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"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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Tuesday, 7 March 2006
Reading the Tea Leaves
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Reading the Tea Leaves

Reading tea leaves? The lateral outgrowths from a plant stem that are typically a flattened, expanded, variably-shaped greenish organ, constituting a unit of the foliage, and functioning primarily in food manufacture by photosynthesis? No, no. Political tea leaves (or the alternative, leafs) - as of late in the day, Tuesday, the seventh day of March of this odd year.

So how's the struggle going, the one between the president and his administration on one side of the issues, and, on the other side, the congress, the courts, the American people (according to all the polling on most all national issues)? Who is likely to come out on top?

Late in the day the USA Patriot Act was renewed, finally. A win for this president. The Associated Press has the story here, but say the whole business was a cliffhanger (odd term). But it passed, "extending a centerpiece of the war on terrorism at President Bush's urging after months of political combat over the balance between privacy rights and the pursuit of potential terrorists."

It breezed through the House and that's that - but earlier there was a Senate filibuster that forced the guys in the White House to accept some "curbs."


Now, if you get a court-approved subpoena for information in some sort of terrorist investigation you have the right to challenge the earlier requirement that you must not tell anyone anything about any of what's going on. So you can tell your wife you're worried.

And now there's no longer a requirement that "an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators." So if you seek legal advice you don't have to explain it to the feds and identify your lawyer, so the feds can go after him or her. Hey, anyone, even a public defender, who represents someone suspected of terrorism is probably a terrorist too, right? That assumption was removed.

And the library thing was straightened out - librarians don't have to provide the feds with records of who reads what and tell no one they have given the feds a record of what you like to read. They can just be librarians, not secret agents.

The White House is unhappy with the changes, but they'll take this as a win, just four days before the whole USA Patriot Act was to have expired in a puff of smoke and the smell of cordite.

And the changes are minor. The rest stands - "federal officials can still obtain 'tangible items' like business records, including those from libraries and bookstores, for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations."

They just have to do it the old fashioned way, without enlisting librarians as informers and without harassing attorneys asked to look into things.

And they still have their "national security letters" directing employers, banks, credit card companies, and other such entities to turn over their records when asked, and the USA Patriot still prohibits those who must turn over these records from revealing they have done so to the "subject" of the probe. You'll never know. That's still in there. There's word that a whole bunch of these "national security letters" have been ordered for reporters who have written about the NSA thing or the secret prisons we run for people we have made non-people. But that can't be confirmed. No one is allowed to say anything about it.

It's a win for the White House side.

Of course it's not a "clean bill" - it has these new restrictions on selling over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. You see, if you buy enough of that stuff you can actually use it to manufacture methamphetamines. Don't want that. It may have nothing to do with terrorism, but it's in there. And there's a maritime thing in there too, to impose "strict punishment on crew members who impede or mislead law enforcement officers trying to board their ships." Whatever. But then too there's nothing in there about opening up the Alaska wildlife refuges to oiling drilling, and no funds for the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte or for pocket parks in downtown Indianapolis. Close enough.

So late in the day the White House got a win, and they got a loss - White House Effort to Block Challenge to Ports Deal Collapses (Washington Post, dated March 8) -
Efforts by the White House to hold off legislation challenging a Dubai-owned company's acquisition of operations at six major U.S. ports collapsed yesterday when House Republican leaders agreed to allow a vote next week that could kill the deal.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) will attach legislation to block the port deal today to a must-pass emergency spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A House vote on the measure next week will set up a direct confrontation with President Bush, who sternly vowed to veto any bill delaying or stopping Dubai Ports World's purchase of London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Co.
No, not that Jerry Lewis, the puffy old comedian the French used to like for some reason. This guy's a Republican from out this way. And he and the rest of the Republicans in the House of Representatives just told the president what he could do with this Dubai World Ports deal. He can stuff it. They'll stop it.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, the fellow who got Tom DeLay's job - "Listen, this is a very big political problem." Yep, he just wants the whole thing to go away. Speaker of the House, the former high school wrestling coach Dennis Hastert, is standing also standing behind this other Jerry Lewis. No deal. Former Bush-is-God types Duncan Hunter and Peter King are quoted as being outraged by the whole idea of a company owned but the United Arab Emirates operating out key ports.

This not a win. The White House will need to spin this quite a bit to say it is. And they sort of do
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last night that the administration is "committed to keeping open and sincere lines of communication with Congress." She added, though, that "the president's position is unchanged."
Translation? "Gee, what interesting thoughts, and we appreciate them, but these interesting thoughts, and the people who think such interesting thoughts, don't mean a thing - the deal will go down - but we appreciate the heartfelt sincerity, as pointless as it is."

Not a win.

But the same day there was another win (details here) - Pat Roberts' Senate Intelligence Committee voted not to investigate any of that NSA spying on Americans without warrants stuff. The senator from Kansas met with the White House and decided that wasn't necessary. They could just form a subcommittee for "oversight" of this apparently illegal eavesdropping program. That'd do.

It looked like there might be an investigation. Senator Jay Rockefeller proposed one. He got key folks from the other side to agree - like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. Pat went to the White House and came back saying it was a bad idea. And Snowe, after publicly saying hold the investigation, changed her mind. The committee voted to bag it, and her vote tipped it. Rockefeller is quoted as saying the committee is basically under the control of the White House - "It's an unprecedented bout of political pressure form the White House."

Really. That's what winning is about. They don't want anyone looking into this. Roberts is their man. Snowe knows Rove is dangerous. And a win is a win.

Of course there's another committee that will hold investigations. That's Arlen Spector's Senate Judiciary Committee. Spector, a Republican from Pennsylvania, isn't as pliant as Roberts. He thinks something smells here. We'll see if he visits the White House and sees the light.

Does the president have to obey the clear-as-day and quite specific law? He's says no, he has an exemption, Article II of the Constitution no one can question any battlefield decision he makes as commander-in-chief in wartime, or something like wartime. And this was a battlefield decision. That's just the way it is. And your telephone calls and emails are out there on the battlefield.

And the news is part of the battlefield too, as in this -
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today presented an upbeat report of the conflict in Iraq and said he agrees with the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., that the news media has exaggerated the number of civilian casualties in the conflict...

"We do know, of course, that al-Qaeda has media committees. We do know that they teach people exactly how to try to manipulate the media. They do this regularly. We see the intelligence that reports on their meetings. Now I can't take a string and tie it to a news report and then trace it back to an al-Qaeda media committee meeting. I'm not able to do that at all.

"We do know that their goal is to try to break the will; that they consider the center of gravity of this - not to be in Iraq, because they know they can't win a battle out there; they consider it to be in Washington, D.C., and in London and in the capitals of the Western world."
Their media is better than our media. If only our news folks were more like Fox News, cheering us on and keeping our "will" up, then we'd win. That's the real war. How people feel. We need to manipulate the media better than we have been doing. We need to catch up. We will have won when we convince people we have won, and everyone believes it, deeply.

Of course it's nonsense. If we all clap Tinkerbell won't die. That whole theory was discussed in these pages here in May of 2004 - this whole concept that the problem is that the media just isn't believing hard enough that we're winning. The mosques blow up. The murder squads go after folks. They cannot form a government even after the elections. But, according to Rumsfeld, it's a media problem. He's a pip.

But then, the same day, the media is filled with an example that Rumsfeld is onto something, and it's an ongoing big win for the administration. The media has a story that people are comfortable with, so they run it again. One more time, as in this in the Washington Post - "Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity - News about GOP political corruption, inept hurricane response and chaos in Iraq has lifted Democrats' hopes of winning control of Congress this fall. But seizing the opportunity has not been easy, as they found when they tried to unveil an agenda of their own."

It's called conventional wisdom.

The New York Times runs a variation here about how the Democrats are "trotting out" the fact that the Republicans have been lax on port security. How sad.

Yes, the Times notes this -
• In 2003, House Republicans, on a procedural vote, agreed to kill a Democratic amendment that would have added $250 million for port security grants to a war spending package.

• Two years later, nearly all House Republicans voted against an alternative Homeland Security authorization bill offered by Democrats that called for an additional $400 million for port security.

• Senate Republicans stood together in 2003 to set aside a Democratic amendment that would have provided $120 million more for port cargo screening equipment.

• One year later, all but six Senate Republicans voted to reject a Democratic attempt to add $150 million for port security in a Homeland Security appropriations bill.
But the Times sees the Democrats "trotting out" these facts as kind of pathetic. That's what real losers do when they have no agenda. Or something.

What's up with that?

NYU journalism professor Eric Alterman explains here -
The power of the consensus narrative in journalism is all but impermeable to reason or evidence. The right understands this and the left does not. That's why the right worries little about nuance or getting the details straight; it's the story that matters. Once you've defined the story, journalists struggle to make the facts fit the narrative rather than vice-versa.
E. J. Dionne at the Post agrees -
It is now an ingrained journalistic habit: After a period of bad news for President Bush, media outlets invariably devote time and space to "balancing" stories that all say more or less: "Yes, the Republicans are in trouble, but the Democrats have no alternatives, no plans," etc.

The pattern began to fall in place this weekend in the wake of two truly miserable weeks for Bush. The stories about the Democrats are by no means flatly false - Democrats don't yet have a fully worked-out alternative program - but they are based on a false premise, and they underestimate what I'll call the positive power of negative thinking. The false premise is that oppositions win midterm elections by offering a clear program, such as the Republicans' 1994 Contract With America.
That Contract With America came late in the 1994 campaign, and gas little to do with anything. It's not why the Republicans won. It was window-dressing. Dionne is talking about the power of the narrative, the story everyone accepts, as it's comfortable, like those old shoes that after a time just feel good.

So ignore this -
PRINCETON, NJ - The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Feb. 28 to March 1, finds the Democrats holding a substantial lead over the Republicans as the party more registered voters currently support in this fall's elections for Congress. More than half of registered voters (53%) favor the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in their district; only 39% favor the Republican.

Gallup's recent trends on this "generic ballot" question - from October 2005 through early February 2006 - found a smaller six- to seven-point lead for the Democrats. However, the current 14-point Democratic lead is similar to a 12-point Democratic lead recorded last August. It is also among the highest seen since the Republicans came into power more than a decade ago.
Doesn't fit the "story" - disregard. Everyone likes a good story. Why ruin it? (And for a discussion of narrative theory and how it shapes the news, see this in these pages from May of 2003.)

Of course there are some narratives that are as persistent as the "hapless, ineffective Democrats" myth (using the term myth in its proper sense, a shared fiction that explains the world). How did Will Rodgers put it? "I don't be belong to any organized political party - I'm a Democrat." The myth has been around forever.

The counter-myth is that of the fat-cat Babbitt Republican, as in the Congressional Quarterly reporting this -
On many a workday lunchtime, the nominal boss of U.S. intelligence, John D. Negroponte, can be found at a private club in downtown Washington, getting a massage, taking a swim, and having lunch, followed by a good cigar and a perusal of the daily papers in the club's library.

"He spends three hours there [every] Monday through Friday," gripes a senior counterterrorism official, noting that the former ambassador has a security detail sitting outside all that time in chase cars. Others say they've seen the Director of National Intelligence at the University Club, a 100-year-old mansion-like redoubt of dark oak panels and high ceilings a few blocks from the White House, only "several" times a week.
That makes sense to people. It's what they think happens, down to the cigar and the dark oak panels and high ceilings. That's the way things are supposed to be.

And the "little people" are supposed to suffer, nobly. That's how the world works, as you in this exchange between President Bush and a Nebraska supporter during on of those staged Social Security tours in Nebraska back when he wanted to "fix" that program -
Woman: "That's good, because I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute."

Bush: "You work three jobs?"

Woman: "Three jobs, yes."

Bush: "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)"

Woman: "Not much. Not much."
Everything fits. The rich and powerful do what they do. The working stiffs do what they do. All is right with the world. Everyone wins. (Credit: SusanG at "Daily Kos" seems to be the first to line up these two items here.)

But sometimes the narratives, the myths bump up against each other. It happened out here in Los Angeles on Ash Wednesday, as you can see here when Los Angeles' Cardinal Roget Mahoney ran the old Christian myth up the flagpole, and no one saluted - if Congress passes legislation to criminalize the act of offering support to an illegal immigrant, he will instruct his priests and Catholic parishioners to ignore the law.

Oops. Lots of angry letters to the Los Angeles Times as the "broken borders" narrative - we need to build a wall, we're being overrun, our schools and hospitals are swamped with criminals who snuck in - championed by Lou Dobbs on CNN and half the Republican Party - runs the other way. The Republican sponsors of the bill say that they're just targeting those who smuggle immigrants, but they've written such a broad definition of "alien smuggling" that it could potentially include babysitting for a neighbor or working at a soup kitchen. The legislation has already passed the House and is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Mahoney says he'll close no soup kitchens. He'll take care of these people in need. It's the Christian thing to do. There are irate letters in the Times every day asking how the CHURCH could advocate breaking the law - that's just not right, and seems immoral. Various priest are, each day, saying they're with Mahoney - it's a matter of conscience.

Sometimes the narratives collide. Don't you hate when that happens? The shared fiction that explains the world splits in two. Yipes.

There's another example of that here from Digby at Hullabaloo, regarding the big news out of the heartland - South Dakota Bans Abortion, Setting Up a Battle.

They banned abortion almost completely. No exception for rape or incest, and very few for the health of the woman. Five years in jail for any doctor involved - Class 5 felony. They want to see if they can get this past the newly configured US Supreme Court.

But Digby covers the logic here. They say abortion is the murder of actual children, but only make it a Class 5 felony, not murder. And should the woman be held legally liable for having an illegal abortion? What about charging her with at least a Class 5 felony, if not murder? There's something wrong with the narrative. They don't have their story straight.

He links to a video in which anti-abortion protesters are asked why not punish the woman. And they seem not to have thought of that -
That is as I suspected. It's time we make them think about it. Most anti-abortion legislation makes no sense morally and these people need to be led through the various steps that will show them this. The cognitive dissonance was apparent on these people's faces. It's a question that everyone from the family pro-choice supporter to professional interviewers should always ask.

Picture if you will a poll in which Americans are asked if women should be jailed for murdering their unborn child with an illegal abortion. What do you think they would say? Considering the fact that even the anti-abortion picketers in that video don't know what to say, I think it's fair to assume that it would be rejected by more than 90 percent of the population.

That's because it's clear that there is almost nobody who believes that abortion is murder in the legal sense of the word. How can there be a law against "murder" where the main perpetrator is not punished? How can it be murder if these people don't believe that the person who planned it, hired someone to do and paid for it is not legally culpable?

The looks on these women's faces in that video were amazing: confusion, frustration, pain. Their position is untenable and they know it.

... I think we need to have this discussion. Let's debate it out in the open and "air both sides" because from where I sit it's the "pro-lifers" who haven't thought this thing through. Nobody says they can't agitate against abortion and stand out there with their sickening pictures and try to dissuade women from doing it. I will defend their right to argue against abortion forever. But when they use the law to enforce their moral worldview they need to recognize that they can't have it both ways. If fetuses are human and have the same rights as the women in whom they live, then a woman who has an abortion must logically be subject to the full force of the law. It would be a premeditated act of murder no different than if she hired a hit man to kill her five-year-old. The law will eventually be able to make no logical moral distinction. Is everybody ready for that?
No. Apparently not. You don't mess with myths, although the "abortion is murder" narrative has its internal contradictions.

Well, you win arguments on other grounds. The president wins most by just doing what he wants. What argument? He trusts enough folks buy into the myth of the presidency where he's some sort of fisher-king, if you know the narrative there, down to the detail of the hero killing his own father to renew that land and all that sort of thing. Rumsfeld is saying winning a matter of taking hold of the narrative and redirecting the myth - winning is defining winning and facts and reality are minor matters of little importance. Cardinal Mahoney is on this old narrative no one's buying - good works and doing that right thing trump the laws of man. The anti-abortion folks need to get their story straight.

If you're going to win, you need to get your story straight.

Posted by Alan at 23:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006 23:19 PST home

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