Through the Looking Glass
Sunday, January 01, 2006
Yesterday evening, Odetta was confronted with the failure of her audience to fully grasp that American folk music is a participatory tradition. Displeased at the results of an attempt at a sing-along, she stopped her pianist short, and queried the audience:
"Where do we find ourselves this evening? Where are we situated?"
At length, someone in the audience said, Boston. Odetta replied, "Yes," in a tone that very much indicated that this was the wrong answer. She continued to scan the room.
At further length, someone else named the site --- the Berklee School of Music.
"That's right," said Odetta, repeating for emphasis, "a school of music".
Pause for effect.
"Y'all was terrible."
Things picked up after that.
Said Amartya Sen in 1990,
He has more recently had to deal with idiots who contend that Indian press reports of starvation in remote areas somehow refute this theory. In part, that's because they don't recognize the difference between small-scale incidents of starvation, and full-scale famine. But mostly, it's because they've accepted a Panglossian gloss on Sen, in which he's supposed to be claiming that a democratic legal framework --- the mechanics of elections and a press relatively free of statutory restraints --- consitutes some kind of democratic pixie dust which, sprinkled on societies, prevents famine all by itself.
In fact, Sen's argument is less about the form of the institutions than their effect --- as mechanisms for the public to hold the ruling class accountable, if it chooses to use them. What's important isn't the fact that elections are held, but that the government needs to respond to an open public clamor --- or get turned out. And so democracy prevents famine by arranging that the starving masses need not appeal to the benevolence of the rulers for their dinner, but to their self-interest.
Prevents famine --- or, one might add, other large-scale social dislocations. At least to the extent that there's a public clamor about them. Again, Sen:
There is no famine in America. But in other respects, if you look around, it's not hard to wonder if something has gone badly wrong with American democracy.
Late last summer, large swaths of a major American city were more or less destroyed. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of refugees were left without food and water for days. (They don't like the word, but there is no other --- they hadn't been evacuated yet, and is "evacuee" really much better, anyway?) Hundreds at least died. This ended, fitfully, when reporters on the scene --- even from Fox news itself --- were shocked enough by what they were seeing that they briefly remembered that the press is supposed, from time to time, to have an adversarial role. (Though even the record of the press is not unblemished --- sensational and highly exaggerated reports of mass civil disorder actually delayed aid by crucial days).
This all was briefly acknowledged as a national outrage. But the accountability moment has ended, with the sacking of second-tier bureaucrat Michael "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" Brown. (And that fitfully too --- he was back for a while as a consultant). If you want to find out how incompetence by the Army Corps of Engineers, for decades under administrations of all parties, led to failures of New Orleans's dikes and floodwalls, you'll learn far more from Harry Shearer's blog posts than from the New York Times.
Now, how is this supposed to play out, in a democracy? Well, if you believe Amartya Sen, manifest incompetence by the party in power is supposed to give ammunition to the other guys. But the other guys here aren't using it. In the immediate wake of the disaster, when the huddled, starving crowds under highway overpasses were still vivid in everyone's memory, the politicians of our supposed opposition party were praising each other for their restraint in not raising the issue. The "appropriate" time had not come. Of course not. As long as the ruling party here sets the agenda all by itself, the appropriate time to discuss its mistakes will never come at all.
And this is a remarkably old story, as these things go. Before the Iraq war, Paul Wolfowitz, one of its planners (in so far as they had a plan at all) testified about the plans before Congress. He said that an occupation would probably be more easily managed than the situations in Bosnia or Kosovo because, among other reasons, there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq. Which, in turn, prompted one mild-mannered blogger, who has since largely abandoned politics, to say:
Wolfowitz's remarks weren't just wrong. They were blatantly, obviously wrong. They flew in the face of facts that had been widely reported for years. Heck, they flew in the face of his own administration's other propaganda efforts, which claimed at other times, in other voices, that the invasion would be trouble-free because we'd be welcomed by the Shiites as liberators from Sunni oppression.
And yet, he wasn't attacked and dumped. He wasn't even quietly shuffled off to a desk job somewhere else. Through the invasion and something like two years of aftermath, he retained a planning role, despite a demonstrated failure to understand the first thing about the facts on the ground.
It was insane for him to believe this stuff. It was insane for anyone else to keep him on the job. And if the Democrats had risen up in every available forum to use this testimony to raise questions about the planning process that Wolfowitz had been a part of, they would just have been doing their job. It wouldn't have been unpatriotic, or weak-minded, or pacifistic, or uncivil. (Though it would have been called all of these things, surely. Republicans will keep on saying that sort of thing, justified or not, for as long as the Democrats keep shutting up and slinking away in response).
And yet they don't. And so, unchecked, the foreign policy of this country has drifted into literal madness.
Comes now, the domestic scene, and the wiretap scandal. It's not the worst thing Dubya has done. (It doesn't come close to having prisoners tortured into providing phony, false evidence to build the case for his shabby little war). But it's the one that most clearly demonstrates to any politician with eyes to see that this is an administration with no respect for any power other than its own. One that must be opposed if the American Senate, under this imperial president, is to have any more meaningful role in running the country than the Roman Senate under the emperors.
And now we'll see what we shall see. What we've seen so far is this:
The best of our politicians lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. And so goes our Middle East policy, and so goes our policy elsewhere, and so the blood-dimmed tide is loosed. And what rough beast, the poet asks, now slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Is it just me, or is the theology of the day just a bit topsy-turvy?
The partisans who are fighting defense in what they call the "war on Christmas" have an interesting view of the fight. Take Bill O'Reilly, who proclaims the glory of the season:
But there are other curious inversions in this neck of the woods. These folks claim to support a literal reading of the Christian Bible. Which is a bit odd, because the figure they worship is recorded in that book as repeatedly speaking in parables, whose whole point is that they shouldn't be interpreted literally. But where it gets really odd is when they then go on to make assertions that are contradicted by the plain letter of the book. Like making flat assertions that this is the "last generation" before the return of Jesus, which involves (to put it charitably) fudging the famous injunction in the book that "No man knows the day and the hour". (They're only claiming to know the year, you see, so that's OK).
Then, there's their remarkably selective interpretation of Old Testament prohibitions: they take the penalties against gay sex very seriously, but take a somewhat more relaxed view of the stern prohibition against clothes made of more than one fiber type. Which is an attitude which (as has often been noted) seems to color some of their interpretation of the New Testament as well. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," said Jesus, "than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God". And it's well recorded, as these things go, in three of the four synoptic gospels. This, in combination with numerous admonitions to help the poor and the weak, would seem to yield a somewhat different attitude toward social justice than reading the gospels themselves would seem to suggest.
Well, hey, they're literalists. They don't go in for interpretation. So maybe they think that the parable of the sheep and the goats was meant to refer to actual sheep and actual goats. (Although it literally does talk about "my brethren", which you could "literally" interpret to mean... oh, never mind). Besides, such concerns might not be foremost to their Jesus --- the avenger Jesus who appears, literally Deus ex Machina, at the end of the Left Behind books, not to redeem the sinners, but to spill their guts onto the ground and cast them into fire.
But the curious inversions just abound. Let's just look at our most highly placed evangelical, for a brief minute or two. This country, the greatest empire of its age, self-consciously modeled by its founders on Rome, is now being run by a figure who claims profound religious inspiration yet rarely goes to church, who defines strength by brute power, whose domestic programs feature abject neglect of the poor (most visibly after Katrina) and an emphasis on succor to the rich (in tax cut after tax cut), who has allowed a few low-level soldiers to take the fall for what seems to be systematic torture in his army (which has occured on numerous occasions and which may have ordered personally), who takes bizarre actions like pulling down trees in Iraqi farmers' groves for the apparent thrill of violating not only the Geneva Conventions ban on collective punishment, but a direct biblical injunction against doing exactly that.
It's almost as if we've fallen under the dominion of an anti-...
You fill in the blank.
The curious inversions extend as well to his style of following his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution: his response, when called on an obvious, pointless violation of black-letter law is to make obviously specious claims to have the authority to break the law, while demanding that the people who called him out be punished. But I'm perplexed at the sudden furor here. Habeas Corpus is in the constitution too, Dubya's violation of that has been every bit as blatant, the legal excuses only slightly less obviously specious, and the violation of civil and basic human rights far, far more severe. So why all the outrage over wiretaps? Alberto Gonzales is perplexed --- and for once, I must agree with the son of a bitch.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Here's a nightmare scenario for you. In order to better be able to track people, the government would require them to carry around a radio transmitter which broadcasts their location at all times. This information would be precise to 300 yards or better (much better with GPS-enabled transmitters), and would be accessible to any law-enforcement officer at all without a warrant.
Reality, of course, is different from this nightmare scenario. In reality, the devices are called "cell phones", and rather than force you to carry them, they get you to pay for the privilege.
The Star Wars marketing group wanted a tie-in on-line roleplaying game. So they hired some people who came up with an interesting one --- one with varied skills that took a great time to learn, and all sorts of interesting other features to explore. A small crew of particularly dedicated gamers loved it. But, it didn't yield the same numbers as, say, Everquest.
Clearly, there was only one thing to do. Replace it with a dumbed-down version, in which everyone gets to instantly play a high-powered character, and they really can take on anything at all without training or practice because the combat system has become so vapid that skill doesn't matter. As the game's senior director at LucasArts, one Nancy Lynch, explains,
Oh, is that what the experience of being Luke Skywalker or Han Solo was all about? Perhaps she watched a different movie.
Friday, December 09, 2005
So, what manner of Christians are waging "war" in defense of Christmas? Apparently, it's the kind that don't go to church on the day at all because they're too busy with trinkets and gift-wrap.
Further discussion on what manner of Christians these might be here; note that it reads from the bottom up....
Well, we now have a smoking gun memo that Dubya's crew is sending people overseas to be tortured. And it's also become plain that this doesn't give reliable information. Quite the opposite: it's also become plain that some of the "evidence" for the Iraq war was simply made up by a torture subject who would have said anything to stop the pain.
But it's just too depressing to blog about that, so I'll talk instead about what's going on locally --- mere, garden variety criminal government incompetence.
It seems that fresh off his re-coronation campaign, in which he bragged about the safety of the city when he wasn't hiding from debates with his opponents, Mayor-for-life Tom Menino has pulled a Major Renault --- he is shocked, shocked! to suddenly discover that the murder rate is at a ten-year high.
How, pray tell, shall he respond? Shall he reform the Boston Police Department's homicide squad, with its pitiful record? Shall he look for action from prosecutors, who often demonstrably convict the wrong person when they convict anyone at all? But these would require effort, leadership, and taking on entrenched interests among the comfortable knot of cronies that run the city.
Shall he instead announce that he is going to solve the problem by attacking vendors of "Stop Snitchin'" T-shirts? Yes. He shall do that.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
More nonsense stemming from the study of Homo Economicus. Someone finally did a study showing that one of the things that makes Silicon Valley work is indeed good people moving around and spreading knowledge with them. Well, they could have told you that themselves. But economists are perplexed:
You could write a small book about how this analysis ignores economic units at two scales which are as important as the companies in question: the individuals who are moving around, and Silicon Valley itself. (And yes, there are actors --- from synergy-minded venture capitalists to techies who just like having options --- who have it perfectly well in their interest to think about the economic health of the Valley as a whole). But if you did that, you'd be missing an even more basic mistake: If people were only motivated to do creative work when it was maximizing someone's financial gain, then "starving artist" wouldn't be a cliché.
Well, someone's been active in spinsville. The headline on the New York Times front-pager on Dubya's speech reads:
The article itself gets around to contradicting its headline completely by its own third paragraph:
To say nothing of today's editorial, which correctly describes Dubya as completely out of touch with reality:
But, says the headline writer, things are changing. And he's not the only one. There is apparently similar balderdash in the L.A. Times as well.
Could two groups at two different newspapers find themselves trapped in exactly the same wishful thinking? They could. But modern America being what it is, I think there was someone spinning them that way regardless.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Will wonders never cease. Amid all the nay-saying about the course of things in Iraq, I've finally found a statement so negative that even I have trouble believing it. And the source of this vile canard is the United States government. It comes by way of the James Fallows story on the training of the new Iraqi Army in this month's Atlantic (on line for subscribers here), which reports:
Do you believe that? I don't.
After all, let's consider who the new Iraqi government is. Its leaders, endorsed by us, include members of a radical Shiite organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is quite cozy with the theocrats ruling neighboring Iran. And SCIRI, in turn, has an armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which was hosted and trained by Iran during the decades when Saddam Hussein was in power.
If there's one thing the Iranians learned during the Iran-Iraq war, it's how to train an effective armed force.
These units have now almost certainly enrolled en masse in the new American-built armed forces. And while the Americans may have perfectly legitimate reasons to wonder on whose behalf they are operating, it's awfully hard to imagine that they are incapable of carrying out independant operations.
Then again, does the question of loyalty even matter? We are the ones who put their leadership, SCIRI, in the ruling coalition. That, apparently, is the cause for which American soldiers are dying --- making Iraq safe for the murderous allies of Iranian fanatics.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
So, a newspaper printed the other day that Dubya had to be talked out of bombing Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.
A British tabloid imitating the Onion. Or so you'd think, until they get slapped with their government's Offical Secrets Act.
But relax. All those Al-Jazeera reporters who really were knocked out by American bombs in Iraq... all that was certainly just an accident.
OK, so I lied about posting nothing this week...
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
In case anyone's wondering, I'm even more distracted than usual this week...
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The usual defense for torture, now that that's somehow become respectable in American political culture, is the "ticking bomb" defense. There's a nuclear bomb somewhere in a city. And we've got a guy in custody who we know, just know has accurate information about its location. And there's no time to do anything other than torture the information out of him.
And how do we know we're not wasting time by torturing the wrong guy? It's just implausible on its face, which is more than enough to dismiss the argument.
But I've got another scenario which may be worth considering.
Let's say that we have a President who is hell-bent, for heaven knows what reason, on invading Iraq. And let's say that he gets a hold of an al-Qaeda terrorist --- perhaps even a legitimate one, just to make the argument better. And let's say that the guy is tortured, using tactics modeled on the old Communist techniques which were deliberately designed to induce false confessions. And let's say that under this malign influence, the guy coughs up a wholly implausible story about connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda --- one which is implausible on its face (bin Laden having denounced Saddam repeatedly), one with no corroborating evidence, one which is flatly contradicted by two other people within al-Qaeda, with whom he had close contact. And let's say that this evidence is used as part of a campaign to stampede the country into a ruinous war which kills 2000 Americans and ruins our reputation across the world.
Implausible, I know, but no more so than the "ticking bomb" story. And it suggests that there are scenarios where there is, perhaps, something just a bit wrong with torture and its advocates.
And hey, it's still more plausible than stories of Americans subjecting prisoners to religiously tinged abuse, from the apparent death by crucifixion of one detainee to the reports of others being thrown to lions, as if the whole thing was part of the rituals of some demented cult...
Thursday, November 10, 2005
For the past several months, an ex-Marine named Jimmy Massey has been talking about American troops committing atrocities in Iraq. He was lying.
For the past few days, various liberal bloggers have been relaying a story, originally out of Italian news, that American troops used white phosphorus incendiary rounds --- a bit like napalm, only a whole lot worse --- against civilians in their invasion of Fallujah. According to the Army's own writeup of the action, those are true.
In certain respectable circles, I'm sure you'll be hearing a whole lot more about the first of these stories than the second. The same respectable circles that are using similar frauds from the Vietnam era to try to discredit the testimony at John Kerry's "Winter Soldier" investigation into atrocities in Vietnam.
I guess it's awfully convenient for them that people crop up spreading bogus stories. Odd coincidence, though. But just that. Maybe they're napalming civilians, but they're surely above releasing an agent provocateur at home to poison the national discourse?
Update: Several commenters note this article, which at least tries to debunk Massey's debunkers...
Monday, November 07, 2005
So, the FBI is lately using "national security letters", issued on its own initiative, without any judicial review, to get access to, well, pretty much anything they want to see. One known instance of this is a series of letters that requested information on just about every tourism-related transaction (hotels, rental cars, etc.), in Las Vegas in December, 2003. Judges who have seen the justification for these requests report that they are frequently issued on vague suspicion; one judge finally received a classified briefing and reported that it still contained "nothing specific". And those asked to turn over information on others are also forbidden to disclose the requests to anybody.
In this, we can see how punctiliously the government does what it needs within Constitutional limits on its power. The Fourth Amendment reads:
Well, peoples' papers and effects aren't being seized --- just copies of these things that other people might happen to have. So, no problem there. But even if you think there was one, and you're troubled by the lack of probable cause, or specificity in describing the places or things to be seized, be of good cheer. The Constition says "no Warrants shall issue", and these aren't warrants. They're National Security Letters. So of course, that's different.
Who knew that living within constitutional restraints on your power could be this easy?
Ahmed Chalabi just had a lovely visit with new Iranian President Mahmoud "Israel should be wiped off the map" Ahmadinejad. Chalabi praised Iran for its "positive role in the composition and formation of the Iraqi government", while Ahmadinejad, for his part, described the current dismal situation in Iraq as "the tragic outcome of the occupation by foreign forces" and looked forward to joint economic activity, including joint pipeline deals, as soon as the pesky Americans got out of the way.
All of this might be a little distressing to the hawks at the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom advocated invading Iraq based in part on the anticipation that Chalabi would be head of government there, and on his assurances that he would, among other things, establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Well, they'll have their chance to ask him about it when he plays the role of honored guest at the talk he's giving there next Wednesday.
Iran visit links via Juan Cole
Sunday, November 06, 2005
The riots in France have right-wing blogs drowning in schadenfreude. Pity that it's happening, of course, but it reveals the bankruptcy of the European social model, dontcha know. We do things better in the States, that is. Why, it's been more than a decade since such a thing has happened here.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
The latest news on the torture and interrogation front is that the CIA, subject to restrictions on what it can do to prisoners on American soil, is renting a former gulag from some unnamed Eastern European country, and using it for the original purpose:
Of course, the administration claims that it is dishing this treatment out only to the worst of the worst of its captives. And of course they made the same claim about the torture victims at Abu Ghraib, many of whom turned out to have picked up in street sweeps. And of course, they won't say who they're holding in the once and
And of course, they got the Washington Post to withhold the sensitive detail of which Eastern European country is renting out its old gulags. So that the citizens of that country can countinue to live with the illusion that democratic governments like their own are above this sort of thing.
Meanwhile, I have to wonder how much lower these guys can sink before the kind of folks here who used to preach about the evils of communism say in public that there's some kind of a problem here. Donning a rhetorical pickaxe and miner's lamp, Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings still finds room at the bottom. But not bloody much.
Behind the New York Times pay wall, Paul Krugman answers a reader's question:
So, what would the public glean from today's headlines in the actual paper? Well, there's a story on Judge Alito's record which, if you read all the way through it, says that he tends to be particularly deferential to prosecutors and police, and very reluctant to overturn convictions because of improper jury instructions, and the like. (He's also more conservative generally). That, at least, is what you get if you read the article. But most people would just skim the headline --- and on the web site, as I write, the headline reads "Alito's Dissents Show Deference to Lower Courts". Say what?
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Off behind the New York Times pay wall, John Biguenet is writing about the other disaster that hit New Orleans:
As after 9/11, Dubya did what he thought was required --- he stood in front of the cameras, and gave a sonorous speech, in suitably serious tones. (Give him credit --- that's more than he sometimes can manage. "Now watch this drive."). He's not so good on the follow-through, though. Not in New Orleans nor in New York, where promises of billions of dollars in aid also famously failed to come through.
But the speech is all he needs to get credit from his followers for "leadership".