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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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Thursday, 26 May 2005

Topic: World View

Moral Nagging: The Amnesty International Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems we are a bit unpopular.

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

What else were we going to say?

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

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

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

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

So we’re supposed to hold open hearings?

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

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

No. He couldn’t mean that.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They?re not the same?

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

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

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

Time to grow up.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

Topic: For policy wonks...

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

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

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

It isn’t. No one much cares.

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

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

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

It’s not much fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t matter. What do we do now?

Posted by Alan at 17:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Topic: Bush

Say what? Michael Jackson and Postmodernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works for me.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 May 2005

Topic: For policy wonks...

Compromise means no one is happy. Or it means every is happy a little. Or something.

On the weekly site Just Above Sunset and here on the daily web log you wouldn’t find that much recently on the Republican attempt to end judicial filibusters for good in the US Senate. It was interesting when it became a Christian evangelical issue – see May 1 The Oppressed Minority - Christians in America and Conservative Republicans for that. But most of the month much of the intense discussion of the issues – something news hounds and political junkies do follow – centered on who used to do what and whether this was this an unprecedented power grab or not. Some of us learned more about Senate rules and traditions, and parliamentary procedure, than was really healthy. And nothing was happening, until this week, when, on Tuesday, Doctor Frist had scheduled the big showdown.

Late on Monday, May 23, 2005 it all became moot.

Oh, never mind.

Senators compromise on filibusters
Bipartisan group agrees to vote to end debate on 3 nominees
CNN - Monday, May 23, 2005 Posted: 8:33 PM EDT (0033 GMT)
A bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement after days of talks to avert a showdown Tuesday over President Bush's judicial nominees, Sen. John McCain announced Monday evening.

Standing with a group of 13 other senators, the Arizona Republican told reporters the seven Republicans and seven Democrats had brokered a compromise.

"We have reached an agreement to try to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice that would have had, in the view of all 14 of us, lasting impact, damaging impact on the institution," McCain said.

Under the deal, judicial nominees would only be filibustered "under extraordinary circumstances," McCain said.

McCain said the group of 14 pledged to vote for cloture -- an end to debate -- for three judicial nominees: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen.

He said the group made no commitment to vote for or against cloture on two nominees, William Myers and Henry Saad.

"We will try to do everything in our power to prevent filibusters in the future," McCain said.

"This agreement is meant in the finest traditions of the Senate it was entered into: trust, respect, and mutual desire to see the institution of the Senate function in ways that protect the rights of the minority," he said. ...
Sounds reasonable, but Kevin Drum on his blog "Political Animal" over at the Washington Monthly is confused -
… the text of the deal only mentions five nominees. The group agreed to invoke cloture for three of the nominees (Brown, Owen, and Pryor), which means they'll be confirmed, and made "no commitment" on two of the nominees (Myers and Saad), which presumably means at least a few of the Democrats will agree to continue filibustering them and their nominations are dead.

In return, all 14 agreed to vote against changing the senate rules to eliminate judicial filibusters completely. This means Frist doesn't have a majority to support his rule change, which makes the question of whether a majority can change the rules moot.

But why aren't Griffin and McKeague mentioned? Presumably, not mentioning them is equivalent to "no commitment," right? So why not say so? What am I missing here?

As for the agreement to filibuster future candidates only under "extraordinary circumstances," well, who knows? That could mean pretty much anything, couldn't it?
Yeah, it could.

What to say? You can read the text of the thing here and here.

Compromise means no one is happy?

A site called Crooks and Liars provides a survey of initial reaction on the right under the heading The Republicans are Screaming - This deal is a load of crap! It is not compromise, but capitulation. And I say that as somebody who did agree that a certain form of compromise was acceptable. But this compromise treats a couple of nominees, Saad and Myers, as pawns. It makes them not people, but expendable objects. And that is unconscionable.

Here's some comment: A complete f****?en outrage. Not another dime, I?ve had it.

Scared Monkeys puts it succinctly: Compromise reached! Republicans screwed!

The Buzz Blog: Sellouts!

Power Line's John Hinderaker: What a hideous deal.

Michelle Malkin: My two cents: Ditto to all of the above. The GOP parade of pusillanimity marches on. With this pathetic cave-in, the Republicans have sealed their fate as a Majority in Name Only.

Captain's Quarters: Frist: Deal will require "careful monitoring". For what? You just gave away the store! Frist is continuing to spin this into a win for the nominees, but it's not going to fly. The Democrats blocked at least two of the nominees and made no substantive guarantees to stop their obstructionism. This, in short, has been a clear victory for the Democrats and a massive failure for the GOP and the White House. The GOP just endorsed the filibuster, and will have no intellectual capacity to argue against its use later on. They sold the Constitution just to get less than half of its blockaded nominees through, and the result will be much less flexibility on future Supreme Court nominations.
Yeah, yeah.

Michelle Malkin, by the way, is that oh-so-cute Filipino-American columnist who recently wrote a book to justify our World War II internment of Americans of Japanese heritage (discussed in these pages here last August) and who was quoted ragging on Newsweek in these pages here last weekend: "Not good enough, Newsweek. People have died because of your shoddy work." An excitable woman it seems?.

On the left? Same sort of thing. You will find this for the constitutional law folks at Talk Left (and they really are lawyers) -
Sell-Out Deal Made: - Bush's Judges In

The worst, the compromise is in. Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor are in. Total capitulation by Democrats. Total victory for Frist. Let them spin it how they want, it's a loss for the Democrats. Henry Saad of Michigan is the fall guy. He won't get a vote. No one cared about him anyway. That's tossing the Dems a chicken bone.

? We don't have a "Republic" tonight. We have a total Republican regime. Welcome to the Theocracy.
Sigh. I don?t think so.

And this from Sterling Newberry - "They got it. Make no mistake, this deal is an unmitigated disaster for Democracy, for the Democratic Senate caucus, for ordinary Democrats, for all Americans."

Well, if that?s so, what are we to make of this from James Dobson? He was the one who said this was a fight for Christianity.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 23 U.S. Newswire - Focus on the Family Action Chairman Dr. James C. Dobson today issued the following statement, upon the announcement by members of the U.S. Senate that a "compromise" had been reached on the filibuster issue:

"This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats. Only three of President Bush's nominees will be given the courtesy of an up-or-down vote, and it's business as usual for all the rest. The rules that blocked conservative nominees remain in effect, and nothing of significance has changed. Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist would never have served on the U. S. Supreme Court if this agreement had been in place during their confirmations. The unconstitutional filibuster survives in the arsenal of Senate liberals.

"We are grateful to Majority Leader Frist for courageously fighting to defend the vital principle of basic fairness. That principle has now gone down to defeat. We share the disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment felt by millions of conservative Americans who helped put Republicans in power last November. I am certain that these voters will remember both Democrats and Republicans who betrayed their trust."
No one is happy ? but it is interesting to consider a Supreme Court without Thomas, Scalia and Rehnquist. And the problem with that would be what?

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga over at the Daily Kos has this to say about the voice of God on this earth ? "It's not a good day to be Bill Frist. He looks weak, unable to control his own caucus. His winger friends go ballistic. They get some judges, sure, but ultimately, we can filibuster Bush's next Supreme Court nominee unless he picks a moderate. The Dobson power grab may have failed a day early."

Our columnist Bob Patterson always listens Hugh Hewitt on the radio, and that man on the right says this:
It is impossible to say whether this is a "terrible" deal, a "bad" deal, or a very, very marginally "ok" deal, but it surely is not a good deal. Not one dime more for the NRSC from me unless and until the Supreme Court nominee gets confirmed, and no other filibusters develop.
The right loses?

The senate majority leader, Reid, thinks so -
? We have sent President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the radical arm of the Republican base an undeniable message: Abuse of power will not be tolerated, and attempts to trample the Constitution and grab absolute control are over. We are a separate and equal branch of government. That is our founding fathers? vision, and one we hold dear.

I offered Senator Frist several options similar to this compromise, and while he was not able to agree, I am pleased that some responsible Republicans and my colleagues were able to put aside there differences and work from the center. I do not support several of the judges that have been agreed to because their views and records display judicial activism that jeopardize individual rights and freedoms. But other troublesome nominees have been turned down. And, most importantly, the U.S. Senate retains the checks and balances to ensure all voices are heard in our democracy and the Supreme Court make-up cannot be decided by a simple majority.
That sounds just fine ? so why are the lawyers at Talk Left so angry?

As I said in late January here, one might consider Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Great Compromiser, and how he is no longer a model for how governance works best. I guess he?s a villain now. Bush ? never waver (moral certitude) - is the hero now. That seems to be how one is supposed to govern. Bush?s whole party operates that way now. And the other side ? the opposition, such as it is ? responds in kind.

So we just had a Henry Clay moment. And it seems no one likes it one bit.

Posted by Alan at 19:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 23 May 2005 20:01 PDT home

Sunday, 22 May 2005

Topic: World View

A Day Off

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, parent site to this web log, has been posted and your editor will be out of town today – off to Carlsbad down by San Diego for a birthday party – Tiffany turns eight.

And it is too hot to think about politics and the culture and to muck about with attempts at “deep thoughts.” At nine in the morning here in Hollywood it’s in the eighties already - and getting hotter by the minute. The air is still and the sun oppressive. Given the microclimates here it will be in the low eighties at the beaches, probably ninety or more here and downtown, and over one hundred in the valleys. Out in the desert – Palm Springs and such places? Around 115 or so. Time to head out.

But to keep you up on the news, and to ignore the film business at Cannes, we have a new winner in the Eurovision song contest today. Yes – this WAS the weekend for that competition that once brought us Sweden's ABBA – remember “Waterloo” do you? – and from the UK, Lulu. Switzerland's entry in 1988 was Celine Dion. She won – except she’s a Canadian from a small town near Montreal. Whatever. Eurovision also is responsible for those Irish clompers – Michael “Lord of the Dance” Flaherty and Riverdance. They got their big break years ago performing between fourth-rate pop singers.

Last year’s competition was covered in these pages – May 16, 2004 – in Grim Music and Silly Music.

This year?

We have a winner!
KYIV, Ukraine - Greek singer Helena won the Eurovision song contest early Sunday. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko presented her with the prize for her seductive performance of My Number One, a mid-tempo tune with minor-keyed Balkan flavorings.

The singer, whose full name is Helena Paparizou, had been seen by bookmakers as the favorite going into the finals. Norway's Wig Wam, seen as her main competition, finished in the middle of the pack. The surprise runner-up was Malta's Chiara. Romania's Luminita Anghel placed third in the continent-wide telephone voting.

… transnational performances were by Vanilla Ninja, from Estonia but representing Switzerland, and by Bosnia-Herzegovina's Feminem, with one of its three singers born in what is now Croatia.
Ah, Greece, then Malta, then Romania! Cool.

Curiously, I see my tracking software shows ten unique logons to Just Above Sunset from Malta in the last year. Go, Malta!

I don’t know if Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, caught this year’s broadcast. I hope not. I doubt if I will be able to catch a rebroadcast this afternoon in Carlsbad – the one in California. And I doubt that the kids at the party want to watch Maltese pop.

Oh well.



Ric in Paris missed the contest!
My life is three hours longer for having missed the 50th Eurovision Song Contest last night. I was on a rooftop terrace - like the second floor - wearing a sou'wester, eating Ronnie the Rabbit and watching a fuzzy moon rise over the slums of Paris. I'm not fond of rabbit - 2nd rate chicken with ears at best - but missing three hours of Europop will just about make my musical year. I'm not surprised somebody won it. It's been managed before somehow. Even the losers are first rate, for Europop.

On the subject of 'pop' - I came across a copy of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' yesterday at my local library, so I borrowed it. Of all the things I've heard about it I don't remember anyone saying that it's very poorly written. Life is short. It isn't worth reading. If bad writing makes you grit your teeth I can only recommend this book if you want to grit your teeth for some reason.

There was a nice piece about Dan Brown in the New York Times a few weeks ago. But it didn't say anything about him being a terrible writer. Is it something he's done especially for this particular book, or is he always a lousy writer? If we wonder why people seem incapable of thinking these days; look at what they read.
Brown?s book has not been covered in these pages. Maltese pop is far more interesting, and that?s not saying much.

Posted by Alan at 09:17 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005 14:28 PDT home

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