Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The National Script: Whose Story Makes Sense?
Two of the columnists for Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-style parent sit to this web log, are planning end-of-the-year columns, reviewing just what was significant from the year that is ending. We'll see what Our Man in London, Mike McCahill comes up with, and Bob Patterson, in his guise as the World's Laziest Journalist, will no doubt have something amusing to say. Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, will offer what he chooses, but probably not a year-end retrospective.
Andrew Sullivan, in Time magazine, calls 2005, at least in regard to national and international politics, The Year We Questioned Authority, and that'll do as a place marker for now. He calls 2005 the year we stopped going along -
All this has to do with those moments when "the powerful were forced to concede the limits of their own clout and spin." Katrina was the turning point, "the moment when the extent of cronyism, incompetence and sheer smugness in Washington reached a level that even the White House couldn't ignore." Yep, we all saw Michael Brown was not doing a "heck of a job." Sullivan suggests a President who could say such a thing "obviously had no clue about what was going on in his own government."
Maybe so, and the year ends with evidence things are spiraling out of control, or that the script, the narrative we were all supposed to follow ("Act well your part; therein all honor lies." - Pope) is being tossed aside. Everyone's improvising, like this is some John Cassavetes' film from the sixties. Who gets to write the script, and who really needs one?
Evidence of this on Wednesday, December 21st, as the government tries to wrap everything up for the year - a federal judge on the secret FISA court, the folks who approve domestic spying if it must be done, issuing warrants, suddenly resigns in protest. His colleagues said he "expressed deep concern" that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 "was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court's work." And the remaining ten judges will meet sometime over the next two weeks to decide just what they want to do. A prominent attorney discusses the resignation here, but really, this wasn't in the script. Many are pointing to something from three years ago, this secret federal court issued a "public rebuke" to the administration, in this opinion - they charged "the government had misused the law and misled the court dozens of times." They thought the Attorney General then, John Ashcroft, had jerked them around. And maybe they're just as unhappy now. Who knows? But they're not following the script.
And the New York Times keeps messing up the narrative, as, on the same day, here they report that this Bush surveillance program spied on "purely domestic communications." But the White House said its own requirement was "that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil." Drat. No one is paying attention to the narrative of the resourceful hero saving us all by bypassing the outdated and time-consuming rules. They're saying we're not getting the facts.
Of course you see how this is lining up. Those who subscribe to the hero-savior-cowboy model - the president is the man who does what it takes to keep us safe even if he does too much at times - are arguing those who don't see things this way are typical liberals, who don't do much of anything and argue with each other and argue about arcane laws. Who would you rather have running things? The opposition here may be sorry any of this ever came up. The original script may have holes in it that you can drive a truck through, as they say out here in Hollywood, but it's compelling - a winner at the box-office.
Holes in the script?
Here's a big one, and it regards the ever-changing script regarding Jose Padilla. He was the American citizen from Chicago we held for three years as an "enemy combatant" - the storyline was this fellow was conspiring with al Qaeda to set off a "dirty bomb" in America and irradiate tens of thousands of folks. So - no lawyer, no charges, no communication. Lock him up and throw away the key. That's what you do with such folks. The old rules don't apply.
Then we changed the script. Forget the "dirty bomb" stuff. That wasn't testing well. The idea was to move him from the military brig to a civilian jail and charge him with helping move money around overseas and chatting with the wrong people. This was a Hollywood rewrite - time for a new narrative.
So the administration filed a motion in the Padilla case to transfer the guy from military custody to civil authority. They asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate its prior ruling that he was someone the president could hold forever because he was so very dangerous. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision written by Michael Luttig, who was on the short list of nominees for the Supreme Court, didn't think much of the rewrite. You can't just change the narrative like that. On Wednesday, December 21, motion denied -
As noted here, the denial says only that the government's conduct "creates the appearance" that it is trying to duck review by the Supreme Court, while speculating that it might have legitimate reasons for its actions which it mysteriously refuses to articulate.
Maybe so, and perhaps "by avoiding the Supreme Court, Bush was hoping to preserve his imagined right to decide unilaterally what the law is, and the extent of his seemingly boundless Constitutional powers."
Whatever the motive, you just cannot keep changing the storyline. People actually do notice. "Say, honey, but wasn't he the mad bomber in the last episode? Did I miss something?"
And via cursor.org you see everyone is getting into the act, trying to change the script -
Seems there's a fight here over just what the narrative is. The "three monkeys" argument, by the way, seems to have something to do with saying something is okay because everyone is doing it. Yipes.
As Howard Fineman puts it - "We are entering a dark time in which the central argument advanced by each party is going to involve accusing the other party of committing what amounts to treason. Democrats will accuse the Bush administration of destroying the Constitution; Republicans will accuse the Dems of destroying our security."
That's about it.
Of course the overarching narrative we are told to accept is that things are turning around in Iraq. They had elections. That's a real turning point. Of course the previous turning points in the story had to be discarded - the fall of Baghdad with the fall of the famous statue, our displaying the mutilated bodies of Saddam Hussein's two nasty sons for the entire world to see and marvel at, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the handover of the joint to the interim government, the first elections to choose folks to write a constitution, the approval of the new constitution even if it wasn't exactly finished. At least in Hamlet you get one turning point - Hamlet stabs Polonius in his mother's bedroom. He was one guy before that, and a different guy after that. That changed everything. It seems in real life structured narratives are a little looser, as in improvisational theater.
But is this the big turning point? Well, there's this - "Votes along sectarian and ethnic lines mean Washington must do more to quell tensions and may have to forge ties with Shiite-led Iran." And there's this - "Sunni, Secular Groups Demand New Vote - Claims That Iraqi Ballot Was Rigged Threaten to Derail Government, Boost Insurgency." And you have Niall Ferguson in the Los Angeles Times with this - "... if the history of 20th century Europe is anything to go by, all the ingredients are now in place for the biggest conflagration in Middle Eastern history. The only good news is that the first thing to go up in smoke will be the theory of a democratic peace."
All this is not in the script. And Patrick Cockburn in the Independent opens his analysis with this - "Iraq is disintegrating."
Well, we'll see.
In any event, keeping people on script can be difficult. Wednesday, December 21, the senate was a mess. The Republicans control the place, but couldn't get a spending bill passed, what with a few in their own ranks not getting their lines right. Cheney, in his other role as President Pro Tem of the Senate, had to drop in to break a tie vote, so we could get more tax cuts and tighter limits on Medicaid, Medicare and student loans. But legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling failed to overcome the Democratic filibuster, and attaching it to the bill that pays for our troops around the world just looked creepy. That was a narrative trap, of course. The idea was if you voted against the bill in order to save the refuge, or to protest gifts to the oil industry or whatever, the other side could say you hated the troops and all that. No one wanted to act in that episode of Who Really Hates The Troops any more.
And in the middle of the week there was all the stuff about the Patriot Act. Renewing it was hung up in the senate - filibustered by the Democrats and five or six Republican off script. Every time you cough the news on television the president was saying we'd all die if it was renewed, and others saying it needed some work, as they thought maybe it was still full of a lot of things that were pretty creepy and intrusive. The president said, renew it for many years - just do it. The opposition said let's extend it for three months and work out the problems. The president said no, he'd veto any extension - renew it all now for many years, or really, forever, or else.
It went something like this.
"We just want to fix it!"
"If you don't renew it with each and every one of the provisions for searches and snooping and all the rest, we'll all die and it'll be your fault for opposing my wishes."
"How about three months to work this out?"
"No - all or nothing, now, so just do it."
"Let's be reasonable and talk."
"No, you hate America and want us all to die because you don't understand terrorism and you're stupid and irresponsible."
"We don't want to get rid of it, we just want to extend it for three months so we can make it better."
"No you don't - you just want to make me look bad."
"No, we don't."
"Yes, you do."
"What's your problem?"
"What's your problem?"
It was like that. Late in the evening everyone agreed to a six-month extension. We'll see if the house agrees, but for now everything stays in place, just as it is, until next June. That's six months to discuss the provisions, each of them, and discuss the details. Guess who just hates details? Someone is seething.
Ah well, controlling the narrative is hard work - you want to make the other side come off as spineless cowards, and they end up looking reasonable and thoughtful and all that. How did that happen?
One of the hard things in controlling the narrative is, of course, getting everyone to see who the bad guys are. Only in the old westerns do the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys white ones. And that brings us to Canada, and the new effort, odd as it is, to make them the bad guys.
Note here Montana Senator Conrad Burns said Tuesday he "misspoke" when he claimed terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks entered the United States from Canada. Well, first you have to get your facts straight. Newt Gingrich had to apologize too (see this). But you see what's up. Fox News has been on the story - "Could our neighbors to the north soon be our enemies?" Well, you never know. The Washington Times warns here that "our once great friend is turning against us."
A frightened population will agree to almost anything to feel safe. We do get the bearded guys in robes out to kill us all just because "they hate our freedoms." Maybe PETA and Greenpeace are really terrorist groups, and maybe the two gay guys down the street living together want to destroy your marriage and make your sons listen to Barbara Streisand singing show tunes. Bird flu is a worry. But Canadians? The only time anyone successfully pitched that narrative we got a comedy. That one is hard to pitch. But they're working on it. People got tired of having to hate the French. The food, the wine, friends one makes with actual French folks, and too many of us have been there too many times. That just stopped working. They were too harmless, and annoyingly charming - and too far away. But the Canadians are NEXT DOOR! Boo!
Ah well. Fox News and the Washington Times may have, as they say in Hollywood, jumped the shark on that one.
The other narrative that didn't fly this same week was the whole notion that when teaching science one should, when one sees something complex that has not yet been explained, and verified by experiment, say that this gap is not something that awaits further investigation. One should say this complexity can only be attributed to the supernatural, as it is clearly the work of some intelligent designer, the mysterious maker of the universe. If you don't yet see how something complicated works, that proves, ipso facto, there is an intelligent designer.
But that one bit the dust this week, as in Judge Bars 'Intelligent Design' From Pa. Classes - "Intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said Tuesday, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial.
The 139-page ruling is here, and it is rather clear. This narrative is whacky, and the local school board, since voted out of office, had resorted to "breathtaking inanity" in pushing it.
Basically, Judge John Jones III decided that the board's policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by endorsing a religious belief. - "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."
And this - "The breathtaking inanity of the board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."
The Washington Post has a full analysis here, and you could go to the ACLU of Pennsylvania's website for more, or see this in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Note here William Saletan says in this "intelligent design" case, federal district Judge John E. Jones "sets out to kill ID's scientific pretensions once and for all" -
It seems the judge defined science too carefully. As in first, scientific explanations must be natural, not supernatural. Second, they must be testable. These criteria instantly kill this stuff as science. So teach it in some other class, maybe comparative religion. The other side defines science differently - "all scientific evidence which fails to support the theory of evolution is necessarily scientific evidence in support of creationism." The judge says that's not science. He calls this "contrived dualism." Of course it cannot be tested or proven, but they call it science. So does the Kansas school board.
And that's the problem. These folks feel threatened -
This isn't over.
Oh, and by the way, here's something just lost in the war for who controls the narrative.
Report - The Constitution in Crisis
By House Judiciary Committee Minority Staff
Tuesday 20 December 2005
The Downing Street minutes and deception, manipulation, torture, retribution, and coverups in the Iraq war.
No one noticed.