Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sifting the News

a talk given at the Bedford Lyceum in Bedford, MA on March 14, 2010

Every now and then I set out to write one thing and something else entirely comes out. Well, the announcement for this talk says that I'm going to tell you how I do the Weekly Sift -- and I will say a few words about that. But every time I sat down to write that talk, I kept backing up to explain why I write the Sift. After a couple of tries, I finally gave in. I'll say a little about how, but this talk is mostly about why.

But first, what. The Weekly Sift is a blog I write. It's mainly about politics, occasionally venturing out into culture, religion, and other related subjects. It comes out Monday afternoons. I try to keep it down to about 3000 words -- just slightly longer than a sermon.

In a typical week I'll have two or three topics that I talk about in some detail, and then five or ten "short notes" that might just be a sentence or two, with a link to something I found interesting. The Sift is intended to be a secondary news source. Being weekly, I write it assuming that you already know whatever the currently hyped news stories are, and that you're probably sick of them. Occasionally I miss a week, but I've been doing it pretty consistently for about 2 1/2 years.

A lot of people ask how long it takes each week, and I never have a good answer. Originally, the Sift was just a way to get my week off to a productive start. All week I'd bookmark articles I found while browsing the Internet, and then Monday I'd sit down and explain why I liked them.

Then it started to grow. Now I collect bookmarks Tuesday through Thursday. By Friday I usually know what my main stories are going to be. Over the weekend I do my research and write them up, and then Monday I go through the bookmarks I haven't used to put the Short Notes together.

I don't know how to estimate how much time it takes, because it's not always clear when I'm Sifting and when I'm just wandering around the Internet or staring into space. But however I do the accounting, it has turned into a significant enough chunk of time to raise the question about why I do it.


I have my own version of "Think globally, act locally." I believe that the best way to change things is to start with a problem that you care about personally, then look at the Big Picture until you figure out what the scale of the problem really is. Then come back to your own scale and ask what you can do about it.

The personal problem that got the Sift started was that I didn't trust the news media any more. Amazingly often, when I did even the smallest amount of research into some big controversy, I'd discover that the original controversial events never happened at all, or happened in a very different context than was being reported.

Some of these things were trivial, like Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet. Others were more serious, like the fact that Saddam didn't have WMDs and didn't conspire with Bin Laden. But again and again, I'd discover that the events we were all arguing about hadn't happened that way at all.

I don't mean that in a conspiracy theory sense. No covert organization was staging fake events or covering up real ones like in the spy movies. Most of the time stuff wasn't covered up at all. Everything was all right there on the internet -- the transcripts, the official reports, the court decisions, the bills in Congress -- everything you needed to see through the hype and the illusion, if you bothered to take the time to look it up and put it all together.

At one time, that was the job of the news media. But it didn't seem to be their job any more. It didn't seem to be anybody's job.

So, when I pulled back to look at the Big Picture, the problem I saw was this: The social contract between the public and the news media has broken down.


I'm going to have to take a long detour here, because the social contract has broken down so completely that it's hard to remember what the old contract was. So I want to flash back a few decades to what I like to call the Walter Cronkite Era.

Every day, Walter would end the CBS Evening News with his famous tagline: "And that's the way it is." To me, that sums up the old contract. For our part, we trusted Walter to tell us how things were. He was sometimes billed as "the most trusted man in America".

In return, he -- and the other news anchors of his era -- made a number of unstated commitments, which I would summarize in five points.

  • First, news broadcasts will be accurate. He tried to get it right, and CBS maintained a large staff of reporters to help him get it right.
  • Second, the news will be up to date. Not "That's the way it was" but "That's the way it is." 
  • Third, the news will be complete. Not in the sense that Walter could tell you in a half hour everything that happened today, but in the sense that CBS News considered the whole world to be its beat. If it happened today and it was important, then it should be on the news. 
  • Fourth, the news should be objective. The news should not be propaganda. Events should not be shoe-horned into a pre-existing point-of-view.
  • Finally, the news media would hold newsmakers accountable. Journalists are working for you, the public, and collectively they're strong enough to make the Powers-That-Be answer questions. 

(Naturally, I'm not claiming that CBS or any other news organization always lived up to those commitments. On occasion they made mistakes, overlooked things, failed to ask the right questions, and developed an implicit point of view. What I'm claiming is that those were failings, not repudiations.)

We used to call the news media the Fourth Estate, a term you never hear any more. Their power was on a scale with the other estates: the Government, the Intelligentsia, and the People.Why were they so powerful? Supply and demand. In Walter's day, there were three networks, each producing a half-hour news program each day. Two wire services -- AP and UPI -- serviced all the newspapers. In essence, those five organizations occupied a narrow isthmus between newsmakers and the general public.

Also: the news didn't need to make money. News was part of the prestige of a network. Gunsmoke made money, so Cronkite didn't have to.

Walter retired in 1981. Since then the  major networks have all been taken over by media conglomerates, and the news divisions are now expected to make as much money as they can. So budgets have been slashed and the money that is left is focused on superstars who can produce ratings.

But even more important: Today there are many news channels trying to fill 24-hours of programming each day. The internet has not only created an army of bloggers, it has made every little newspaper and radio station into a global distributor. The Bedford Minuteman is a global newspaper now. You can read it today in places where you could not have found a New York Times 30 years ago.

That has changed the supply-and-demand relationship on both sides. Journalists have to pander both to their sources and to the general public, because both can easily go elsewhere.


So how does that affect Cronkite's five commitments? Well, right off the bat we can eliminate the idea that a news organization can hold newsmakers accountable. There is no Fourth Estate any more. Powerful people answer the questions they want to answer, because if you try to ask them other questions, they can ignore you and still get their story out without you.

Look at Dick Cheney, for example. Cheney has had dozens of interviews in the last year, and they all go the same way: The interviewer brings up a difficult subject like Iraq or torture or whatever. Cheney makes a statement that is completely and obviously false. And then the interviewer moves on to the next subject. (His interview with CNN's John King set the pattern.)

Glenn Greenwald likes to say that we don't have reporters any more, we have stenographers. They write down what newsmakers say and publish it. Glenn casts that as a moral failing, and to some extent it is. But it also true that journalists don't have the power to do much else. If you make it difficult for a newsmaker to distribute his message, he'll ignore you and reach the public some other way. If you want to have a career in journalism, you have to pander to your sources.

Now let's talk about up-to-date and accurate. In the Cronkite Era, there was a daily news cycle. If a rumor popped up at 2 in the afternoon, Walter had until 6:30 to figure out whether it was true. He had a big staff of reporters to check it out, and those reporters all had sources who were competing for their attention.

Now, the news cycle is instantaneous. The rumor pops up at 2, and if you don't have it on the air by 2:01, you're behind. So when you see breaking news on TV these days, most of the time the reporter has no idea whether what he's telling you is true. There's no time and there's no budget and people don't have to answer questions unless they want to. In the Fort Hood shootings, for example, people went on the air with reports that there were multiple shooters, that a heroic female cop gunned down one of them, and that he died. All false.

So we can have up-to-date but only by giving up on accurate.

You would think that having 24 hours of broadcast time each day would make it easier to deliver on the commitment to completeness, but in fact it doesn't. Cronkite-era news organizations could cover every important event, because they had the power to impose their own definition of importance. Thirty years ago, watching the news or reading a major newspaper was a little like doing push-ups or drinking prune juice. You did it because it was good for you, because this was what you needed to know. If you weren't interested in some story that Walter considered important, well, you should be.

Today, with all the choices and the corporate need for profit and ratings, the news is whatever a lot of people will watch. Just as journalists have to pander to their sources, they also have to pander to the public. (Today it would seem incredibly arrogant for Katie Couric to tell us "the way it is". Who, we would wonder, told her she had that kind of power? Thirty years ago it didn't seem arrogant at all; we knew and accepted that Cronkite had that kind of power.) So the news is full of fluff and hype and outrage -- and if there's a coup somewhere in Africa, who really cares? Nobody has the budget to have an office out there, and who would watch anyway?

Finally, let's consider objective. Today we have philosophical problems with objectivity. The prevailing philosophical view today is that real objectivity is impossible. You can try to suppress the prejudices you know about, but some preconceptions are just the warp and woof of your thinking, and you can't get away from them.

So journalists today are a little like priests who don't believe in God. They're trying to live by a value that doesn't make sense to them any more. So, like priests who have lost their faith, journalists demonstrate their objectivity in dishonest and hypocritical ways. They have lost any real sense of objectivity and instead made a fetish of balance.

So, for example, we have the he-said/she-said story. Climate scientists say one thing about global warming; flacks hired by the oil industry say something else. On to the next story. Nancy Pelosi says that it's raining; John Boehner says that its sunny. On to the next story. God forbid a reporter should go outside and tell us whether or not he's getting wet. That would be picking a side. It wouldn't be balanced.

Or we have the false equivalence story. Several members of one party are ax murderers. But somebody from the other party got a parking ticket, so there is law-breaking on both sides. If I just reported the murders, or said that murder is more serious than a parking ticket, that would be picking a side. It wouldn't be balanced.

Finally, honest analysis from any political point of view has been replaced by dueling talking points. You have somebody like James Carville give Democratic talking points, balance him with somebody like Karl Rove giving Republican talking points, and on to the next story.

I'm going to go off on a bit of tangent-within-the-tangent here, because this is a phenomenon that nobody ever explains, and it has to do with budget cuts and commercialization.

The problem isn't that Rove is a Republican or Carville a Democrat. The problem is that they aren't commentators at all -- they're advertisers. A real commentator is working for the network that is working for you. But heavy hitters like Rove and Carville command big money for their insights -- more than the network wants to pay. So Carville and Rove don't go on TV for the money, they go on because the network has assembled an audience that they can sell their talking points to.

They're not working for you, they're working on you. That's why networks occasionally have these open-mike accidents, where a pundit has dutifully sold his talking points -- and then the camera goes off but the mike keeps recording, and he says something completely different. What he told you when the camera was running was not honest commentary. It was advertising.

So let's sum up what I see as the faults of current mainstream news coverage.

  • First, it's inaccurate; it jumps on rumors and fans them.
  • It's ineffective at getting newsmakers to answer the questions we need answers to.
  • It's lazy. It's easy to balance a story between two opposing sides, but it's work to figure out whether anything that they told you was true. Less and less often does anyone do that work.
  • It's repetitive. It got to be a joke around our house. Deb would say, "What's new?" and I'd say, "Michael Jackson is still dead." 
  • It panders. Now that news organizations have to maximize profit, the news is whatever will get ratings.
  • And finally, it's dishonest. Advertisers are presented as commentators. People who are working for somebody else come on the air to work on you.

OK, that's a very long-winded description of the problem. Now, obviously one person is not going to solve that. And I'm not a billionaire or the president of a media corporation or the dean of a journalism school. So what can I, working on my small scale, do about this?

Obviously, I can't go out and replace Walter Cronkite or his organization. I can't be complete. I can't be up-to-the-second. If I call up the White House and demand answers, I'm probably not going to get any farther than you would. I have the same philosophical problems with objectivity that everyone else does. About the only one of Cronkite's commitments I can fill is that I can try to be accurate. And if I discover that I haven't been accurate, I can own up to it and try to fix my mistakes.

So I can't offer to uphold the old social contract between the public and the media. But what I can do, and what other bloggers like me can do, is offer a new contract.

 The number one thing in that contract is honesty. Honesty is very different from objectivity or balance. Anyone who reads more than a few lines of the Sift knows that it's a liberal blog. I am a liberal myself, so when I try to make sense out of the world, I make sense in a liberal way.

But a blogger should be like the cobbler who wears his own shoes or the baker who eats his own bread. I'm trying to make sense of the world for myself. If I find some sense, I publish it on the Sift. I can't promise you that the story I tell you is "the way it is". But I can promise that the story I'm telling you is the same one I tell myself.

If you want balance, you don't need me to provide it, you can make it for yourself. If you read the Sift and then go read a conservative blog or a communist blog or an Islamic jihadist blog, that's wonderful. And if all of those people are making the same commitment to honesty, if they're telling you how the world really looks to a conservative or a communist or a jihadist -- then you're going to have a wonderful sense of perspective on the world.

Number two is verifiability. I'm not aiming to be the most trusted man in America. Quite the opposite, I want to burden your trust as little as I can. That's why I put so many links in my stories. I expect you to doubt me -- sometimes I even want you to doubt me -- so I link to the evidence that led me to believe what I just wrote.

That's particularly important when I'm telling you what public figures are saying, because so much of the mainstream media these days is an enormous game of Telephone. A public figure says something that gets paraphrased. Then the paraphrase gets paraphrased, and so on until the quote is nothing like what was originally said.

So when I quote somebody, I do my best to link to a video or a transcript -- preferably a complete one. So you can verify that I didn't make this quote up, and you can judge for yourself whether I took it out of context.

My third commitment is depth. If I take up a story at all, I will do that work the news media refuses to do: Look up the sources, make the connections, and find the context. If a story raises an obvious question, I'll try to answer that question.


OK, now let's get into what the talk was supposed to be about, the how. I think a lot of people who don't understand the blogging community imagine that I'm much smarter and more widely read than I really am. They see that one week the Sift has a story from the Charlotte Observer and another week there's something from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and they think that I must read, like, a hundred newspapers every day.

Not exactly. Most days I read the New York Times and buzz through the top headlines on Google News and CNN. But what really happens is that I'm plugged into a network of people. And among all of us, we probably do read a hundred newspapers every day. And if any one of us spots something interesting, it gets out.

The best place to keep track of these stories that other people are spotting is in the Recommended Diaries column of DailyKos. Thousands of people post the things they find interesting on Kos. And if fifty or a hundred Kos readers think what they found was interesting, it makes the recommended list. That's the only way I'm going to find something in the Sacramento Bee.

I pay regular attention to two other group blogs: Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post. And there are a handful of individual bloggers that I read just about every day: Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, Digby, and a few others.

I often link to something in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, or the Atlantic, but usually somebody else found it for me.

I also pay attention to a few specialist blogs; I don't read them every day, but I search through them if I want to understand a particular issue. Juan Cole is my Middle Eastern expert. Nate Silver analyzes polls for me. Scott Horton and Marcy Wheeler are my civil liberty lawyers. I found them the way you find specialists in any small town: Somebody you trust tells you about somebody else.

Sometimes Sift readers send me stuff, or they ask a question that leads to a Google query. And, like anybody else who browses the internet, I find a lot just by luck. A page I visit links to another that links to another, and eventually I find something good without knowing how I got there.


Finally, I want to back off of something I implied earlier: that I work for my readers rather than on them. On one scale that's true, but on another it isn't. I seldom state it in so many words, but there is one idea sitting in the background of just about every Sift article. It's part of my own faith, and you could say that I'm always working to sell this idea to my readers: The world is comprehensible. The stuff you need to understand to be a good citizen and play your role in a functioning democracy -- it's understandable.

Lots of people would like to convince you otherwise -- that the world is arcane and complicated and you should just give up on making sense out of it; that everybody lies and you can never sort out what's true and what isn't. But the underlying message of the Sift is that everything you need to understand the world is sitting in plain sight. If you're diligent and you take the time, you can put it together.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Finally Understand John McCain

Thursday John McCain came back to New Hampshire for the first time, I think, since the primary. I saw him in Nashua, in the gym at Daniel Webster College, along with maybe 450-500 other people.

I thought about writing up the event immediately as a news piece for Daily Kos, but it actually wasn't that newsy. Or maybe the newslessness was the news: Other than a few references to Obama, McCain is saying more-or-less the same stuff he was when he was running for the Republican nomination. (He even repeated a joke I'd heard before: Two prison inmates are standing in the chow line, and one says to the other, "You know, the food was a lot better here when you were governor.") Maybe that's an admirable consistency, or maybe it means he's still trying to pull the Republican Party together.

The thing worth writing about, I eventually decided, is that I think I finally get McCain. You see, the paradox of McCain is pretty simple: He has this strong general message that government spending is out of control, and that Congress needs a president strong enough to say NO to its wasteful ways, so that we can continue to cut taxes and yet return to fiscal responsibility. But when the audience asks him about any particular thing the government does, he promises to continue it or even do more of it: He wants to stay in Iraq as long as it takes, keep Social Security and Medicare strong, take care of veterans, make health care and college educations affordable, start a land-a-man-on-the-Moon-like program to make the United States independent of foreign oil, defend our borders against illegal immigration, and on and on and on. He rails against procedural stuff like Congressional earmarks, but never once does he say, "Here's an expensive government service that the American people are going to have to get along without."

And he does all this with great conviction, not with the discomfort he shows when he knows he's lying.

But you know what he does talk about? The Bridge to Nowhere -- the $300-400 million project to build a bridge to Gravina Island in Alaska. It was inserted into the 2005 Transportation Equity Act by Alaska's Republican Senator Ted Stevens, got a lot of bad press, and was canceled in 2007 by Alaska's governor. This never-built bridge is part of McCain's regular stump speech, and he mentioned it twice Thursday.

Kind of curious, don't you think, that a non-existent bridge deserves so much attention. By contrast, the actual bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last summer doesn't come up at all.

I think I finally understand what's going on there. For McCain (as for most of us, I think), government is one of those notions like Life or Truth. It's just too big to think about directly. There was no multi-trillion-dollar government on the prehistoric savannas of Africa, so our brains didn't evolve a handle for one. Instead, each of us has one example (or maybe a handful of examples) that represent for us what government really means. Those examples are mostly unconscious, so if you ask somebody "What specific event sums up government for you?" they probably won't know what to say. But if you listen to them long enough, you'll start to hear it.

Take my Dad, for example. For him, government is the farm loan program that kept my grandfather from going bankrupt during the Depression, when Dad was just a boy. It was a loan, not a gift, and it eventually got paid off. But it kept the wolf from the door long enough for hard work and the natural fertility of the soil to perform its magic. (Dad still owns that farm -- he rents it to my cousin.) Dad knows deep down that when you have a run of bad luck, government can keep you in the game long enough for things to turn around. So when you talk about cutting government, he starts wondering who's going to have to go bust.

For Ronald Reagan, by contrast, government was the welfare queen who, he claimed, used multiple identities to bilk the government out of enough money to pay for her Cadillac. Government makes us suckers. It collects our money and then doesn't watch over it the way we would.

Do I need to point out that Dad's still a New Deal Democrat and Ronald Reagan was a Republican?

The same event can imprint government in many divergent ways. Take Hurricane Katrina. Some people for the rest of their lives will think of government as the helicopter that lifts you off your roof without waiting for proof of who you are or what you can afford. Others will think of government as the people who leave you to rot in the SuperDome because you're black or poor. Others will remember the thousands of trailers that sat empty in Arkansas because red tape prevented them from being moved to places where homeless people needed them.

And none of them will be wrong. All those things are part of what government is.

For John McCain, government is the Bridge to Nowhere. It's big and wasteful and if you just didn't do it hardly anybody would suffer. The actual Bridge to Nowhere, if it had been built, would have been about a hundredth of a percent of one year's federal spending.

If it symbolizes the whole government, though, then there must be trillions you could save. And when somebody asks, "What about the student loan that lets me go to college even though my hard-working parents can't afford to send me?" or "What about the VA hospital that gave me an artificial leg after I stepped on an IED outside of Mosul?" -- well, McCain didn't mean that government.

He meant the government that builds all those bridges to nowhere.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Pirate Treasure: Why oil and democracy don't mix

In Wednesday's column, Thomas Friedman quotes Stanford professor Larry Diamond:
There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy.
Why should this be? Remember just before the Iraq invasion when neo-cons were assuring us that Iraq's oil wealth would be an advantage in its transition to democracy?

Understanding why it wasn't -- and won't be in the future -- tells us something important about democracy: You can settle your differences by voting only after your society has established an overwhelming consensus on all the issues worth killing and dying for.

One of those issues is the legitimacy of the property system: Who owns what? Why should I recognize that any particular bit of wealth is yours and not mine? The answer to that question hangs not only on the homogeneity of a country's culture, but on the kind of property that country has.

Legitimate Property vs. Pirate Treasure.
Some kinds of property are easy to legitimize. If you kill the elk and drag it home, nobody's going to complain when the choicest cut goes to you. To give a more modern example, the Homestead Act was hardly legitimate in the eyes of the Native Americans whose land was being carved up, but among voting white citizens it made good sense: If you cleared the land, lived on it, and farmed it, it was obviously yours and not mine.

Wages paid voluntarily by an employer are legitimate: "The laborer is worthy of his hire," says the Bible. If you took the dangerous voyage to the other side of the world and brought back a shipload of Chinese silk -- that was your silk, not mine.

Laws are needed to regulate such property, but not to establish its legitimacy. The legitimacy of the property justifies the law, not the other way around.

Virtue can legitimize wealth. If we all benefit from people of great skill -- doctors, say, or inventors -- it's easy to justify them having more than the rest of us, at least up to a point. An ancient king who kept his country at peace, dispensed wise judgments, and avoided wasteful displays of luxury could own more than his subjects with little resentment. Similarly, if the owner of the local mill paid livable wages, cared about the safety of his workers, and donated generously to local charities, poorer neighbors might even defend his disproportionate wealth against those who proposed to divide it up.

But other kinds of wealth are like the buried treasure of long-dead pirates: They don't naturally and legitimately seem to belong to anyone. If you can find the pirate treasure and hang onto it long enough to spend it, it's yours. But if someone can take it from you, it's theirs.

Natural resource wealth is inherently suspect because, as the Bible puts it, "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." But the effort to find and extract the resource can legitimize its ownership. The gold of the 49ers was a little like the elk that a hunter dragged back to camp. But the diamonds of Cecil Rhodes -- pulled out of African land by African labor -- looks much more like pirate treasure.

Today, the wealth of the House of Saud is entirely pirate treasure. The oil was found by foreigners, can be pumped out of the ground at minimal expense, and is sold at a vast profit. What effort or virtue marks this profit as belonging to the al-Sauds? If I'm a lesser Saudi prince, or if I have a bloodline just as ancient and distinguished as the al-Sauds, or even if I'm just a Bedouin tribesman whose ancestors crisscrossed the sites of the oil wells for centuries -- why doesn't that wealth belong to me? The main reason, as far as I can see, is that the Saudi king has the guns to enforce his claim. If I had the guns, my claim would be every bit as legitimate.

Democracy and Consensus. If you believe, as President Bush apparently does, that the essence of democracy is to have a constitution and hold elections, then all this talk about the legitimacy of property has no bearing on whether or not a country will succeed as a democracy. But in the real world a democracy stands or falls on this question: After you have your constitutionally sanctioned election, why does the loser accept his loss?

Think about what happened in America after the 2000 election. More people voted for Gore than for Bush, but Bush became president. Many Gore supporters came out of that election believing that Bush won by refusing to count legally cast votes. Others believed that Bush's brother misused his position as governor of Florida to disenfranchise people who had a legal right to vote, and that those votes would have made Gore president. Still others believed that the Electoral College itself was illegitimate, and that Gore should have been president by virtue of winning the popular vote.

In many countries, that situation would have led to general strikes, riots, and maybe even civil war. In the United States, the Supreme Court's ruling ended the dispute. The decision was accepted even by those who believed that the Court was practicing politics rather than law. No strikes. No riots. No government-in-exile.

Conversely, Bush did not begin his administration as many rulers with weak claims do: by rounding up his opponents and having them shot. No newspapers were shut down. The Democrats were allowed to run candidates in subsequent elections. And Gore himself remained free and prospered greatly under the new administration.

We sometimes forget how remarkable this was.

Why did it happen? Or, more accurately, why did the civil war fail to happen? Fundamentally, the answer comes down to this: In America we have a broad consensus that covers all the issues worth getting yourself killed for. Losing an election doesn't mean that the rich suddenly become poor or the free become slaves. Bush defeating Gore didn't mean that Democrats would lose their land or be herded into camps or have to watch their daughters be raped by the victorious Republicans.

In some countries that is what an election means. And they don't stay democracies long, no matter what their constitutions say.

Democracy and Pirate Treasure.
The great anarchist Emma Goldman said: "If voting could change the system, it would be against the law." That's an overstatement, but she was on to an important truth: Some things are too important to decide by vote. They're so important that the losers won't be able to accept their loss. They'll risk killing and being killed, because the alternative seems worse.

You can't, for example, vote on a genocide. If I lose, will my people voluntarily line up to be slaughtered? I certainly hope not. Our enemies may have proved that they outnumber us, but we'll grab our guns and take our chances in battle. Democracy is over.

Property may not seem as important as life, but history has shown again and again that people will die for it.

At the fringes, maybe not: A court may move your property line a few feet, and even if you think it's wrong, you're not going to take up arms. An election may change the tax rate on your income without sending you to the barricades. But the kind of change Goldman was talking about -- a fundamental redistribution of property and a redefinition of the meaning of property -- was going to be met with violence. Voting about it would never be enough.

The more consensus a society has about its property and wealth -- the more general agreement there is about who owns what and why -- the easier it will be for that country to become a democracy. But if a nation's wealth is predominantly pirate treasure whose ownership is defined and established only by force, then no set of documents can turn it into a democracy. Presidents and prime ministers will see no reason why that treasure shouldn't be theirs, and the people who have the treasure now will spend it on guns rather than surrender it to whoever got the most votes. Democracy will last until the rich lose an election -- or just fear losing an election -- and then it will be over.

Japan and Iraq.
Whenever critics pointed out the hopelessness of establishing an Iraqi democracy by force, the neocons would point to Japan. On February 26, 2003, President Bush asserted:
There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq -- with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people -- is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.
Japan had no Western heritage and no democratic history. And yet after we defeated the Japanese in war, we could write a new constitution for them, and preside over the establishment of a democracy that has lasted half a century and seems likely to continue into the far future. Why couldn't we do the same in Iraq?

I wish I could make every neo-con read Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon, which revolves around the search for a vast horde of gold that the Japanese hid in the Philippines during the war. (As in much of Stephenson's work, the true meaning of money and wealth is a constant background meditation.)

Near the end of the novel, two of its protagonists finally meet: the American computer hacker Randy Waterhouse and the elderly Japanese industrialist Goto Dengo. The best thing that ever happened to Japan, Dengo claims, was to lose all its gold. Real wealth, he says, is in the heads and hands of the people, in their intelligence and the work they do. He points to Tokyo: "Fifty years ago it was flames. Now it is lights! Do you understand?"

Democracy could take hold in Japan because it started with nothing. The wealth it built in the heads and hands of its people was easy to legitimize and hard to steal. But in Iraq, in much of the Middle East, and in failed post-colonial African democracies like mineral-rich Zimbabwe, the national wealth is buried in the ground and belongs as easily to one person as another.

Until this wealth is rooted in some consensus of legitimacy, it will be battled over. And an electoral victory will only herald a more violent struggle.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Weekly Sift: Got Death?

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression. -- Thomas Paine

I finally got around to changing the name of this series. I'm working on designing a blog for it. Stay tuned.
Fearmongering Finally Fails
I can only hope that a few of you are still alive to read this. You see, the Protect America Act expired at midnight Saturday, so America is now unprotected. The continued survival of our nation has become a matter of luck. In fact, the Heritage Foundation has a ticking clock on its web site so that future generations will know just how long it has been since we all died.

Or something like that.

A little background: The PAA amends the FISA law to increase the government's power to spy. It was passed in a big panicked rush right before the Congressional recess last August -- what might have happened otherwise is too horrible to contemplate -- but in a tiny gesture of sanity Congress included a six-month sunset clause, which just expired. The last month or so has seen the most bizarre parliamentary maneuvering. Bush and the Republicans in Congress have threatened vetoes, stalled, filibustered, blocked temporary extensions, and done whatever they could to recreate the situation of August, with Congress up against a hard deadline and no choice other than surrender to the terrorists or give Bush everything he wants -- including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies who broke an unspecified number of laws in helping the administration spy on American citizens.

The Senate caved, convincing me that Chris Dodd should be majority leader. But the House refused to be stampeded and adjourned for a week without taking action. This is probably just a meaningless gesture of rebellion before they give in too, but we've got to enjoy it while we can.

A lot of people are writing about this situation, so I'll link to them rather than reproduce their arguments. Scott Horton wrote before it was clear what the House would do. Glenn Greenwald summarizes the issues and skewers all the right-wing fear-mongering. The best case for telecom immunity comes not from the administration but from liberal blogger Kevin Drum.

The administration's arguments are only impressive if you believe that they would never abuse secrecy or lie to us about the things we aren't allowed to know. They make lots of assertions, but the supporting details are classified, so if they told us they'd have to shoot us. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell wrote in the Washington Post: "Under the Protect America Act, we obtained valuable insight and understanding, leading to the disruption of planned terrorist attacks. Expiration would lead to the loss of important tools our workforce relies on to discover the locations, intentions and capabilities of terrorists and other foreign intelligence targets abroad. Some critical operations ... would probably become impossible." The Balkinization blog characterizes McConnell's article as: "The fox requests immunity for its previous guarding of the chicken coop."

The White House put out a myth/fact sheet on the PAA, but again the "facts" are either uncheckable assertions or pure statements of opinion. And, as Brian Beutler points out, sometimes the "fact" is a non-sequitur, because the administration actually can't deny that the "myth" is true. One "fact" says: "Companies should not be held responsible for verifying the government's determination that requested assistance was necessary and lawful" -- which caused Dan Froomkin to wonder: "But isn't that the very definition of a police state: that companies should do whatever the government asks, even if they know it's illegal?"

And then there's this from President Bush himself:

The American people have got to know that what we did in the past gained information that prevented an attack. And for those who criticize what we did in the past, I ask them, which attack would they rather have not permitted — stopped?.Which attack on America did they — would they have said, well, you know, maybe it wasn't all that important that we stop those attacks.

So apparently there's a secret list of terrorist attacks that didn't happen. We can't look at the list, but Bush challenges us to pick which of these unknown non-happening events we would have wanted to happen. Because it would have failed not to happen if not for ... wait, I'm lost. The whole thing reminds me of this old joke: Auditors are interviewing a big-city mayor about all the relatives he has on the payroll and what they do. When they come to his mother, the mayor explains that she protects the city from tigers. One auditor objects: "But there are no tigers for thousands of miles." And the mayor says: "Don't thank me. Thank Mom."

Who Are They Really?
Back in 2000, the media presented us with two very clear images of the presidential candidates. George W. Bush was a regular guy who'd be fun to hang around with. Al Gore, on the other hand, was a pretentious bore -- preachy, self-important, and generally not somebody you'd want to spend any time with.

Looking back, those images seem pretty ridiculous. Bush is a fun guy if you don't mind him giving you a humiliating nickname like "Turd Blossom" and if you never hint that he might have made a mistake. He's so charming that all his campaign stops in 2004 had to be invitation-only events. Otherwise hard questions from voters might have evoked the Furious George that we saw in the first Bush-Kerry debate.

Gore, meanwhile, becomes more fascinating all the time. He starts companies. He makes movies. He turned around public opinion on global warming. Already in 2000, you might have read Earth in the Balance and seen a guy with wide-ranging curiosity who used his political status to see a lot of interesting things and talk to the smartest people in the world. I'd love to have a chance to sit down with Gore one-on-one.

The purpose of that history lesson is to wonder: Is the same thing happening now? Are lazy journalists fitting the facts into simplistic narratives that lack any foundation in reality? Yeah, I think they are. Let's take the remaining candidates one-by-one.

Obama. Here's the media narrative about Barack Obama: He's an inspiring speaker, but he lacks substance. His way with words is all fuzzy abstraction that masks his lack of detailed understanding.

The "inspiring speaker" part is true. But I saw him answer questions at a rally last summer, and his command of details is as good as anybody's. And if you chase the links on the issues page of Obama's web site, you'll find quite a bit of detailed policy commitment. His health care plan, for example, is a lot more specific than John McCain's -- even though McCain has been able to exploit the media narrative by saying: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas ... is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

So Wednesday when Obama gave a speech in Janesville, Wisconsin specifically to outline his economic plan, it should have been a man-bites-dog moment, right? If you had the expertise and resources of, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post, think of the service you could offer your readers: You could examine his proposals in detail, get experts to assess whether they would help anybody, figure out what they'd cost, and so on. Readers aren't set up to do that kind of analysis for themselves -- and neither am I, to tell the truth (at least I provide the links) -- but you're a big news organization. It's right up your alley.

Well, maybe not. The Post sort of mentioned that Obama had made some economic proposals, but their article was totally focused on the political tactics behind the proposals: the up-coming Wisconsin primary, Clinton's advantage with working class voters, and on and on. If you want to know what Obama actually proposed, good luck to you. (Matt Yglesias took the Post to task here.) Ditto for the Times: They note that Obama is "adding detail to his oratory", but they treat "detail" as an ingredient, like salt. You don't need to know what the details are, just that he's adding them. And of course, you get a long tactical analysis about why he's adding details and what he hopes they'll do for him with certain kinds of voters.

Here's the upshot: Obama can spell out as much as he wants, but if the Times and the Post are sitting between him and the voters, nothing's going to get through. And even if you're a faithful reader of both the Post and the Times, when the guy in the next cubicle at work says: "That Obama -- he sounds good, but there's nothing there" you won't know enough to argue.

Clinton. In the musical 1776 John Adams doesn't want his personal unpopularity to sink the cause of independence. So he goes from one member of his committee to the next, looking for someone else to write the proposed Declaration. After several rebuffs, he approaches Robert Livingston.

Mr. Livingston, maybe you should write it.
You have many friends, and you're a diplomat.

FRANKLIN: Oh, that word!

Whereas if I'm the one to do it,
They'll run their quill pens through it.

He's obnoxious and disliked.
Did you know that?

LIVINGSTON: I hadn't heard.
Today, you'd have to be as diplomatic as Robert Livingston to claim you hadn't heard this about Hillary Clinton: She's unlikeable. She's cold and calculating and doesn't care about anything but power. Even her supporters don't like her. Women vote for her because she's a woman. Men support her because they have something to gain out of the Clintons' return to power, or because they're racists who don't like Obama, or because they're afraid she's going to win anyway so they want to get on her good side.

Now, I can't claim to have spent quality time with Hillary Clinton. But when I did see her in person at a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner last March, I didn't find any support for the stereotype. She seemed quite likable to me, and I found one particular part of her message very moving: She talked about all the people who are invisible to the Bush administration, and she promised that as president she would see them.

I've talked to some of those older women who are Hillary's primary base of support. (My mom is one.) You know what? They like her. They don't just support her because she's a woman. They support her because they know the kind of crap a woman has to take to succeed in a man's field. Those women see Hillary sailing through the crap-storm with her head high, and they just admire the heck out of her.

McCain. Clinton supporters often claim that Hillary gets bad coverage because a strong woman threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews. They're missing the bigger story: John McCain gets good coverage because he threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews.

I feel something similar myself. Like most of the male talking heads on TV, I live in safety and comfort. My physical courage, my ability to think clearly when threatened, that whole Hemingway grace-under-pressure thing -- it's never really been tested. Given the chance, would I be a hero? Would I scream and faint like a little girl? Nobody knows, least of all me.

The intimidating thing about John McCain is that he's been tested and he passed. He knows. That gives him an alpha-dog aura that makes untested men want to follow him around like puppies. When he called on me during the question period at his town-hall meeting, I felt a little thrill that I normally don't. I felt honored. It's irrational, but very effective.

That's why McCain's media narrative is so positive: He's the straight talker. The maverick. The guy who says what he thinks and follows his conscience.

The truth -- and this really shouldn't be so controversial -- is that he's a politician. Not an outstandingly devious or dishonest one, but still a politician. When his target voters don't like one of his positions, he changes it or soft-pedals it or somehow makes it go away. Brave New Films put together a collection of his flip-flops. But you know, the striking thing about those waffles and self-contradictions is how ordinary they are. If not for the straight-talk myth, they wouldn't be noteworthy.

He's also not that much of a maverick. He has made a few independent noises over the past seven years, but when it comes time to vote he gets in line with all the other Republicans. This week he even backed down on his signature issue: torture. But again, that shouldn't shock anybody. There are no Republican mavericks. The breed is extinct.

The one downside of McCain's image -- his temper -- is also overblown. What strikes me about McCain's temper is that he gets over it. No campaign in recent memory was as nasty as the one Bush ran against McCain in South Carolina in 2000. But McCain has put it behind him. (A questioner took him to task for this at the town meeting I attended. McCain shot right back: The American people care about issues and getting things done; they don't want to hear about his ancient feuds.) He made up with Jerry Falwell. He even went back to Vietnam. Try to imagine George W. Bush doing anything similar. If you piss off W, you can go to Hell; he's done with you. McCain isn't like that.

The YouTube Election
When they get around to writing the history of YouTube's influence on politics, they'll start with the Jim Webb senate race in 2006. And then they'll say that it was a harbinger of the presidential election of 2008, when political viral video really came into its own.

Just look at all this stuff. Start with the inspirational music video made from Obama's "Yes We Can" speech. Then look at the parody about McCain. Then look at this other parody about McCain. (Weirdly, when I went there the page had a McCain advertisement.) And then check out the three commercials made by Brave New Films, where ordinary Americans call U.S. Customer Service to try to get the Iraq War charge taken off their monthly bill.

Those are just the beginning. This year will produce an amazing outpouring of political creativity, and overwhelmingly it will favor the Democrats. Why? Well, Erick Erickson, editor of the biggest and most influential conservative blog on the Internet, has it all figured out: Liberals have more free time. You see, conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

That's got to be it, don't you think?

Short Notes
Michael Scheuer used to be the head of the CIA's Bin Laden group, and he still understands terrorist strategy better than any writer I know. In this article, he imagines what Bin Laden must be thinking now: "Thanks be to God, brothers, America is hemorrhaging money and ruining its military by trying to fight al-Qaeda's mujaheddin wherever they appear -- or, more accurately, wherever U.S. officials imagine they appear."

McCain's identification with the Surge may have worked this winter in Republican primaries, but next fall will be a different story. I was planning to write something on that theme, but now I don't have to -- Joe Conason did.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer connects the dots: The states tried to regulate against predatory mortgage lending, and the Bush administration stopped them. Remember that the next time somebody tells you that government regulations are bad for the economy.

One of the best news/comedy sites on the Internet is 23/6. This week Ian Gurvitz tried to imagine the reaction if Jesus came back and entered the presidential race. My favorite reaction came from McCain, who found "blessed are the peacemakers" in one of Jesus' old speeches and commented: "Sounds like a guy who's soft on defense, my friends, and I'm not sure this is who we need as commander-in-chief in these troubled times." And not all the barbs on 23/6 are aimed at Republicans. Check out Clinton Campaign to Replace Clinton.

Patrick Cockburn of the British newspaper The Independent gives an on-the-ground view of post-surge Baghdad. He compares it to Lebanon during the various lulls in its decades-long civil war "when everybody in Beirut rightly predicted that nothing was solved and the fighting would start again. In Iraq the fighting has never stopped, but the present equilibrium might go on for some time."

Monday, February 11, 2008

What Impressed Me This Week: Prosperity and Peace

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. -- Thomas Jefferson

I'm back from my old hometown, Quincy Illinois, where I preached this non-political sermon at the Unitarian Church. It's great fun to go back to the town where you grew up and be the center of attention for a morning. It'd be even greater fun if I'd grown up Unitarian, but I'm not holding my breath for an invitation to preach at my old Lutheran church.

Mitt in 2012
If I had just shut up about my hunch that Romney would win Florida and make a race of it from there, my record of predicting the Republican campaign would have been perfect. I foresaw the rise and fall of Huckabee and was one of the first people to use the phrase "last man standing" about McCain. What can I say? I underestimated the stickiness of Huckabee's evangelical support and I overestimated the influence of right-wing talk radio.

So Romney is out. The thing to note about his early exit -- he still had a lot of support and could have hoped for a miracle -- is that he seems to be anticipating a McCain loss in November and his own re-emergence in 2012. Mythology plays a big role on the Right, and the story Romney is setting up to tell goes like this: He could have beaten McCain one-on-one, but Huckabee and the evangelicals refused to join his coalition. The result was that a false conservative (McCain) won the nomination and the party went down to defeat. The American people did not reject conservatism, just a false presentation of conservatism.

Romney backers are already making the parallel to Reagan's loss to Gerald Ford in 1976. The Washington Times reports a meeting between Mitt and 50 conservative leaders who want him to be "the face of conservatism, as Ronald Reagan became en route to his 1980 election win." So the people who are predicting that the Republicans will unite in the fall are missing an important piece of the story: They'll unite if they think McCain is going to win in November. But if he's going to lose anyway, conservatives would rather not tarnish the conservative brand name. They're already telling themselves that losing this year might be the best thing in the long run.

PolySci 101: Conventions and Delegates
On the Democratic side, my attempts to see the future have been so bad that I should just stop. My predictions about Clinton and Obama have not made anybody wiser or more insightful.

A better use of my effort might be to clarify some of the confusing points of the nominating process. The Democratic Convention will happen in Denver August 25-28. There will be (according to Wikipedia) 4049 delegates. Of those, 3253 are being selected in primaries and caucuses and will be pledged to vote for a particular candidate. The remaining 796 are "superdelegates" -- people who get to vote because they have some position in the party, i.e., senators and representatives, members of the state Democratic committees, and so on. The superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, and can change their minds right up until the last minute. Whoever gets a majority of the delegate votes -- at least 2025 -- will be the nominee.

In addition to the superdelegates, the Michigan and Florida delegations are up for grabs -- 384 delegates between them. The Democratic Party tried to stop the rush of states to have earlier and earlier primaries, but Michigan and Florida defied those rules and were punished by having their primary results discounted. So at the moment there are no plans to seat Michigan or Florida delegates at the convention. This was all announced ahead of time and the candidates had an informal agreement not to campaign in those primaries. But Clinton did not remove her name from the Florida ballot, so she won that primary by default. She also won the Michigan primary, where there was no campaign and it was basically about name recognition.

At this point nobody has a good idea what to do. Seating the Michigan and Florida delegates that were chosen in the primaries gives an undeserved boost to Clinton. Not seating any Michigan or Florida delegates is a good way to piss off two swing states. A do-over primary seems too difficult to pull off at this point. Choosing delegates by some method less open than a primary (say a caucus or a state convention) seems weird after a primary was actually held. Nobody expected a race so close that these delegates would matter, but that's seems to be where we're headed.

In talking to people here and there, I realize that there are a lot of misconceptions about parties and conventions. First, the Constitution says nothing about parties; the Founders knew about the Whigs and Tories in England and hoped we wouldn't have anything like that. Originally, the parties were just clubs of like-minded politicians; they'd get together in their conventions and do whatever they wanted. Because the parties have no constitutional status, the courts still refuse to get involved in any but the most egregious intra-party disputes. So once the convention gets going, for all practical purposes the convention delegates are the party. They can change their own rules and do whatever they want.

The idea that you as a voter should have a say in the party's nomination process is fairly new. As recently as 1960, the primaries were mostly just beauty contests; most states didn't have them and few delegates were at stake. In 1960, John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey ran in the primaries because they were the new guys and had to prove they had appeal beyond their home states. But Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson could ignore the primaries because they were already well known. Johnson finished second to Kennedy in delegates, and Stevenson was hoping to be chosen if Kennedy couldn't manage a first-ballot majority and the convention deadlocked. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 is a good reference.

In the days before television, conventions were real political battlegrounds, not the packaged media events of recent years. Delegates could change their minds and deals were brokered in "smoke-filled rooms." The 1920 Republican convention had to vote ten times before settling on Warren Harding, who had not been considered a serious candidate before the convention started. The last convention not to result in a first-ballot nomination was the Democratic convention of 1952: Adlai Stevenson was the second-place candidate on the first and second ballots, but came out with a majority on the third.

The best way to get a handle on what a "brokered convention" might be like is to go back and read the political novels of the 1960s, which I loved as a teen-ager: Convention by Fletcher Knebel is one. Capable of Honor -- the third novel in the Advise and Consent series by Allen Drury -- is another. I thought Convention was also made into a movie, but actually I was remembering The Best Man, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as rival candidates.

The War Over a Word
One very interesting battle in the ongoing culture war is the struggle to control the word fascism. In an era of torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, and wars based on propaganda, you might expect it to be pretty clear who the fascists are. But in fact there's a fairly serious attempt on the right to co-opt the word for their own purposes.

The most visible new usage, of course, is Islamofascism, which basically means that you're Muslim and Dick Cheney doesn't like you. So, bin Laden wasn't an Islamofascist when he fought to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but he is now that he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan. The mullahs who run Iran are Islamofascists, but the members of the House of Saud aren't, even though Saudi society is more religiously strict and less westernized than Iranian society. Other than perhaps Syria, the Middle Eastern regimes closest to the classical fascism of Hitler and Mussolini are the military-dominated governments of Pakistan and Egypt, but they're U.S. allies, so they can't possibly be Islamofascists.

And then there's Liberal Fascism, a new book by the National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg. (Reviews here, here, and here. Interview with Goldberg here.) In the interview Goldberg defines fascism as:
a religious impulse that resides in all of us -- left, right, black, white, tall, short -- to seek unity in all things, to believe that we need to all work together to go past any of our disagreements and that the state needs to be, almost simply as a pragmatic matter, the pace-setter, the enforcer of this cult of unity. That is what I believe fascism is.
So when the government bans smoking in bars, that's fascism because it imposes uniform behavior on us. I don't think Goldberg comments on speed limits, but he does go on to equate the word holistic with totalitarian. I shouldn't trash a book I haven't read, but I doubt you'll be shocked to hear that this sounds like nonsense to me. I suspect the book is an intentional effort to make the word fascist meaningless and unusable, at precisely the time when we should be thinking seriously about it.

I was much more impressed with American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. He's talking about the Dominionists, an apocalyptic core of the religious right that believes it has a mission to take over the United States government and from there the world. I'll have more to say about that thesis in some future post. (The main point of that future post: Because Dominionists are a small group embedded seamlessly in a much larger Christian community, we need to apply counter-insurgency principles in opposing them. An over-reaction against them creates collateral damage that builds their cause. That's what's so misguided about anti-religious screeds like Sam Harris' The End of Faith.)

One of the most insightful parts of Hedges' book is a reprinting of Umberto Eco's attempt to define fascism from 1995. For Eco, one of the key elements of fascism is a "cult of tradition." Mussolini worshiped Italy's Roman heritage -- the name fascism comes from the fasces, a ceremonial weapon carried by the attendants of the Roman consuls. Hitler wasn't fascinated by the consuls or the Caesars, but idealized the spirit of the German Volk. The cult of tradition gives fascism a local element that makes it look different everywhere it appears. (By contrast, Communism has an international identity that makes it easier to spot and oppose. As the Beatles sang, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.") An American fascism, then, wouldn't wave swastikas and quote Hitler, it would look back to some idealized American past.

Another Eco point (there are 14 of them) is that in fascism "the enemy" plays a symbolic role that is full of contradictions. Mostly notably, the enemy is both weak and strong. (For the religious right, liberals are wimpy and yet the liberal establishment is somehow all-powerful.) In view of how things are going in Iraq and Afghanistan, this observation looks prescient: "Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy."

What a Signing Statement Looks Like
When President Bush doesn't like something in a bill that Congress passes, he usually doesn't veto it. Instead, he attaches a signing statement saying that he reserves the right to do as he pleases. After all, he's the Decider -- how dare Congress pass "laws" that try to tell him what he can and can't do?

If you've ever wondered what a signing statement looks like, here's the one he attached to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill. The whole statement is just two paragraphs, and the content is here:

Provisions of the Act, including sections 841, 846, 1079, and 1222, purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as Commander in Chief. The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President.

Notice that the four sections in question just "purport" to impose requirements, and that the word "including" implies that President Bush may choose not to be bound by other sections of the bill that he doesn't bother to name.

So what's in those four sections? Fortunately the law itself is a matter of public record -- we haven't gone quite that far down the rabbit hole yet. But we're left to speculate just how those sections "inhibit" the President or in what circumstances he might "construe" them. Marty Lederman on Balkinization does this kind of speculation better than I can. The easiest one to understand is Section 1222, which forbids using any of the funds appropriated in the bill to build permanent bases in Iraq. So I guess that's the plan, whether Congress likes it or not.

Muslim, Not Islamic
Juan Cole has written a really excellent article explaining what is wrong with a lot of the right-wing rhetoric about Islam, and why it's going to cause resentment for years to come. One quick point he makes: Islamic and Muslim are not synonyms. Something is Islamic if it belongs to the religion of Islam, but Muslim if it has to do with the human beings who practice Islam. For example, Islamic art would be art considered sacred within Islam, while Muslim art is just art by Muslims. If some guy named Omar paints a Coke can, that's Muslim art -- not Islamic art.

Now consider how offensive the phrase Islamic terrorist is. Muslim terrorist is just descriptive: this guy is a terrorist and he's a Muslim. Islamic terrorist, on the other hand, contains an implication that Islam itself is a terrorist religion. Islamofascism implies that Islam is a fascist religion.

I've been trying to come up with a parallel. Here's the best I can do: Guy Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist in Protestant England during the reign of King James I. Catholics at the time were sometimes called "papists," which was derogatory but also descriptive. So "papist terrorist" would have been a hostile but basically accurate description of Fawkes. On the other hand, calling him a "papal terrorist" would have implied that he had the blessing of the Pope, and that the Pope himself was a terrorist. Catholics who had nothing to do with Fawkes might well have been offended.

Neoconservative rhetoric has long tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, shortly after 9/11 President Bush tried to be reassuring: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." In other words, we're just fighting a small band of terrorists, we're not in a clash of civilizations with the world's one billion Muslims. But over time administration rhetoric has shifted from terms like "war on terror" to target "Islamic extremists" and "Islamic fascists." The implication -- made explicit by allies outside the administration -- is that we are at war with one billion Muslims. I guarantee you that's how they hear it.

The reader-comments attached to Cole's article are illustrative. This one collects a bunch of context-free Koran quotes to "prove" that Islam is a terrorist religion -- as if you couldn't collect a similar list out of Bible. And Cole responds.

Short Notes
The mainstream media seems not to have noticed, but casualties in Iraq are creeping up again. The monthly low was 23 American deaths in December, down from 126 in May. But we had 40 American troops die in January and we're on pace for more than that in February. The "victory" that Bush and McCain talk about seems as far away as ever.

The new FISA bill is about to pass in the Senate. Telecom immunity is still in it. The House could take it out, but that hope seems dim. Here's the latest from Glenn Greenwald. Former terrorism czar Richard Clarke comments: "it is no surprise that in one of Bush's last acts of relevance, he once again played the fear card. While he has failed in spreading democracy, stemming global terrorism, and leaving the country better off than when he took power, he did achieve one thing: successfully perpetuating fear for political gain."

Our political system is not the only one where money is eroding trust. The Daily Mail estimates that Tony Blair has made ten million pounds (around $20 million) since leaving office, including an annual salary of more than two million pounds each for advising two financial firms: J.P. Morgan and Zurich. That must be some fabulous advice he's giving.

In one of his more outrageous moments, President Bush concluded his remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday by saying "Listen, the stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance." Yep, that's what the Bush years will be remembered for: prosperity and peace. It turns out I was not the only one to be reminded of the great Onion satire of Bush's inaugural address in 2001: "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is over." And so it was.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What Impressed Me This Week: 935 Lies

Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

No WIMTW next week; I'm on the road. But if you happen to be in Quincy, Illinois on Sunday, you can hear me preach at the Unitarian church. The text will show up on my religious blog sometime after I get home.
Let Me Count the Ways
In this quantitative age it seems like nothing is really real until it's been counted. Well, this week the deceptions that led to the invasion of Iraq became a little more real: The Center for Public Integrity released its tabulation of the lies told by top Bush administration officials to promote and justify the invasion of Iraq. They found 935 lies in the two years following 9/11. The lies are broken down by speaker and subject, and there's a precise little bar graph totaling them up month by month. (The graph has two peaks: September, 2002 as Congress was debating the resolution to authorize the war, and February, 2003 as the last feeble attempts at peace-making were being swatted aside.)

Now, the charge that Bush, Cheney & Associates lied us into the Iraq War is not new. There are at least three standard responses to it:
  • Outrage. I've seen Bill O'Reilly do this more than once. Merely saying out loud that Bush lied marks you as such a rabid partisan that you're not worth listening to. Somebody who plays the outrage card right never has to look at the evidence at all.
  • Complete Denial. There's no way to discuss the evidence without admitting that administration officials said a lot of things that turned out not to be true. But the complete deniers say that those were all honest mistakes; the real fault lies with the CIA, which was giving the White House bad intelligence. Complete deniers usually point to similar statements by Clinton officials, or by the Germans or the French. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino (starting at about the 3 minute mark in this video) said this about the "flaws" in the CPI study: "They only looked at members of the administration rather than looking at members of Congress or people around the world. Because as you remember, we were part of a broad coalition of countries that deposed a dictator based on a collective understanding of the intelligence."
  • Partial Denial. Pro-war pundits and bloggers sometimes admit that a certain amount of deception was at work, but say that the cheerleading for the invasion was merely "spin" -- the kind of deception that is routine in Washington, not nearly rising to the level of "lies." And they're this close to being right: Bush frequently implied false statements without actually saying them -- like all the times when he put "Saddam" and "9-11" in the same sentence without directly saying that they were linked. "I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America," Bush said on March 20, 2006. When you think about it, that was an unintentional confession. Honest people don't have to be "very careful" not to say something they know is false. But you do have to be "very careful" if you want to put a false idea into someone's head without actually saying it.
Outrage continues to work as well as it ever did, but neither kind of denial stands up when you look at the statements that the CPI is calling lies.

What the intelligence services were saying before the invasion boils down to this: Saddam had poison gas in the early 90s and used it against the Kurds. He claimed to have gotten rid of it, but no one could verify that claim. Iraqi defectors with an ax to grind against Saddam told stories about other weapons programs, but the CIA did not consider them reliable sources. (That didn't stop Colin Powell from quoting them to the UN, saying: "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.") Saddam supported Palestinian terrorists, but he and Al Qaeda had different objectives and we could find no reliable evidence of a working relationship between them. Stories of attempts to import material for a nuclear program popped up occasionally: Some of them had been shown to be false, like the report of a uranium buy in Niger. Others, like the aluminum tubes, were hotly debated within our intelligence community; some experts (who ultimately proved to be correct) argued that the tubes weren't suitable for a nuclear program and had other uses. There was no evidence whatever that Saddam was planning an attack against the United States.

Having read such reports, Vice President Cheney said this: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." That's not an honest mistake. That's not spin. Simply stated, there is no doubt that Vice President Cheney is a liar.

On June 11, 2002 Donald Rumsfeld said:

I was asked a question about Iraq announcing the day before that they do not have weapons of mass destruction, and they asked me what I thought about that. I said "That's a lie," and I may have said even that "That's a world-class lie."

Now that's true; it is a lie. They do have weapons of mass destruction. They've used chemical weapons on their people, they have had an aggressive program to develop nuclear weapons, and there is no question that they are developing biological weapons. Now why did I say that? I said that because it is true. The truth has a certain virtue, it seems to me.

A lot gets shoved under the rug when Bush-defenders point to the other people who believed that Saddam had WMDs. Many people believed he still had poison gas left over from the early 90s. But if that was the whole story, then time was on our side -- just keep him contained as his weapons get older and less reliable. (That was my position at the time of the invasion.) The case for an immediate invasion depended on further assertions: Saddam was making new and better WMDs, so we had to attack now before they came on line. (As Paul Wolfowitz said on May 25, 2002: "They [the Iraqis] are working on more [WMDs], and the longer we wait, the longer it takes, the more such weapons they'll have.") Or Saddam was allied with Al Qaeda, so we needed to act before his WMDs made it into their arsenal. Those further assertions were not supported by the intelligence, and most of the experts who believed in Saddam's left-over poison gas either didn't believe them or had serious doubts.

The coolest feature of the CPI's report is the searchable database of administration statements, false or otherwise. I searched the false statements for the phrase "no doubt" and got 17 hits. And that, I think, is the meta-lie of the whole propaganda campaign: that our intelligence about Iraq ever provided the kind of certainty our government should demand before it starts shooting people.

The FISA Debate Gets Confusing
I'm unable to find the exact quote, but I have dim memories of some 19th-century commodities trader comparing the gyrations of the wheat market to watching men wrestle under a blanket: You can tell that something is happening, but you can't tell what. Well, that's how I feel about this week's FISA maneuvering in the Senate.

Here's what I do know: In August Congress passed the Protect America Act (love those names), which amended FISA to increase the President's power to spy. I was at the YearlyKos convention when this happened, and it was widely perceived there as a betrayal by the Democrats in Congress. The Democrats did manage to put a six-month sunset on the bill and promised to undo the worst of it. Instead, six months later, we're looking at a bill that not only makes the August concessions permanent, but also includes amnesty for the telecom companies who helped the administration illegally spy on American citizens without a warrant. (If that characterization is unfair, then there's no need for amnesty.)

Last week, Harry Reid seemed to be doing everything he could to carry water for the administration while appearing not to. He brought the administration's version of bill to the floor rather than an alternative that didn't have the amnesty provision, under rules that made it hard to amend. It looked like another Democratic capitulation was inevitable.

And then on Thursday, the Republicans apparently upped the ante. They did some further maneuvering to impede the passage of the bill, presumably so that President Bush could use Congress' inaction as an issue in the State of the Union address tonight. The Democrats seem to have had a reaction of "How dare you refuse to accept our surrender?" It looks like they got annoyed. There's an important vote later this afternoon about sustaining Senator Dodd's filibuster. If there aren't 60 votes to close off debate, the Senate will be all but forced to pass another temporary extension that doesn't include amnesty.

President Bush has threatened to veto such an extension, but that's a little like the scene in Blazing Saddles where the sheriff faces down a mob by taking himself hostage. Bush has been telling us for months that we're all going to die if his spying powers are allowed to lapse. He'll look ridiculous if he vetoes them.

Anyway, that's as clear as I can make it. Glenn Greenwald has more detail. The best place to keep up with events on this issue is on the FireDogLake blog.

BTW: Glenn points out an important piece of the spin war on this issue: Republicans are trying to push the false idea that FISA itself is expiring on February 1. It isn't. Only the extensions to FISA that got made in August are expiring. So if you're listening to the news and you hear something about FISA expiring, you know that you're listening to a lazy reporter who'd rather push administration spin than look up the facts.

The Horse Race
Interesting times in the Democratic presidential race. Just when it looked like Hillary Clinton was inevitable again, Obama won South Carolina with a margin that is hard to ignore. I've heard a lot of coverage of Bill Clinton's remarks reminding us that "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice." And more than one Clinton supporter has told me that Bill stepped over the line there. The Sunday talk shows were all about the theory that Bill is hurting Hillary's campaign.

The Obama campaign has done a good job of building momentum since then with high-profile endorsements. As I write this, Ted Kennedy is endorsing Obama and appears willing to campaign extensively for him. In Sunday's New York Times, Caroline Kennedy gave Obama the highest praise she can bestow: A President Like My Father. And an endorsement that is very interesting to political wonks like me is apparently coming from Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius after she's done giving the Democratic response to the State of the Union. Sebelius is a fascinating character. She's made Kansas a two-party state again by taking advantage of the disillusionment of moderate Kansas Republicans. In both of her elections, she ran with a former Republican as her lieutenant governor -- two different ones.

Now, when it comes down to Obama vs. Clinton, I'm rooting for Obama. But we need to remember that all this sturm and drang is an artifact of the campaign. Before you vote, try to put all the who-did-what-to-who out of your mind and think about who you want to be president.

On the Republican side, it looks to me like Romney is going to catch McCain in Florida, and from there who knows? Huckabee had a chance to expand his appeal in a populist direction, but it hasn't worked: He's the evangelical candidate and nothing more. Giuliani has run maybe the worst campaign of modern times, so unless the McCain and Romney campaign planes collide in mid-air, it's over for him.

Studying the exit polls, I've concluded that Romney has re-assembled the voters who elected Bush. If you think Bush basically had the right policies, but you're looking for somebody to execute and communicate them better -- then you're for Romney. Among Republicans, that's probably a majority. But I think it will result in a Democratic landslide in November.

Short Notes
This story is just too good and too symbolic: President Bush has had a painting on his wall since his days as governor of Texas. It shows a rider on horseback galloping up a trail, with a couple other people in the background. Bush believed that this painting, called "A Charge to Keep," was based on a Charles Wesley hymn whose name is similar. He seemed to think the rider was a Methodist missionary in the old West. But in fact it is an illustration for a Saturday Evening Post story from 1916. It shows a horse thief escaping a lynch mob. That's about how I would like to see Bush leave Washington next January. I don't want the mob to catch him, but they should come really, really close.

The Mike Huckabee squirrel-frying story is silly, but for some reason it's irresistible. (Maybe this is how conservatives feel about John Edwards' hair.) In this clip, Slate Video examines whether it really is possible to fry a squirrel in a popcorn popper.

The recount of the New Hampshire primary vote found what most New Hampshirites expected: The count wasn't perfect, but it was so close that the mistakes didn't matter. There was no evidence of an intent to falsify the totals. But I'm glad Dennis Kucinich demanded and paid for the recount. Hand recounts of a few random precincts ought to be standard procedure for any machine-counted ballots.

If you had planned and promoted a disastrous war, and then got booted from your next job for giving lucrative favors to your lover, you might expect to be unemployed for a while. But that's because you're not part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. After leaving the World Bank in disgrace in May, Paul Wolfowitz landed on his feet, taking a job with the conservative American Enterprise Institute on July 2. But that was just a place to wait for the dust to settle. This week he got a new position at the State Department, as head of the International Security Advisory Board, which reports to Condoleezza Rice. You don't have to be competent, you just have to be loyal. The VRWC will take care of you.

In order to fill the ranks, the Army has to keep lowering its standards for recruits. But counter-insurgency requires a smarter, more insightful soldier than ever before. Over on Slate, Fred Kaplan explains why something has to give.

You know how the public is supposed to be even more disgusted with Congress than with President Bush? It depends on what question you ask. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked: "Who do you want to see take the lead role in setting policy for the country: George W. Bush or the Congress?" Answer: Congress 62%, Bush 21%.