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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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Wednesday, 18 August 2004

Topic: Election Notes

George Bush has read Immanuel Kant - What's really going on here?

The job of the President of the United States is to forcefully emote the conscious and unconscious will of the American People? He is not the commander-in-chief? He is the Happy Warrior? He is the Priest-Avatar of the State?

Say what?

Over at the site Fafblog the Medium Lobster explains it all -
Stephen Richards asks:

I seek your enlightenment on the question of how much knowledge a true citizen should need before an election. In particular I am curious to whether the candidates - if deemed elected - would invade Iran to protect us all from the forces of evil. ...

However I am unsure if the press should even ask such a question. How much truth is too much truth for the American voter in a war for truth in the world? Should America be allowed to know where both candidates stand on this issue - before November? ...

Ah, Stephen. The larger issue - should America invade Iran? - is a serious one, and will surely be addressed by the Medium Lobster in the days to follow. But your question - should the press ask George Bush and John Kerry if they support an invasion of Iran? - is even more crucial, for it goes to the very heart of the nature of the Presidency itself.

No, Stephen, the media should not press a candidate - or an elected President, for that matter - on his wartime plans. Not because the public does not have a right to know - although this is questionable indeed - but because it is not the job of the President to invade Iran, or conduct a war, or decide matters of policy in general. No, Stephen, the President does not exist to make petty decisions such as these, to muddy his hands in the tedious affairs of state. He exists not to guide the nation to where it should be. He exists to project an image of what it wants to be.

America doesn't need a President to lead them; America needs a President who projects leadership. America doesn't need a President who's honest with his country; America needs a President who's honest with his wife. America doesn't need a President with a firm grasp of policy and a commitment to serving his country; America needs a President with the appearance of irrepressible optimism and Wholesome Heartland Values. America doesn't need a capable wartime President; America needs a President who makes himself look like war.

And President Bush has done a magnificent job of that. Indeed, he's even started a couple of them. Remember, it's not the President's job to finish or win wars - that falls into the lower realm of policy. But within the realm of Strength - or the appearance of Strength - it is the Strong Leader who charges boldly into wars, undaunted by the humdrum webs of "post-war planning" and laborious "coalition-building" called for by "sensitive" policy-makers.

The job of the President of the United States is to forcefully emote the conscious and unconscious will of the American People. He is not the commander-in-chief. He is the Happy Warrior. He is the Priest-Avatar of the State.

As Colorado Governor Bill Owens said when defending President Bush's supposedly-infamous seven minutes sitting before schoolchildren on September 11th, "A lot of what governors and presidents have to do is project a level of confidence and a level of calmness." Indeed, and that is exactly what the President did on that terrible day: when America needed to be protected, George Bush was projecting an aura of protectedness; when America needed to be safe, George Bush was looking like safety; when America needed to be strong, George Bush was exuding something like strength. When you watch that clip again, in Michael Moore's detestable piece of propaganda or elsewhere, remind yourself, This is what a President is for: projecting, smiling, posing, waving, doing nothing.
Ah, if only this were not true. But it is. Or at least the seems to be what we are being told.

My friend in upstate New York just has this to say to the Medium Lobster -
You make just want to cry - and get a new tattoo of MOM and APPLE PIE and the FLAG, and Bart Simpson.
I like the idea of the tattoo. Bart Simpson... and the Bart Simpson tattoo would read UNDERACHIEVER AND PROUD OF IT, I guess. A guy I used to work for at Hughes-Raytheon one "casual Friday" wore a t-shirt to work that had that message and a picture of Bart on it. They made Dennis go home and change. These days I suppose they sell those shirts at all Bush campaign events. They must be available in all the gift shops on the Yale campus. Times change. The frat-boys won.

And, as the Medium Lobster notes, the style of the general concept has become the thing in and of itself. That'll do.

Anyone who runs for office knows you sell the image, and substance doesn't matter that much to the voters. You sell the sizzle, not the steak? Something like that. And most people vote on the personality of the candidate - how they feel about him or her. Issues and policy positions give most people a headache, or bore them. Bush works that angle. So does Kerry. So does Ralph Nader. They all do. Each wants you to vote on their style of leadership.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, put it differently -
I was beginning to get annoyed with all that Republican sniping in Boston that Kerry was not giving us much by way of specific policy proposals. Yes, it's nice to hear some examples here and there, mostly because it gives us an idea of the big picture of what the guy wants to do. But that's really about it. Otherwise, we just get a long list of campaign promises that later we can accuse the candidate of breaking once he gets into office. I personally would rather give him more leeway to deal with real situations when he gets to the White House.

After all, I'm not voting for a policy, I'm voting for a person who will put together a team to do the sorts of things that I would like to see get done.
Fair enough. Specifics can cripple you. We do vote for the general approach of one guy or the other.

Or do we just vote for style? Maybe that is all we can do.

Of course Immanuel Kant said we can never actually know the thing in and of itself. There really is no empirical object. Was ist die Sache in sich? Beats me.

If we continue to fervently believe the shadow is the real thing? No, that's Plato. But we do seem to be too satisfied with the shadow on the wall of the cave. The folks who support Bush are.

Posted by Alan at 21:37 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 August 2004 12:12 PDT home

Topic: Political Theory

Conspiracy Theories: Assuming Competence on Scant Evidence

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, asked an interesting question in the August 8th issue of Just Above Sunset -
Lately I've been wondering if there isn't a way to launch a campaign to bring the word "liberal" back into the mainstream where it belongs. Maybe in the process, also find a way to demonize the word "conservative"?
See Rehabilitating the word LIBERAL - and Elvis? for the discussion that followed. Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, even suggested we pull in Elvis as a token liberal, or a real one.

And just now I received a query from a friend in Rochester, in upstate New York -
Do you know at exactly what point the Democrats let the Republicans succeed in making Liberal a dirty word?

I remember hints of it with Goldwater, but not with any real emphasis, and the same with Nixon. I do not remember it as anathema until Reagan. And how did they successfully spin economics so that "tax and spend" is Satan's work but borrow and spend (usually more, plus financing) is God's work?
And curiously, within a few minutes I received a similar query from a friend in Montreal -
I too ask the same question...

It seems to me that the Clinton (Democratic) years, and correspondently, the Jean Chr?tien, now Paul Martin (Liberal) era was wildly successful. To have liberal governments with balanced budgets and generous military spending, riding large down the center two-lanes of the political highway, they seemed unstoppable.

Anything Republican and conservative looked fundamentalists and extremist in those days.
Now suddenly liberal is bad. How did American Republicanism succeed in being the voice of America?

What happened?
Well, I do have an answer, or maybe a non-answer.

It is an interesting question.

I suspect this happened slowly and there was no meeting in Dallas or Washington where any such thing was decided. Folks on the dark side just talked to their audiences and some wording seemed to work, and thus they used what worked. Think random mutations leading to the evolution of what works surviving - except these guys don't believe in evolution. Maybe it's more like throwing lot of various kinds of mud against a wall and they found out, by dint of a whole lot of throwing, what particular mud sticks.

I don't much believe this was something some group of planners carefully chose to do, but rather one more thing that was tried, and glorious day, over the years they discovered that this particular wording worked for them.

I wrote the following to a friend recently, a fellow who I think falls too easily into conspiracy theories of life.
My natural tendency is to assume incompetence, not malevolence. That's how I look at the world. And that's where we part ways. In the world I know the bumblers outnumber the cunning by tens of thousands to one. The cunning and intelligence and careful attention to detail that goes into even a half-assed conspiracy is beyond most folks. Cheney is smart enough - and maybe a CEO here and there like Ken Lay. But they are rare, thank goodness. And Jeb Bush and his Florida crew? Well, they're just pathetic. Stuff comes out fast - the press is far smarter than they are - and they just look like fools. Hell, if you're going to conspire to rig an election you don't get caught so easily doing such stupid, obvious things. Amateurs! And Jeb is the smarter brother? Please.

Where we really do part ways is that you make this assumption that people always plan what they end up doing. I think you give people far too much credit. Most folks don't think that carefully, and act on regrettable impulse most of the time, and generally make it up as they go along. Then, sometimes, comes the oops and the regret. Then they backfill with rationales that are often just silly - like Bush and his war to rid us of Saddam Hussein's WMD that morphed into this reason then that reason then another. WMD program related activities? Gave me a break!

Why did we do that, really? Because Bush wanted to do that. But he just wasn't thinking it through. That's the kind of guy he is. And everyone has always cleaned up his messes for him before, so he saw no reason not to launch the war in Iraq. The thought of there being any downside to such a war just never crossed his mind.

Did he lie to us about the WMD - and have other hidden reasons? No. He's just not that smart.

In short, your opinion of folks is, to my mind, too high. But maybe my opinion of folks is too low. Who knows?
The liberal is evil business? It just happened.

Posted by Alan at 20:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Topic: Backgrounder

Follow-Ups: Sensitivity and Madness (Cheney and Keyes)

Item One:

On the matter of the Republicans jumping all over John Kerry for saying this - "I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history." - see Sensitivity and its Limits Sunday from 15 August 2004.

Yes, Vice President Dick Cheney ridiculed Kerry's call for a "more sensitive" war on terrorism and said it would not impress the terrorists who took down the World Trade Center or the Islamic militants who had beheaded Daniel Pearl. Cheney said, "Those who threaten us and kill innocents around the world do not need to be treated more sensitively. They need to be destroyed."

Clear enough, although we see that the family of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan two years ago, has requested that his name not be used in a political context. Pearl's father, said that the request was a general one and was not directed at Mr. Cheney in particular, and that it was intended to prevent the stoking of moderate Muslim ire. "We don't take sides between Bush and Kerry," Judea Pearl said. "I don't even know who I'm going to vote for."

One assumes Cheney is angry beyond belief about this request that he be a bit more sensitive. If Cheney is more sensitive then the terrorists will have won? Something like that.

And yes, Bush uses the word all the time, with no problem.

Joseph, my expatriate friend in France commented -
A bit or real irony here: "Sensitive" has many meanings - a sensitive document, to be compassionate and so on. But if the way Kerry meant it was in the sense "to be aware of other's perceptions of ones words and actions," then Kerry wasn't nearly sensitive enough. I knew these words would come back to haunt him the moment I heard them. This is the big-time. This is what politics has become in America. Deal with it.

Bush used the same word? So what. He's entitled. He's dropped a lot of ordinance. When he uses the word, he's speaking softly and carying a big stick, no? Kerry's people should have known better.
Okay, I get it.

Then again, Juan Cole, the professor of history at the University of Michigan, the middle-east expert on Iraq who travels down to Washington to testify before congress now and then, and pops up on the PBS "News Hour" every month or two, here adds some historical perspective.
Many pundits pointed out that George W. Bush had used exactly the same language about a sensitive approach to the war on terror, so that Cheney was implicitly criticizing his own superior.

But as a historian, I have to say that Cheney's statement is bizarre and uninformed. Let me just give one example. The practice round for World War II was fought in North Africa, then controlled by the Vichy French. Dwight Eisenhower developed Project Torch, involving the landing of US troops in Morocco and Algeria.

It was essential to the US effort that the French colonial soldiers be quickly won over and convinced not to put up stiff resistance to the invasion. The original plan would have explicitly used British naval power. But the Free French objected loudly to this plan, since they did not want the British Empire's ships anywhere near their North African possessions. The French and the British had old rivalries in this regard. Moreover, there were still French bad feelings about the British attack on the French fleet at Mers al Kabir in Algeria in 1940.

So Roosevelt and Eisenhower asked Churchill to keep the British navy in the background off Gibraltar and out of sight of the Moroccan coast. Churchill agreed.

That is, Roosevelt and Eisenhower had their successful landing in North Africa precisely because they were entirely willing to bend over backward to be sensitive to French feelings.

And that is the big difference between Cheney and Bush as wartime leaders on the one hand, and on the other Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Cheney and Bush are diplomatically tone deaf, projecting nothing but arrogance and being all too willing to humiliate traditional allies. They have no sensitivity. And it is for that reason that they have the U.S. stuck in Iraq with only one really significant military ally, the U.K. ...
So is it really true that at one time we actually cared what the French thought? Roosevelt and Eisenhower asked Churchill to be sensitive?

Well, in that context it made tactical sense. I'm not sure that Kerry wasn't saying the exact same thing. It's just common sense. You don't piss people off needlessly, and expect them to love you for it. Sometimes being sensitive, and, as in this historical case, diplomatic, is just common sense.

But I guess that's wrong now. Common sense and diplomacy, in the traditional sense where it means something like "sensitivity" for tactical and strategic ends, is now inappropriate. See September 7, 2003 Opinion in Just Above Sunset for how we have redefined diplomacy. It's full of examples of how we have scorned diplomacy of this kind for the whole of the latest Bush administration. Win points in the international community with ridicule and scorn? Mock them and they'll deeply respect our power? Could that really be the idea? Many parents seem to feel they can shame their children into appropriate behavior by sneering at them and mocking them. I don't think that works very well but I've certainly seen that applied quite a bit - watch the parents at any Little League game. In regard to international policy, for the last three years the product we were being sold, and have bought, happily, is that, as Americans, we don't take crap from anyone, and we'll do what we want. And if you don't like that? Too bad.

John Kerry is going to change that dynamic?

In defense of his second amendment right to bear arms, even automatic weapons with armor-piercing cop-killer bullets, and as president of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston used to famously say of any gun control laws, "The government will have to pry this rifle from my cold, dead hands." Everyone would cheer.

I'm sure Cheney feels that same way about his right to be as arrogant as he wants, and to humiliate anyone he chooses. No one messes with us. And Judea Pearl can go fuck himself.


Item Two:

Last weekend in Just Above Sunset - in Racial Identity: Who Gets to be Black? - the latter part of the item covered the race for the open senate seat in Illinois where Barack Obama is being challenged by Alan Keyes.

Much of the discussion centered on comments that Barack Obama isn't really black - or is a new kind of black - or something. The idea was that Alan Keyes - the guy the GOP just decided to run against Barack Obama - is the real black guy? Whatever.

The item linked to and quoted many assessments of Keyes - and they were not flattering. Since the item was published Keyes has added more fuel to the fire. Keyes suggested it would be a good idea the we repeal the seventeenth amendment, so senators are not elected at all but, rather, appointed by each state legislature. This has something to do with states rights, but that's a bit confusing. And he has moved to the Chicago area from Maryland, as he must be an Illinois resident on the day of the election to qualify for the office. But he has leased a home, on a month-to-month basis. One suspect he knows the polls are showing he cannot possibly win.

Too add one more touch of strangeness to the whole business we get this -

Keyes likens abortion to terrorism
Natasha Korecki and Scott Fornek, The Chicago Sun-Times, Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Does this make sense?
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes said Monday that women who choose to undergo abortions and the physicians who perform the procedure are essentially terrorists because "the evil is the same."

The remarks came as Keyes was explaining why three months ago he said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a "warning" from God to "wake up" and stop "the evil" of abortion.

"Now, you think it's a coincidence that on September 11th, 2001, we were struck by terrorists an evil that has at its heart the disregard of innocent human life?" Keyes said in a May 7 speech in Provo, Utah. "We who have for several decades killed not thousands but scores of millions of our own children, in disregard of the principle of innocent human life -- I don't think that's a coincidence, I think that's a warning. ... I don't think that's a coincidence, I think that's a shot across the bow. I think that's a way of Providence telling us, 'I love you all; I'd like to give you a chance. Wake up! Would you please wake up?' "

The speech and transcript of that talk appears on the Web site of a Keyes supporter.

Since he entered the U.S. Senate contest just over a week ago, Keyes has attacked Democratic rival Barack Obama for his support for abortion rights, saying the Democrat holds "the slaveowners' position."

Obama called it "deeply troubling" that Keyes is now evoking the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in his anti-abortion arguments.
Deeply troubling? Maybe it is, but only in the psychiatric sense. Let him rave. The percentage of potential votes swayed by such an argument is so small as to make no difference. And psychotropic medication gets better all the time. Not to worry.

Keyes seems to be burying himself politically, or trying out some sort of new stand-up comedy routine for his next career, which will be back in Maryland.

What to make of this man? If I remember my sub-atomic physics right, the four properties of the subatomic particle known as the quark are up-ness, down-ness, strangeness and charm. These are some times called the quark's flavors. (What you need to know about ultrarelativistic heavy ion physics might be found here.) One thinks of Keyes, the human quark.

Posted by Alan at 19:22 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 16 August 2004

Topic: Bush

No one wants to mention the elephant in the room... but things change...

No one wanted to say it, but someone finally did.

In the last presidential election campaign, four years ago now, we were told that George Bush might have had little experience up to that point, and not much curiosity about anything, and he didn't know about a lot of places and people and things, and that, in fact, he might not be terribly smart - but that didn't matter. Intelligence didn't matter. Character mattered. You could look up all the shallow and stupid things Bush said - and see what he knew nothing about - and then find all the conservatives defending him. Bush would to restore honor and dignity to the White House, they said, and his smart advisors, with their decades of experience in previous administrations, would keep him from stumbling.

We were sold his upright character, and a backup infield of great talent. And we bought it. Gore was too smart by half - but you couldn't trust Gore. Gore was liar who had been second in command to an even bigger liar. Honesty, directness, simplicity - in short, character - matter more than how smart you were, or how clever. We didn't need that.

Now Matthew Yglesias says the obvious - in detail. We did need that. The current guy just isn't up to the job and never was. And it's time to say so.

So this was published today, and is getting a lot of press.

The Brains Thing
Three years of watching Bush makes the point: Intelligence matters more than "character."
Matthew Yglesias. The American Prospect - Issue Date: 09.01.04

Yglesias asks you to remember the narrative at the time -
... With the country enjoying a seemingly endless spell of peace and prosperity, and no apparent daunting challenges facing the next chief executive, the media were finally granted the chance to construct a narrative entirely around personalities. Al Gore, based on a handful of small exaggerations and his association with the occasionally sordid behavior of Bill Clinton, was said to have a character problem. George W. Bush, meanwhile, was haunted by a lack of experience and intelligence.

This left liberals flustered. Most of Gore's "lies" were, in fact, nothing of the sort; he was, upon examination, not the same person as Clinton; and finally, his Vietnam experience -- he enlisted in the Army upon graduation from Harvard -- contrasted favorably with his opponent's. But liberals never figured out how to convert these facts into a character argument on Gore's behalf.

Conservatives, on the other hand, had a ready answer to the charges leveled against their standard-bearer: Intelligence didn't matter. A president, after all, is assisted by a cabinet, White House aides, and a staff that numbers in the thousands. Surely those people could help him out when he needed to know the name of the president of Pakistan or run some numbers on a tax bill. Even George Will, who in August of 1999 fretted about Bush's "lack of gravitas -- a carelessness, perhaps even a recklessness perhaps born of things having gone a bit too easily so far," wrote the following January that he was prepared to have his "doubts about Bush's intellectual weight and steadiness" be alleviated by an appropriate vice-presidential selection. Dick Cheney, he suggested, was just the man for the job, and later that year Will became a happy camper.
Well, Cheney may be a hyper-intelligent, ruthless man, of vast experience, but even he cannot make something out of nothing. As Lucretius said a long, long time ago - Nil posse creari de nilo. You need some raw material to work with, after all. In the case of Bush, well, there was much there there.

So why didn't the Democrats and other liberals make more of a fuss about the fact the guy didn't know squat and didn't want to know squat?

Try this (my emphases) -
Liberals unanimously believed that Bush was not up to the intellectual challenges of the job. But fearful of re-enforcing a stereotype of left-wing elitism, they time and again shied away from pressing the argument. With the point thus conceded, Gore fought things out on the enemy terrain of character. To the Bush campaign's promise to "restore honor and dignity to the White House," Gore had no real reply -- except to put as much distance between himself and the incumbent as possible. Thus the country was treated to the strange sight of a vice president essentially disavowing his popular, rhetorically brilliant, and largely successful predecessor. Joe Lieberman was put on the ticket, and the campaign reached its high point when Gore made things really clear by delivering an ostentatious kiss to Tipper on national television at the convention. This, the campaign said, is a candidate who truly loves his wife, not at all like that other guy. But ultimately, character -- at least as defined by the Republicans and, more important, the media, who happen to be the ones who do the defining -- isn't a point on which a Democrat can win.
Yeah, we all wondered what that stupid long sloppy kiss was about. It was, we see, a character thing.

Well, Gore lost and we got the second George Bush. But that there seemingly endless spell of peace and prosperity was broken with those airplanes taking down both towers of the World Trade Center, smashing into the Pentagon and dropping out of the sky east of Pittsburgh - and three thousand dead - all in one morning.

Yglesias suggests it was then, if we admit it, we knew we were in trouble -
If ever there was a moment when the country might have been called to question whether it was well-served in a time of crisis by a leader with scant knowledge of the relevant issues, it was then. Instead, things merely got worse. Intelligence was off the table entirely, while character became the cult of moral clarity, a transformation well expressed by former Bush speechwriter David Frum in his memoir. After the attacks, he wrote, he realized that "Bush was not a lightweight." Instead he was "a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. And when he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them -- a much less common virtue in politics than one might suppose." With the nation reeling from attack, the thirst for a strong leader was palpable, and so the press obliged by constructing Bush into one. Lacking the conventional attributes of a skilled -- or even competent -- chief executive, he became, as Frum put it, an "unfamiliar type of heavyweight."
Yeah, sometimes known as a lightweight, or as someone in way over his head.

But no one would say that. We needed to "come together" and all the rest. One didn't say such things.

Yglesias covers that too - how Frum's view was what we were supposed to say.
... Richard Cohen, part of a small army of liberal commentators who would eventually find themselves following Bush into Baghdad, wrote in his December 18, 2001, column that "I applaud whenever George Bush issues one of his dead-or-alive pronouncements" and denounced those, "invariably on the political left," who "upbraid him for his supposed childishness." Unlike his critics, Bush had a Reagan-like "moral clarity" about the struggle; and that, rather than any childishness, was the important point.

Such was the mood of late 2001. On October 20, The New York Times reported that "many Democrats who once dismissed Mr. Bush as too naive and too dependent on advisers to steer the United States through an international crisis are now praising his and his advisers' performance. Some are even privately expressing satisfaction that Mr. Gore, who tried to make his foreign affairs experience an issue in the campaign, did not win." Gore "may know too much," said one anonymous former Senate Democrat quoted by the Times.
Of course, of course - knowing too much is always a problem. Wouldn't want THAT. When the Democrats are saying such things, we are, indeed, in deep trouble.

Yeah, and praise these advisers' performance - Wolfowitz and Rove and Perle and all the rest. You know, the guys who believed Chalabi. You know, the guys who wanted this war with Iraq that would cost very little and where we, the liberators, would be greeted by folks tossing flowers, and everyone would rally around us and admire us in awe. Right.

Yglesias' money-shot is here -
Three-plus years later we know better, or at least we should. Intelligence matters. The job of the president of the United States is not to love his wife; it's to manage a wide range of complicated issues. That requires character, yes, but not the kind of character measured by private virtues like fidelity to spouse and frequency of quotations from Scripture. Yet it also requires intelligence. It requires intellectual curiosity, an ability to familiarize oneself with a broad range of views, the capacity -- yes -- to grasp nuances, to foresee the potential ramifications of one's decisions, and, simply, to think things through. Four years ago, these were not considered necessary pieces of presidential equipment. Today, they have to be.
And that about sums it up.

Yglesias extends his argument to domestic policy and has a long section, quite depressing, on matters with North Korea. And there is quite a bit on how Bush makes decisions. Click on the link for details. It is all quite detailed.

And then Yglesias turns to the local paper out here to wrap up (my emphases)-
Reviewing Clinton's My Life in the June 24, 2004, Los Angeles Times, neoconservative Max Boot happily concluded that "conservatives like character, liberals like cleverness." He's right. But to state what should be obvious, the president is not your father, your husband, your drinking buddy, or your minister. These are important roles, but they are not the president's. He has a job to do, and it's a difficult one, involving a wide array of complicated issues. His responsibility to manage these issues is a public one, and the capacity to do so in a competent and moral manner is fundamentally unrelated to the private virtues of family, friendship, fidelity, charity, compassion, and all the rest.

For the president to lead an exemplary personal life is surely superior to the alternative. But within obvious limits -- no one would want an alcoholic president, for example -- it doesn't really matter. Clinton's indiscretions caused his family pain and produced awkward moments for the parents of some young children. But Bush's bungling has gotten people killed in Iraq, saddled the nation with enormous debts, and created long-term security problems with which the country has not yet begun to grapple.

That the country should be secured against terrorist attacks, that deadly weapons should be kept out of the hands of our enemies, or that it would be good for a wide slice of the world to enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy are hardly controversial propositions. But these things are easier said than done. Even a person of goodwill is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Yet succeed we must. And if we are to do so, the question of intelligence must be put back on the table. The issue is not "cleverness" -- some kind of parlor trick or showy mastery of trivia -- but a basic ability to make sense of a complicated, fast-changing world and decide how to confront it. Any leader will depend on the work of his subordinates, but counting on advisers to do the president's heavy lifting for him simply will not do. Unless the chief executive can understand what people are telling him and follow the complicated arguments they may need to make, he will find himself paralyzed at every point of disagreement, or he will adopt the views of the slickest salesman rather than the one who's gotten things right.

The price to be paid for such errors is a high one -- it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Already we've paid too much, and the problems confronting the country are growing harder with time. Unless the media, the electorate, and the political culture at large can shift their focus off of trivia and on to things that actually matter, it's a price we may pay again and again.
Okay, someone finally said it. The guy is in way, way, way over his head, and we're paying the price.

But intelligence doesn't matter, character does. Moral clarity is all. Or so we're told. We are supposed to prefer character, clarity and unwavering mindless confidence - even in the face of reality - over competence and coherence.

Digby over at Hullabaloo asks the quite obvious question here -
When Republicans tell me that it doesn't matter if Junior is intelligent I ask them if they think it matters if a doctor is intelligent or a judge or a general and if they think the job of president requires any less of a brain than those jobs do. Then picture George W. Bush doing any of them.
Geez, maybe someone should devise a sort of SAT test for presidential candidates - where one must demonstrate comprehension skills answering questions about difficult hypothetic issues, making sure you don't miss key points and complex interrelationships, and where you'd have to write a coherent essay explaining an idea, and you could throw in a multiple choice section on geography and history so you could show you do know where things are in the world and who might be mad at whom and why.

Nope. Bush hated the academics at Yale and blew off a lot of his classes - so that wouldn't be fair. And it may not be what we really want.

Yglesias perhaps would approve of such a basic qualifying exam. Intellectuals would approve. The rest of the country? No. "Character" will do for them.

Then again, at bottom probably no one believes the leader here should be an actual tweed-wearing wooly intellectual with a briar pipe and all that.

But someone who thinks clearly would be nice. Someone marginally coherent would be nice too. Someone who thinks about the real consequences of one's actions would also be nice. A little curiosity wouldn't hurt either. Who cares if he or she doesn't know anything about Lucretius? Basic competence would be nice.

Posted by Alan at 21:57 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 17 August 2004 11:41 PDT home

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Who do you trust? The New York Times causing trouble again...

First it's Bob Herbert.

Suppress the Vote?
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, Monday, August 16, 2004

The bare bones -
... State police officers have gone into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando and interrogated them as part of an odd "investigation" that has frightened many voters, intimidated elderly volunteers and thrown a chill over efforts to get out the black vote in November.

The officers, from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which reports to Gov. Jeb Bush, say they are investigating allegations of voter fraud that came up during the Orlando mayoral election in March.

Officials refused to discuss details of the investigation, other than to say that absentee ballots are involved. They said they had no idea when the investigation might end, and acknowledged that it may continue right through the presidential election.

"We did a preliminary inquiry into those allegations and then we concluded that there was enough evidence to follow through with a full criminal investigation," said Geo Morales, a spokesman for the Department of Law Enforcement.

The state police officers, armed and in plain clothes, have questioned dozens of voters in their homes. Some of those questioned have been volunteers in get-out-the-vote campaigns.
This probably simple law enforcement. Yes, Bush cannot win in November without Florida. Yes, elderly blacks in Florida are overwhelmingly Democratic. Yes, Jeb Bush, the governor, is the president's brother and seems to have authorized this. Yes, many of these folks are active in get-out-the-vote activities, stuff like that group the Orlando League of Voters. But this is probably simple law enforcement - which officials refuse to discuss.

Not to worry. You have to trust them.

Then there are lawyers. One lawyer representing the seventy-three-year-old president of the Orlando League of Voters, is getting snooty -
Joseph Egan, an Orlando lawyer who represents Mr. Thomas, said: "The Voters League has workers who go into the community to do voter registration, drive people to the polls and help with absentee ballots. They are elderly women mostly. They get paid like $100 for four or five months' work, just to offset things like the cost of their gas. They see this political activity as an important contribution to their community. Some of the people in the community had never cast a ballot until the league came to their door and encouraged them to vote."

Now, said Mr. Egan, the fear generated by state police officers going into people's homes as part of an ongoing criminal investigation related to voting is threatening to undo much of the good work of the league. He said, "One woman asked me, 'Am I going to go to jail now because I voted by absentee ballot?' "

According to Mr. Egan, "People who have voted by absentee ballot for years are refusing to allow campaign workers to come to their homes. And volunteers who have participated for years in assisting people, particularly the elderly or handicapped, are scared and don't want to risk a criminal investigation."
This probably simple law enforcement - and the secondary effect - scaring the crap out of people who might vote the wrong way thus keeping a troubling demographic away from the voting booths, and afraid to even file an absentee ballot - is probably not what they intended at all. They were just doing their job.

There is an implicit message, sure. If you vote, or help the elderly or handicapped or low-income local black folks to vote, you could be in real trouble. Who needs a criminal investigation?

Actually, this is pretty clever. We have an investigation that cannot be publicly revealed and knocks on the door and lots buzz-cut white guys in suits asking questions - and they cannot tell you why they're asking these questions but can that tell you if you don't answer their questions you could be in deep shit.

Pretty clever. These Bush kids know how to play the game, and use all the available tools. Why don't the Democrats ever think of things like this? This works.

The second item in the Times?

F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers
Eric Lichtblau, Monday, August 16, 2004

As you recall, the preamble to the Constitution says that one of the purposes of government is to "insure domestic Tranquility." (The eighteenth century was when one capitalized proper nouns, of course.) This seems to mean that it is the responsibility of government to enforce law and to preserve order so that citizens may go about their daily business peaceably and secure in their lives, possessions, and rights. Fair enough.

What Eric reports?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning political demonstrators across the country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National Convention in New York.

F.B.I. officials are urging agents to canvass their communities for information about planned disruptions aimed at the convention and other coming political events, and they say they have developed a list of people who they think may have information about possible violence. They say the inquiries, which began last month before the Democratic convention in Boston, are focused solely on possible crimes, not on dissent, at major political events.

But some people contacted by the F.B.I. say they are mystified by the bureau's interest and felt harassed by questions about their political plans.

"The message I took from it," said Sarah Bardwell, 21, an intern at a Denver antiwar group who was visited by six investigators a few weeks ago, "was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that, 'hey, we're watching you.' ''

The unusual initiative comes after the Justice Department, in a previously undisclosed legal opinion, gave its blessing to controversial tactics used last year by the F.B.I in urging local police departments to report suspicious activity at political and antiwar demonstrations to counterterrorism squads. The F.B.I. bulletins that relayed the request for help detailed tactics used by demonstrators - everything from violent resistance to Internet fund-raising and recruitment.

In an internal complaint, an F.B.I. employee charged that the bulletins improperly blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity. But the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, in a five-page internal analysis obtained by The New York Times, disagreed.

The office, which also made headlines in June in an opinion - since disavowed - that authorized the use of torture against terrorism suspects in some circumstances, said any First Amendment impact posed by the F.B.I.'s monitoring of the political protests was negligible and constitutional.

The opinion said: "Given the limited nature of such public monitoring, any possible 'chilling' effect caused by the bulletins would be quite minimal and substantially outweighed by the public interest in maintaining safety and order during large-scale demonstrations."
Minimal? Well, I guess - if the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel says that the impact here is negligible and constitutional, well, they must know. They are lawyers, reporting to John Ashcroft. You have to trust them.

No you don't.

Bob Harris makes these comments:
The agents usually ask the same three questions. Are you planning violence or other disruptions? Do you know anyone who is? Do you realize it is a crime to withhold such information.

Now as the tales of Martha Stewart and others remind us, it's the third question that looms. Lie to fed, suffer the consequences. And given that the latter investigations fall under the rubric of Stopping Domestic Terrorism, one can't help but suffer the fear, illogical or not, that a small cramped space at GITMO and an Ashcroft press conference awaits you.

The FBI has been urging local police departments to report suspicious activity at political demos. Including a request for details regarding everything from violent resistance to Internet fund-raising and recruitment. An FBI employee filed an internal complaint regarding the latter, charging that it improperly blurred the line between lawfully protected speech and illegal activity.
That's where Ashcroft's Office of Legal Counsel weighed in. No longer content to authorize the use of torture -- okay, it was just an opinion, since disavowed -- the OLC gave the Feebs a hearty thumbs-up.

... yes, I'm willing to admit that there are public safety concerns in play whenever large groups of people gather to demonstrate. It's just that as always, the Ashcroft Justice Department seems to be not only overreacting, but wasting resources as well.

... Rest easy, America. No Denver anti-war group intern is going to push you around!
This probably simple law enforcement - and the secondary effect - scaring the crap out of people who might say things in public that question the motives and actions, and even the intelligence of our current leaders - is probably not what they intended at all. They were just doing their job, insuring domestic tranquility and that sort of thing.

These two Times items suggest that scaring the crap out of people who are troublesome - those who might vote the wrong way and those who might ask the wrong questions - could be the primary intention here. The government can claim the primary intention in both cases is simply enforcing the law, that the secondary effects never occurred to them.

Which is true? It seems to be a matter of how trusting you are.

We trusted the government on that WMD business, and on the obvious ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. We trusted them on the idea that cutting taxes on the rich would makes us all rich and make the jobs come back. We trusted them on lots of things. Why not on these two?

Are there only so many times you can go back to that well before you find it's now dry? Maybe so. Or maybe not. We will see about that in November.

Posted by Alan at 19:51 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

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