of gadgetry, etc. But somehow you did believe in the actors. Lucas just lost his interest in storytelling and actors. The fact that a "Trade Federation" plays a key role in the current cycle's plot should tell you something.

Slouching towards the 7th Arrondissement

The Defamer sums up the situation:
This morning, we read: “‘Yes I proposed to Kate last night … because it is very beautiful and romantic here,’ Cruise said, smiling and exchanging glances with Holmes, who was sitting in the audience. ‘I haven’t slept all night. It’s very exciting and very beautiful,’ Cruise said, adding he had proposed at the Eiffel Tower.”

Really, the Eiffel Fucking Tower? That guy needs better writers.

We assume that Cruise’s insomnia was brought about by the adrenaline rush he experienced from scaling the tower like the aforementioned, storied cinematic primate, and the rush of knowing that if the starlet clinging to his back for dear life failed to meet her obligation and accept his proposal, he would be well within his contractual rights to send her plummeting to her death.

We now gird ourselves for the hasty announcement of a tentative fake-wedding date, an US Weekly spread featuring Holmes shopping for a fake-wedding dress, and the total annihilation of everything that is good and holy.

It is done.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shifting tides

The beginning of the end? Post 9/11, anger and a measure of paranoia descended on America and our political system. The public countenanced many things that would have been outrageous in other, less perilous times – torture, detention without trial, etc. The Bush administration leveraged this tacit support to bash its enemies and consolidate its political advantage. As a result, no real debates could take place about terrorism or U.S. tactics. The 2004 election seemed to continue that trend.

But the House’s passage of an amendment altering one of the Patriot Act’s most egregious provisions could be a sign that this is changing. A small but significant group of House Republicans split from the White House and their leadership to back this amendment, which limits authorities’ power to obtain library and bookstore records. They were rightfully concerned about the government’s prying eye.

It's only one small amendment. But it reflects a willingness to question the White House on terrorism policy that we haven't seen before.

If Congress starts to withdraw its rubber stamp from Iraq and terrorism-related issues, the White House might actually have to defend itself on substantive terms. We may be able to debate what to do about terrorism, domestically and internationally, and whether what we are doing now is working or not.

It’s pretty clear that, basically, nobody knows. We do know that there has been no repeat of 9/11, and that al Qaeda as it existed back then has been weakened by the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and by other enforcement efforts. But the role of the Iraq war - who knows? And has the Patriot Act - whose name itself is designed to quash meaningful debate - made much difference? According to the Washington Post a few days ago, the answer is no – we aren’t arresting very many terrorists at all.

Such a debate would be healthy for the body politic - and might even save some lives.

More mush from the wimp

The Bush administration finally decides something is amiss in Iraq:

Bush had hoped the successful January elections in Iraq would boost the popularity of the conflict and allow him to distance himself from it. But his aides have concluded that recent events in Iraq have contributed to an erosion in support for the president -- and that he needs to shift strategies. Bush's new approach will be mostly rhetorical, however, as the White House does not plan any changes to the policy or time frame for bringing home the 140,000 U.S. troops, as some lawmakers are demanding.

Oh, wait. Sorry. Bush is not going to do anything at all about what is actually happening in Iraq. He's just going to try to spin the public again - something he does at regular intervals when his poll numbers drop, to little noticeable effect.

All of this raises the question - is our Iraq policy headed over a cliff because our leaders have no idea what to do? It seemed that way last fall, but then the elections really did make a difference. But things are definitely deteriorating again. Marshall Wittman argues that the situation does have some disquieting Vietnam resonances. I agree with Ed Kilgore that setting dates for withdrawal, as some Democrats are how doing, is not helpful at this point. He suggests that, one way or another, the country has to have a serious debate about the future of Iraq, even if the White House won't seriously engage the issue. Which means it will fall to some of the dwindling number of grownup Republicans in Congress to push it.

But Kristallnacht, that was Hitler's idea

Pope Benedict has put the beatification of the Rev. Leon Dehon, a French priest, on hold because historians have found he wrote anti-Semitic statements:

According to extracts published in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, Dehon wrote that Jews were "thirsty for Gold" and that "lust for money is a racial instinct in them"; he called the Talmud "a manual for the bandit, the corrupter, the social destroyer"; and he recommended several measures later adopted by the Nazis, including that Jews wear special markings, live in ghettos and be excluded from land ownership, judgeships and teaching positions.

Good call, though there must be plenty of other anti-Semitic saints already canonized. In any case, whoever runs the Vatican's saint-vetting process should be fired.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kirkukification

I haven’t seen much commentary on this story, but it's worth reading to see yet another dimension to the extraordinary challenges Iraq faces. It describes how Kurdish police and military units allied with the U.S. military are kidnapping non-Kurds in Kirkuk – a city the Kurdish leadership covets for various reasons – and spiriting them out of the province to prisons where they are held incommunicado and sometimes beaten and tortured.

There are at least a half-dozen big issues here – among them ethnic tensions, raw political and economic power grabs, and of course human rights abuses by supposedly reputable authorities. But what jumps out is the conflicted role of the U.S. military. Officers in the story denounce the kidnappings and swear up and down they tried to stop them the moment they found out what was happening. But the story also describes how U.S. forces participated in some of these questionable transfers, and also quotes officials praising the Kurdish units responsible for them.

One point in the story captures this well:
[Kirkuk Police Chief] Abdel-Rahman said he was concerned that the Americans were being duped by the Kurds, who he said have cloaked what is effectively a power grab as a crackdown on the insurgents. Their strategy, he said, is to bolster their alliance with the Americans.

"Unfortunately, they have succeeded," he said.

Blagburn, the intelligence officer, said that even though the Emergency Services Unit is largely responsible for the secret transfers, it continues to provide valuable assistance in the counterinsurgency. Blagburn termed the unit "a very cooperative, coalition-friendly system."

"We know we can drop a guy in there and he'd be taken care of and he's safe," Blagburn said. "That's the reason why the ESU is used most of the time. That's basically the unit we can trust the most."

You have to wonder the degree to which the U.S. forces’ own questionable tactics in the handling of prisoners sends a message to our Iraqi partners that, well, anything goes as long as it’s part of the war on terror. And when the U.S. objects to Iraqi forces using such tactics, you have to think a certain amount of winking is going on – or at least that the Iraqis think there is and behave accordingly. This could mean the abysmal U.S. human rights record is more than just an image problem - that it's directly harming our joint efforts to build a civil society in Iraq.

Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh

Sunday’s Washington Post had a long, long article about the latest must-have – a baby sleep coach. It is a window onto the busy lifestyles of assorted TV correspondents and other DC-area haute bourgeoisie:

It's bath time in the Schneider household in Falls Church and Abigail is fussy. "Fussy" is that word people use as a euphemism for babies who won't stop crying or wailing or expressing some endless sense of frustration.

"I think maybe she's had some gas today," Abigail's mom, Donna Schneider, explains to Giordano. Abigail and her twin sister, Elizabeth, are 4 months old.

Giordano's work is essentially finished here, and the Schneiders will soon be sent off gently into slumber. For the first 11 weeks of their lives, Giordano -- or one of the extended family members or friends she has trained to help manage her burgeoning business -- spent four nights a week with the Schneiders (Donna is a producer at NBC; her husband, Paul, is a chef), working with the babies from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

That is not a cheap proposition -- Giordano's prices were $25 per hour for twins, $22 for singletons, but with increasing demand, she's planning to offer consulting or overnight care packages that can range as high as $2,910 per week. But even though Paul Schneider recently left his restaurant position to start his own home chef business, the couple believed it would be money well spent.

Now that all the stages of child care from conception to Ivy League applications are outsourced to experts so that parents and kids can keep accumulating achievement chits without distractions, this development isn’t surprising. Baby sleep is a battlefield where the overwhelming emotions and responsibilities of early parenthood ram into brutal biological contingencies – the baby’s bottomless needs to eat, sleep and be close, and the parents’ need to remain conscious and perform tasks requiring abstract thought or hand-eye coordination. A little outside help - or a lot in this case - can't hurt.

We wrestled with sleep issues. Both kids slept with us, in a crib flush with our bed, until they were about six months old, breast-feeding at will during night. Then we moved them into their own rooms and, tapping into every book available on sleep issues, tried to get them to sleep through the night with a modified Ferber approach, where you just let them cry until you can’t stand to listen anymore, then go in. (I actually didn’t mind letting them cry, but my wife couldn’t stand it.) It took months, though through the lens of memory I may be exaggerating. Later on, when my daughter was about two she started having night terrors – she would start screaming and I’d go into her room and try to hold her, which only made it worse, at least at the beginning. She would writhe in my arms her eyes open, in a waking dream, for ten minutes or more.

But this is why this baby sleep coach thing bothers me. It assumes that convenience is the highest aim of family life, and that the most intimate and challenging issues can simply be made to go away by throwing money at them.

And did we really need to define "fussy"?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

But keep Verlyn Klinkenborg in there

In Slate, Tim Noah articulates a truth that the newspaper business will realize sooner or later - the traditional editorial page is a dinosaur and ought to be eliminated - except in the case of making recommendations on local elections, the only truly useful function is serves:

If the newspaper editorial were, in itself, a compelling journalistic form, it might be worth going on pretending that editorials represent something more than the opinion of a few journalists assigned to the editorial page and their boss, the editorial page editor. But the genre has certain built-in defects. One is that editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I've ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible. Most are boring, because, in addition to the length problem, the opinions expressed in the editorials are either arrived at by committee, or arrived at by an individual writer or editor who has internalized the views of that committee, real or imagined. Whenever that happens, the end product can't avoid being bland.

Why, for instance, should I care what my local paper thinks about the trade deficit or North Korea? Even the op-ed page is in danger of being supplanted by the blogosphere.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Maybe that's why this time Anonymous came from the CIA

AMC has been showing the movie version of “Primary Colors” for the past couple of weeks, in which John Travolta does a pretty good job of channeling Bill Clinton – though I don’t buy the hair. Or Emma Thompson’s Hillary, at least as a credible mate for Travolta. But the most interesting thing was how quaint it seems. The entire drama is structured around characters agonizing over whether to engage in the politics of personal destruction so they can win power and make history "helping people" - i.e., advancing the liberal agenda. Ultimately, the cost is too high. One kills herself, another opts out.

Is this kind of drama even remotely conceivable with the Bush administration? Paul O’Neill doesn’t count.

Paranoia, the destroyer

At the TPM Café, David Gelber helpfully mentions a recent commencement speech by Mark Danner of the New Yorker that crystallizes some of the things I’ve been thinking about in the wake of the unmasking of Deep Throat and the torture mess. The piece touches on many issues, but here one of its key points:

Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life. This has to do less with ideology itself, I think, than the fact that our country was attacked and that --from the Palmer Raids after World War I, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the McCarthyite witch-hunts during the Fifties -- America tends to respond to such attacks, or the threat of them, in predictably paranoid ways.

This is an apt description. And what we have isn’t just America reacting in paranoid fashion, but the stoking and exploitation of that paranoia for political purposes.

I had to think about the statement, though. Is there more “frank mendacity” now than there was during the Vietnam War or during Watergate? Certainly plenty of spectacular lying has gone on under both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past generation or two.

The lies and misrepresentations of the Vietnam and Watergate were designed to cover up wrongdoing and policy disasters – they were political survival tactics. But with Bush, lies are just a normal, everyday political and policy tool.

The difference between then and now is, of course, is a unique convergence of spin, power, and ideology. Political spin has always been around, but it reached new heights as the news cycle accelerated, and controlling or managing it became a key function in the White House. Our current leadership took this a step further, with the aim not just of controlling the news cycle but replacing it with an alternative "conservative" narrative of reality. It’s now impossible to tell where the BS leaves off and the lying begins – a line the media could once reliably detect. If everything is spin, then there is no truth and no lies, and as Josh Marshall points out, the media haven’t yet figured out how to handle this.

Setting partisan concerns aside (if that’s possible these days) if you seek to deny reality so systematically –undermining human rights, the law and science – you’re not just playing politics but eroding the underpinnings of open debate and democracy. I keep wondering how long the country will stand for it. But then some new outrage occurs, accompanied by yawns. We are, apparently, still in the paranoid backlash stage.

In the event of a close encounter, put your seatbacks and traytables in the full upright and locked position

There are many arguments for not allowing cellphone use on airplanes. For one, it’s never been clear to me why so many people board flights with nothing to read, no iPod, nothing. They sit there, leafing through the sky mall magazine for a while, then try to doze but can’t and just end up looking around, bewildered. Give them permission to use a cellphone, and everything changes. Dozens of people will be chattering away as the ringtones peal. The inflight white noise zoneout that gets many of us through those 2- or 3-hour flights with no movie would be destroyed.

But via Tyler Cowen, this is the best argument:

Cellphone use on planes "could be a disaster for us", says Michael Davis, director of projects at California's SETI Institute, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, and former chair of the NAS committee. "We have incredibly sensitive radio telescopes - even a single cellphone on a single plane 100 miles away could cause pretty serious damage", he told New Scientist. It would exceed recommended "noise" levels by 10 times.

In other words, as we talk endlessly amongst ourselves we might miss the biggest call of all time.

It's a Wiki, Wiki world

Wikitorials”?? The Los Angeles Times plans to introduce interactive editorials modeled on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by ... everybody.

Using the powers of web-based distributed intelligence to write editorials seems self-contradictory, though. An editorial is an argument, an expression of an opinion by an institution or an individual, meant to influence the public debate. Or at least, that's what it has been up until now. If anyone can tinker with the argument – cutting some stuff, adding other stuff, introducing contradictory arguments, perhaps getting the thing to argue exactly the reverse or changing the subject entirely – what you get is …a B movie. A giant blob of HTML that will take over the LAT site if it isn’t stopped!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Upcoming attractions

For the past month, the buzz in my house has been about “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D,” a kids movie made by Robert Rodriguez that opened Friday. Without seeing it, I have two thoughts:

1. Rodriguez, who reportedly wrote the story with his 7-year-old son, has tapped into something in the contemporary mindset of the kindergarten cohort. It is protean environment in which Superman, Batman, Spider-man and their hoary ilk occupy sanctified but remote roles, like the Titans of Greek mythology deposed and eaten, or whatever, by Zeus & Co. My son’s Olympus is occupied made-up superheroes who tap into the natural world for their powers, including Flame Boy, Wind Boy, Shape-Shifter Boy, Laser Boy, and, at one point, Shark Girl.

2. The movie looks like it will suck. I need a strategy to avoid seeing it, fast.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

More Dean dilemmas

Ed Kilgore of the DLC rides to the defense of Howard Dean:

Every party chair spends a lot of time speaking to Democratic activists, and inevitably serves up a lot of red meat. Dean's recent "controversial" remarks would have been completely unobjectionable, and probably unnoticed, if they had been uttered by his predecessor.

So I think the media treatment of his remarks is unfair, and moreover, misses the legitimate thrust of his basic argument: the GOP leadership does indeed favor wealth over work, and is indeed divisive and exclusive on issues of culture, ethnicity and religion. Sound-bites aside, Dean is right, and you can count me out of any campaign to get him to resign for saying the right thing in a way that is being wilfully misrepresented.

Let’s agree: the content of Dean’s remarks is unremarkable and mostly true. Both the mainstream and right wing media echo chamber have a weird fixation on everything that Dean says – so if he utters anything even slightly eyebrow-raising, it’s Dean Scream time again. So the best strategy is to craft the rhetoric more carefully – don’t give them anything to grab onto.

But Dean’s remarks are problematic not just because of our present-day media pathologies, but because they come across as more than just your typical party chairman’s spin. Terry McAuliffe or Ken Mehlman are consummate party functionaries. When they say something, you know they are just following the day’s talking points. But Dean is a political phenomenon, not a functionary – a former presidential candidate, leader of a movement, would-be party reformer and a quintessential northeastern liberal good government type. People who take on these roles (with the possible exception of presidential candidate) tend to have genuine convictions – they really believe what they say. Dean is no exception.

A party leader straying a millimeter or two from his talking points is not going to raise an eyebrow. But a party leader speaking from conviction is automatically interesting in ways a typical party man can never be. Dean’s convictions are those of a northeastern secular liberal, not quite in tune with constituencies the Democrats desperately need. When he dismisses and stereotypes his opponents it is – unfortunately in this case – legitimate news.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Diss away, Democrats!

E.J. Dionne urges Democrats to stop blaming Kerry for all their woes. But this isn't a problem, it's an opportunity! The more blame he gets now, the less likely he is to run or be nominated again.

Dionne's argument would be easier to take seriously if Kerry were not still hanging around dropping hints and generating a low-level droning buzz of news trivia - the latest that his Yale grades were worse than Bush's. Meanwhile, he continues to behave in an inexplicably cagey fashion about his military service records, avoiding just making them all public at once.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Victims, schmictims

Apropos of Howard Dean’s big mouth, an interesting conversation sprang up on the TPM Café site regarding the religious right’s victimization complex – the periodic protests that conservative Christians are being discriminated against by condescending secular liberals – basically, by Howard Dean.

This has several sources. Marshall Wittman points out that many condescending secular liberals do think of the Christian right as a bunch of yahoos. This is the cultural divide at the center of our politics. Nobody (except Bill Clinton) knows how to speak to both sides. Ed Kilgore says that the Christian right’s entire raison d’etre as a flickering beacon of light beseiged by the Godless forces of secularism depends on cultivating a sense of continual grievance and persecution – even when the political reality is quite the opposite.

I would add one more thing: The Christian right’s howling about discrimination (if not the cultural forces it springs from) owes a lot to the political left. Remember that as identity politics came to dominate on the left, a culture of grievance emerged and universities, corporations and government agencies tried micromanaging people’s language and behavior in often ridiculous attempts to stamp out any form of (legally actionable) offense from routine daily encounters. The right condemned it, correctly, at its height. But that was before George Bush’s nanny state arrived, creating opportunities for a whole new class of aggrieved parties.

Come back to the five and dime, Howard Dean

Like many, I wish Howard Dean would shut up, or tone it down, or at the very least think before speaking. It’s true that Republicans are exaggerating and twisting his remarks. But if the Democrats want to win elections we shouldn't be talking about Howard Dean shooting his mouth off. A party chairman speaks both to the faithful and to the whole nation. When he speaks about the other side, the rhetoric should be cool and surgical, precise cuts made with a smile. Dean is using hammer instead of a scalpel and then striking himself in the foot.

The problem here is that Dean is speaking as a cultural liberal who believes that cultural liberalism is still the nation’s prevailing credo – but for the wool pulled down over our eyes by Bush and the Republican machine. In his mind, I guess, blunt professions of scorn for Republicans and Republican constituencies, real and imagined (white people, Christians, ne’er-do-wells, CEOs) is straight talk that will appeal to ordinary people – or it would if they had not been watching Fox News the past five years. This is, of course, dumb.

The problem probably reflects not only Dean’s personal style, but a conscious effort dating back to his campaign to out-Bush Bush: Shoot straight. Counter bluntness with bluntness. But Dean should know by now that content matters more than attitude.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Irreverence alert

Somehow, the idea that Jesus may have died of a pulmonary embolism - the same kind of blood clot that airline passengers in economy get due to being immobilized in cramped quarters - doesn’t seem right. It’s so mundane, so un-Passion of the Christ. At the same time, it casts airline travel – at least in economy – in a new light. Jesus came back from the Crucifixion. But if you are stuck in a middle seat, not even God can do much for you.

The right words

I don’t always agree with Anne Applebaum. But she knows gulags, and her column today on Amnesty International’s application of the term to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo is on the mark. It’s only one little word, but it is a significant one.

AI is among the world’s few honest brokers when it comes to policing basic human liberties and the outrages committed by corrupt regimes. Its credibility derives from its unblinking focus on crimes that many are trying to conceal, and the cold facts and witness narratives of its investigations. But that credibility also depends on a sense of historical judgment and proportionality. AI’s outrage at U.S. abuses is certainly understandable – I share it and wish more Americans did. But sounding off like Howard Dean is only going to hurt the cause, branding AI as part of the anti-Bush cabal, and thus easily dismissable by those in power and half the U.S. population.

Of course, the horse is probably out of the barn on that one already. One episode of 24 this season featured a lawyer working for a group called "Amnesty Global" who gets a call from the terrorist-in-chief, then shows up with a court order (signed by one of those activist judges) to liberate a terrorist lackey with information that could save the world. Fortunately for the world, Jack Bauer extra-judicially abuses him into giving up the relevant information.

Judge this

The new Washington Post poll shows Bush's support dropping or continuing weak on almost every issue. The one exception is on judges, where favorable/unfavorable is an even (46-44) split.

Kevin Drum believes this shows the Democrats are losing the political battle over judges – or at least, not winning it. But I don’t know. The debate over judicial nominations is just a different kind of issue than terrorism or even stem cells. It is highly-polarized and special-interest driven. Certain groups have a big stake in it – mainly conservative Christians on the right and pro-choice constituencies on the left. They know what they think and they make up a substantial portion of the population. But a broad, non-ideological swath of the public isn’t following this issue at all (10 percent have “no opinion” on it compared with 1 or 2 percent for other issues). That’s because it turns on obscure Senate rules and judicial nominees who will disappear into obscurity - or onto the bench, but from the standpoint of public awareness that's exactly the same thing.

So the even split is entirely to be expected. As long as the Bush/Rove polarization strategy is in force, there will be 40+ percent on both sides, and the issue is just not going to have a big impact on public opinion at the national/presidential level, except in mobilizing the faithful on both sides.

Of course, a Supreme Court battle is another animal entirely, and the judge issue does have many lower-level effects – in the GOP presidential nomination process, for example, or as Ed Kilgore points out, in congressional races.

By contrast, Social Security, Iraq and the economy are on everyone’s mind and cut across the red/blue divide. That Bush’s support is so weak on these is really bad news for him – especially since he seems disinclined to do anything different.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Off again

I will be traveling sans computer through the weekend, just to see what it's like.

Blame him for disco and that pet rock thing, too

As predicted, Deep Thoat’s emergence from the shadows has provoked odd rumblings from the right wing. Few in the VRWC are willing to praise Mark Felt. But for a change, there are no White House talking points on this one. So, everybody thinks Felt is a louse, but they can’t explain exactly why. Bob Novak says he’s a bad guy because he wanted to block post-Hoover reforms at the FBI. Pat Buchanan says the problem is motivational – he hated Nixon. Conservative functionary Greg Mueller, quoted in the same article, accuses of Felt of “playing a role in bringing down a president who was fighting the cold war.” Peggy Noonan has by far the most bizarre take, blaming Felt for the Cambodian genocide.

The most common complaint made by Noonan and others is that the honorable thing to do would have been to go public and resign early on rather than leaking. It's sort of glossed over - how could it not be? - but what they seem to be saying is that under those circumstances Nixon&Co. might not have committed all those crimes and thus he would have remained in power. Or maybe, they would have committed the crimes, but Nixon would have stayed. Or something. But Felt was not in a position to go public with the information he had, which dealt primarily with confidential FBI investigations. If he had resigned he would have quickly disappeared from the scene.

Revisionist history is a big winger project, so this kind of fanciful second-guessing isn’t surprising. Pretty soon they’ll arrive at some kind of dismissive consensus on Deep Throat. But power continues to have a strange effect on conservatives. It used to be a “conservative” thing to assign blame directly to the people who actually committed crimes – whether Nixon or the Khmer Rouge – not to trace it to third parties and historical forces bouncing around like pinballs.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Tortuous

It got lost amid the Deep Throat coverage, but the president was asked yesterday about the Amnesty International report that said the U.S. had created “the gulag of our times” at its detention facilities in Guantanamo.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm aware of the Amnesty International report, and it's absurd. It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that is -- promotes freedom around the world. When there's accusations made about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way. It's just an absurd allegation.

In terms of the detainees, we've had thousands of people detained. We've investigated every single complaint against the detainees. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of -- and the allegations -- by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble -- that means not tell the truth. And so it was an absurd report. It just is.

Today, Rumsfeld piled on, calling the report "reprehensible."

This is yet another example of the Bush administration's cynical rhetorical positioning on the torture and civil rights of detainees. On one level, it is absurd to equate the network of U.S. prisons for these detainees as a “gulag.” The Soviet gulag, and its counterparts in China, Burma and elsewhere were/are monstrous totalitarian instruments, used to punish dissent and keep entire populations quiescent. Millions have perished and millions more are simply lost in today’s gulags. By comparison, the U.S. abuses are small potatoes.

But is the "bad - but not a gulag!" standard really how we want to measure ourselves? AI's rhetorical excesses are the least of our problems. The reporter here basically lobbed a softball - he probably had no choice, as this was something Bush was going to be asked about - and Bush was ready for it.

Getting in a huff over the AI report is the latest variant of the "Newsweek" strategy of misdirection. It lets Bush and company reassure supporters and sidestep the reality: the United States has created a network of virtually unaccountable secret military/CIA prisons where detainees have virtually no rights. It ships prisoners to countries where torture is practiced. It engages in interrogation techniques that include forms of physical coercion that meet most definitions of torture. And it has killed people.

Bush’s sweeping dismissal of all torture allegations – including, apparently, the ones that have been corroborated – as fakery from people trained to “disassemble” is not surprising, but it is still disturbing. His denials are hardening, and are more disquieting than his earlier, completely unreassuring assurances that "the United States does not condone torture." Even if a lie, it was a more affirmative statement than "no torture has ever occurred."

Andrew Sullivan goes into more detail.