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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 27 May 2005

Topic: The Media

Press Notes: Noting the Dispute

There’s not much more to say about the Newsweek business. They published an unfortunate item on the basis of an anonymous source. The source recanted. They retracted. All hell broke loose, and that was covered in these pages here last weekend. What they reported just might have happened, given that since then US investigators have found at least five instances in which guards and interrogators at Guantanamo Bay more than mishandled the Koran (full story here, and we then had “waves of protest across the Muslim world to denounce reports that American interrogators at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran..." (full story here).

Underlying this was the repeated claim that there was an underlying problem. A bigger one. A real big one. That would be the conservative claims that the press was, on the whole, anti-military, and by extension anti-American, and by extension on the side of the enemy, and then by extension treasonous.

Dan Kennedy writing in the Boston Phoenix provides a round-up here - and if you remove the rant and get to the facts they are these -
… on Monday night … Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, and Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, squared off on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country. Jensen attempted to place Newsweek’s error in some context, noting that US forces are responsible for horrific abuses, including torture and homicide, at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.

Suddenly, Bozell started yipping like a dog that had finally managed to corner a wounded squirrel. "You cite me the evidence of American soldiers murdering people in prisons," he barked.

Jensen, clearly perplexed, replied, "The evidence is in the Army’s own reports." That wasn’t good enough for Bozell. "You’re accusing the American military of murder. If you don’t back it up, back off," he sneered. And so it went until the segment sputtered out.

… This blame-the-media meme spread quickly within conservative circles. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial claiming that Newsweek’s error was part of an anti-military mindset on the part of the media that goes back to the Vietnam War. "Where the press corps goes wrong is in always assuming the worst about military and government motives," the Journal opined. The day before, Paul Marshall wrote in National Review Online, "The shakily sourced May 9 Newsweek report that interrogators had desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is likely to do more damage to the U.S. than the Abu Ghraib prison scandals."

… Conservative bloggers … Glenn Reynolds, whose InstaPundit.com is perhaps the most influential right-leaning blog, linked to a rant by Dean Esmay charging that "the press is not on our side in the war.... You guys are enemy propagandists. It’s just who you are. It’s nice that you’ve at least stopped pretending." Another, the increasingly prominent religious-right blogger La Shawn Barber, pushed this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, writing, "Whether Americans flushed the Koran down the toilet is irrelevant. Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true. It’s common sense, people. Those journalists knew how Muslims would react! Why would you hurt your own country and risk more deaths just to report this ‘fact’? To what end???"

… On Scarborough Country and, earlier, on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes, Brent Bozell was quick to compare the Newsweek fiasco with CBS News’s mangled report last September on President Bush’s National Guard service in the early 1970s — a report based largely on records that appear to have been faked. That particular media scandal ended several CBS careers, including that of producer Mary Mapes, and hastened the retirement of anchor Dan Rather.

… WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin [said] that, a generation ago, men who’d made such a grievous mistake [like the Newsweek reporters did] would not only resign, but they might also have "blown their brains out."
You get the idea. One leader of the charge was Hugh Hewitt, who offered this remedy -
...the remedy is in scrutiny of every antimilitary/anti-Christian/anti-police story that appears. Many are necessary and accurate exercises in reporting, but many are not. For years those stories in the latter category went unrebuked.
So now it is time for rebuke, of those who question the military, and Jesus, and the police.

This from Sher Zieve is typical -
Now, Newsweek has published an article about our military men and women flushing the Muslim Quran (or portions thereof) down a toilet, in order to intimidate Islamic prisoners. However, the story was and is false! This time, however, the liberal MSM [mainstream media] went too far. Newsweek’s bogus story caused Islamic riots against the United States, which are still ongoing, in Afghanistan and may be spreading to other countries. Apparently, there is no depth too low to which the anti-American mainstream press won’t sink; as long as its “stories” are anti-Military and anti-Bush.
That’s a rebuke, or something like one.

Then there is Terry Moran at ABC.

Military-haters in the press
The American Thinker, May 20th, 2005
The recently allegation of the flushing the Koran down the toilet made by Newsweek was also a false report. It may be a tipping point in terms of media credibility and public perception. Hugh Hewitt interviewed Terry Moran of ABC News who was brave and honest enough to admit that the media did have an anti-military bias born of the Vietnam War. Moran stated, "There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous."

Moran has it right. This anti-military attitude dates to the Vietnam era.

Robert Kaplan has pointed out that the media's bias against the military might originate in an elitist class-based prejudice held by reporters . No less so than in academia, the mainstream media have been colonized by Vietnam-era alumni of the left.
Colonized? Cool.

The topic on Bill O?Reilly?s radio program Monday, May 23, 2005?
Today on The Radio Factor...

Hour 1: The Press & the Military

Is the press anti-military? We've told you for months that some in the left-wing press are out to paint our military in the worst light possible. Over the weekend, the New York Times was at it again, and has followed up with an editorial today condemning the military and the administration. The battle for the hearts and minds of Americans continues on the first hour of radio.
It was a tidal wave, capped by John Leo in the New York Daily News May 24, 2005 with this -
It's official. Conservatives no longer have a monopoly on complaints about a liberal media bias. In the wake of Newsweek's bungled report that U.S. military interrogators "flushed a Koran down a toilet," here is Terry Moran, ABC's White House reporter, in an interview with radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt: "There is, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media ..."

In all my years in journalism, I don't think I have met more than one or two reporters who have ever served in the military or who even had a friend in the armed forces. Most media hiring today is from universities, where a military career is regarded as bizarre and almost any exercise of American power is considered wrongheaded or evil.

Instead of trampling Newsweek - the magazine made a mistake and corrected it quickly and honestly - the focus ought to be on whether the news media are predisposed to make certain kinds of mistakes and, if so, what to do about it. The disdain that so many reporters have for the military (or for police, the FBI, conservative Christians, or right-to-lifers) frames the way errors and bogus stories tend to occur. The anti-military mentality makes atrocity stories easier to publish, even when they are untrue.

? In March, a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism said that in the past 17 years, Americans have "come to see the press as less professional, less moral, more inaccurate and less caring about the interests of the country." Another finding was that coverage of George Bush during the presidential campaign was three times as negative as coverage of John Kerry (36% to 12%).

If the press is that much out of sync with the country, its future looks very uncertain. Something has to change.
Something has to change? You know where this is heading.

The only surprise? Conservative war supporter John Cole with this -
... Follow the necessary logic to get to this laughable implication of treason. First, you must believe that the media is anti-military. Not just anti-military, but anti-American. Not just anti-American, but willing accomplices of the enemy, and thus, treasonous. Second, you must believe that defending the right of those treasonous media types to report freely is also treasonous. It is, at its worst, an argument of treason by insinuation, and its absurdity is matched only by its offensiveness ... I reject all of this.

The media is not, as an institution, anti-military. The media is, however, suspicious of the military establishment, and for good reasons. The Pentagon routinely lies to them. See Tillman, Pat. Or the Pentagon Papers. Or any hundreds of other similar events. At any rate, even if the press is suspicious of the military establishment, [this] is . . . confusing criticism of the Pentagon with criticism of the actual soldiers as well as the goals of the United States.

... So let's stop these generic attacks on the media.

? And while we are at it, can we conservatives please stop this laughable cult of victimology? We have the Presidency (for the second time in a row and the fifth time in the last seven elections). We control the Senate by a ten seat margin. We control the House by a larger margin. We have dismissed or dismantled virtually every institutional check in order to limit opposition debate and increase institutional control, regardless how short-sighted that might be. We are ramming through just about every judge we wanted, and are about to reload the Supreme Court with Antonin Scalia at the helm.

We may be a lot of things, but persecuted victims we are not. To assert otherwise is to engage in a self-defeating flight of fancy that should be met with nothing short of outright ridicule.

... Even if we do buy into the absurd supposition that the media is overtly hostile towards conservatives, I contend that their criticism would still be vital. An outside appraisal would be a good thing, particularly when you consider the self-referential and oft-delusional nature of our own manufactured media organs (National Review, for example) and the rest of the echo chamber that the right-wing blogosphere appears to be becoming. We are wasting out energy attacking what, in my mind, has been, overall, a pretty friendly media establishment as of late. And just for fun, you might ask Move-On or Media Matters how liberal they think the media is. The answer might surprise you. So, some perspective, please.
Let?s see? criticism is vital. Outside appraisals are useful. Sometimes it is reasonable not to trust sources who have repeatedly lied to you, and lied to us all.

It seem unlikely, in the extreme, that Bill O?Reilly or Hugh Hewitt will ask John Cole to appears as a guest on either radio show, or on O?Reilly?s Fox News television show. He?s no fun. In these pages see this from July 18, 2004 - The Importance of Martyrdom to the Conservative Movement. It is important to them. Cole is dangerous.

Also see this from Garrison Keillor: ?We?re Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore: How did the Party of Lincoln and Liberty transmogrify into the party of Newt Gingrich?s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk??
Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once, it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. They were good-hearted people who vanquished the gnarlier elements of their party, the paranoid Roosevelt-haters, the flat Earthers and Prohibitionists, the antipapist antiforeigner element. The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it OK for reasonable people to vote Republican. He brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished and higher education burgeoned?and there was a degree of plain decency in the country. Fifties Republicans were giants compared to today?s. Richard Nixon was the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor. ?
It seems some of the old Republicans are still around are still around. Good thing.

Posted by Alan at 22:04 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005 22:15 PDT home


Topic: Science

Snowflakes in DC in May – or Just Flakes

Last weekend in the pages we noted that scientists in South Korea come up with a medical breakthrough involving stem cells. The medical community cheered. The president said this was awful. Congress considered moving to loosen the rules on the medical use of stem cells, and the president, who as governor of Texas broke the record for approving executions, without paying much attention to the cases he had to review, said he would veto any such legislation. All life is sacred. And now, in his fifth year in office, this would be his very first veto – if he doesn’t veto the highway bill first.

Well things came to a head, just after the filibuster compromise. And his own party got uppity.

The basic story from Joanne Kenen at Reuters, Tuesday, 24 May –
Despite a veto threat from President Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday easily approved bipartisan legislation that would permit more federal funding of stem cell research on human embryos that would otherwise be discarded.

The House also approved by a 431-1 vote less controversial legislation that would expand research involving cells drawn from umbilical cord blood.

The embryonic stem cell bill, sponsored by Delaware Republican Rep. Michael Castle and Colorado Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette, would allow federal funding of stem cell research involving excess embryos from in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be discarded. It would not allow cloning a human baby.

The bill passed with a comfortable 238-194 margin, but was well short of the two-thirds threshold needed to override Bush's threatened veto.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe it destroys human life and object to using taxpayer dollars to finance it. They also charge that the promise of the research has been hyped.
Reuters also quotes House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – the former exterminator from Texas - "The deliberate destruction of unique living self-integrated human persons is not some incidental tangent of embryonic stem cell research. It is the essence of the experiment -- kill some in the hopes of saving others."

I think a problem may arise with his definition – that discarded, unfertilized embryos are unique living self-integrated human persons – but the bar for what could be considered a Christian evangelical Republican may be low.

The real problem Reuters notes -
… several conservative Republicans, who usually oppose abortion rights legislation, broke with their party leaders and the anti-abortion movement to support research, saying it held out hope for treating devastating diseases, like Parkinson's or diabetes.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in 21 years in Congress, he had voted only once against the anti-abortion movement. Announcing his support for the Castle-DeGette bill, Barton said his record would now be "100 percent minus two."

Missouri Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson described a similar struggle to reconcile her religious faith and the promise of technology. "I'm following my heart on this," said Emerson, who voiced regret for her past opposition to stem cell research.
This is going to get hot. It seems that just after the vote three Democratic and three Republican senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist asking for swift Senate action on the legislation. Their point? "The American people want this."

Bush says he’ll veto this and the White house issued a statement that the legislation "relies on unsupported scientific assertions to promote morally troubling and socially controversial research."

Yep, these guys know their science. Ask them about global warming. No proof. Ask them about evolution. The jury is still out.

But what to do if the American people want this? Tug on the heartstrings, as you see in this from the Knight-Ridder wire -
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called stem-cell research "a scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, an obstetrician, played a recording of fetal heartbeat, and declared, "This is what it's all about."

Bush made it clear he shared that view, meeting Tuesday with a group of "snowflake babies," children born from embryos left over from fertility treatments. "The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo," he said.
Over at The Nation this is noted in their section they call "Outrageous Outtakes" -
Republicans have invented a new strategy for discounting science: snowflake babies. First, Republicans opposed to the bipartisan stem-cell research bill, which passed the House on Thursday, arranged a press conference with families that have adopted frozen excess embryos, featuring 21 of the 81 snowflake babies. Then, in the afternoon, President Bush appeared at the Rose Garden for a photo op with the snowflake babies as part of a press conference on bioethics. (Click here, here and here for the pictures.) And, finally, the biggest baby lover of them all, Tom "the Hammer" DeLay, spoke on the House floor behind a poster of--what else--enlarged photos of snowflake babies.
Pictures of babies always work to sway an argument. Who doesn?t like babies?

And if that doesn?t work, well, there is the prospect of a filibuster! No ? wait! Those are unconstitutional and thwart the will of the majority and the people! That what they said. But the Republicans have no sense of irony. Pro-life Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and a possible presidential contender, has confirmed he will filibuster the Castle/DeGette bill the House approved Monday.

This just gets better. Sponsors of the Senate version of the bill say they have 58 votes to approve the measure. They need 60 to stop a filibuster.

But is Bush just being reasonable? He says this legislation would violate his 2001 policy ? and that allowed federal funding for stem cell research but limited it to 78 stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001. Unluckily only twenty of these lines turned out to be useful for basic research. The others cannot be used in people because they were contaminated with mouse feeder cells. Oh well. One has to make do.

No is buying that these twenty lines are enough. No one is buying much of the whole snowflake argument.

Jesse Taylor here -
Bush's position is tremendously unpopular, although that's not new for him. The Wall Street Journal openly admits that Bush's line in the sand is not only arbitrary, but rests on a tenuous principle - a minority of Americans should not have their tax dollars used to finance research they consider objectionable. This, of course, makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Bush is the chief promoter of abstinence-only education, which millions more Americans find objectionable, as well as factually and morally wrong in its patent dishonesty. A plurality of Americans is being forced to support education and research in our schools that they in no way support, because Bush has the "courage" of his "convictions".

Let Bush veto a bill that nearly 60% of the American public supports. I'd love to see it, if for no other reason than that he's both deeply unpopular and resting his objection on the intensely nonsensical idea that it's okay to use baby corpses if they were already killed before he got there. There's absolutely no reason to compromise on good science to save the political fortunes of a lame duck president.
Yep, the Wall Street Journal flat out says they "don't see any great moral difference from doing time-limited research on unused embryos created for in-vitro fertilization, as opposed to letting those in-vitro embryos be destroyed."

On Thursday the Los Angeles Times says the obvious -
Photographs in Wednesday's papers of President Bush with cuddly little babies, all of whom were produced from surplus fertilized eggs at fertility clinics, represent a White House attempt to deal with the biggest flaw in logic regarding its stem cell policy ? and its moral weak point. This is the fact that fertility clinics routinely create many test-tube embryos for every human baby that is wanted or is produced.

Here is what happens to those embryos: Some are destroyed because a microscopic examination indicates that they are defective or abnormal. Some of the rest are implanted. But generally, there are some left over. These may be discarded, or frozen for future attempts, or frozen indefinitely; it's up to the customers.

A small fraction of couples choose to donate their unneeded embryos to other infertile couples. Several are implanted in each prospective mother, sometimes producing multiple births. Sometimes they produce one. Frequently, they produce none at all. And about 20% die before they reach full term. The entire process therefore unavoidably involves the creation and knowing destruction of many embryos.

This leads to two conclusions. First, Bush's policy is illogical; he not only tolerates in vitro fertilization ? the president celebrates it (correctly) as bringing happiness to many. It is a "pro-family" policy that unavoidably involves creating and destroying embryos.

Second, encouraging the donation of frozen embryos to prospective parents, even under the most optimistic scenario, would put only a small dent in the supply. According to a 2003 study, there are almost half a million frozen human embryos in storage in the United States. The vast majority of them ? 87% ? were frozen in case the parents might need them, but the vast majority of that vast majority will never be needed or used. An embryo-adoption drive wouldn't save the embryos that die in other stages of the process. And ironically, the recipients of donated fertilized eggs also generally have several implanted in the hope that one will survive. In effect, donation results in the deaths of embryos that would otherwise stay frozen.

? The president is threatening to veto this bill. If he does, these embryos will either be destroyed or frozen forever. They will not develop into cuddly babies. Therefore a veto wouldn't actually save a single embryo. His threat is purely symbolic.

If you really believe that embryos are full human beings, this doesn't matter. But if you think the issue is uncertain or ambiguous at all, it's a powerful argument to say: It's not a choice between a human life and an embryo's life. It's a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo. And it's a statement belied by the reality of in vitro fertilization and how it works.
Well, these guys really do believe embryos are full human beings ? DeLay says so. And they love symbolic statements. That?s where the votes are.

Curiously, you don't see anti-choice men hanging out at fertility clinics to harass the women there, do you? (See that at Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness.) And someone ? not sure who ? proposed a thought experiment. Imagine you are in a burning fertility clinic. You have seconds to get out. Your mother lies unconscious on the floor. On a nearby tabletop is a container of thousands of unfertilized embryos scheduled for disposal. Save the one human ? you mother ? or the thousands of humans? Think fast. You?d let thousands die? Yeah, right. What if they were fertilized and scheduled for disposal? Same choice?

Jesse Taylor again here -
An in vitro clinic generally deals with the embryo from stage one to the beginning of stage four. Stage four cannot complete itself unless doctors place the embryo in the womb, and if stage four does not finish, that's about as far as an embryo can get. It cannot reproduce, it cannot grow, it cannot really respond to any stimuli except implantation.

This, of course, leads Tom Delay, who received his medical degree from the back of Bill Frist's minivan, to declare that that embryos in this early stage four state are human beings. The Washington Post has the exactly correct response, but this led me to start thinking about all the ways in which we "imperil" embryos in fertility clinics.

One of the major reasons a woman will undergo invitro fertilization is that, for whatever reason, her body either rejects the implantation of embryos or she has miscarriages - in other words, her body is functioning improperly and creating an environment hostile to the production of an actual viable child. In vitro fertilization implants embryos (which are full-fledged human beings) into environments such as these, which often have a greater than 50% chance of destroying the embryo before it even implants properly, not to mention the chances for miscarriage before the embryo develops into a viable fetus. Long story short, families and doctors make a routine practice of imperiling the lives of thousands of "full fledged human beings".

It would be more "humane", in Tom Delay's world, to harvest these embryos and never implant them - the risk involved in pregnancy is virtually genocidal... and they're already alive, right?

Pregnancy is the greatest threat to humanity since the Flood. Sorry, ladies.
Jesse has it right. By the logic of Bush-Frist-DeLay you, these clinics and the doctors ? and woman in general ? are committing genocide. All the time. Yipes. This Taylor woman from Dayton, Ohio has their number.

It?s all spin.

This letter isn?t. It is from a woman who adopted one of those frozen embryos from a fertility clinic. A snowflake mom. And someone who says this administration "makes it a point of pride to display its disdain for both science and metaphysics more complex than a first grade Sunday school primer."

Just a sample -
First, 'conception', 'life' and 'living distinct beings' are not the same thing as 'fertilization', no matter how much it serves one's purposes to make it so. Fertilization and the creation of blastocysts is an unremarkable event that takes place daily. If that embryo doesn't implant, there is no conception, no life, no pregnancy. Every day millions of women have 'embryos' floating around in their uteri, flush them during menses and nobody bats an eye. These embryos that have not implanted and sunk a vein and begun the process of advancement are not, even by the most conservative of standards, life. Nobody posits funerals or mourns for the millions of these that are, with no awareness, flushed every day. Give a woman as many pregnancy tests with an embryo inside her that has not implanted as many times as you like?there will be no positive result, pee on as many EPT sticks as you like, no plus sign. This is why after an IVF transfer (the two week wait) people so anxiously wait?they are hoping?desperately?that they have CONCEIVED. It hasn't happened yet.

That embryo may or may not implant and create a conception, a pregnancy, but one thing is for certain?those women who get their period without ever knowing there was a fertilized egg that failed to implant are not flushing 'living distinct human beings.' There is the potential for a conception?nothing more. So, ladies?suck it up and deal?Bush and DeLay need you to stop menstruating post haste?just cross your legs and get thee to a an OB-GYN every 28 days. You see, we need to blood test you and ultrasound the hell out of your uterus in case you absent mindedly were about to flush a 'living distinct human being', because we're all about a 'culture of life'?just not yours. You're an incubator. We need to stem the flow of blood in this culture of death, and apparently that means your menstrual flow.

Secondly, these frozen embryos are so incredibly valuable to the administration that they cannot be used for embryonic stem cell research? because they need to be? THROWN OUT! What they fail to understand is that the disposition of these embryos, like banked chord blood or donated blood or tissue donation, lies with the donor. When you participate in an IVF cycle you sing a form that determines what happens to any leftover fertilized eggs. The choices are cryogenic preservation for: adoption, stem cell research, later transfer to the originating parent, medical research or destruction. DeLay, Bush and his cohorts are saving nothing. It's not as though these embryos in cryogenic willed for research are know suddenly going to be adopted or implanted. They won't?our 'culture of life' perversely demands that they be thrown into the garbage?that's how precious they are, and that's how much we value them. We must destroy life, according to the administration, to AVOID preserving life! Go back and re-read that sentence. ?
Read the whole letter.

This is madness, or pandering to the all-life-is-sacred pro-death-penalty torture-is-necessary evangelical voters these guys depend on to keep them in power. Or worst case ? they really believe what they say and have no clue about biology or ethics, or logic - just deep, blind faith. Take your choice.


Footnote: For information on what the South Korean breakthrough was all about, see this illustrated primer - unless your faith forbids it.

Posted by Alan at 19:02 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005 19:17 PDT home

Thursday, 26 May 2005

Topic: World View

Moral Nagging: The Amnesty International Report

Amnesty International is now suggesting Bush and the crew could be tried for war crimes? Really! Well, everyone knows Amnesty International, like the UN, needs put in its place. John Bolton will be confirmed in a few weeks. Let him deal with it.

Thursday, May 26, 2005, Amnesty's U.S. director, William Schultz - "The apparent high-level architects of torture should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera, because they may find themselves under arrest."

They’re upset about Guantanamo and Bagram and Abu Ghraib and all that.

Yeah, yeah. Alberto “Quaint” Gonzalez should not try to check in at the Carlton? Get real. No Bush Republican would be caught anywhere near the French Riviera. That’s where Michael Moore won the big prize for his treasonous film, at Cannes – and they eat snails and frog legs and that odd fish stew there. And they don’t have NASCAR there. And Henry Kissinger should not visit Paris again as many consider him a fellow that should stand in the docket for war crimes. Christopher Hitchens in 2001 argued that. Like Henry cares?

Add to that the Constitution Project, a Washington advocacy group based at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, is calling for a new big congressional commission, with hearings and everything, specifically on prisoner abuse. And who is urging that? Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta - David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union - former FBI director William Sessions! They’re saying the military cannot investigate itself, nor can the executive branch. No kidding.

That’ll go nowhere, although having a prominent conservative and the former head of the FBI saying something is wrong here is unusual.

Newsday covered the basic story regarding Amnesty International here -
Amnesty International Thursday called the U.S. military's anti-terror prison at Guantanamo Bay the "gulag of our times" and warned that American leaders may face international prosecution for mistreating prisoners.

"When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity," said Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan at a London news conference releasing the group's annual report on global human rights, a blistering, 308-page survey.

The influential human-rights monitoring group has criticized U.S. detention practices before. But Tuesday marked its first call to close Guantanamo, and the group used unusually sharp language in demanding an independent investigation of torture and abuse of prisoners there and at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. …
I don’t think we’re about to close Guantanamo – as a matter of fact we're planning to build an execution chamber there - as that might be useful. The Associated Press quotes General Geoffrey Miller saying, "We're getting ready so we won't be starting from scratch." Remember him? The former commander of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Janis Karpinski, accused him of introducing the methods that got us in trouble there from Guantanamo. Charming guy.

Anyway, Newsday reports Amnesty International's US director, William Schultz, saying that if US officials don't act, other countries will. And you won’t see George and Laura at next year’s Cannes Film Festival?

It seems we are a bit unpopular.

Our defense against all this? The New York Times leads with this: Defending its human rights record as "leading the way," the White House dismissed the accusations as ridiculous and unfounded.

What else were we going to say?

What Amnesty International wants?
In Washington, William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, urged President Bush to press for a full investigation of what he called the "atrocious human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers."

"When the U.S. government calls upon foreign leaders to bring to justice those who commit or authorize human rights violations in their own countries, why should those foreign leaders listen?"

Dr. Schulz said. "And if the U.S. government does not abide by the same standards of justice, what shred of moral authority will we retain to pressure other governments to diminish abuses?

"It's far past time for President Bush to prove that he is not covering up the misdeeds of senior officials and political cronies who designed and authorized these nefarious interrogation policies," he said. "So Congress must appoint a truly impartial and independent commission to investigate the masterminds of the atrocious human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, and President Bush should use the power of his office to press Congress to do so."
Fat chance. They claim we are condoning "atrocious" human rights violations, thereby "diminishing our moral authority" and setting a global example "encouraging abuse by other nations." And that our "rendition" of prisoners to countries known to practice torture is how the United States "thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights."

So we’re supposed to hold open hearings?

What they got -
In response, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said: "I think the allegations are ridiculous, and unsupported by the facts. The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity. We have liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have worked to advance freedom and democracy in the world so that people are governed under a rule of law, that there are protections in place for minority rights, that women's rights are advanced so that women can fully participate in societies where now they cannot."

"We've also - are leading the way when it comes to spreading compassion," Mr. McClellan said. "The United States leads the way when it comes to providing resources to combat the scourge of AIDS."
Is Scott changing the topic, or just putting things in a wider perspective? Torture and abuse, beating prisoners to death, knowing many of them are guilty of very little and some innocent, and the practice of holding 'ghost detainees' (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) – all that is outweighed by other good stuff we do in other areas?

No. He couldn’t mean that.

If you want us to assure that women get the right to vote in Afghanistan and some funds go to AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa, then this other stuff must be excused?

That’s only what he said, not probably not what he meant.

The Times also reports that this Schulz of Amnesty International USA acknowledged his organization had used "strong language" because it felt that "the United States has betrayed a very fundamental principle that this country stands for."

Maybe he doesn’t understand what we now stand for.

Out there in the world of commentary you get things like this from the defenders of Bush and his crew -
It's odd, isn't it, how moral relativism works. A country like say, North Korea or Iran takes dissenters and throws them into the gulag and that's government policy. In the US when someone mistreats a prisoner there is an investigation and the individual wrong-doers face criminal sanctions... that's our government policy. And yet, somehow the two are equal. As bad as moral relativism is, though, it's the fact that those who indulge themselves in this sort of thinking aren't even aware there's a problem.
Ah, as the new Pope says, the problem is moral relativism – as he equates the Western liberal tradition, that is, the Enlightenment, with Nazism, and denigrates it as "moral relativism." (See this for background.) The idea is we may torture folks, but we investigate and punish the low level folks who carry it out, so it’s okay.

Over at Obsidian Wings you find this response -
All the shouting about "how dare they" criticize us strikes me as willfully blind to the way that, by proclaiming our moral superiority, we are asking to be held to a higher standard. It seems to me that Amnesty's point was that as the world's remaining superpower, the US bears a bigger responsibility than North Korea or Iran to set an example. So any critique that doesn't account for how the President declared himself qualified to preach to the rest of the world about such matters in his last Inaugural address leaves a bit of a gap in how one is meant to interpret responsibility and credibility. I mean, it's human nature for problems to arise, but when so many problems are arising (G-bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, extradition, false arrests in the US, etc.) AND the president is still declaring we'll lead the way toward the end of tyranny, then I think Amnesty International and others have a right to suggest, because we're holding ourselves up as an example of a higher standard, that we're failing in equal measure to those holding themselves to a lower standard.
You mean you have to practice what you preach? No, that’s for losers.

__

Well, no matter what Amnesty International calls for, I don?t think we?re about to close Guantanamo. Our president is a stubborn man ? or is that steadfast? (Yes, you can conjugate adjectives ? as in "I am firm and resolute, you are stubborn, but he is bullheaded" ? one man?s synonym is another?s antonym.)

But late in the week we find just such a call in the New York Times.

Just Shut It Down
Thomas L. Freidman, May 27 2005

Freidman is writing from London, deep in the UK, and that, some would claim, means he?s been seduced by the dark side, those who hate America (and drink warm beer). In any event, he addresses the president directly -
Shut it down. Just shut it down.

I am talking about the war-on-terrorism P.O.W. camp at Guantanamo Bay. Just shut it down and then plow it under. It has become worse than an embarrassment. I am convinced that more Americans are dying and will die if we keep the Gitmo prison open than if we shut it down. So, please, Mr. President, just shut it down.

If you want to appreciate how corrosive Guantanamo has become for America's standing abroad, don't read the Arab press. Don't read the Pakistani press. Don't read the Afghan press. Hop over here to London or go online and just read the British press! See what our closest allies are saying about Gitmo. And when you get done with that, read the Australian press and the Canadian press and the German press.
And of course if you click on the link you can read what he finds there. As he puts it - just another day of the world talking about Guantanamo Bay.

For someone who supported the war, even if reluctantly at times, because it would show our seriousness, or something like that, and change things for the better, shutting the this place down would be part of winning the war.
Why care? It's not because I am queasy about the war on terrorism. It is because I want to win the war on terrorism. And it is now obvious from reports in my own paper and others that the abuse at Guantanamo and within the whole U.S. military prison system dealing with terrorism is out of control. Tell me, how is it that over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody so far? Heart attacks? This is not just deeply immoral, it is strategically dangerous.
Yeah, don?t argue morals with these guys. What?s the point? Argue tactics.

The idea is the whole business has a toxic effect on us - "inflaming sentiments against the U.S. all over the world and providing recruitment energy on the Internet for those who would do us ill."

And one element in his array of evidence that this is so is a comment made to him by one Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani scholar now teaching at Boston University - "When people like myself say American values must be emulated and America is a bastion of freedom, we get Guantanamo Bay thrown in our faces. When we talk about the America of Jefferson and Hamilton, people back home say to us: 'That is not the America we are dealing with. We are dealing with the America of imprisonment without trial.' "

They?re not the same?

The best line is in his conclusion -
Guantanamo Bay is becoming the anti-Statue of Liberty. If we have a case to be made against any of the 500 or so inmates still in Guantanamo, then it is high time we put them on trial, convict as many possible (which will not be easy because of bungled interrogations) and then simply let the rest go home or to a third country. Sure, a few may come back to haunt us. But at least they won't be able to take advantage of Guantanamo as an engine of recruitment to enlist thousands more. I would rather have a few more bad guys roaming the world than a whole new generation.

"This is not about being for or against the war," said Michael Posner, the executive director of Human Rights First, which is closely following this issue. "It is about doing it right. If we are going to transform the Middle East, we have to be law-abiding and uphold the values we want them to embrace - otherwise it is not going to work."
Yeah, telling them we?re special ? that we?re extraordinary and unique victims like no other people on earth and thus are exempt from playing by the rules we want them to play by ? well, that?s just not convincing anyone. It really is a hard sell.

Every American may believe that fully and deeply ? the government and the press has been telling is that for more than three years, hammering it in ? but step outside the borders and no matter how loudly you declare "I?m SPECIAL! I?m UNIQUE! I?m EXTRAORDINARY! I?m an AMERICAN! ? a new kind of victim of the cruel world that deserves latitude in the matters!" you will be seen as a petulant child, and a dangerous one. No, you are not special. You are expected to be responsible, and as adult as you can be, and do what is right, as best you can.

Time to grow up.

___

Footnote:

You will find an interesting comment - on the Friedman item in the Times from Hunter over at the Daily Kos -
Yes indeed, maybe running a prison camp explicitly exempted from all inconvenient aspects of both U.S. and international law, then kidnapping "suspects" from around the globe to be either shipped there or dumped into prisons under the flags of the worst torturers and despots in the world, then subjecting them to conditions in which they die by the dozens, then maybe dumping a few of the ones who turn out to be innocent off at the borders of their own country with nothing more than the clothes they're wearing and whatever permanent or nonpermanent physical damage was done to them during their stay at Camp President Bush Is A Big Man -- just maybe that might have negative consequences for the United States among the people we are trying to convince of our Godly compassion and world-inspiring democracy.

Congratu-freakin-lations. You now know what anyone with an I.Q. above week-old pizza was raising their voice about from the moment the camp opened. You now know why some of us have been marking the connections between military figures who shuffled between Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan in apparent order to make damn sure we were beating, maiming, and killing as many prisoners as possible in all three locations. You now know why the notion of making Alberto Gonzales (the man responsible for tweaking the rules to allow the Bush administration to laughably pretend that any of this was anything resembling something other than a war crime) freakin' Attorney General was treated by much of the reality-based community as something between a sick joke and the world's most asinine reality show.

And now -- just now -- we still have pillars of international expertise figuring out that maybe, maybe this fine-tuned, no-trial, no-Geneva, torture-who-you-want policy wasn't so bright an idea after all.

Friedman notes that over 100 detainees have died at Guantanamo, which is "deeply immoral". Tell me, at what point did it become deeply immoral? When the first fifty died, was it moral then? What about eighty, how was that? I'm apparently living in a world stuffed to bursting with experts on international diplomacy, so give me the damn number. The camp currently holds five hundred people; what percentage of them can die in custody in a period of only a few years before the odometer turns over from freedom fries -burp-! to deeply immoral?
Well, Freidman is late to the party. And his reasoning, is, shall we say, more pragmatic than centered on right and wrong.

And Hunter agrees with everyone else, even if more forcefully -
We're not going to shut Guantanamo down. We're not going to even start making any serious attempt to separate guilty from innocent, except in explicit instances where Britain or Australia figure out we've got one of their citizens and bluster ever so diplomatically that maybe we ought to give them back. We're not going to attempt to determine which of the "enemy combatants" were Taliban fighters, which were al Qaeda members, or which were simply people driving in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And we're not going to do it because the President of the United States himself doesn't give a rat's ass, and isn't likely to at any point in the future. He wears "justice" like a hat, he wears "religion" like a sticky and well-snotted-up hankie, and he spends his days milking his all-important war in Iraq for every drop of political capital like the horse in his wife's jokes. A dead man, whether guilty or innocent, means nothing to him unless some jackass took an unflattering picture of it.
As for Freidman -
So congratulations. Yet another of the voices in this world that helped make the terms pro-America and yay-for-torture interchangeable has figured out that maybe there's a downside to being seen elsewhere in the world as an amoral nation that deems itself outside the rule of law.

Actually, you flaming jackasses, it was pretty f---ing obvious from the start. That it wasn't obvious to you, while the rest of us were raising our voices about it, is the entire current problem.
That was perhaps a tad blunt ? but at least Freidman came around, three years too late and for the wrong reasons. But he came around.

Posted by Alan at 19:52 PDT | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005 14:20 PDT home

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

Topic: For policy wonks...

Not That It Matters: We Get a Close Reading of the Downing Street Memo

In these pages, in The Smoking Gun You Have to Admire (May 8, 2005), you would find discussion of this Downing Street memo. On May 1, Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London broke a story concerning Tony Blair and George Bush that was curious – that London paper got their hands on an odd document - a memo from the Blair and Bush discussions in the summer of 2002, some months before Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN laying out the clear evidence of the reasons the UN should join us in a war. The memo is dated 23 July 2002 by Matthew Rycroft, a former Downing Street foreign policy aide. It showed that the Brits understood that the Bush administration had decided to invade Iraq and toss out the government there – but Bush just hadn’t yet decided why. The war came nine months later.

Given American politics and the current war in Iraq now being waged on its twenty-seventh premise - there being no WMD and no ties to the al Qaeda baddies there at all, and clear evidence even the powers that be knew what they were telling everyone way back when was essentially a grand fiction – you’d think this would be a bombshell.

It isn’t. No one much cares.

David Wallace-Wells in SLATE.COM points to a new close reading of the memo that suggests that appeals to the United Nations in the buildup to the Iraq war were intended to legalize military action, not avert it - The conversion of the administration to the "U.N. route" was not, the essay argues, Colin Powell's chief political accomplishment or his most costly credibility gamble, but the predictable product of British unwillingness to cooperate in what would otherwise have been an extralegal offensive. Efforts to discredit the empty-handed inspectors, the essay suggests, were right out of Joseph Goebbels' playbook.

Oh my. That’s odd. And what’s this about Joseph Goebbels?

The item is by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 10 - issue date: June 9, 2005 (item dated May 12, 2005) – The Secret Way to War.

It’s not much fun.

Wallace-Wells points to it. You might read it, even if it is long, with footnotes and all, and contains the full text of the Downing Street memo.

But in short?
1. By mid-July 2002, eight months before the war began, President Bush had decided to invade and occupy Iraq.

2. Bush had decided to "justify" the war "by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD."

3. Already "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

4. Many at the top of the administration did not want to seek approval from the United Nations (going "the UN route").

5. Few in Washington seemed much interested in the aftermath of the war.
Like you didn’t know? This just provides documentation.

Mark Danner just pulls it all together -
What the Downing Street memo confirms for the first time is that President Bush had decided, no later than July 2002, to "remove Saddam, through military action," that war with Iraq was "inevitable"—and that what remained was simply to establish and develop the modalities of justification; that is, to come up with a means of "justifying" the war and "fixing" the "intelligence and facts...around the policy." The great value of the discussion recounted in the memo, then, is to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it—how to "fix," as it were, what Blair will later call "the political context." Specifically, though by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, … those on the National Security Council—the senior security officials of the US government—"had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record." This would later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very people gathered together at 10 Downing Street.
In this reading the Brits seem to need political cover – something more then whim. Danner points out that the British realized they needed "help with the legal justification for the use of force" because, as the attorney general pointed out, rather dryly as Danner notes, "the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action."

No doubt the Brits were humming the old Rolling Stones tune "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" – but they changed their tune. To the Beach Boys classic - "Wouldn’t It Be Nice?"

Danner –
Which is to say, the simple desire to overthrow the leadership of a given sovereign country does not make it legal to invade that country; on the contrary. And, said the attorney general, of the "three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or [United Nations Security Council] authorization," the first two "could not be the base in this case." In other words, Iraq was not attacking the United States or the United Kingdom, so the leaders could not claim to be acting in self-defense; nor was Iraq's leadership in the process of committing genocide, so the United States and the United Kingdom could not claim to be invading for humanitarian reasons. This left Security Council authorization as the only conceivable legal justification for war. But how to get it?
And that is where you might want to read this carefully. Hans Blix has to be made a fool, and the inspections too slow, and the danger too great. And we developed that strange position articulated so well be Donald Rumsfeld - "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." And he said we knew exactly where the WMD were anyway – in and around Tekrit – but really that they couldn’t be found only increased the danger.

And we bought that. Well, many did. Who are you going to trust?

The joke is the war had to be waged – because the new concept was finding the WMD proved we had to invade and occupy Iraq, and not finding them meant we had to invade and occupy Iraq. No choice.

Danner lays this and more out in much more detail – so you might want to read the whole thing.

He also cites New York Times Sunday magazine item Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind (October 17, 2004) - a discussion of how George Bush makes decisions.
… In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
And he parses the Suskind this way -
Though this seems on its face to be a disquisition on religion and faith, it is of course an argument about power, and its influence on truth. Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept - a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe.

The last century's most innovative authority on power and truth, Joseph Goebbels, made the same point but rather more directly: There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be "the man in the street." Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.
We were had.

Of course there has been little coverage of the memo.
The war continues, and Americans have grown weary of it; few seem much interested now in discussing how it began, and why their country came to fight a war in the cause of destroying weapons that turned out not to exist. For those who want answers, the Bush administration has followed a simple and heretofore largely successful policy: blame the intelligence agencies. Since "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" as early as July 2002 (as "C," the head of British intelligence, reported upon his return from Washington), it seems a matter of remarkable hubris, even for this administration, that its officials now explain their misjudgments in going to war by blaming them on "intelligence failures"—that is, on the intelligence that they themselves politicized. Still, for the most part, Congress has cooperated. Though the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the failures of the CIA and other agencies before the war, a promised second report that was to take up the administration's political use of intelligence—which is, after all, the critical issue—was postponed until after the 2004 elections, then quietly abandoned.

In the end, the Downing Street memo, and Americans' lack of interest in what it shows, has to do with a certain attitude about facts, or rather about where the line should be drawn between facts and political opinion.
Facts? Who needs them? We’re there and we need to clean things up.

And we don’t want to think about it. Call it salvaging self-respect (see this from late February). Or call it cognitive dissonance (see this from last October).

Doesn’t matter. What do we do now?

Posted by Alan at 17:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Topic: Bush

Say what? Michael Jackson and Postmodernism

Terry Eagleton is a professor of cultural theory at Manchester University and offers us this - The Ultimate Postmodern Spectacle - Wednesday May 25, 2005, The Guardian (UK) – where he argues that Michael Jackson and his trial hold a mirror to modern western civilization and its blurring of fact and fiction.

Well, given American politics and the current war in Iraq now being waged on its twenty-seventh premise – there being no WMD and no ties to the al Qaeda baddies there at all, and clear evidence even the powers that be knew what they were telling everyone way back when was essentially a grand fiction – Eagleton may be onto something.

For us postmodernists reality is overrated. And the Jackson trail proves that? I think that’s the idea.

Here’s the premise -
Celebrity trials, like those of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson, are sometimes loosely called postmodern, meaning that they are media spectaculars thronged with characters who are only doubtfully real. But they are also postmodern in a more interesting sense. Courtrooms, like novels, blur the distinction between fact and fiction. They are self-enclosed spheres in which what matters is not so much what actually took place in the real world, but how it gets presented to the jury. The jury judge not on the facts, but between rival versions of them. Since postmodernists believe that there are no facts in any case, just interpretations, law courts neatly exemplify their view of the world. There is a double unreality about staging the fiction of a criminal trial around a figure who has been assembled by cosmetic surgeons. Jackson's freakish body represents the struggle of fantasy against reality, the pyrrhic victory of culture over biology.
Well that’s a handful. Postmodernists believe that there are no facts in any case, just interpretations?

One thinks of the New York Times Sunday magazine item Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind (October 17, 2004) – a discussion of how George Bush makes decisions.
… In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Ah yes, creating our own realities – the basis for all courtroom tactics. Having served on jury duty many times, that fits. And listening to what comes from the Mouth of Scott – Scott McClelland, the White House press secretary, not to be confused with the nasty Mouth of Sauron from Book III of Tolkien’s odd epic – one does feel hammered by something like a clever attorney, arguing for a reality that may not be what you think it is. It all depends on how you look at it. Scott makes his case. We take notes.

Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 10 - issue date: June 9, 2005 (item dated May 12, 2005) ? in The Secret Way to War parses the Suskind item slightly differently.
Though this seems on its face to be a disquisition on religion and faith, it is of course an argument about power, and its influence on truth. Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept - a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe. The last century's most innovative authority on power and truth, Joseph Goebbels, made the same point but rather more directly: There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be "the man in the street." Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.
Okay, and that is fine in the world of politics. But is there a wider implication? Can the techniques of Joseph Goebbels make Michael Jackson anything Michael Jackson wishes to be?

Is Michael Jackson black? Depends. Eagleton points out that quite a few young people are not even aware that he is. Nothing is what is seems. Reality? Nature? Don’t worry about it.
If postmodern theory won't acknowledge that there is any such thing as raw nature, neither will this decaying infant.

It is hardly surprising that he has expressed a wish to live forever, given that death is the final victory of nature over culture. If the US sanitizes death, it is because mortality is incompatible with capitalism. Capital accumulation goes on forever, in love with a dream of infinity. The myth of eternal progress is just a horizontalized form of heaven. Socialism, by contrast, is not about reaching for the stars but returning us to earth. It is about building a politics on a recognition of human frailty and finitude. As such, it is a politics which embraces the reality of failure, suffering and death, as opposed to one for which the word "can't" is almost as intolerable as the word "communist".
Whoa, Nellie! Mortality is incompatible with capitalism? The myth of eternal progress is just a horizontalized form of heaven?

Could the appeal of Bush’s divorced-from-reality optimism – the war is going well, tax cuts for the obscenely rich make life so very much better for those scrambling to avoid falling into homelessness and starving in the streets – just be just a yearning for heaven?

Josh Marshall on September 2003 in the Washington Monthly offered this: The Post-Modern President - Deception, Denial, and Relativism: what the Bush administration learned from the French - and the core about the Bush folks is this:
Ideology is really all there is. For an administration that has been awfully hard on the French, that mindset is... well, rather French. They are like deconstructionists and post-modernists who say that everything is political or that everything is ideology. That mindset makes it easy to ignore the facts or brush them aside because "the facts" aren't really facts, at least not as most of us understand them. If they come from people who don't agree with you, they're just the other side's argument dressed up in a mantle of facticity. And if that's all the facts are, it's really not so difficult to go out and find a new set of them. The fruitful and dynamic tension between political goals and disinterested expert analysis becomes impossible.
Reality? Who needs it?

And yes, facticity isn’t a real word – but it works here.

But Terry Eagleton, considering the trial of Michael Jackson, is onto something bigger. It’s not Bush and his troop. It’s western civilization! Golly!
If Michael Jackson is a symbol of western civilization, it is less because of his materialism than because of his immaterialism. Behind the endless accumulation of expensive garbage lies a Faustian spirit which no object could ever satisfy.

Like Jackson's cosmetic surgeons, postmodernism believes in the infinite plasticity of the material world. Reality, like Jackson's over-chiseled nose, is just meaningless matter for you to carve as you choose. Just as Jackson has bleached his skin, so postmodernism bleaches the world of inherent meaning. This means that there is nothing to stop you creating whatever you fancy; but for the same reason your creations are bound to be drained of value. For what is the point of imposing your will on a meaningless reality? The individual is now a self-fashioning creature, whose supreme achievement is to treat himself as a work of art.

Ethics turns into aesthetics.
Somehow Michael Jackson has morphed in Oscar Wilde, without the talent. And Bush becomes a self-referential, self-indulgent work of art? Something like that.

Eagleton does make the obvious connection to Bush -
… just as there are no constraints on the individual self, so there are no natural limits to promoting freedom and democracy across the globe. What looks like a generous-hearted tolerance - you can be whatever you like - thus conceals an imperial will. The tattoo parlor and George Bush's foreign policy may seem light years distant, but both assume that the world is pliable stuff on which to stamp your will. Both are forms of narcissism for which the idea of reality putting up some resistance to your predatory designs on it, whether in the form of the Iraqi opposition or a visit from the local district attorney, is an intolerable affront.
Well, Bush does get obviously pissed off when reality puts up some resistance to his predatory designs on it. Terry has that right. If you cannot stamp your will on life, on all of reality, where’s the fun?

The conclusion?
Postmodern culture rejects the charge that it is superficial. You can only have surfaces if you also have depths to contrast them with, and depths went out with DH Lawrence. Nowadays, appearance and reality are one, so that what you see is what you get. But if reality seems to have dwindled to an image of itself, we are all the more sorely tempted to peer behind it. This is the case with Jackson's Neverland. Is it really the kitschy, two-dimensional paradise it appears to be, or is there some sinisterly unspeakable truth lurking beneath it? Is it a spectacle or a screen?

If courtrooms are quintessentially postmodern, it is because they lay bare the relations between truth and power, which for postmodernism come to much the same thing. Truth for them, as for the ancient Sophists, is really a question of who can practice the most persuasive rhetoric. In front of a jury, he with the smoothest tongue is likely to triumph. On this view, all truth is partisan: the judge's summing up is simply an interpretation of interpretations. …
That does seem to be where we are – all truth is partisan. He who can practice the most persuasive rhetoric wins.

I’m not sure depths went out with DH Lawrence, but let that pass. I blame William Carlos Williams, myself – you know, that doctor from Patterson, New Jersey and that dammed Red Wheelbarrow.

Whatever. Eagleton’s advice in this postmodern world? Get yourself a good lawyer.

Works for me.

__


Footnote:

Terry Eagleton blames DH Lawrence - and I blame William Carlos Williams and that Red Wheelbarrow ? for taking the depth out of things, or removing fixed meaning or whatever. Morris Dickstein teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and says his students not longer want to read such stuff ? as they prefer nineteenth-century realism. You know, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and such folks. Really?

See Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
In an era of uncertainty, reality makes a comeback.
Morris Dickstein, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2005

Contention:
? for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the "real" raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on whoever controls the flow of information that influences them. They believe with Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations. Along with notions like truth or objectivity, or moral concepts of good and evil, there's hardly anything more contested in academia today.

Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by uncertainty or exposed as ideology.
But many of us are still living, in spite of sensing Nietzsche was onto something.

Dickstein?s nod to Bush -
?there are many ways to simulate reality: staying on message, for instance, impervious to correction and endlessly reiterating it while saturating the media environment. Ideologues, whether they're politicians or intellectuals, dismiss any appeal to disinterested motives or objective conditions. They see reality itself, including the electorate, as thoroughly malleable.
Yeah, what else is new?

What has changed?
? many Americans today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own senses. They turn to what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty."
Well, this deep nostalgia for something solid and real probably explains the evangelical Christian capture of the whole of the Republican Party, and events in Kansas trashing science, claiming God is real and Darwin a secular, relativistic fool.

Dickstein only notes reading preferences -
? In his book "After Theory," a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks "a certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything."

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.

Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and Wharton's "House of Mirth" showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing.
Yeah, but these authors are, each, deadly dull. Give me William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Sinclair Lewis and his outrage at the meat processing industry is not something one returns to now and then ? and even my eighth grade students way back when found Stephen Crane simple-minded. Things solid and real can be a tad stultifying.

Posted by Alan at 20:54 PDT | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2005 08:21 PDT home

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