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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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Thursday, 5 October 2006
Taking Personal Responsibility
Topic: Political Theory
Taking Personal Responsibility
Okay, the Republicans are the party of personal responsibility. Everyone should take personal responsibility for his or her own life and stop whining. We're all optimistic "can do" folks who create our own lives and create wealth and are independent, not relying or some mommy-government keep us out of trouble, or we should be. It's called character. People should have character.

This was starkly argued in the whole business about Social Security reform back in 2005 - the new idea there being people should be given a framework in which to create their own safety net to keep them from starving when they retire, or fall on hard times. That would be government sponsored investment plans - we'd all, on our own, deal with an investment house and the feds would make sure they were reputable and playing by a few basic rules. As noted early in 2005, conservatives had long argued that any pooling of resources for the common good, especially when it is not voluntary (some never wanted to join Social Security) does more harm than good - it strips away any sense of personal responsibility people should have. It is just bad for the country. Of course the program has done some good, but the cost to the nation's character is far too high. FDR was evil - his plan corrupted America. A thirty-five percent poverty rate for folks over sixty-five, we on the other side argued, is bad for the country, and we wanted, if anything, to just improve the existing program. And we argued the nation's "character" is also shown by everyone chipping in and making sure old folks don't starve in the streets - that's too high of a cost the other way. But then people will, we were told, think of themselves as victims, and think they're entitled to freeload off those who work hard and take care of their own families. That turned out with no change to what we had, and a lot of large investment houses disappointed - with no glut of new clients.

But the idea persists. The party in power, and the Bush administration, are not whiners like the Democrats. They have character - they say what the mean and mean what they say, and are never swayed by the opinions of others, or by what others say are the facts. And they take responsibility for their actions. They role-model for the rest of us what we should be, challenging us to stand up for ourselves. And it is, of course, a great sales pitch. Who wouldn't want to be so self-assured and independent?

The role-modeling is the problem. There were no WMD in Iraq, and ridding the world of Iraq's WMD was the prime reason for the War? We're told "but everyone thought there were" and too that "the CIA messed up" - so it wasn't their fault it all worked out as it did. Everyone made the same mistake - so you cannot blame them, really. The Blix inspections and the intelligence agencies of our allies said otherwise, but we are supposed to forget that, and most do - the well-established concept of them doing the bold and responsible thing overriding the facts of the matter. And the 9/11 attacks - Condoleezza Rice says no one could have imagined terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings (even if there are documents on file that she had that said that might well happen), and no one could see this coming (even with that Presidential Daily Briefing a few week before the attacks, "Ben Laden Determined to Attack Within America"), and no one warned her (the meeting about that she said never happened did, as her own folks pointed out), so it's hardly her fault. The Hurricane Katrina business - the president said no one thought the levees would fail (then the videotape of him being briefed that they would, where he says not a word), so it's not his fault the response was late and inadequate.

But those who admire the President persist - Bush and his party are the people who have character, and take personal responsibility. Whatever went wrong is somehow, in the end, Bill Clinton's fault - he may have been smart as a whip and known the details of all this issues he faced, and all the implications of what he did and said, but he had no character. Character matters.

Thursday, October 5, we got another cycle of this, at the congressional level. House Speaker Dennis Hastert finally made his definitive statement on the fact that that congressman who resigned, Mark Foley, had been hitting on the sixteen-year-old House pages for years and nothing had been done about it, until it got so damned public. Hastert stood up and said he took full responsibility for the screw up, except he hadn't really known about it, and it all happened because of the new-fangled internet and instant messages, and maybe George Soros and the Democrats were behind it - but he was a real man, so he'd take responsibility and there'd be investigations. So it wasn't his fault at all, AND he was taking personal responsibility. And he certainly won't resign, no matter who says he should. What a guy!

Actually, it was a bit unusual. Michael O'Hare at "Same Facts" lays out the usual steps involved -
(1) Search up the hierarchy of command until you reach the level at which the affair in question is a small enough part of someone's overall duties that that particular failure does not justify resignation. If necessary, keep going up to the top.

(2) Trot that person out to wring hands, "accept full responsibility" and say "the buck stops here". Take care, however, to suppress any inference that the current disaster says anything about the boss', or the organization's overall performance or competence; he can bear any number of "last straws" as long as they arrive one by one and fall off his back quickly.

(3) Make it clear that at this level, accepting responsibility for this (relatively) small matter obviously doesn't entail any actual action by, or consequences for, the official. At lower levels, of course, consequences don't apply because the top guy has vacuumed up all responsibility (see (1) above).

(4) Throw one junior player over the rail so the sharks have something to eat. If someone is already at the rail, pop a geolocator in his pocket to guide the sharks. Blow smoke from the "thorough investigation" machine.

(5) (Bush administration refinement) Give an intermediate level player who has completely botched the operation a "heckuva job" medal. Remarkably, this can actually be the same person used in (4) with careful timing.
It didn't work out exactly like that, but it came close enough -
The House ethics committee approved nearly four dozen subpoenas Thursday as its investigation of a page sex scandal sprang to life with a promise by its leaders to go "wherever the evidence leads us."

Speaker Dennis Hastert said he accepted responsibility for any earlier failures to investigate complaints of inappropriate behavior by Rep. Mark Foley (news, bio, voting record) toward teenage male pages. But he resisted pressure to step down.

"Ultimately ... the buck stops here," the Republican speaker said, borrowing the famous phrase of a Democratic president, Harry Truman.

Hastert held to his assertion that he did not know about Foley's e-mails and instant messages to former pages until the scandal broke last week. In the past several days, several Republican lawmakers and staff members said they were aware of the messages. Democrats were not notified.
The ethics committee promised to finish its investigation in weeks, not months, but it was unclear whether that would happen before the election a month away. Most cynically think this just delays things until after everyone votes - then we'll know what really happened, and who knew what and who hid what to save Republican seats, and whatever bad stuff comes out will be harmless.

That evening President Bush called Hastert and expressed his support. White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino explained - "The president thanked him for going out and making a clear public statement that said the House leadership takes responsibility and is accountable. He said he appreciated that when they got the information, they swiftly took action making clear that Rep. Foley should step down and promptly requested a Department of Justice investigation. And he expressed his support for the speaker."

Hastert had made himself clear - "Could we have done it better? Could the page board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes. But at the time what we knew and what we acted upon was what we had."

That's expressing regret for not knowing much as taking personal responsibility. It seems that will have to do. The president is satisfied.

So the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct - the ethics committee - is investigating potential violations of House rules, and the Justice Department starts its criminal investigation. The fellow who told reporters that he had talked three years ago with top aides to Hastert about Foley's conduct with pages had already met with the FBI. The AP item in the ink above has the details of who gets a subpoena. There are lots of folks who will. This will take time. And the ethics committee will have no outsiders - the House can handle investigating itself quite nicely, thank you.

The snark site Wonkette offers this summary of the Hastert press conference - "You'll pry the speaker's gavel from my cold, dead fat hands."

Josh Marshall offers this -
One of the many funny things about Denny Hastert's silly lies about Democrats being responsible for his scandal is this: is this really their position? If the Democrats would have just focused on the real issues instead of blowing the whistle on our caucus pedophilia, we could have gone back to the real business of passing laws and molesting teenagers! Let's focus on the people's business! Oh, and also our funny business. If it weren't for George Soros I could be cranking out a few good IMs right now!
The personal responsibility thing is being met with skepticism, in spite of the president's enthusiasm.

And the polling on the matter was dismal, in spite of the president's enthusiasm. It seems here (Rasmussen), sixty-one percent of Americans believe that House Republican leaders have been protecting Foley for "several years." Only twenty-one percent believe that they learned of his problems only last week. So this looks bad. Then there was the generic congressional ballot question - would you prefer to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in November - and forty-seven percent said "Democrat" and only thirty-four percent said "Republican." That's a thirteen point spread - in August eight percentage points.

Nice words from the president may not help much. After the "State of Denial" book from Bob Woodward hitting the street the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had his approval rating down three points to thirty-nine percent, and new polls from AP-Ipsos and Pew had him at a steady and dismal thirty-eight and thirty-seven percent, respectively. (Those polls are here and here.) He can say what he wants. It might not matter.

And this seems to be a bit larger problem than it seemed, as reported here -
Three more former congressional pages have come forward to reveal what they call "sexual approaches" over the Internet from former Congressman Mark Foley.

The pages served in the classes of 1998, 2000 and 2002. They independently approached ABC News after the Foley resignation through the Brian Ross & the Investigative Team's tip line on ABCNews.com. None wanted their names used because of the sensitive nature of the communications.

"I was seventeen years old and just returned to [my home state] when Foley began to e-mail me, asking if I had ever seen my page roommates naked and how big their penises were," said the page in the 2002 class.

The former page also said Foley told him that if he happened to be in Washington, D.C., he could stay at Foley's home if he "would engage in oral sex" with Foley.
So more pages, and far too much information. Hastert didn't close this out with his Truman buck-stop-here news conference. But it was a nice try.

Andrew Sullivan, the disgruntled gay conservative writer, says this -
Three other pages describe Foley's online predation. The GOP is going to have to find another angle to deflect this. They've tried blaming the MSM [mainstream media]; they've tried blaming Clinton; they've tried to turn all the victims into pranksters. It's been a worthy display. But in the end they may have to take ... responsibility. Remember that? It used to be a conservative value.
It still is a conservative value. It's just more a theoretical or ideal value. They're working on implementation, but it's hard work.

As for the prank business that Sullivan mentions, that was the big scoop Matt Drudge came up with Thursday, October 5, here - "According to two people close to former congressional page Jordan Edmund, the now famous lurid AOL Instant Message exchanges that led to the resignation of Mark Foley were part of an online prank that by mistake got into the hands of…" - and so on and so forth.

Well, Drudge is the man who broke the Monica Lewinsky story, so he was once right for all the pasta he throws at the wall, but no one is buying this. But he did try, and it was immediately picked up on all the right-wing blogs. And that led to this -
The FBI is investigating a possible threat against the north Louisiana teenager who was on the receiving end of suggestive e-mails from disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley, a Louisiana congressman said Tuesday.

Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, said Tuesday that the young man's life wasn't threatened, "but close to it."

"There are people out there who feel like he is the one who (accused) Foley," Alexander said. "There are some bloggers out there who sent him some ugly stuff."
The Christian values people are playing hardball. Folks should shut up, if they know what's good for them. Pages shouldn't mess with the party of God.

But even if you can threaten and intimidate any other pages from saying anything about what happened to them, you have this -
As the scandal over former congressman Mark Foley entered its sixth day, one Republican warned that there may even be further disclosures involving other politicians. "People are very, very concerned," said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "They think there are going to be more disclosures."
Other politicians, not other pages? This is not looking good.

And Fox News reports here on an internal Republican poll - they know they will now lose an additional ten seats in the House over this, and could, if their figures are right, lose fifty seats. The poll is based on the decision that Hastert does not resign as Speaker - that he stays, as seems to be the party decision, and doesn't just quit.

Sullivan, again, comments here -
And if he quits? Maybe they didn't ask that question. One aspect of this is worth further noting. The base of the GOP has been fed homophobia and gay-baiting for years now. It was partly how Rove won Ohio and the presidency. Gay-hating is integral to their machine. Now, the very homophobia these people stoked and used is suddenly turning back on them.

Part of me is distressed that the GOP could lose not because of spending recklessness, corruption, torture, big government, pork, and a hideously botched war ... but because of a sex scandal which doesn't even have (so far as we know) any actual sex. But part of me also sees the karmic payback here. They rode this tiger; now it's turning on them. And it's dinner time.
But there's a twist - the evangelical fundamentalist Republican strategist Tony Perkins has a new line - the Foley cover up was perpetrated by a secret cabal of gay GOP House members and staffers, or so he said on CBS here. Josh Marsall had already assumed this was the plan Karl Rove had - fire up the base by letting them decide it was a gay conspiracy.

David Corn, the Washington editor of The Nation and co-author of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, says he has already been given a copy of a list that's circulating in Washington, but he's not going to play that Rove game.

But there's something there, as Bill Montgomery explains in The Lavender Bund -
In my day (the '80s) we didn't have a list, but the gay GOP underground in DC did have a name, one that as far as I know the members invented for themselves: the Lavender Bund. That ironic sensibility, you know.

It was common knowledge, at least among the journalists I drank with, that certain mid-level Reagan appointees were bundists, as were some of the rising young studs in Gingrich's House insurgent movement, and a rather larger number of the conservative foot soldiers in the think tanks and on K Street. Some of the names have since appeared in print, some haven't. On the whole, though, the bund has been fairly successful at keeping the closet door closed. When the Washington Times (which wasn't exactly butch central itself) started poking around in the political and sexual dealings of lobbyist Craig Spence in the summer of 1989, the episode was hushed up fairly quickly - making it something of a role model for the strange story of Jeff/Jim Gannon/Guckert. If it wasn't for the gay press, which decided a few years ago that it was OK, or even obligatory, to out gay GOP politicians who vote against the community's interests, the closet would probably be even more crowded than it currently is.

I didn't hang with religious conservatives when I was in Washington, and I certainly don't today, but it was definitely my impression that the poobahs of the fundamentalist movement were just as aware as us reporters that the Lavender Bund existed, but tacitly, if uncomfortably, accepted it as one of the unfortunate realities of coalition politics -- or, as it's now called, "transactional lobbying."

But here's the thing: Their Biblically literate (and literal) followers don't know it, and probably aren't too happy to learn that GOP actually stands for Gays Obscured but Protected. I think that's one reason why another post-Foley conservative talking point - that the House leadership didn't crack down on him because it was afraid of appearing homophobic - was quickly recalled. Sensitivity on that score isn't exactly a Christian fundamentalist selling point.

Which is also why claiming there is some kind of secret gay cabal within the Republican Party that successfully protected Foley and sabotaged any effort to "clean up" the House is about the worst GOP defense I can possibly imagine. The fact that Perkins is trying to peddle the theory himself is more likely a sign that the fundamentalist high command realizes its own credibility is in mortal danger. Like everybody else involved, they need a scapegoat.

Of course, that doesn't mean some individual GOP politicos aren't also spreading the story to try to save their own worthless hides. But I can't believe the party propaganda machine itself would run with it. They're not that stupid.

On the other hand, if I were the ruthless, Machiavellian leader I wish the Democrats had, I'd be doing my best to subtly spread the meme far and wide. Because while the conspiracy angle is pure bunkum (unless trying to survive in an officially homophobic party qualifies as a conspiracy, in which case Anne Frank was also a conspirator), the Lavender Bund's existence is obviously real. And the longer this story goes on, and the more that comes to light about the delicate compromise that has allowed the bund and the American Taliban to coexist on Capitol Hill for going on three decades now, the more likely it is that the Republican Party, or the Christian fundamentalist movement, or both, will be turned into pillars of salt come November.
Who'd have guessed? They need these guys, which won't go down well with the base.

In any event, Hastert had taken responsibility. Poor guy. Luckily, like the rest of them, he just not any good at it.

Oh, and the same day that Hastert took personal responsibility, Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Baghdad, and told the leaders of that shaky government there that the whole thing was a mess, and it certainly wasn't our fault, so they'd better get their act together. See this clip of Wolf Blitzer and Michael Ware (in Baghdad) discussing this on CNN's Situation Room here -
Blitzer: At this point, she comes in for a few hours, a day or whatever. Into Iraq, she immediately goes to the very secure green zone. Does she really see what's happening inside Iraq? Does she leave there with a better appreciation of either the sectarian violence or the insurgency?

Ware: Of course not, Wolf. I mean you could just imagine the umbrella of security that encases someone like the Secretary of State. But I mean going to from the airport which is its own self-contained little bubble. To the green zone which is the ultimate bubble here in Iraq, I mean, U.S. Officials and contractors and all manner of people will come into six to twelve months in Iraq. But never leave the green zone. They don't know even what it's like to walk an Iraqi street. Certainly not without the shroud of heavily-armed American soldiers about them. They don't know what it's like to go to someone's home and sit and talk with them. To shop in the markets. To have blackouts. To not have water. To have the queue for benzene. Secretary Rice is so far from that reality that she couldn't possibly hope to understand it. Certainly not from fleeting visits to an artificial bubble like the green zone, Wolf?
But she tells them their country, or some reason or other, is a mess and they need to fix it NOW. They needed to take personal responsibility for this. They were no doubt too polite to argue who was responsible for what, really.

The set-up of this very public visit was obvious - when this is really gone and cannot be recovered, it won't be OUR fault. It will be their fault.

She's not much good at the responsibility thing either. But she does know it's important.

Somehow it's only important for the other folks. It's kind of an inside joke, or so it would seem.

Posted by Alan at 22:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 6 October 2006 06:25 PDT home

Saturday, 19 August 2006
Weekend Note: Making Sense of Things
Topic: Political Theory
Weekend Note: Making Sense of Things
Okay, the week ended with the president making some remarks to the press. He had met with his top people at Camp David to discuss the economy, a summit on how well things were going and how to convince the American people - whose real wages had been flat or worse for five years, unless they were top executives, and who were being pressure by ever increasing costs for healthcare and gasoline (to get to the jobs they were afraid of losing as this and that moved offshore) - that things were going just fine, and they'd get theirs sooner or late, so to speak. Many are afraid they will.

But the three wars kept coming up in the questions - the first war in Afghanistan that seems to be heating up again, the second in Iraq where things are quickly disintegrating and here's trouble on the Kurdish-Turkey border now, and the recent war in Lebanon.

The third, where the president had earlier declared Israel had won a stunning victory over Hezbollah, was the issue. No one else in the world saw it that way, not even the Israelis, where the government might fall as most think nothing was accomplished in the month-long dismantling of Lebanon - Hezbollah is doing just fine. They didn't think they'd won.

This called for some explaining, so the president said this -
The first reaction, of course, of Hezbollah and its supporters is, declare victory. I guess I would have done the same thing if I were them. But sometimes it takes people a while to come to the sober realization of what forces create stability and which don't. Hezbollah is a force of instability.
On a Friday afternoon before a long weekend no reporter was going to point out that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has previously said this -
For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East - and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course.

As mentioned in these pages, that seemed odd, saying instability is a good thing and, as she said later when we did our best to block any immediate cease-fire in the Lebanon war, this was the "birth pages" of a new Middle East, so the war was good in a lot of ways. The president had followed her lead and said much the same thing - the previous stability in the region had just made people frustrated, so they flew airplanes into three of our most iconic buildings, so we needed to shake things up and, logically, there'd be no more of that. It made little sense, but the press likes to give him the benefit of the doubt - just report what he says and don't smirk. Let the readers and viewers make of it what they will.

But these Friday remarks were funhouse stuff. Instability is good. Got it. But Hezbollah was and is a force for instability and that is, of course, bad, really bad. But Hezbollah lost the war, really, which is good, so Hezbollah can't be a force for instability any longer. That's really good. Yeah! But then we wanted instability, actually. That's how things change for the better. But then…

Just where is this going?

Bill Montgomery comments here - "The bottom line, which an odd member of the punditburo might even reach one of these days, is that this is an administration that no longer makes any sense at all - not even on the most formal, semiotic level."

Well, the public makes sense of things as best they can, and perhaps doesn't expect anything like sense for the leadership we have. After a while you just throw up your hands and give up.

The public decides what it thinks is going on, and what matters, on its own, as in this -

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found "no evidence that terrorism is weighing heavily on voters - just 2 percent cite that as the issue they most want to hear candidates discuss, far fewer than the number mentioning education, gas prices, or health care." The center continued: "And while roughly a third of Americans (35 percent) say they are very concerned that if Democrats gain control of Congress, they will weaken terrorist defenses, even more (46 percent) express great concern that Republicans will involve the U.S. in too many overseas military missions if the GOP keeps its congressional majorities."
So it doesn't matter what's said on the lawn at Camp David - things cost a lot more than ever, the pay is effectively lower, and they worry all the guys in power now are just cooking up more wars.

Perhaps the Republicans should be worried, if the polls are right - which they say they say just cannot be.

But if the polls are right, something must change. Otherwise they're gone, swept out of power.

What must be done? See Digby at Hullabaloo with Jungle Drums.

This is a long item on the only thing to do now is play the race card, and it's argued convincingly.

Way back when, at the time of Hurricane Katrina, he had written this -
There's one other little way to gin up base conservative voters that we can already see developing on the shout fest and gasbags shows. But this is one that the leakers know very well mustn't be mentioned to writers for Time magazine. They are already dusting off their old tried and true southern strategy manual and after more than 40 years it's like a favorite old song - they just started regurgitating their coded talking points without missing a beat. They'll need to. This happened deep in Red territory.

On This Weak, George Will basically said that the problem in New Orleans is that blacks fuck too much. Or rather, the problem of the "underclass" can be traced to so many "out of wedlock births." I think it's pretty clear he wasn't suggesting that abortions be made available to poor women. (If Bill Clinton thought he neutralized that line with welfare reform, he was sadly mistaken.) As far as the right is concerned, it's all about that old racist boogeyman "dependency." Last night on the McLaughlin Group, Pat Buchanan was foaming at the mouth about "the welfare state." He was in his element, getting his "we're gonna take our cities block by block" Pitchfork Pat mojo back. These are code words. They aren't about class - although they will certainly claim that's what they're talking about. These are code words for blacks.

… Immigration had already reared its ugly head out of nowhere, and now this. I believe the Republicans already see the elections of 06 and 08 as an opportunity to revert to a tried and true code saturated "law 'n order" strategy. The War on Terrorism has been losing its juice for sometime - and Iraq is nothing but an embarrassment now. It's time to go back to what works.

For those who think that we are in a post racist world because George W. Bush appointed blacks to his cabinet, think again. The modern Republican Party was built on the back of an enduring national divide on the issue of race. George Bush may not personally be racist (or more likely not know he's racist) but the party he leads has depended on it for many years. The coded language that signals tribal ID has obscured it, but don't kid yourselves. It is a party that became dominant by exploiting the deep cultural fault of the Mason-Dixon Line.
And the current item adds this -
… then there's Senator George Felix "Macaca" Allen. He's just a stone racist, but I think it's worth noting nonetheless that he knew he could play the race card among his supporters in "the real world" of Virginia. You didn't have to know what "macaca" meant to know what he was saying (and I would guess that more than a few of his supporters know very well what it meant.) His face in that video shows a barely leashed anger, the tight smile, the sarcastic edge - and his supporters all got the point, laughing and tittering at his nasty little aside. Nobody has asked what purpose it served for Allen to point out this guy videotaping the event in the first place. I assume Allen's supporters thought he was with the campaign not with Webb, and even if they did I doubt they would have thought much about it. But Allen, either out of personal pique or political calculation (or both) brought this lone dark-skinned person to the attention of his audience and identified him with the opposition. He did that for a reason and I suspect it's because the word has gone forth that race is on the table in this election. (The fact that he's even more brain-dead than Bush is what did him in - he pulled it on a guy who was videotaping him. Jesus.)

This is happening because the Republicans are on the run and they have to pull out all the stops to GOTV [get out the vote]. Mostly, however, I think it's an attempt to neutralize Katrina. Let's face it, there is nothing the Republicans can do to improve their image when it comes to their performance last September. It was a national disgrace and we are going to relive the whole awful scene in living color on the first anniversary. Their only hope is to stoke enough under-the-radar racial resentment to mitigate the damage. I suspect they have been thinking about this for the past year and carefully laying out all the little racist signposts we've been seeing over the past few months.

Katrina remains very damaging for Republicans unless they can find some way to kick in the racist lizard brain. They are very good at tickling the primitive, tribal side of human nature - in fact, that's all they are good at. Subtly and not so subtly playing the race card is one of their specialties and I think it's pretty much all they have left in their hand to play this time out. (Immigration is another racial card for this cycle although I think it's really aimed at '08.)

… And it remains to be seen whether they can find a way to touch once again that deep, unexamined part of the American psyche that Katrina revealed - not hatred, but fear of African Americans. Fear, after all, is the GOP's stock in trade.

I doubt it will work. I think we have come too far for racism of that kind to last beyond a single moment. It reared its hideous head briefly during the crisis but I don't think Rove can bring it back with standard racist appeals. His problem is that it's all he's got.

Keep your eyes open, though, for signs of this phenomenon. It's clear to me that this is the GOP subtext of the election. It's quite amazing when you think about it. Bush ran as the Republican who was beyond racial politics, known for his outreach to Hispanics and African Americans. But when it comes down to it, racism is really the heart and soul of the modern Republican party, the essence of their electoral strategy and the underlying sentiment that drives their appeals to "tradition" and "religion." We'll see if they can crank up the old macaca machine and make it work for them one more time.
So when things don't make sense, or cannot be explained without some rolling their eyes, some smirking, some laughing out loud - and most just walking away and thinking it might be time for a new leadership team - you play the last thing you've got, the last card in your hand.

Will the Ace of Spades slapped on the table win the hand this time? It seems it's all they've got.

Posted by Alan at 17:48 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006 17:50 PDT home

Thursday, 17 August 2006
Conservatism: What's God Got To Do With It?
Topic: Political Theory
Conservatism: What's God Got To Do With It?
Yes, years ago Tina Turner had a big hit with "What's love got to do with it?" - and then she went off to live in the south of France in a sort of Josephine Baker move. The song (lyrics here) touched a chord in people. It's that cynical, disillusioned thing - everything you call love is physical and the rest is emotional crap. You just need to know the emotional stuff really is powerful and unavoidable - but it's crap nonetheless - and all it does is hurt you. So get over it. The lyric suggests that last part is hard.

The political analog now may be the dialog playing out in conservative American political circles, where, as the Republicans seem to be in deeper and deeper trouble as the midterm elections approach, everyone on that side of things is wondering just what went wrong.

One of the ideas floating around is that the conservative movement may have just gotten too mixed up in religion, at least in the evangelical, fundamentalist, born-again, anti-science kind of religion.
In terms of conservative political governance, the question is actually being raised. What does God have to do with conservative values - the values that inform how things should be run? How did He get in there? And should He be in there at all? What up with that?

The Tina Turner in this case is Heather MacDonald, dropping her bomb in the August 28, 2006 issue of The American Conservative with this, a major article arguing that the conservatives should make some room for the skeptics in their midst, those for whom their God and their religion is a private matter, and really kind of irrelevant to how the country should be run. And some might even be atheists. Is there room for them - or is that heresy? Do we have a "big tent" here, or just a tent meeting?

MacDonald basically suggests the conservative God business is rather silly, or at least not very logical. She notes that when Attorney General John Ashcroft left office in November 2004 he carefully and sincerely thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11 - they did their job and that made all the difference. But then he said it really wasn't them - the real credit belonged to God. If you thought about it, it ultimately must really have been "God's solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland." Well, maybe that's more faith without evidence than it is "thought" - but you see what he was getting at. God did the job, and there were no more attacks.

MacDonald is having none of it -
Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others - count me among them - feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?
The answer that "God's funny that way" just won't do. She applies logic and you see the problem. Just what is the God up to?

She senses nonsense here. Ashcroft and the like have made the movement seem just stupid, although she doesn't put it quite that bluntly. She merely thinks maybe folks with different views could make things better for the conservative side. She considers herself a "skeptical conservative" - and she'd like back in the movement.

Here's her main argument -
Skeptical conservatives - one of the Right's less celebrated subculture - are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions" on his belief in "the Almighty" and in the Almighty's "great gifts" to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty's actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless.
Well, the alternative is to base your policies, foreign or domestic, on the best facts available as to what happening, carefully thinking through the alternative actions available, and using your best judgment to decide what to do, or not do. Of course that kind of bypasses God, and He might be offended. Still, that's how things used to be done.

And here's the kicker -
The presumption of religious belief - not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it - does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith - nor do we need it to be conservative.

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or "natural law." It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, "Washington's God." Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.
Of course that's just a subset of the argument, so often made, that an atheist and agnostic cannot be "moral" - a claim as old as the hills, made over and over in spite of the clear evidence of quite good and moral nonbelievers in every culture and throughout history.

As for what has been said over and over for the last six years - what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith, "as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted" - she's just not buying it.

There's this argument -
Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer's. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.

It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today's religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.
Now that's getting down to basics. The evidence is that secular government makes things better, and faith-based government makes things worse. When you think about the why and how of how the Untied States came to be, she almost makes those excluding her and the other skeptics seem, well, un-American.

Her wrap-up -
A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America's antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too.
As you see, she's a trouble-maker. This kind of was heresy, and it spilled over onto the pages of the National Review, in The Corner, where the hot topics of the day are discussed.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for the magazine - who also writes for The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The New Republic and First Things - was all over her case, saying there were so few non-believers on the conservative side that they just weren't worth worrying about. The religious conservatives were the ones who really mattered - so be a nice kid and just go away. She was just an oddball.

And her response -
Plenty of conservatives have arrived at those core values through close observation of human society and history, by plumbing the wisdom of philosophers and poets, or simply through a sound upbringing. It is just not the case that only Bible study could lead people to conservative, disciplined lives."
But he was having none of that. He is, after all, the author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, with a blurb form Ann Coulter on the cover. You get the idea. He's the deep religious thinker on the conservative right (see his interview with Steven Colbert here where Colbert urges him to write the sequel - "The Party That Eats Their Own Children.")

It seems the battle lines are drawn - skeptics versus believers, death versus life, reason versus faith. There is no middle ground. Read your Bible.

Here MacDonald responds to the very odd Jonah Goldberg (you remember, his mother, Lucianne Goldberg, advised her friend Linda Tripp to secretly tape her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky in order to protect herself from reprisals from the Clinton Administration) -
I agree with Jonah that the truth claims of religion are "slippery." Yet I hear them made all the time. A recent article on The Da Vinci Code in The American Spectator stated that it was a matter of "historical fact" that Jesus was born of a virgin and ascended to heaven after the crucifixion. I simply don't know what to make of that statement or its appearance in a powerful, justly respected journal of conservative opinion. It does not conform to what I thought was a common understanding of "historical facts." Ditto when the president claims that freedom is God's gift to humanity. He is not talking here about free will. I see little evidence in the Bible that God advocated the democratic government that we are bringing to (or imposing on) Iraq, not to mention the gender quotas that we fixed for the Iraqi National Assembly. The Bible seems to be relatively easy about slavery, patriarchy, and despotic tribal leadership; its concerns lie elsewhere. And if the freedom that we have created in the West is indeed God's gift, it sure took a long time for us to open it. If it turns out that our conception of political freedom is in fact a human creation growing out of very specific cultural soil, that may explain why it is not blossoming forth as we expected it to following the invasion of Iraq.
Heather is not playing nice.

In all that dialog at The Corner the oddest may have been this from Andrew Stuttaford -
Conservatism is being changed (to use a more neutral word) by the greater role that an explicitly religious activism is playing within it. Specifically, it's easy to discern a strain of conservatism emerging (and within the GOP and the administration it has emerged a long way) that more resembles European Christian Democracy (or, in its more robust forms, Gaullism) than the small government, skeptical, 'leave me alone' conservatism that brought so many into the fold and which (for what it's worth) I, for one, prefer.
So the problem isn't religion at all, it's that Bush is turning into a Gaullist? Oh, the irony. The conservatives want to turn us into religiously-centered big-government France, circa 1959 or something. That's amusing, non?

The odd man out here of course is the devout Catholic but quite gay, HIV-positive but old-fashioned conservative, Andrew Sullivan, who says this -
It may be that turning conservatism into a religiously-centered Southern-based, big-government movement makes electoral sense. I doubt it. But my objection to it is not that it hinders Republican dominance, but that I disagree with it. I believe in a separation of church and state, balanced budgets, low taxes, law that is as neutral as possible between competing moral and religious claims, and a "leave-me-alone" presumption when it comes to government power. And I'm sick of being told that excludes me from being conservative any more. I venture to suggest I'm not the only one.

No, there are many who feel that way. They're Democrats. You know, they're the folks who believe on looking at the available and quite empirical evidence at hand and figuring things out - what is best to do or not do. Most are quite religious, but they don't push it, as it's not what matters in, say, environment policy, or healthcare policy, or dealing with trade matters, or with those out to harm us. God may want is to work these things out ourselves, after all, using our brains.

It's that Enlightenment thing - Jefferson's God was the deist God so popular in the Enlightenment, the watchmaker who set things in motion and moved on to whatever was next, assuming we'd work things out down here ourselves just fine without Him.

Well, Sullivan endorsed Kerry last time around, so who knows?

He is, however, writing a new book - The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. The first part should be interesting, the second part quite Quixotic, as in noble, hopeless but silly battles, tilting at windmills and all that.

One chapter of this upcoming book is supposed to be on what he calls the "fundamentalist psyche," about which he says this -

I don't think you can understand the actions of this administration - i.e. make them make internal sense - without understanding the depth of the president's fundamentalist mindset. He's a fundamentalist convert and an alcoholic. Faith is the one thing that rescued him from a life of chaos. So fundamentalist faith itself - regardless of its content - is integral to his entire worldview. And fundamentalism cannot question; it is not empirical; it is the antithesis of skepticism. Hence this allegedly "conservative" president attacking conservatism at its philosophical core: its commitment to freedom, to doubt, to constitutional process, to prudence, to limited government, balanced budgets and the rule of law. Faith is to the new conservatism is what ideology was to the old leftism: an unquestioned orthodoxy from which all policy flows.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, however, do not strike me as the same. They're just bureaucratic brutalists, thrilled to have complete sanction to do as they please because they have the mandate from the leader-of-faith. Bush and Rove provide the fundamentalist voters; Cheney and Rummy get on with the war they want to wage. If they have to condescend to Bush's recently discovered faith in democratization, they'll humor him, while they bomb, wiretap and torture along what they think is the only path to security. They are enabled by the Christianist; but they're just plain old "bomb 'em to the stone-age" reactionaries.

Sooner or later this guy moves to the other side. He joins the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Count on it. He just needs to understand how reasonable the other side can be.

Ah, maybe he isn't coming across. Reasonableness is, as it always has been, relative. At least the other side gives it a go now and then, and doesn't dismiss the whole concept.

In any event, this flare-up inside the conservative movement is interesting. There's something authoritarian in it all, as John Dean pointed out in his new book, and cruelly exclusive. But at least they're organized and unified. They're not Democrats.

It's just too bad they roped in God on their side. It makes you wonder why He agreed.


Posted by Alan at 22:55 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006 19:18 PDT home

Wednesday, 26 April 2006
The conceptual flaw in the
Topic: Political Theory

The conceptual flaw in the 'intimidation model' for getting what you want...

In these pages last November, around the time the president gave his Veterans Day speech and John Murtha, the previously hawkish congressman from Pennsylvania, caused a firestorm by suggesting we ought to get at least our troops out of Iraq and do this Iraq thing a different way, in Things Coming to a Head there was a reference to the third volume of the C. S. Lewis "Perelandra" trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), where one of the characters says this -
If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family - anything you like - at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.
Back then, Thursday, November 17, 2005, seemed like a day full of "the possibilities of even apparent neutrality" diminishing really fast. (Oh yes, as before, you can learn about the CS Lewis book here, if you're into theological science fiction.)

But Lewis was right - elbow room disappearing is a continuous process as things get "sharper and harder" day by day, month after month, and in America today too, as if the current administration wants it to be so, in some kind of "final showdown" way. Call it governing by confrontation, and in foreign policy, replacing diplomacy with carefully stage-managed public conflict.

Maybe it's a Texas thing. You get done what you need to get done with your squinty-eyed look and threats, and sometimes you shoot.

The problem is, as we see with Iran - Iran Threatens To Strike At US Targets If Attacked. If you want to bring something to a head the other side sometimes doesn't back down like they're supposed to.

And now we have a domestic example. The president's opponents have a large bill of particulars, from telling us we had to war because of the nuclear and chemical and biological weapons we could prove Iraq had in stock, which turned out not to exist, and now we know all the warnings that they didn't exist were dismissed, to the various scandals, almost too many to mention, to the claims the president has the right to ignore this law or that, to the far less than half-hearted response to Hurricane Katrina, to the Dubai ports deal, and so on and so forth. The president's opponents - rather than caving in to all the claims that being bothered by any of this means that they just "hate America" and are, in effect, "on the side of the terrorists" - are not rolling over and seem to be willing to say "not so fast." Two can play that game.

There seems to be a basic, conceptual flaw in the "intimidation model" for getting what you want. Projecting power and refusing to compromise were, we were told, what would win the day in Iraq and cow North Korea into dropping their push to build nuclear weapons, and what, we are being told now, will force Iran to back down from their efforts to do that too. It doesn't work, and there's no evidence it ever has. But we are told it always works, and that it's the only solution to get what we want.

Anyone can see it has the opposite effect, but we are told that's just because we just haven't been intimidating enough, so far, and the bad guys sense some of us want to compromise, so that dilutes the effect. So we must show more resolve, and the thoughtful and questioning should just shut up, as they're ruining everything. Well, maybe so. There's always a first time for everything. In the history of the world this "intimidation model" has never worked even once. But it sounds good, if you're from Texas.

As a grand experiment in redefining who we are and how the world works, it is interesting in a theoretical way. It's something new, and captured in the core doctrine of "preemptive war" - we reserve the right to wage war on any nation on earth that sometime in the future might act in a way that threatens us, and we'll use our own secret evidence of what they might do one day and no one else's. The neoconservatives and their easily manipulated and somewhat clueless president really do have bold ideas. Confusing "bold" with "sound" seems to be at issue, of course. It's an easy mistake to make.

As for the purely domestic example of "push-back" that really isn't supposed to happen, there's new talk of impeachment. It seems someone looked in the user manual, the constitution, and found that the framers, in assigning rights to the states to balance the powers of the federal government, added a curious provision - if both houses of any state legislature vote that the president should be impeached, congress must take it up and hold hearings. And there's a move in both Illinois and Vermont to do just that, as noted here in the Boston Globe. The modern conservative movement made its bones on "states rights" - fighting integration and fluoridation and nationally-mandated Daylight Savings Time and all the rest - and the irony here is delicious. Not that anything will come of it. Vermont may be able to pull it off, maybe, but in Washington the Republican-controlled House will schedule the required hearings for sometime in 2025, or later. Still, it's push-back, Texas-style, from Vermont.

And then there's this, a discussion of a short speech that Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia gave on the floor when everyone came back from their two-week Easter break -
"Despite more than two centuries of pressures to change and 'modernize,' the Senate, as an institution, remains remarkably similar to the body created at the Constitutional Convention in 1787," Byrd said. "It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent - yes. You said it. You better read that again in the Constitution. It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent to presidents on nominations and on treaties, serving as a court of impeachment. You better believe it, Mr. President. The Senate can send you home. You better believe that. If the House impeaches you, the Senate will try you."
So the old coot from West Virginia talks Texan too. The president a few years back, when asked what he thought about all the folks fighting us in Iraq long after we had "won" and whether we could handle that without increasing the number of troops we had there, famously said there was no problem - "Bring it on." Two can play that game.

But the other side is supposed to back down, isn't it? You can almost hear the befuddled anger at the White House. What's wrong with these people? Don't they know how things work?

What could this mean?

It could mean that the days of "shock and awe" as both a military tactic, and a political one, seem to be passing. Yeah, we captured Baghdad brilliantly and the regime of Saddam Hussein fell quite nicely, but "shock and awe" are not very effective long-term tools. There's resentment, and blow-back. The neoconservative might claim it's just not fair, as the tactic is so impressive. Maybe we should do more of it and see if it still works. But it just doesn't. That's life. And on the political side, the bold and audacious radical remake of who we are and how things work, with its own "shock and awe," turns out to be only useful in the short term. Either way you create insurgents - a nasty army of the resentful. And they fight back.

So C. S. Lewis was onto something - things come to a point, "getting sharper and harder." The process continues.

How does the president respond now?

For that you might go read Sidney Blumenthal on how he sees the White House.

The passion of George W. Bush
"The president doesn't care that he is reviled. He is a martyr, and someday all will see his glory. Meanwhile, he's got Karl doing his dirty work."
April 27, 2006, SALON.COM

That opens with this -
The urgent dispatch of Karl Rove to the business of maintaining one-party rule in the midterm elections is the Bush White House's belated startle reflex to its endangerment. Besieged by crises of his own making, plummeting to ever lower depths in the polls week after week, Bush has assigned his political general to muster dwindling forces for a heroic offensive to break out of the closing ring. If the Democrats gain control of the House or Senate they will launch a thousand subpoenas to establish the oversight that has been abdicated by the Republican Congress.

In his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in 2004, the "war president" spoke of "greatness" and "resolve" and repeatedly promised "a safer world" and "security," and compared himself "to a resolute president named Truman." Afterward, Bush declared he had had his "accountability moment"; further debate was unnecessary; the future was settled.

But Rove's elaborate design for Republican rule during the second term has collapsed under the strain of his grandiosity. In 2004, Rove galvanized "the base" (ironically, "al-Qaida" in Arabic) through ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics.
This is followed by a great deal of discussion of Rove, but gets interesting when it gets beyond that one man -
For Rumsfeld and Cheney the final days of the Bush administration are the endgame. They cannot expect positions in any future White House. Since the Nixon White House, when counselor Rumsfeld and his deputy Cheney watched the self-destruction of the president, they have plotted to reach the point where they would impose the imperial presidency that Nixon was thwarted from doing. Both men held ambitions to become president themselves. The Bush years have been their opportunity, their last one, to run a presidency. Through the agency of the son of one of their colleagues from the Ford White House, George H.W. Bush (whom President Ford considered but passed over for his vice president and chief of staff, giving the latter job to Cheney), they have enabled their notion of executive power. But the fulfillment of their idea of presidential power is steadily draining the president of strength. Their 30-year-long project on behalf of autocracy has merely produced monumental incompetence.

Yet Rumsfeld and Cheney do not really care. Bad public opinion polls do not concern them. Their ambition is near its end. They want to use their remaining time accumulating as much power in an unaccountable executive as possible.
And as for the president -
The more beleaguered Bush becomes, the more he is flattered by his advisors with comparisons to great men of history whose foresight and courage were not always appreciated in their own times. Abraham Lincoln is one favorite. Another is Harry Truman, who established the framework of Cold War policy but left office during the Korean War deeply unpopular with poll ratings sunk in the 20s. Lately, Bush sees himself in the reflected light of Winston Churchill, bravely standing against appeasers. "Never give in - never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in," Churchill said in 1941 as Britain stood alone against the Nazis. "Bush tells his out-of-town visitors to think of how history will judge his administration twenty years hence and not to worry about setbacks in Iraq," conservative columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave writes.

... The greater the stress the more Bush denies its cause. In his end time he has risen above his policy and is transcending politics. In his life as president he has decided his scourging is his sanctification. Bush will be a martyr resurrected. The future will unfold properly for all the wisdom of his decisions, based on fervent faith, upheld by his holy devotion. Criticism and unpopularity only confirm to him his bravery and his critics' weakness. Being reviled is proof of his righteousness. Inevitably, decades hence, people will grasp his radiant truth and glory. Such is the passion of George W. Bush.
Could this be so? Is this where ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics end up, with an apparent failure muttering to himself that nothing in the polls matter, that most of the world's nations now at best don't trust America but more generally see America as both foolish and dangerous doesn't matter, that the enormous federal deficit and massive trade deficits don't matter, that the scandals don't matter - history will prove him right? "The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder." Cold comfort. One wonders if uses the "history will prove me right" line on his father, the president who decided against taking Baghdad.

And the hits just keep coming.

Wednesday, April 26, was the surprise testimony of Karl Rove, this for the for the fifth time before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. It seems the "intimidation model" may not have worked so well there, having the team go after her husband, who revealed embarrassing things, by leaking to the press that his wife was a CIA agent and set the whole thing up to get him out of the house. Now that gets sticky.

The Washington Post has details of what it was all about here, but it's very complicated. Kevin Drum untangles it all nicely here, or you might go to a famous defense attorney here. It comes down to Rove probably bargaining for lesser charges, but being charged none the less, and Fitzgerald works his way up through Stephen Hadley to Vice President Cheney. This wasn't supposed to happen. When you're indicted for a crime you sort of have to leave office. Who will be left?

Then there's this - "Investigators for the European Parliament said Wednesday that data gathered from air safety regulators showed that the CIA had flown 1,000 undeclared flights over Europe since 2001, sometimes stopping on the Continent to transport terrorism suspects kidnapped inside the European Union to countries using torture."

From Reuters, this -
A senior EU lawmaker on Wednesday backed accusations the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had kidnapped and illegally detained terrorism suspects on EU territory and flown them to countries that used torture.

"The CIA has, on several occasions, clearly been responsible for kidnapping and illegally detaining alleged terrorists on the territory of (EU) member states, as well as for extraordinary renditions," Claudio Fava said in his first interim report of the European Parliament's probe into the suspected CIA abuses.
No one was supposed to know, and the cooperating people within certain governments were supposed to keep quiet. Too many things are coming out.

Luckily a good number of Americans think kidnapping and torture are just fine, as these people aren't like us but merely depraved evil devils. We are the people who did the Salem witch trails in the seventeenth century. We get it. Who cares what the Europeans think? And whatever it was we did it was only to keep us safe, and that's our right, and we're the good guys. Right.

But there are other things.

Will people, angry over the high price of gasoline these days, put two and two together and figure out that if you go to war with a major oil producing country you take maybe thirty percent of the world's oil out of production for a time, and in this case the time has stretched to over three years. That might make for tight supplies and, as a result, high prices. World demand is high and the insurgents keep blowing up the pipelines in Iraq, and making the rebuilding of the refineries and ports damned hard. They were supposed to greet us as liberators and we'd be out in six months, as Rumsfeld said, with Ahmed Chalabi running the place for us. Should have happened, but didn't. If people think about the crude removed from the market, as the result of the long war, as they're now calling it, and see the enormous profits from Exxon-Mobile and the rest, and think about the president and vice president coming from the oil industry... this could be trouble.

Well, at least there's a new White House press spokesman, that fellow from Fox News, Tony Snow. A well-spoken and well-liked new press secretary, energetic and photogenic, can explain it all.

What's to say about that? He has a hard job, of course. Yes, he comes straight from pro-Bush Fox News, which is more of a political movement than a news network, but that hardly matters. The White House would hardly pick Dan Rather or Bill Moyers, and Snow has been blunt at times in the past. He'll do. He's rather pleasant. He has a nice smile and a good sense of humor. And he will tell us what?

Walter Shapiro imagines that here -
Question: Karl Rove is making his fifth appearance in front of the grand jury today. And I'm wondering how you would characterize its effect on the administration? Is it a disruption, a distraction?

Press Secretary: Actually, it's a great tension release mechanism around here. We all have a great laugh imagining Karl sharing a cell with Tom DeLay and Kenny Lay. Of course, we try not to make those jokes when Karl's around. But then we don't see much of him, since he's constantly with his lawyers or sitting in a darkened office muttering about running off to Tahiti to write a McKinley biography.

Question: What do you think the impact is going to be at the gas pump of relaxing environmental rules, and how soon do you think that will show up?

Press Secretary: Is the Twelfth of Never soon enough for you? If the inky-dinky spider fell down the water spout, we'd use that as an excuse to relax environmental rules. But seriously, no president - Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative - can do much about gas prices in the short run. It's like King Canute trying to command the tides.

Question: Has the president been briefed at all on the CIA's firing of Mary McCarthy for allegedly leaking classified information? Does he have any reaction to this?

Press Secretary: Look, it's not coincidental that the most leak-obsessed president in history has named the most leak-obsessed CIA director. It's also not coincidental that the first victim of this internal investigation happens to be somebody who donated $2,000 to John Kerry in 2004. As far as the president is concerned personally, he's totally in favor of finding out the truth. As long as it doesn't come too close to the Oval Office.

Question: How would the president assess his final 1,000 days in office?

Press Secretary: Like a prison sentence.

Question: Does the president support Senator Clinton's move to have the generals who are calling for Secretary Rumsfeld's ouster testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee?

Press Secretary: This administration rarely supports Hillary Clinton on anything, of course. But we would even let Laura and Barbara Bush testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee if it would convince Don Rumsfeld to quit. In case you haven't noticed, we are at an impasse here. One of President Bush's most admirable human qualities is his reluctance to fire anyone. One of Secretary Rumsfeld's least admirable qualities is his refusal to take a hint. I'll let all of you in the press room connect the dots.

Question: What does the president plan to do differently between now and November to get Republicans elected or reelected?

Press Secretary: Raise money in private for any Republican who asks and avoid appearing in public with any Republican who has serious opposition. If you've got another strategic idea for us, please call Karl. That is, if you can find him.

Question: The president made a phone call to Canadian Prime Minister Harper on the weekend? Can you tell us the contents of that call?

Press Secretary: About all I know is that the conversation was short. Very short. With all the problems facing President Bush, do you think he cares about the mood of Moose Jaw?

Question: Just a personal question, just wondering how you're feeling today with this transition, what your plans are for the future? What do you want to do when you grow up?

Press Secretary: I feel envious of my predecessor Ari Fleischer for so wisely getting out in time. I feel pity for my successor who doesn't fully understand how hard it is in this White House to be allowed to say anything publicly. I feel a trifle bitter that the president I have so loyally served set me up to fail in this job. I feel hopeful that I will be rewarded in the private sector for all the abuse I have taken in this room. And, most of all, I feel sorry for all of you in the press corps who somehow cling to the illusion that asking a White House press secretary - any press secretary - a snarky question at a televised briefing is an exercise in uncovering the truth.
Well, it will be an interesting charade.

But the fact remains, there was a time "when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp" and "there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous." Of course "the whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."

That may be the grand experiment in governing by intimidation. And it's too bad it just doesn't work.

Posted by Alan at 22:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006 07:43 PDT home

Saturday, 1 April 2006
On Taking Things Too Literally, and Too Seriously
Topic: Political Theory

On Taking Things Too Literally, and Too Seriously

The administration says things. The idea is that we're supposed to believe them. Why bother rehashing what turned out to be not so - the reasons we had to go to war, the threat of the WMD, the ties between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and that the whole thing would pay for itself, we'd be greeted at liberators and be out in a trice and all the rest? We didn't want this war but that man just wouldn't the inspectors in so we had to take over the place? The difference between what is said and what turns out to be so gets discussed enough. It makes people wary. The polling numbers show that. The president's approval ratings are at record lows, in Nixon territory, and the disapproval ratings on just about everything are abysmal. Pew polling shows the one-word descriptors for the president now include "idiot" and "incompetent." Yeah, yeah. Things are spinning downward.

But something is shifting. There may be new consultants at the White House trying a new tactic to stop the self-reinforcing spiral. The stance now seems to be that the problem is with how people interpret what they hear, not with what was said.

On April Fools Day we get this -
BLACKBURN, England (CNN) -- One day after Condoleezza Rice said the United States made possibly "thousands" of tactical mistakes in the war against Iraq, the secretary of state says she was speaking "figuratively, not literally."
The trail run of the strategy seems to have been in January, just after the president delivered the State of the Union Address, with this -
WASHINGTON - One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.
You see what's happening here, the new strategy? The problem is we weren't paying enough attention in high school English class - one must learn the difference between literal statements and those which fall under the rhetorical devices known as metaphor, simile, allegory and the like. We've stupidly taken as literal what was meant as symbol. They were being, if you will, almost poetic, while we were the plodding dullards confused by thinking the poet was actually talking about the rose or the blackbirds.

The new line seems to come down to this - "How could you people be so dumb!" It's an attack on our simple-minded narrowness. We just don't "get" it.

We just don't get the subtleties, and this turns the tables on all those who thought the president was a dull frat-boy who didn't understand much, didn't read much, didn't want to know much and was incapable of coherently articulating what he was thinking, or even incapable of thinking coherently. Those people now are on notice. They are the simple-minded literalists who have little if any appreciation of complex thought and how language works. Back to high school English class for them - reading comprehension would be a place to start.

The man and his subordinates are the grownups, who give us these complex and subtle truths. Is it their fault the critics are the dullards in the back row who, way back when, sullenly wondered why they had to read Shakespeare when none of it makes any sense?

These new consultants, if there are such, are really good. It's a very clever turning the tables on those who keep nailing the administration on this or that - "You thought that statement was literal? What's your problem?"

The idea that the American public should think more clearly and recognize metaphor, and be able to differentiate between sign and symbol, is interesting. There's an enormous block of ordinary people who just hated all that stuff in high school English. There may be a backlash.

Or maybe it'll work. Who knows?

But of all the recent political maneuvering, this has more of a whiff of desperation than most all else.

It seems we're too subtle for you? That may not fly.

But what should you take literally?

Senator Feingold has introduced a motion to censure the president. Friday the 31st there were the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on that idea. There's the 1978 law, amended many a time and again quite recently, that states, without ambiguity, that if for some reason you need to secretly listen in on the telephone calls of American citizens, or read their mail, electric or paper, or any of that sort of thing, in that case you should get a warrant where you show why you need to do that. There's a special secret court just for that purpose. And if you're in a jam you can do the eavesdropping or whatever and get the approval after the fact. The president a few years ago authorized the NSA to do all that with the warrants. And he continues to renew the authorization every forty-five days. And he knows it's against the law, but his team says the law need not be followed, because he may have the choice, as commander-in-chief, to ignore any law that he thinks hobbles his efforts to get that bad guys. And there are all those video clips of him saying, as the NSA program was humming along, that no American need worry about the government spying on them, as if he ordered that he would always, every time, get a warrant from the secret court.

Now this seems straight-forward. He says he broke the law, is continuing to break the law, and will continue to do so - the congress can pass all the laws they want, but he decides which ones he should follow and at what times (which cannot be revealed for security considerations) and for what reasons (which cannot be revealed for security considerations). And he flat out said, publicly, that he would never do such at thing, as he was doing such a thing. So, Feingold suggests, those who passed the law in question should put down a marker, a censure in this case (with no real legal force) to note they passed a law that applied to the executive branch and the president said fine, but such things mean little if anything. Heck. What's the point in passing any law if one guy, the president in this case, says he alone is above any law he feels is getting in his way. And, oh yeah, he lied about all this to everyone. The censure is little more than a you-shouldn't-have-done-that place marker. Will anyone join him in saying those who make the laws have some purpose in what they do?

No. All but two of his fellow Democrats are running for the hills. The Republicans are somewhere between bemused and outraged, but like the hearings so they can expose Feingold as either an overly ambitious fool who want to be president, are a tight-ass who takes things, like the specifics of the law and the constitution, and himself, far too seriously. It's war, or something like it. Russ needs to loosen up.

As the New York Times covered the hearings here, you just cut the president some slack, because he means well, and that should be good enough for anyone. The Watergate guy, John Dean, who said this was worse than Nixon and the break-ins and all the rest, was full of crap -
Several Republicans argued that whatever the legal status of the spying program, it did not deserve punishment because, unlike Nixon, Mr. Bush had acted in good faith.

"This is apples and oranges," Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told Mr. Dean. "Anybody who believes that Richard Nixon was relying on some inherent-authority argument is recreating history."
Of course that's bull, as that's just what they claimed in 1969 (see this), but who reads old Time Magazine articles? For a full discussion of the illogic of the "good faith" see Glenn Greenwald's site here. The item is detailed but contains this - "... even if Bush's motives are as pure as the driven snow, it doesn't justify knowingly violating the law, at least outside of very extreme and short-term emergency scenarios. The viability of our system of constitutional government depends on the willingness of our leaders, particularly the president, to take seriously the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances embodied in our Constitution."

Well, he wasn't willing to take that stuff seriously, or putting it another way, people should loosen up. They take the law constitution far too literally.

And there's this, a discussion of Republican senator Orrin Hatch saying that "censure" itself was unconstitutional, even though he said precisely the opposite thing during the Clinton impeachment hearings. Whatever. Loosen up. It's just that law.

Glenn Greenwald on that -
This seems to be an accurate summary of the evolution of Sen. Hatch's views of constitutional law:

(1) The Congress has the right to restrict the President's eavesdropping activities, and to make certain eavesdropping activities a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

(2) Therefore, Hatch votes several times for FISA.

(3) Every President since then complies with the law - including President Reagan and Bush 41 during the height of the Cold War - and no Administration or member of Congress challenge its constitutionality.

(4) George Bush gets caught violating FISA by engaging in the precise eavesdropping which FISA criminalizes.

(5) Hatch says that the Leader did nothing wrong because the law which the Leader violated - the same one Hatch voted to enact and to amend repeatedly - is unconstitutional.

Hatch has been in the Congress for more than 30 years. He was in Congress when FISA was enacted 28 years ago. He never once claimed that it was unconstitutional in any way - until it was revealed that George Bush has been deliberately violating the law. Then he suddenly said that Congress had no right to pass that law, so after 28 years, the whole thing is all just totally invalid.
Well, that is curious. But times change.

And there was the idea that this wasn't about the law at all. It was about the man. Senator Sessions said this - "Our President is an honest man. A candid man, a strong leader. And the people of America know it."

Good enough? People should loosen up?

The best the Democrats not with Feingold could come up with was this from the rising star, young senator Obama from Illinois, in a letter to a constituent -
Thank you for writing about Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to censure President Bush. I understand your strong feelings on this issue. While I share your frustration and anger, I do not think censure is justified at this time.

I agree with Senator Feingold that the Administration's attitude toward congressional oversight and the FISA law has been cavalier and arrogant. We are a nation of laws, and those laws should be applied to all of us, from humblest citizen to the president of the United States. No president should be allowed to knowingly and willing flout our laws, and I believe the President exceeded his authority with his domestic wiretapping program. The justifications offered - that the president possesses inherent presidential authority under Article II, or was granted that authority in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force - seem to contradict prior precedent and our constitutional design.

But my and Senator Feingold's view is not unanimous. Some constitutional scholars and lower court opinions support the president's argument that he has inherent authority to go outside the bounds of the law in monitoring the activities of suspected terrorists. The question is whether the president understood the law and knowingly flaunted it, or whether he and his aides, in good faith, interpreted their authority more broadly than I and others believe the law allows. Ultimately, this debate must be resolved by the courts.
So the question is whether the president understood the law and knowingly flaunted it, or he really is just a good guy doing his best. Obama thinks the former, but won't touch this with a ten foot pole. Let someone else decide.

Ah well, the free ride continues.

You see the pattern. All this business is coming down to telling the lawmakers and the country they all take things too literally and far too seriously. Got to stay loose, after all.

That actually may work. Americans don't much like details - "Just get it done."

That's not a bad thing to base your political strategy on. You can get away with murder, literally.

Posted by Alan at 18:40 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 1 April 2006 18:46 PST home

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