Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Strange ruling by Colorado court

In this article, CNN reports that the Colorado supreme court ruled that a death sentence that had been issued to a convicted murderer was invalid because the jury had consulted the Bible during deliberations. That's...strange.

This demonstrates two things:

1) In our society we will overturn rulings that are supposed to be binding, and end the issue, if we can;
2) Often we do this on grounds of technicality instead of morality.

The judges didn't say "No, jury, you're wrong; it would be immoral to impose the death penalty, so we're going to override your ruling." They said, "Your ruling is invalid because you consulted the Bible." I'm not sure which way is better--I suppose the vagaries of life demand realpolitik, and if someone is not going to listen to reason you work the system instead.

The Terri Shiavo case was rejected by a federal judge, who declined to hear it and overturn the state court's ruling. Democrats, Republicans and others quickly pointed out that Republicans were breaking one of their supposed foundational tenets--federalism. Here's Ryan Sager, a conservative, whom I highly respect:

"The forums for matters such as the Schiavo case are state courts, upholding state laws. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives -- who want Roe v. Wade overturned and the issue of abortion moved back to state legislatures and courts -- should understand this better than any other group of Americans."

Democrats laughed gleefully at the supposed hypocrisy of Republicans. Here's Eric Alterman, a liberal, whom I also highly respect:

"Republicans are fundamentally contravening their own alleged principles by trying to put the federal government in the face of an intimate family decision-making process."

I thought this was seriously disingenuous of these critics. Here's the tie-in: just as the judges were going against a ruling that was supposed to be binding by way of a sort of a first amendment technicality, because they probably believe the death penalty is wrong in this case, so Republicans and states rights conservatives are (correctly) fighting state courts and going against one of their supposed principles because of what they believe is right.

Friday, March 25, 2005

A question

To be perfectly honest, I'm puzzled by why TV was so clean in the 1950s. The censoring of Elvis and Jim Morrison--these things don't make any sense to me. An entire generation had been to hell and back in World War II--were they unconsciously (or consciously) trying to prevent future generations from seeing what they had seen? What was the deal? Any sociologists want to help me understand? And can we at least provisionally agree that public morals and private actions were more incongruent in the 1950s than they are now, without specifying to what degree? Or am I wrong about that?

More on blogs

The funny thing is that there are enormous changes taking place in media, but instead of talking about them for what they are everyone seems focused on abstract things like objectivity, journalistic obligations, trust, partisanship, and ethics. These are things that are harder to nail down and things about which it is harder to make strong cases.

If people would calm down about the biased partisan fragmentation explosion dejournalizationifying of blogs, we could talk about how newspaper circulations really are down, publishers are worried about their profits, FoxNews has tens of millions of viewers, people are turning to the Internet to get their news, individual citizens now have decent fact-checking abilities themselves, and young people have eschewed land lines for cell phones. These are interesting and worthwhile topics, but we'll never get anywhere while people keep histrionically ranting about the jagged and broken Big Media landscape (which I have yet to see.)

The real deal with the 1950s

I think the most recent comments under ther original 1950s posting nailed it: there was perhaps a little less debauchery going on in the 1950s, and everyone was quiet about it. Now, with our increased freedom and education, there is more, and not only that, but we're all talking about it as well.

I would compare the 1950s and its morals to the Prohibition era.

Howl, by Allen Ginsberg (1956)


Thursday, March 24, 2005

More on the 1950s

I read the other day in a book called 'Harvard Rules' about an interesting survey that was done. Students at Harvard were asked what percentage of Harvard students they thought had slept with more than one person in the past 6 months. It was something like 90%. The real number of students who had was closer to 20%.

I'd like to retract the cold, polemical, unhelpful last line of my previous posting, but to delete it would be dishonest. So, I'm leaving it for posterity and respectfully withdrawing it from my perspective.

The social problems of the 1950s were different than those of today. My point was NOT to say that the moral climate has not 'changed;' it was simply to say that no coherent case can be made that proves that the 1950s were a more moral time. We've been steeped in I Love Lucy since we were 5 years old and it's vitiated our ability to deal with the past.

The 1950s

One myth I have been wanting to explode for some time is that of the 1950s as a sweet, innocent, moral time. A TIME magazine article about the state of TV today that I read last week commented that some people on both sides of the debate longed for "the moral standards of the 1950s." This made me shake my head at the writer's lack of perspective and his naive rebloviation of one of our silliest cultural cliches.

The moral standards of the 1950s included racism, segregation, sexism, hysteria about communism, the Korean war, and the escapades of the Beat generation. You can't tell too much about a nation's culture at any given time by looking only at its TV shows. I will absolutely grant that the TV of the 1950s was pristine compared to the TV of 2005--I just don't see that anything significant follows from that. People were having sex, doing drugs and killing each other in the 1950s: it just wasn't reflected in the pop culture of the time as much as it is now. You can argue that this represents a moral decline, or that it represents honesty. I would argue the latter.

People also assume that young people were having far less sex (of any kind) in the 1950s than they are now. While I would reiterate that even if this is true it doesn't mean too much, there are reasons to doubt that the generational situations are what the Golden Days people make them out to be. Women were engaged and married at far younger ages back then. Since the period between puberty and marriage was so short, there just wasn't much of an opportunity for pre-marital sex. Depending on what source you look at, the average age at which women got married in 1950 was between 4 and 9 years younger than it is now. Looking at 'sexual activity among 18-year old women across all demographics' would seem to me a much better transom than 'sexual activity among young unmarried white women.'

Since the 1950s a number of factors, including increased education for all groups, longer life spans, a rising divorce rate, rising incomes, declining birth rates, female participation in the labor force, civil rights, and gay rights have made the landscape drastically different today. Cohabitation is on the rise: so what? Some middle schoolers are having oral sex: so what? They always were. Deal with it.

More on blogs

There is an interesting article at the Nation from a week ago about a conference on blogging held at Harvard in January. It seems to be more of the same: hysteria and overstatement. I know how easy it is to challenge and prove false what logicians called 'A' statements ("All x's are y's") because I have taken so much philosophy, and there seems to be a particular amount of unchallenged analysis about blogs floating around. If all birds are not crows, then I am not going to let you get away with saying "All birds are crows": it's just not true. I am going to break some of this article down by sentence to show how ridiculous some of these claims are, and how they presuppose some sort of journalistic consensus that never existed.

"We are entering an era in which professionals have lost their monopoly over information--not just the reporting of it, but also the framing of what's important for the public to know."

Thus, the era we are leaving was an era in which professionals had a monop0ly over information?

"Areas that once were under the domain of the journalist are now not exclusively under the domain of the journalist. You are not the boss anymore. What you say is not the law."

When exactly was the journalist the boss? The boss of what?

"Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in mainstream journalism."

Objectivity is faltering? As far as I know, there has never been a consensus about what objectivity is. The way I read the New York Times in the post-blogging era is the same way I have always read it.

I would like to think that blogs simply empower citizens to get a little bit more information and share a little bit more information than they used to. Sure, cnn.com and the NYT and USA Today and CBS News will have to adapt, but when did business ever not have to adapt? Lighten up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I call it the "jump to conclusions" mat...

More hype about fragmentation and blogs:

"One of the consequences is that, increasingly, citizens can no longer agree on basic facts because everyone is consuming their own kind of personal mix of media. The chance that we know the same thing, even if we're sitting in an office in a cubicle next to each other, is less than it used to be."

Right--increasingly, citizens can no longer agree on basic facts. So, today's situation is thus unlike Iran-Contra, or the Iran hostage crisis, or the energy crisis, or the Vietnam war, or the Civil Rights era, or the McCarthy hearings, or the Korean War, or World War II, when we could, and did, agree on basic facts. And it's all because of blogs and cable news. Sweet.

More Social Security action

Anonymous said: "So...I'm no expert on this. I'm barely conversant, probably, but if I make more from my privately-invested retirement money than I do from whatever the gov't gives me, shouldn't I go with private accounts? I mean, for each individual, isn't investing better than having more taken out of your paycheck? As far as SS in general, I know that it is supposedly 'running out of money', but if we assume that the government will cover its debt, then how will my private investment cut anyone's benefits? I mean.... I can only take out what I put in (plus interest), right? I don't get it."

That's just it: it neither cuts anyone else's benefits nor fixes the problem in the system. Here's my deal. What I object to is not the accounts themselves, but the spin that's put on them that says they will fix the problem. I'm not against private accounts. There is a real chance to innovate here. Imagine people investing all of this money into American businesses, supporting them, and generating more wealth and work. That's great, and as long as the government guarantees the same return that SS has traditionally had, it's a win-win situation. Right now you get 3% on your money because of inflation. Pretend I get a 5% return on my private account and lose 0.5% of that as a fee to the person managing it. I'm still up 1.5%, and I've contributed to the livelihood of American business. So we're set. All I want to know is that it's guaranteed.

What ticks me off is when people push for the private accounts without a plan for adapting to the fact that we're an aging society. In my mind, it's disingenuous for Republicans to make a serious distinction between raising taxes and cutting benefits: the bottom line is less money somewhere. That's what's wrong with Barnes's claim. Let's break this down. We'll run numbers here pretending that we have two people in this system and that the system only covers their one check. Johnny Private made $100 this week. He invested the max that he could, 4%, in his account. He still paid 2.2% into the trust fund, and his employer paid 6.2%. Sally Public also made $100 this week. She invested 0% in her account, putting 6.2% into the trust fund, and her employer invested their 6.2%. Barnes says, correctly, that the 4% Johnny Private invested in his account does NOT need to be paid back to him by other SS trust fund money when he retires. But that' s $4 that's not in the trust fund to be paid to someone else! Effect on solvency: absolutely zero. Affect on Johnny Private's own personal benefits: slight increase. Problem in system not solved.

So I say raise the cap. Someone making $10,000 a year pays $620 a year in SS tax, or 6.2% of their income. Someone making $200,000 a year pays $5580 a year in SS tax, or 2.7% of their income. That's not even a flat tax--that's REGRESSIVE, because the cap is set so that only your first $90,000 of income is taxed every year. Raise the cap and bring in government-guaranteed private accounts. Problem solved.

Monday, March 14, 2005

All the king's spin

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard writes the following:

"Let's clear up a couple of myths about the creation of individual accounts. The first is that accounts would play no role in making the system solvent for the remainder of the 21st century. Not true. For retirees with individual accounts, a portion of their retirement income would come from their investments in financial markets, not from payroll taxes paid by workers. This would not only contribute to solvency, it also would eventually allow for a cut in payroll taxes. True, other measures would be needed to ensure solvency. But absent individual accounts, the curbs on benefit growth or spikes in taxes would be greater."

Let me repeat: "For retirees with individual accounts, a portion of their retirement income would come from their investments in financial markets, not from payroll taxes paid by workers." Right, and every retiree who opts for these accounts is opting out of paying that money into the system, thus cutting the benefits of some other worker! This is an absolutely bizarre, non-sensical, carnival shell-game claim by Barnes. Private accounts do NOTHING to help the solvency of Social Security, unless you count "making slightly more with a well-invested account and having your benefits cut as well" to be "helping the solvency.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Tom Davis

Last Saturday I attended one of congressman Tom Davis's annual town-hall meetings at Fairview Elementary School in Fairfax Station, VA. The format was mostly question and answer. Tom also showed a few slides and talked about Social Security. Here is a brief summary of the questions and his answers.

1) A man decried having to pay taxes to support public schools, when they "didn't work out" for his child and he is forced to send her to a private school. Davis apologized and then touted the sweetness of the Fairfax County school system.
2) A woman said that things that "fly in her face of her beliefs and values" are being taught in the school system, and damnit, she's not down with it. Davis answered with the same tactic he had just used: an apology and a tout.
3) A man asked about how the government could, in good conscience, continue deficit spending in light of such a big...deficit. Davis said it was important to be honest about the deficit, and said that it is something about which he is personally concerned.
4) A man said that the problems we're having in Iraq are because our soldiers are up against "a different kind of vermin." He then asked why we didn't use the war as a chance to punish allies who didn't support us 100%. Davis used a phrase I'd never heard before and said that wars are "games of addition," and that this is no time for revenge. He then said that it's becoming clear that Middle Easterners passionately desire freedom, and we're giving them the opportunity to have it. Surprisingly, he went on to say that too many soldiers were "falling through the cracks," and the government had done a bad job of taking care of them both physically and fiscally.
5) A man asked why the employers of soldiers don't get tax breaks when soldiers leave for war. Davis said that that was a good idea, and then, again surprisingly, said that mistakes were made in the travel plans, paychecks, billing, insuring, etc. of over 90% of our armed forces, and that it was unacceptable.
6) A woman raised her hand and said that after being honorably discharged from the military after 25 years, she was denied retirement benefits. Davis told her to go to a number of places, all of which she said she had. He sent one of his aides over and she left the room with the woman.
7) A man said that he had been living in Annandale and Fairfax for 50 years and had never had a problem with crime until the last few years, when gangs began doing heroin on his street and burning cars on his lawn. He said that 85% of gang members were illegal aliens. Davis told him he was wrong about the 85% and that it wasn't that much. He said it was important to keep remunerations flowing back to their home countries, because if they stopped more immigrants would come. He also said he wanted to make it impossible for illegal aliens to get driver's licenses, and he wanted to stop gangs from recruiting in prisons.
8) A woman said that No Child Left Behind was drastically underfunded. Davis said that this was true, but that the government always budgets more than it appropriates, and that Fairfax County schools used very little federal money.
9) A man asked what was being done to alleviate traffic on I-95. Davis said that it was important to make sure that Virginia got its share of tax dollars back to be spent on itself--he claimed that MA receives $1.60 per $1 of federal taxes, while VA receives $0.91.
10) A man asked why hybrids were allowed to travel in HOV lanes. Davis said that it's a good idea, and that he drives one.
11) A man asked about reducing oil consumption. Davis agreed, and then jumped to how too much of our money gets "redistributed," and it's time to stop it.
12) A woman asked why old people should have to pay taxes. Davis said that it was fair to make everyone pay taxes, but that the tax code is too complicated and needs to be simplified.
13) A man asked about government waste. Davis, who is on the Committee for Government Reform, talked about his work preventing the spread of mad cow disease, testing MLB players for steroids, and holding Halliburton accountable in its dealings with the government.
14) A man said that Bush's tax cuts were nice and all, but that "Bush hadn't asked for any sacrifices from us." Most of the people clapped at this statement. Davis asked the crowd who was in favor of repealing Bush's tax cuts: about 50% raised their hand to repeal, 50% to keep. He then asked who was in favor of bringing back the death/inheritance tax: about 30% of the people raised their hands.
15) A woman talked about using the money on education instead of wasting it on tax cuts. Davis said that a good case could be made that the tax cuts jump-started the economy.
16) A man said that each person's share of the national debt was $26,000, and then asked why the Social Security surplus was not used to pay down the deficit. Davis accused the man of making a "partisan comment," and then said that in several years they had done exactly that.

I didn't write down the SS questions--many were similar. A few facts I picked up: our budget this year is almost 50% larger than Clinton's 1994 budget; DC high schools have a 40% drop-out rate; the unemployment rate in Fairfax County is 1.4%.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


In a response to Ward Churchill's essay, someone wrote the following:

"Though most Americans would fiercely agree that ‘freedom of speech’ is one of the cornerstones of Human Rights, I find [Churchill's article] predisposed to take an Anti-American position from the first paragraph. I find no mention of the other groups, ethnic/religious/national, who have perpetrated crimes against others; such as the Japanese slaughter of millions of Chinese nationals, Chinese Communists against millions of its own citizens, Vietnamese government’s murder of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, Cambodia’s ‘garden of skulls’, etc."

His essay was about American injustices, not the other injustices of the 20th century. Pretend Smith beats his wife. The police find out about it and come to arrest him. Smith knows that Jones beats his wife, too. When the police arrive, he says "But Jones beats his wife too!" I don't think so. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Are the police being "Anti-Smith" because they found out about Smith and came to arrest him?

Good interview

Churchill himself (Ward, not Winston):

"I'm the kick-off. I didn't select this position. I got selected for whatever set of reasons they had. If you want to know why they selected me as opposed to 30 other targets they might have selected, you'd have to ask them. I think they thought I'd be a vulnerable target."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The year of the blog, or another over-reaction?

There are so many overstatements and empirically unsupportable claims made every day in the news that it almost seems like they are an integral part of it. Many columnists peddle only generalizations: you might read an entire op-ed piece about 'liberals' and 'conservatives' doing or believing this or that without a single one of the perpetrators cited. So that I do not tar and feather myself right now, I will cite a few examples.

A recent John Leo column was titled: LIBERALISM, NOW ADRIFT, LACKS VOCABULARY OF RIGHT AND WRONG. In a recent Ann Coulter column, she wrote "In response to the public disgrace and ruin of New York Times editor Howell Raines, CBS anchor Dan Rather and CNN news director Eason Jordan, liberals are directing their fury at the blogs." Paul Roberts writes that "AMERICA'S SUPERPOWER STATUS COMING TO AN END ."

Gerald Sieb of the Wall Street Journal said the following during a lecture at the University of Kansas:

"Briefly put," he said, "I fear that 2004 became the year when many Americans decided they could go out and get the news not as it is, but as they want it to be. Technology and the proliferation of pseudo news outlets on the Internet and cable TV have made this possible. Our country's intense political polarization has fed the urge. Mainstream journalism's own failings have fueled it."

Is he right?

Harry Frankfurt's (sort of) new book

Harry Frankfurt, an Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, recently republished an essay of his as a stand-alone short book: the provocatively titled On Bullshit. I read it yesterday. His thesis is 1) that bullshit is a prevalent feature of our culture, and 2) that purveyors of this unique art have no regard one way or the other for the truth, because it is irrelevant to them. Bullshit is, for him, not defined by what it is, or whether or not it is true or false, but instead by how it is made and used. His helpful analogy is that of a counterfeit artifact. We could put specifics in here: a Rollex or a fake Stradivarius might function perfectly and even be more rare than the real thing. But anyone who thought they were getting the real thing would not be satisfied with a counterfeit. Though Frankfurt never gives real life examples, it would seem that he is talking about the politicians, intellectuals, managers and others in our society who are forced constantly to talk on subjects about which they may know little. Everything they are saying might end up being true, but they are not talking in order to make true statements: hence the difference between bullshit and lies.

I agree with all of this and like 1) his formulation of bullshit as 'phony' and 2) his description of bullshitters as those for whom truth or falsehood is irrelevant. That is powerful. Thus, what I want to address here is the jab he could not resist taking at post-modernism in the last few pages of the book. He decries anti-realist philosophers and intellectuals who have given up on 'correspondence to reality,' and implies that it is they who are the most guilty of bullshit; after all, why would they not be? They no longer think that truth or objectivity are important.

Richard Rorty has devastated this argument in multiple places in his writings, and the nice thing is that you do not have to buy everything he is selling and give up on Plato, Kant, and objectivity to see the truth of this sepcific comeback. Rorty says that most people would like to insist on a tighter connection between a person's political views and their views on sweet metaphysical topics like truth, freedom, absolutes, morality, and objectivity. However, he says that looking for this bond is futile, because there is no reason why a pragmatist could not be a fascist, or a classical realist a totalitarian dictator. His analogy is how British commanders in colonial India would choose native Indian rulers based not on how fit to rule they were but on whether or not they were a good Anglican: how many hymns they knew, etc. While we in the 21st century can see that an Indian's ability to rule his fellow citizens in a just way was irrelevant to his having embraced the British religion, so Rorty says that our views on 'truth' do not dictate our politics. I agree with him: intellectuals have run the gamut of political views in the past, from Voltaire to Malraux to Sartre to Dewey to Hook to Rorty, just as have average citizens without six honorary PhDs. The bullshitters are always those who have the most power, and they are the ones we need to hold accountable.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Robert Byrd, free speech and empty political phrases

Here is what you need to read from a CNN article about senator Robert Byrd:

In his comments Tuesday, Byrd had defended the right senators have to use filibusters -- procedural delays that can kill an item unless 60 of the 100 senators vote to move ahead. He is a long-standing defender of the chamber's rules and traditions, many of which help the Senate's minority party. Byrd cited Hitler's 1930s rise to power by, in part, pushing legislation through the German parliament that seemed to legitimize his ascension. "We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men," Byrd said. "But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends." Byrd then quoted historian Alan Bullock, saying Hitler "turned the law inside out and made illegality legal." Byrd added, "That is what the 'nuclear option' seeks to do." The nuclear option is the nickname for the proposal to end filibusters of judicial nominations because of the devastating effect the plan, if enacted, would have on relations between Democrats and Republicans.

I think Byrd got hammered for these remarks because it's easier to criticize someone with empty rhetoric than to prove their position wrong. Ironically enough, Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Byrd's remarks "poisonous rhetoric" that are "reprehensible and beyond the pale." Beyond the pale? So, Byrd finally crossed that line where he said something so offensive that his head will probably explode in the next several days? I don't think so. I want to know why it would be good to end the use of the filibuster. How many reasons are there? Which is the most important? What is the historical reason for its use? Won't Republicans want it back if they ever become the minority party? I would think so, and I would want them to have it. Byrd was right--eliminating powers of the minority to block and stall is a dangerous game.

The other funny thing about this is that no one can help bringing up Byrd's KKK membership. It's like how John Kerry brought up Mary Cheney in the debates. That was awful--I could see it coming, and I thought to myself NO, JOHN, NO! DON'T DO IT! But he did.

John Kerry: You know, I'm a friend of lesbians, like Mary Cheney, for example, the lesbian daughter of our vice president. As a lesbian, Mary Cheney, who is a lesbian, has to live life with all of the trials and tribulations that come from being a lesbian, which she is.

Are we ever allowed to say that some person or organization is using Nazi tactics, or is that a comparison now frozen in time? I understand that it's offensive to some, but I didn't think that Byrd's remarks were like arranging flowers as swastikas for a Jewish festival--I think he was right, and if he was wrong, I want to know why, instead of hearing people who were not offended bloviate about how offended they were.

Democracy, war, moral questions

From CNN:

WASHINGTON (DC) -- Noting the "remarkable developments" spreading from Cairo to Kabul, President Bush said Saturday that "the trend is clear: In the Middle East and throughout the world, freedom is on the march."
Speaking in his weekly radio address, Bush cited examples of progress in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. He pointed to the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in the Lebanese capital of Beirut after the assassination recently of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. "Lebanese citizens who have watched free elections in Iraq are now demanding the right to decide their own destiny, free of Syrian control and domination."

Did the war in Iraq contribute in a significant way to any of the recent political developments in the Middle East? Is freedom on the march?

I'm not sure. First, a step back.

The related and more theoretical, philosophical question is whether an unjust action or series of actions can end up good in light of unexpected, positive consequences. Good Kantians would say absolutely not, as the only question that counts in a deontological moral system is the will of the agent. Utilitarians would be more inclined to say yes, but even utilitarianism makes a distinction between 'actual utility' and 'expected utility,' thus including a provision for the condemnation of actors who make immoral choices that turn out well.

I think questions like "Did the Civil War have to be fought?" and "Is India better off after having been ruled by Britain for a hundred years?" are best left answered in pieces. Thus, without attempting to retroactively justify the war in Iraq, we can simply ask what good consequences, if any, it is having.

I don't believe that the Iraq war impacted the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. The word on the street is, of course, that Saddam Hussein was paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers; his fall from power would certainly curb this practice. But I think that recent developments here have been the result of 1) Arafat's death, 2) Abbas's accession to power, and 3) Sharon's new willingness to listen to more moderate members of his cabinet.

The catalyst for Lebanon's move was the assassination of Hariri, not the Iraq war; the Kabul elections were the result of the war in Afghanistan, a war I think was justified; Mubarak in Egypt is not really going to change anything; and the Saudi Arabians still have a tight grip on our economy.

The best consequences for the Iraq war will be, I hope, for the Iraqis. For every soldier that kills an insurgent in the heat of battle, there are 5 helping average citizens put their lives back together. I still believe that this was a completely immoral and unjustified war built on lies; but in no way does that diminish the courageous actions of our soldiers or my hope that Iraq stabilizes and becomes a democracy.

What I see here is more blind conflation by Bush. He and his administration want to make 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the fake war on terrorism and any steps towards democracy on the Arab street the same thing, so that no American will be able to think about one without the other. They're not yet rewriting history: I believe history will show the justification for the war to be progressively more farcical. In the future we'll look back on Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld the same way I hope we currently do on Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and Richard Nixon. But Bush continues to twist the present.

Yes, the Iraq war can have good consequences, and I hope and pray it does. But if freedom is on the march, it is because citizens are choosing it from the ground up, and not because our massive war machine went to work.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Suicide bombers--or, what happened to Mohammed Bouyeri?


First of all, I don't think that suicide bombing represents the collapse of civilization, a moral low for the human race, or even a new tactic. As horrific as it appears to those of us who could never picture ourselves doing something similar, it is an effective and destructive means of making one's point. But history is full of examples of brutal violence--read about the practice of kamikaze
here--and if we just chalk these acts up to some nice metaphysical term like 'immorality' or 'blind hatred,' we will completely fail to understand them.

I suppose the extreme conservative reason for the current wave of bombings, from 9/11 to the ongoing Iraqi and Palestian insurgencies, is that the bombers hate our freedom and prosperity; conversely, the extreme liberal reason would be something about how American hegemony has oppressed them and they have nowhere else to turn. Neither of these explanations is satisfactory, because they don't take any psychological factors into account.

While most of today's suicide bombers are young Islamic men, that is as far as you are going to get demographically. They're not necessarily poor, they're not necessarily uneducated, and they probably believe that they are carrying out their mission for a plurality of factors: money, respect, pride, war, loyalty, anger, protest, etc. For example, you can read about Theo Van Gogh's killer
here. He was an upstanding, middle class member of his community until he was taken in by a radical mosque:

"Mohammed was never a hangabout. On the contrary, he had a good high-school education, and was known to his teachers as a promising young man. He was, as they say in the neighborhood, a positivo, who would surely make it in Dutch society. Not just ambitious for himself, Mohammed was always helping out troubled Moroccan kids, making plans for a youth program at his old school, and writing uplifting articles for a neighborhood bulletin. He was someone who could talk to city councillors and social workers. He knew his way around the intricate byways of Holland’s generous welfare system, where applying for subsidies is an essential skill. Things didn’t quite work out as Mohammed had hoped, however. A subsidy for a community center he’d been lobbying for was turned down. A promised renovation scheme for public housing never materialized. His mother’s death came as a shock. That year, Mohammed abandoned his studies in social work, went on welfare, and behaved in ways that were increasingly odd. In a meeting with community officials, he loudly proclaimed that Allah was the only God. He gave up alcohol, prayed all the time, refused to shake hands with women, and drifted to a fundamentalist mosque, El Tawheed." (Bold mine.)

What we forget is that behind every suicide bomber is a comfortable, powerful, well-fed, influential, angry Islamic cleric actively touting suicide or murder as an attractive option. One never sees a turban-wearing, serious-looking older gentleman carrying out such a mission: the mullahs are content to hold court from their mosques, and remain the engine driving the destruction from behind the scenes. The suicide bombers are just a weapon being cleverly manipulated and wielded effectively. Whether or not what they do takes some amount of courage is utterly irrelevant. The clerics are the real cowards, hidden behind robes and fiery speeches and comfortable ensconced in mosques and palaces.

We need to shift our focus in order to understand this crisis. Until Frenchmen start blowing up American malls, 'hatred of America' is an inadequate explanation.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ward Churchill

A Slate headline captured the essence of this situation: the article was titled "Ward Churchill: Victim, Moron." You can read one analysis here. I don't understand why Churchill was chosen for such attacks--if you open up the most current issue of Harper's magazine, you can read scathing criticism of Bush in poems by North Koreans; or just look at any Ted Rall cartoon. Perhaps it's because he's a hack and his credentials are so weak; perhaps not. I wish someone would have written an academic rebuttal to his work from a liberal perspective. Maybe I will do so at some point.

Consume this

Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary, had a fascinating column in yesterday's New York Times. He makes the point that it's difficult to strike a healthy balance between being a savvy consumer (getting great deals, comparison shopping, buying the lowest-priced items) and being a good citizen (making sure fellow citizens are paid well, have health insurance, and work under acceptable conditions, among other things.) Here's the salient point:

"We can blame big corporations, but we're mostly making this bargain with ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers' health and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities.
But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance?"

I agree that this is what takes place, but I find nothing inexorable about it. However many people shop at Walmart has nothing to do with whether or not it's ethical for Walmart to pay the wages it does. If we're going to have to find new ways of dealing with global markets, and if Reich's column is an indictment of us Amazon.com shopping consumers, then so be it--but at the same time, we can never accept unsafe working conditions or pathetic wages as the result of 'market forces.' The rise of industry in America in the 1800s saw children employed as factory workers--was that the result of those ghostly 'market forces'? Absolutely. Was it acceptable? Absolutely not. We can pressure Walmart to pay its workers better as we improve our own habits of consumption--Walmart's executives are not themselves strapped for cash, and until they are there is nothing 'necessary' about their practices.