Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wolf Munch Rock Award

Andrew Sullivan has announced the winners of his dyspeptic annual "awards," designed for the most part to highlight the dogmatism, intellectual dishonesty, mindless aggression, and self-promoting pretensions of our punditocracy.

As an antacid, let me introduce the first annual Wolf-Munch-Rock Award. Named for Financial Times columnists Martin Wolf, Wolfgang Munchau and Gideon Rachman, mainstays of that oasis of dispassionate analysis the FT Comment page, this award goes to an observer of world news and trends whose writings exhibit deep (if understated) expertise, fact- and evidence-based exposition, wide-angle perspective on large-scale trends, and theses based more on observation and analysis than ideology.

First year winners by decree: Martin Wolf, Wolfgang Munchau, Gideon Rachman. As an example of the way these guys deploy facts in support of a thesis --or plow through facts as they replay their search for a thesis - take Gideon Rachman's recent Five events that have defined 2007.

Rachman begins with a disarmingly modest, seemingly pedestrian justification for the 'exercise':
If you want to make sense of world affairs, it is useful to identify the most significant events. Also, I like making lists. So here goes.
Rachman's choices: 1) The surge, 2) Putin's Munich speech (accusing the Americans of "an almost uncontained hyper use of force ... that is plunging the world into an abyss of conflicts"), 3) the credit crunch, 4) Petrochina becoming the world's most valuable company (for a while), and 5) Musharrraf's 'mini-coup' in Pakistan. An odd mix of the military, the political, and the financial. Random? Bound only by his love of list-making? Not quite:

Is there a common theme linking these five events? Clearly. The link is the growing strain on the world's sole superpower. America is locked into a draining and demoralising war. Russia, an old adversary, is becoming more assertive. China, a new rival, is on the rise. Pakistan, a vital ally, threatens to fall apart. The US economy is under more strain than for years. Happy new year.


Surprise! A general unifying theory, delivered, again, with a modesty that implicitly acknowledges the complexity of events and the provisional nature of such judgments (as does the use of the perfect tense in the headline). This is not "the decline of the west," not a Jeremiad against American hubris, not a trump of doom - just a clear-headed look across disparate theaters at a "growing strain."

Wolf Munch Rock Award Part II is here
Part III is here

Friday, December 21, 2007

Shrieks on a Plane

Professor Bainbridge warns that unrestricted cell phone use on planes is on the way. Everyone who doesn't have the luxury of shutting off a hearing aid knows how bad this will be. And yet, there may be cause for all-too-distant hope. As a 10-year commuting vet on New Jersey transit, I’ve noticed an evolution in cell phone use on rush-hour commuter trains: most regular commuters do keep it down. Their fellow commuters have perfected the slow head-turn and glare, and the occasional ‘can you keep it down?’; most of us have grown at least marginally sensitive to the common interest in peace. It’s different, though, on weekend and off-peak trains: grandma doesn’t have a clue, teens don’t care, show-and-shopping excursionists are oblivious. I imagine that plane passengers will unfortunately be more like the off-peak crowd, except maybe on the major biz shuttle routes.

Attention, passengers: earplugs are cheap and reasonably effective, if a bit uncomfortable. They're not really good enough if the yakker is right next to you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Torture in Democracies: Rinse, Repeat

Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy. published an article this weekend in the Boston Globe (“Torture, American Style”) that recast my understanding of the place of torture in the history of the U.S. and all the western democracies. Surprise:

Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes. Americans didn't just develop electric power; they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle. Magneto torture, a technique favored by the Nazis involving a portable generator, was actually developed and spread by the French. Waterboarding and forced standing owe their wide use to the Americans and British.

Rejali details multiple forms of torture employed by law enforcement and the U.S. military throughout U.S. history: electrotorture "in police stations from Arkansas through Seattle" in the first third of the twentieth century; waterboarding in the Philippines and then in military prisons and police stations in the same period; magneto torture in Chicago law enforcement in the 1970s (apparently imported by veterans who had learned torture techniques in Vietnam). Eradicating these practices has been a constant struggle:

[H]istory shows that the cycle of torture can be broken. Americans put an end to most domestic torture between 1930 and 1950. We did this, in part, by exposing torture. The American Bar Association's 1931 report transformed American law and policing. The document was cited in court decisions; newspapers and true crime books drew on the group's investigations to educate the public as to what the modern face of torture was. And police chiefs instituted more checks on police behavior, including clear punishments for violations of the law and regular medical inspections for detainees.

This history lesson is literally "disillusioning." Yet it's also oddly reassuring. It's not true that the U.S. definitively rejected torture 200 years ago and has now opened the floodgates. As with many evils -- political corruption, financial fraud, athletes' substance abuse -- the fight against torture is chronic and cyclical and must be fought in every generation.

Myth: democracies don't torture. Fact: democracies regularly sniff torture out, debate it, and usually reject it. Of course, that equilibrium could be destroyed any time; a public's sensitivities can be coarsened, its values corrupted, by sensational TV shows and demagogic politicians. But that danger, like its antidote, is perpetual.

Supergurus against Torture?

After invoking Gandalf in his case against torture (Torture as the Ring?), Andrew Sullivan has now drafted Yoda as well. Both supergurus warn against the seductive powers of the dark side.

I am tired of people trotting out Gandalf's two or three humane homilies to lend profundity to their arguments. Tolkein was as morally simplistic as Bush. The Lord of the Rings is built on the pernicious fantasy that agents of evil are purely and unambiguously evil, that wars are fought against inherently and irremediably evil enemies, that kings are fighting a constant rearguard action against the weakness of their people, and that history is a long tale of degeneration.

There are few evils more clear-cut than torture, which is why the campaign against it suits Sullivan's earnest nature, and why he has been so effective on this vitally important front. But fantasy-world invocations should be left to the neocon fabulists.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bloomin' bromides revisited

Update to 12/15 post: a bit of unsolicited campaign advice to The Admirable Bloomberg is now in the Financial Times. Postscript: don't do it, Bloomberg! What a cruel irony if you were to throw the election to Giuliani...

Upholding Dodd-ering Civil Liberties

Chris Dodd has pledged to filibuster any FISA bill that grants retroactive immunity to telecom companies that have colluded in the Bush Administration's illegal and unchecked spying on Americans' phone traffic. Here is one response to Dodd's call for statements of support:

While America sleeps, our core Constitutional liberties are being stripped away as the Executive claims power to do whatever it wants to whomever it wants. Astonishingly, the Democrats continue to roll over and ratify the President's right to spy at will on Americans, hold suspects indefinitely without trial, and torture those deemed rightly or wrongly to have information about future terrorist attacks. Chris Dodd has been the only Presidential candidate with the courage not only to speak out in general terms against these outrages, but to take time out from campaigning to arrest the capitulation of the party he wants to lead. Anyone who acts effectively to check the steamrolling of the spineless Democratic leadership on this front deserves the support of all Americans who value the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bloomin' Bromides

In one of his split-the-difference, both-parties-have-lost-their-way and I'm-the-statesman-of-the-center feints, Michael Bloomberg positioned himself as a brave supporter of beleaguered free trade in the Financial Times last week.

Bloomberg has proved himself a highly capable executive and a fact-based, analytical policymaker. If I were magically empowered to appoint the next President, I might well choose him. All the more disappointing, then, that his free trade manifesto (America must resist protectionism, 12/11/07) amounts to little more than a collection of anodyne bromides. America "must capitalize on opportunities and confront the challenges" of increased global trade. "Countries that open fair access to new frontiers will be the winners." "We have a responsibility to prepare today's students for tomorrow's economy." Visionary.

If Bloomberg wants to help us truly "confront the challenges" of globalization, he might let us know his thinking on some hard questions: should bilateral free trade agreements between the U.S. and developing countries include stricter labor and environmental standards? Should U.S. tax policy provide incentives for companies to keep or create jobs at home? Should developing countries unconditionally embrace free trade, or protect key industries as Korea and Japan did?

Bloomberg purports to admire both Bush Sr. and Clinton for their courage in supporting free trade in 1992. At that time, it truly did take courage to tell laid off factory workers that the U.S. could not protect them from globalization, but only help them to retool their skills, as Clinton did. But today that's received wisdom, if not achieved policy. If Bloomberg is positioning himself as a presidential contender who tells the unvarnished truth, he'll have to show more 'courage' than he did in this piece.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Debriefing Kiriakou: What if Torture Works?

The Brian Ross interview with former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, is disturbing in the extreme in that Kiriakou declares reperatedly, matter-of-factly, and with apparent certainty that Zubaydah yielded large amounts of actionable intelligence as a result of torture, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. These claims completely contradict Ron Suskind's account, in which sources say that Zubaydah was a psychotic with limited knowledge of Al Qaeda operations who, upon being tortured,

began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

According to Kiriakou, waterboarding was "like flipping a switch" that made Zubaydah decide it was Allah's will (revealed in a dream) that he should talk -- and "the threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." Kiriakou claims that Zubyadah subsequently served as a reliable reality check for other intelligence that came in. Kiriakou also portrays him as rational, knowledgeable, far from insane in any conventional sense, and a high-level al Qaeda operative-- a logistics chief, a financier, and a close associate of Bin Ladin.

Kiriaku also counters the claim that other interrogation techniques are more effective than torture. He claims that the key differentiator was speed; that building trust or willingness (which he dismisses as impossible with the religious fanatics of al Qaeda) or engaging in psychological warfare are time-consuming, whereas waterboarding was, again, 'like throwing a switch."

Is Kiriakou to be believed? Over time, will enough Kiriakous speak out to create a general acknowledgment that torture can produce actionable intelligence? If so, we opponents of torture lose a major comfort and must rely on a braver and more nuanced cost-benefit assessment. Such as: the harm that torture does to the society that authorizes it outweighs the harm -- the deaths and destruction -- that it may in some instances prevent. We have already seen that torture cannot be contained with the circumspection that Kiriakou portrays - where every step, every slap, is deliberated and authorized. Instead, we have dozens of people killed in custody, thousands detained (in Iraq) under brutal conditions, and all kinds of random and sadistic abuses, the knowledge of which has generated so much further hatred against us throughout the Muslim world. Nor can its target be limited to "known" terrorists - witness the mistaken renditions and the abuse leveled on Iraqis rounded up virtually at random. American citizenship is no shield -- ask Jose Padilla. In concert with the denial of due process and the President's assumed power to deem anyone an enemy combatant, there is nothing to prevent its being inflicted on an ever-widening circle of alleged 'enemies of the state.' That is the real danger.

Andrew Sullivan points out that "The Zubaydah torture does not fit the category laid out by Charles Krauthammer as the criterion for legalized torture. It was done not because we knew something and needed to nail it down. It was done because we knew nothing and needed to find out more. The attacks it allegedly foiled were not catastrophic and not on the mainland of the United States." Does this kind of cost-benefit analysis make sense - that is, is the 'ticking time bomb' argument relevant? Is it wrong to torture someone if you think that doing so might thwart unknown attacks saving hundreds or thousands of lives, but right to torture in an attempt to thwart an attack known to be pending that might take hundreds of thousands or millions of lives? I think the answer is that the '24' scenario is a false choice, highly unlikely to occur in its pure form. Sullivan is right that it's fatal for a society to greenlight torture in anticipation of that choice. That's Cheney's 1% solution -- a permanent state of emergency authorizing absolute executive power because of an eternal risk of catastrophe.


In fact, that risk has been there throughout the nuclear age, and the remote possibility of a terrible choice has always been part of the burden of the terrible responsibility of those charged with the security of millions of people. I imagine that every president has left a corner of his mind open to the possibility of an emergency that will force him to act outside the law. But to pre-authorize a crime in a vanishingly unlikely scenario is not a solution.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Who Says Cheney isn't Pole-Driven?

A relaxed Dick Cheney in shirtsleeves, “his big chair swiveled” toward the target, took quite a stick to his Democratic opponents in a testosterone-charged pas de deux with Politico this week.

The lede gets all-to-quickly to the upshot:

Vice President Cheney warned in an interview Wednesday that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would invite “further attacks” against the United States and said he has been surprised by the weakness of the Democratic Congress.
Cheney fingers Dingell and Murtha as representatives (d) of this ‘weakness’:

[Dingell] and Murtha “and the other senior leaders … march to the tune of Nancy Pelosi to an extent I had not seen, frankly, with any previous speaker,” Cheney said. “I’m trying to think how to say all of this in a gentlemanly fashion, but [in] the Congress I served in, that wouldn’t have happened.”

...When asked if these men had lost their spines, he responded, “They are not carrying the big sticks I would have expected.”
Hmm...weaklings with small sticks, at least one of whom would force a premature withdrawal if he were more potent. That would be a pity, with consummation nigh:
We’re sort of halfway through the surge, in a sense. We’ll be going back to pre-surge levels over the course of the next year.”
Fortunately, the would-be withdrawers need not be stymied for long. Our premature-predictor-in-chief assures us that a “self-governing democracy [will] be firmly established in Iraq” by January 2009.

And if the U.S. can’t surge to that swift and satisfying conclusion, other enemies are poised to stick it to us. Take Iran, with its hot pursuit of superpower status:
“The long pole in the tent in terms of developing nuclear weapons, traditionally, historically, has been developing fissile material.”
It'll take a big stick to keep that long pole out of the nuclear end zone.

In any case, it’s reassuring to know that our avuncular veep does not demand perfection, or absolute power. Counterinsurgent NIEs, images of soldiers holding naked prisoners on leashes, news of destroyed torture videos—it’s alll in term’s work:
“Everything leaks,” he said with a chuckle.
That's why there's no safety in premature withdrawal.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Still, Small Voice Says Israel is Right

Israeli unanimity about Iranian determination to build a bomb is troubling - though I must say that Israelis were also unanimous in support of leveling much of Lebanon in a futile attempt to crush Hezbollah. Nonetheless, Israelis have had their eyes fixed on Iran's nuclear efforts for nearly two decades, and a high level of Mossad confidence in that neighborhood seems more credible than the graded confidence levels of the NIE. Most troubling, Israeli intelligence experts don't dispute the core fact noted in the NIE - Iran's suspension of its 'nuclear weapons program' -- they just dispute its significance.

The New Republic's Yossi Klein Halevi has this from Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad:

"My assessment is that, after they decided to aim for nuclear weapons, they advanced on three parallel tracks: enriching uranium, creating components for a bomb, and developing missiles. The missiles are ready for operation. As for enrichment, they have encountered all kinds of problems, like exploding centrifuges. I estimate that they made great progress, and very quickly, on the military track. Since they have problems with the uranium enrichment track, they can allow themselves to delay the military track, and wait for progress with uranium." [Halevi adds] Given that world attention has been focused on the military track, a tactical Iranian concession made sense.

This makes the Occam's Razor cut. It's the explanation that requires as few assumptions as possible -- in marked contrast to the NIE's judgement that Iran's nuclear activities are guided by a 'cost-benefit approach.' As another of Halevi's sources asks sarcastically, is it "a cost-benefit approach for one of the world's largest oil exporters to risk international sanctions and economic ruin for the sake of a peaceful nuclear program?"

One might respond that the perceived benefit is not energy but prestige, and risk management (keeping up with the Husseins), and keeping options open, i.e. getting 20 years of preparation out of the way so that a bomb can be produced at short notice. But the fact remains that getting the uranium enriched is the hardest part -- and that effort is going full steam ahead.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Democrat "for" McCain

Financiers, who know how to hedge, often contribute to candidates in both parties. Why not the rest of us? This letter accompanied my contribution today to the McCain campaign:

Dear Senator McCain:

While I will almost certainly vote for the Democratic nominee in 2008, I am contributing to your campaign because I fear for the future of American democracy should a proponent of torture and the destruction of American civil liberties such as Rudy Depends-who-does-it Giuliani or Mitt Double Guantanamo Romney win a major party nomination.

This contribution is to honor your sustained and essential opposition to torture, suspension of habeas, assertions of unlimited executive power, and wholesale flouting of the Bill of Rights. Should you win the Republican nomination, I will rest assured that Americans are not prepared to sell their ancient liberties for a little bit of perceived security.

I should add that I believe that your support of President Bush’s misadventure in Iraq contributed to that disaster; that your campaigning for Bush in the 2004 election helped bring on four more years of assault on our core liberties; and that the ‘compromise’ you green-lighted in the 2006 Military Commissions Act ratified the Administration’s abuses. I am also disappointed by your repudiation of your own principled opposition to the Bush Administration’s irresponsible tax cuts, and by your cozying up to corrupt theocrats.

Nonetheless, on the all-important issue of torture and civil liberties, history will recognize that you stood as the conscience of a party run amok with fear-mongering and power-grabbing.

American democracy cannot function without (at least) two viable major parties. Should you win the nomination, the Republican Party will have taken a giant step toward a return to responsible governance.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Gates "Validates"

Vintage Robert Gates here, as reported by Mark Thompson in Time :

Indeed, Secretary Gates, in Afghanistan this week, told reporters that the U.S. intelligence community has "more confidence than ever before" that Iran had a nuclear-weapons development program, one that Iran continues to deny it ever possessed. He urged the international community "to join the United States in bringing pressure to bear on the Iranian government" to keep its nuclear-weapons efforts dead. This, he said, will help "ensure that what apparently was a suspension in 2003 becomes a policy of the Iranian government and that they agree to the requirements of the international community in terms of their enrichment program." Iran, he said, had merely suspended — not terminated — its nuclear-weapons efforts. Tehran continues to "keep its options open," he pointed out. "As long as they continue with their enrichment activities, then the opportunity to resume that nuclear weapons program is always present."

However, Gates left no doubt where he stands on how to proceed, saying that the revised NIE shows that non-military measures are the best way to curb Iran's nuclear program. "If anything," he said in Kabul, "the new national estimate validates the Administration's strategy of bringing diplomatic and economic pressures to bear on the Iranian government to change its policies."

First, do everything possible to forestall reckless and ruinous military action (thank God there's at last a match for Cheney in bureaucratic infighting). Then tack about to highlight the remaining danger and head off a collapse of meaningful pressure. Simultaneously get across that Iran remains dangerous and yet responsive to concerted international action. Finally, magically recast the Administration's saber rattling as the hard-nosed peace through strength negotiation he would have it be.

Monday, December 03, 2007

"From the Shadows": Did Gates Shape the New NIE on Iran?

Having just finished Robert Gates' excellent book 1996 From the Shadows, my immediate reaction upon reading of a new National Intelligence Estimate that
downplays the likelihood of Iran developing nuclear weapons before 2015 is that Gates, a 25-year CIA veteran and former DCI, very likely had a shaping hand - if not in the report itself, then in its release. Until quite recently, Gates has kept a very low profile since becoming Secretary of Defense about a year ago, but the evidence is strong that he has had a calming, rationalizing effect on Bush Administration policy and rhetoric. Last week, in a speech at Kansas State University, he astonished Pentagon observers by telling students that the U.S. needed to boost the State Department's budget -- that is, redress the balance between hard power and soft power. Prior to that, the only public comments of his since taking office that I can remember cropping up in mainstream news were two checks to belligerent Administration rhetoric-- to say in one instance that Congressional debate on war financing put useful pressure on the Iraqi government, and in another that Hillary Clinton's request for contingency withdrawal plans was reasonable. Both of these interventions are in keeping with the balanced assessment in From the Shadows of the five presidents Gates worked for (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr.). In the final section of that book, Gates notes that doves and hawks worked effectively, though often in bitter competition, to keep those five presidents on containment course, and that Congressional intrusion on foreign affairs could be meddlesome and counterproductive but also served as an essential check on executive power. Also, as a top member of Bush Senior's national security team, he lauds that team's cohesion and mutual trust, born of confidence that the National Security Adviser Scowcroft (and deputy Gates) would present all views to the President. The unwritten sequel haunts the book like a shadow limb: that Bush 43 in so many ways destroyed the balance born of separation of powers, bipartisanship, and competition of views within prior administrations.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Rotting from the Head Down

Joe Klein reports on the responses of a Republican focus group gathered by Frank Luntz during the Republican U-Tube debate:

In the next segment--the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee's college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants--I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, "After all, these are children of God," the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.

But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture--specifically, about waterboarding--the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. "I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

Andrew Sullivan labels this display of sadism The Foul Core of the GOP. But what if we're witnessing the corruption of the American electorate as whole? That's what inevitably happens when leaders violate the norms and taboos of civilized governance. I think back to those experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s in which participants proved willing to administer excruciatingly painful shocks (which were faked) to those they believed to be the experiment's subjects, and Milgram's claim that you could find a full staff for Auschwitz in any typical American town. That is probably always true of people everywhere -- and that's precisely why when the leaders start pushing the torture-is-too-good-for- our-enemies buttons, we're on the road to ruin if other leaders don't stand up in opposition.

On the largest issues of governance -- respect for minority rights, human rights, international law -- the leaders have to be better than the people. Bush's crime lies in violating norm after norm, taboo after taboo of U.S. governance -- politicizing the CIA, Justice Dept, EPA and just about every other federal department; nullifying legislation via signing statements; harassing nonsupporters at campaign rallies; suspending habeas; and institutionalizing torture.

For years I've believed that the electorate as a whole is smarter than any of us; I've had faith in the wisdom of crowds as a key to democracy's success. But lately I've been thinking that leaders in power can corrupt this process; they can corrupt the people.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Huckabee Caesar

Re Huckabee's defense of his support of the death penalty as Governor in last night's debate: Andrew Sullivan has posted the Asp comment below as half of the Dissent of the Day at The Daily Dish:

While I despise the "what would Jesus do?" mindset ("original intent" to the nth) and regard Christianism as a major threat to our democracy, I thought Huckabee's "Jesus was too smart to run for public office" response to the death penalty question was kind of brilliant. You found it a "cheapening of Jesus' radical injunction to forswear worldly power and wealth" -- I thought it was a dead-on voiceover of "render under Caesar what is Caesar's."

The thing is, Huckabee has been Caesar, i.e. has had to make the life-and-death decisions, which he spoke of rather movingly (not glibly, though I can't gauge his sincerity). What he said, in effect, was that Jesus offered no direct guidance to worldly rulers about what to do when the apparent demands of public welfare (or security) clash w/ the dictates of the Sermon on the Mount. In a way he was also saying he would have been 'smarter' to stay a minister rather than enter politics - there's that humility reflex, real or faked, which is part of his appeal. More to the point,, "Jesus couldn't (wouldn't) tell me outright what to do as governor." There's an unBushlike shunning of certainty there that's also part of his appeal.

The second half of the dissent, by another reader, highlighted the decency in Huckabee's discussion of immigration and defense of his refusal as governor to exclude the children of illegal aliens from a state merit scholarship program. In their different ways, Huckabee, McCain and Paul shed a few rays of decency on the dung heap of immigrant bashing, bloodlust for torture and contempt for civil liberties fertilizing the Republican frontrunners' campaigns.
If Huckabee or McCain win the nomination, I will not fear for the future of American democracy as intensely as I will if Double Guantanamo Romney or Depends-on-Who-Does-it Rudy win.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Voodoo Video?

Today's Times (Nov. 11) ran This is your brain on politics , an interpretation by neuroscientists of swing voters' brain activity while they watched presidential candidates in action. The report raises more questions than it answers --

1. In the selection of the still and video shots of each candidate, was there a method for screening out researcher bias?

2. Was there a method for determining whether the stump speech video represents a candidate's average performance?

3. Are emotions and mental activities as firmly associated with discrete areas of the brain as the article implies? For example, would neuroscientists generally agree that the anterior cingulate cortex "is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one"? Might that same region be stimulated by other kinds of mental/emotional activity?

Experiments on this frontier are fascinating. Sometimes, though, the reported results read a bit like a video version of phrenology, the nineteenth century pseudo-science that purported to determine personality by examining head shape.

On the other hand, research showing that people's political reactions grow more hard-line and punitive when they have just been made aware of death or the possibility of disaster seems to me truly compelling. The "before and after" comparison in that case is clean.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dreams of Obama: Sullivan Seeks Transcendence



Much as I enjoy Andrew Sullivan's blog and honor his opposition to torture, his Atlantic cover about Obama's transcendent potential strikes me as complete fantasy, with facts shaped to suit naive longings for renewal.

Sullivan claims that "our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable" while alleging that there are few substantive policy differences between the parties. How can Sullivan, who has been so relentlessly clearheaded about the constitutional dangers posed by Bush's normalization of torture and assertions of absolute executive power, pretend to believe that the parties' policies are substantively the same? One party's candidates are vying to prove that they'll out-torture each other, outdo each other in the destruction of civil liberties, and extend Bush's preemptive unilateralism any country perceived as a threat, while the other party's candidates universally promise to end Guantanamo, reject torture and negotiate with adversaries -- and Sullivan finds no difference? Similarly, his claim that the parties are not that far apart on health care because Hillary's national plan looks like Romney's Massachusetts plan is disingenuous. Romney has effectively repudiated his Massachusetts plan. None of the Republicans have put forward any serious plan for covering the uninsured nationally, while the major Democrats all have done so.


After years of eloquently detailing the disastrous effects of Bush's policies -- in international affairs, in civil liberties, in government spending, in grossly distorted and ineffective programs like the prescription drug benefit -- in this article Sullivan downplays real differences between the parties in favor of airy generalizations about the zeitgeist. It's not about a party entirely in the pocket of lobbyists and drunk on American military power and the fears they've inspired in the populace -- it's about Vietnam. Nonsense, Andrew. The Republicans have relentlessly hammered the Democrats on Vietnam because painting Democrats as soft on defense syncs up with painting them as the party of blacks and the lazy poor (commie sympathizers, socialists at home). Republican aggression on the world stage meshes nicely with their "toughness" with regard to the disadvantaged and their eternal bankrolling by big business whose interest they serve.


Not that the Democrats are not also corrupted by lobbying interests. Less so than the Republicans, but our whole political system has been poisoned by the escalating floods of cash, the legalized bribery. Robert Reich, in Supercapitalism, has gone many fathoms deeper than Sullivan in explaining the 'malaise' in American politics. Without blaming big business, which lobbies because each company must compete as relentlessly for political advantage (against rivals within its own industry, and against industries with rival interests) as they do in every other arena, he demonstrates repeatedly how arguments ostensibly about the public interest are often simply a smokescreen for competing economic interests. That may not always be true -- it's not, on civil liberties -- but the parties' positions have hardened into caricatures that suit their main supporters.


Finally, although Sullivan keeps his anti-Hillary hysteria somewhat under wraps in this article, his allegations of her core insincerity remain as unsupported as ever. He simply magnifies her perceived flaws of character and campaigning, while explaining away Obama's as part of a uniquely compelling package. Most unfairly, he compares HIllary's undoubted lifetime faith unfavorably with Obama's supposedly rational conversion in early adulthood. I read Dreams of My Father and had a very different take on that conversion. I don't think Obama is dishonest, but I suspect that as a young activist in inner city Chicago he did a number on himself -- because he wanted to belong to the black community in which he had immersed himself, he wanted to 'go all the way.' I find it simply incredible that a rational, skeptical thinker like Obama could convince himself in adulthood that Jesus died for his sins and offers him personal salvation. Rather I think he took a route to social salvation, to connection with the black community. In his sublimating way, I think Obama has been as concerned lifelong about his "political viability" as Bill Clinton. I find it sad that both Obama and Hillary have to wear their faith, and whatever combination of sincerity and self deception composes it, on their sleeves. As does anyone who wants to be President.



Sunday, October 28, 2007

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is the best big-picture book I've read in years. Dispassionately, it cuts through partisan noise and pinpoints the competitive pressures that have driven global business to serve us all supremely well in our capacities as consumers and investors -- while simultaneously eroding democracy and community. Reich locates a technological tipping point in the mid-to-late 70s that destroyed big businesses' insulation from global competition and made managers answerable to institutional investors ever-ready to move capital to any competitor who maximizes profitability.

These pressures produce great products, low prices, and high-return investment vehicles in which the majority of Americans have some share. The same forces also produce constant downsizing and outsourcing, relentless downward pressure on wages, culturally corrosive media and entertainment, and denuded downtowns. Even more dangerously, supercapitalism drives a lobbying arms race, in which each company and industry strives for competitive advantage on the legislative front (as in every other arena). Companies lobby not because they're conspiring to squeeze out the public interest, but to fend off rivals' attempts to gain advantageous legislation. The result is near-complete corruption of the legislative process as companies compete to buy legislation.

Reich's argument is compelling in large part because he convincingly debunks the vilification of individual actors -- Wal-Mart, lobbying corporations, corrupt politicians, right wing ideologues. The fault, such as it is, lies with all of us. Insofar as we seek the highest quality goods at the cheapest price and highest possible returns on our investment, we are all cracking the whip that keeps wages low, insecurity high, compensation for those who deliver the goods astronomical, and money flooding our political system.

Reich's account of a 'supercapitalism' that is eroding democracy constitutes a compelling challenge to the neo-Hegelian thesis of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, which suggests that after the collapse of communism, human society worldwide has nowhere to go (or grow) but into democratic capitalism. These days, as we obsess with the Islamic backlash against globalism, it's fashionable to laugh at what's perceived as Fukuyama's triumphalism in that 1992 look forward. But Fukuyama's detractors are laughing at a caricature of his work. Fukuyama never suggested that the path to worldwide democracy would be smooth or swift or that it could not be derailed by irrational forces. Like Reich's, Fukuyama's argument is essentially Darwinian: he sees sheer competitive pressure driving underdeveloped societies, first toward capitalism, and then, as economic growth creates a middle class, toward democracy As wealth accumulates in an authoritarian free market country, Fukuyama suggests, a critical mass of people acquire both the means and the motivation to ensure that they can't be robbed or stymied by an unaccountable government.

Fukuyama is one of a long line of thinkers who sees democracy as an outgrowth of free markets and wealth accumulation. What's troubling -- and truly new -- about Reich's thesis is that it may be the first clear look at the next phase -- when hypercompetition, i.e. supercapitalism, begins in turn to erode the democracy already achieved. Reich is at pains to demonstrate that ills appearing first in the U.S. -- widening income inequality, Walmartization of commerce, political sclerosis induced by massive lobbying, uncontrollably obscene and mindless mass culture and entertainment -- are also at work in Europe and Japan.

Reich is much better at diagnosing the problem than at proposing solutions. Indeed, the cumulative impression is that supercapitalism is a juggernaut that overwhelms everything in its path. Reich's proposed solutions boil down to two: genuine lobbying and campaign finance reform, and a new regulatory regime that reins in supercapitalism's steroidal competitive excesses.

But which of us will bell the cat? It's a chicken-and-egg question that Reich does not really address: how can a corrupted political process regain the autonomy and authority to rewrite the rules of the game? The implied answer, I think, is the exhaustion of the parties themselves. Businesses are not reveling in their lobbying prowess -- in fact, they are sick of legislative death matches and of being shaken down by politicians. The recent stirrings of large industry groups calling for serious dialog about health care reform may be a bellwether. Perhaps there will be a twenty-first century magna carta, in which the lords of industry hammer out a truce (or long series of truces) with legislators and agree to a kind of lobbying arms control.

Reich's other implicit remedy is knowledge. I for one found his book something of a revelation with regard to how we are all to greater or lesser degree cracking the supercapitalist whip. If there is new insight emerging into the way that the pressures of global capitalism are eroding democracy, community and security -- in short, commonwealth -- there may be a new will among competing interests to hammer out solutions. It is refreshing and useful in this regard that Reich does not vilify (or credit) Republicans and right wing theorists for unleashing forces we are only beginning to understand.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The New York Times reports that in a community meeting in Iowa, Rudolph Giuliani, asked whether waterboarding is torture, responded: “It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.”

Thank you, Rudy, for clarifying how President Bush can keep repeating "we do not torture" in the face of massive documentation that for the past six years the U.S. has explicitly authorized and systematically implemented "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- including the simulated drowning universally understood to be denoted by the term "waterboarding" and long prosecuted by the U.S. as a war crime. Now the logic is clear: if we do it, it's not torture.

Monday, October 22, 2007

postdemocratic society

What if the U.S. is the first postdemocratic society? That is, a society in which marketing techniques have grown so successful that they overwhelm democratic discourse as we know it, so that even the most thoughtful, able and public interest-minded elected officials cannot develop good policy and legislation and cannot speak anything approaching the truth as they see it if they have any hope of being elected. This past week Maureen Dowd and David Brooks, the acid and alkaline of the NYT op-ed page, each suggested as much -- Dowd in a dismissive rundown of the political pollster Mark Penn's microtargeting techniques as described in his new book Microtrends, and Brooks in a sympathetic recounting of Representative Deborah Pryce's alleged disgust after allowing the Republican attack machine to go to work on her behalf in the last election.

Holding office in a postdemocratic society would be something like competing in a sport in which steroid abuse is rife: if you don't cheat, you can't compete. We may need whole new types and theories of regulation, not to "level" the playing field -- between the two major parties it is quite level -- but to improve the quality of play.

I would begin by throwing out the perverse notion that advertising needs the full untrammeled protections of free speech. Lawyers in some states accept tight restrictions on their advertising. Why can't elected officials? Can no one challenge the notion that meaningful political debate can be carried out in paid 30-second spots?

Ditto for campaign finance. As the advantage shifts to the Democrats, we may see our last opportunity for a stand-down -- that is, for a negotiation
in which each side shows awareness that under current rules the advantage may someday swing to the other side. As long as Republicans were in power, it was clear that the only changes to the status quo they'd countenance were those that furthered their chance of a permanent majority. The 2006 election opened a window, not only because Democrats are less ruthless in partisan warfare, and because their margin is so thin, but because the memory of a turnaround is fresh.

As the Bush era comes to a close, I wonder whether American democracy will self-correct as it has done in the past, or whether the democratic process has become so skewed by money and marketing technology that true course corrections -- i.e., those with a measure of bipartisan input and buy-in -- are no longer possible.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In his "Think Again" blog, Stanley Fish relayed some of his responses to 10 questions posed by a BBC interviewer for a series titled "Why Democracy"? As usual, Professor Fish was interesting and inconsistent.

Beginning with his definition of democracy, Fish says:

I tend to resist romantic definitions that feature phrases like “noble ideal” and opt instead for something more analytic: democracy is a form of government that is not attached to any pre-given political or ideological ends, but allows ends to be chosen by the majority vote of free citizens.


Shortly afterward, riffing on democracy's potential for undermining itself, Fish notes:

It is always possible that those who gain control of the legislative process will pass laws that erode or even repeal the rights – of property, free expression and free movement – that distinguish democracies from theocracies and monarchies.

And with regard to terrorism:

The danger is not so much that terrorists will defeat democracies by force as it is that, in resisting terrorists, democracies will forgo the procedural safeguards (against warrantless detention, censorship and secret surveillance) that make a democracy what it is.


Laudable warnings -- but how do they square with Fish's limited definition of democracy? Technically, democracy is defined by the vote. But it cannot survive long without a legal and constitutional architecture that distributes rather than concentrates power. Otherwise, the vote will be undermined, as in Russia today.

Fish's limited definition of democracy precludes his engaging the deepest questions regarding democracy’s potential for continuing to improve the human condition. For example, he writes off the question, "can democracy solve climate change?" as a "category mistake":

Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.

If Fish thinks that "alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations" happen in a vacuum, he should take a look at environmental regulation in China today -- where the central government mandates, and the nation's factories ignore with the collusion of local governments. Or look at the sewage pits that the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were revealed to be after communism collapsed.

Far from being 'independent variables," politics and technology are interdependent. That's not to say that authoritarian and even totalitarian societies make zero technological progress. But over time, they've been outperformed by freer societies -- by democracies in the period that democracy has existed. Fish may dislike Frances Fukuyama's 'teleological' argument (In The End of History and the Last Man) that human society as a whole is moving inexorably toward democracy. But Fukuyama's argument is evolutionary -- that sheer competitive pressure in the economic sphere drives countries toward democracy, because only democracy creates the conditions of free inquiry and a rule of law protecting economic rewards for those who innovate in the practical sphere. Authoritarian societies can ride piggyback in today's global economy and make economic progress for a while. But over time, they will either regress or democratize.

The question of whether democracy can cope with climate change, far from being a category mistake, cuts to the heart of democracy's (and humanity's) ability to adapt and thrive. Because democracy is founded on persuasion and a contest of wills, there's something counterintuitive about its often-proven ability to effectively cope with problems that demand a mobilization of will and resources. When fascism was on the rise, and again in the cold war, many 'tough-minded' observers felt that democracy could not compete effectively with societies marching under a totalitarian banner. They were wrong.

My own feeling is that democracy alone can cope with the toughest challenges facing humanity -- but only if democracies do not destroy their own workings in the ways outlined by Professor Fish, e.g. -- by voting away the people's empowerment through the erosion of civil liberties -- and also by allowing the destruction of checks and balances on the distribution of power.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Torture: What Hillary was Asked

Re the blogosphere's perfectly appropriate interrogation of Hillary Clinton's seeming refusal in a Washington Post interview published today (10/10/07) to state categorically that upon taking office she would end end "special interrogation methods," i.e. torture, authorized by Bush: discussion of the full transcript of the conversation released by the Clinton campaign has neglected the fact that the Post article not only omitted a key part of Clinton's response, but also distorted the context.

The Post reported the conversation as follows:

Clinton was similarly vague about how she would handle special interrogation methods used by the CIA. She said that while she does not condone torture, so much has been kept secret that she would not know unless elected what other extreme measures interrogators are using, and therefore could not say whether she would change or continue existing policies.

"It is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing. We're getting all kinds of mixed messages," Clinton said. "I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new president. I think [until] you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know."
The Clinton campaign released this transcript:


Q: Can I ask you a follow up? You mentioned Blackwater, you’ve said that at the beginning of your administration you’d ask the Pentagon to report. When it comes to special interrogation methods, obviously you’ve said you’re against torture, but the types of methods that are now used that aren’t technically torture but are still permitted, would you do something in your first couple days to address that, suspend some of the special interrogation methods immediately or ask for some kind of review?

HRC: Well I think I’ve been very clear about that too, we should not conduct or condone torture and it is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn’t doing, we’re getting all kinds of mixed messages. I don’t think we’ll know the truth until we have a new President. I think once you can get in there and actually bore into what’s been going on, you’re not going to know. I was very touched by the story you guys had on the front page the other day about the WWII interrogators. I mean it's not the same situation but it was a very clear rejection of what we think we know about what is going on right now but I want to know everything, and so I think we have to draw a bright line and say ‘No torture – abide by the Geneva conventions, abide by the laws we have passed,' and then try to make sure we implement that.


Clinton was asked whether she would suspend special interrogation methods "that are now used" in her first couple of days. She said in effect, I don't know because I don't know what they're doing (or will have been doing when I take office). She then said we have to draw a bright line against torture. That is, we have to define what we won't do but we can't know right now whether there (will be) any then-current behavior to suspend immediately. The WaPo made it sound like she was saying, I don't know whether we'll repudiate what has been done (since late 2001) or what has been authorized. The Post elided a difference between "existing policies" (what's authorized, still on the books, so to speak) and practices taking place at the moment the next President takes office.

Mark Kleiman complains, "The CIA just announced that it would no longer do waterboarding. That clearly implies that the CIA was doing waterboarding." Ergo, Hillary is avoiding repudiation of waterboarding. But that complaint reproduces the Post's transformation of Hillary's reaction to a question about practices she would have to suspend to a statement about policies she would change. On the other hand, Kleiman is perfectly right to say that Clinton could end the ambiguity by stating unequivocally, no waterboarding, no long time standing, no cold room, no sensory deprivation, no rendition.

Andrew Sullivan, in his discussion of what the Post left out, doesn't even include the question that set the context for Clinton's remarks. Primal loathing distorts everything Andrew says about Clinton in any case. Still, he's acute to point out that Clinton's injunction to "abide by the laws we have passed" [may] include, of course, the Military Commissions Act."


Monday, May 07, 2007

Andrew Sullivan v. Sam Harris: Andrew erects a straw man at close

In the final installment of his "blogalogue" about faith with militant atheist Sam Harris, Andrew Sullivan mischaracterizes Harris' relentless rationalism as "fundamentalist atheism," a logical monstrosity that bears no relation to Harris' arguments. Here's a third-party response to Mr. Sullivan:

Let's begin with your slippery use of the word 'toleration.' You claim that Harris is attempting "to end the toleration for religiously-rooted argument.' But Harris is only refusing to 'tolerate' religious arguments intellectually. By a neat elision, your attack on 'fundamentalist atheism' raises the specter of religious persecution as practiced by Nazis and Communists.

Harris' atheism bears no resemblance to these ideologies, which it would be more accurate to call atheist fundamentalism than fundamentalist atheism. Communism in particular was a secular religion that brooked no deviation from the scriptures or lack of faith in the promised end of history. The focal point was not atheism per se, but a utopian promise guaranteed by an infallible scripture. Harris is attempting to impose no such faith. He is taking from believers nothing that they would not give up willingly.

Why should we worry about beleaguered, non-fundamentalist believers like yourself becoming "convinced that the choice is solely between fundamentalism and atheism"? Do Harris' arguments render you "trapped perforce in the fundamentalist camp"? If so, what a tender plant you are-- and what a tender plant your faith is. Not surprisingly, since throughout this dialogue Harris has uprooted your arguments one by one.

Plainly Harris and his ilk are seeking to break the religious spell by force of argument alone. They're trying to pull the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. If they succeed, it will likely be a process of centuries. If they can't succeed -- if you're right that "atheism will never occur spontaneously among humans in large numbers"--then their effort can't "make the problem [of fundamentalism] worse."

But how do you know that they will fail? You assert, "Atheism will never occur spontaneously among humans in large numbers." Another clever elision: why "spontaneously"? Why might atheism not predominate by gradual force of argument and experience- as democracy and belief in human rights are predominating? Or as religious tolerance -- once as unthinkable as atheism -- took hold after centuries of religious war in Europe?

Speaking of democracy and human rights: your faith in God is counterbalanced by a rather surprising (or unsurprising, if you buy the Christian bit about fallen humanity) lack of faith in humanity. Call it an a-humanist complement to your theism:

In my more realistic moments, I have come to accept the inevitability of large-scale global destruction in my lifetime. The odds against it aren't great. Islamist countries already have nukes; a particularly extreme faction in Iran may soon have access to them; Islamists are not only capable of inflicting Armageddon, they clearly want to. They are not subject to intimidation, which is what makes religious faith at its most intense so powerful. They cannot even be stopped by force. We have learned that in Iraq. Bullets cannot change hearts. It is so easy to destroy; it is so hard to build.

Human society always poses great risks to itself. But are those risks greater now than thirty or forty or sixty years ago? As a terrific TNR article recently pointed out, death by war and other violence has been dropping precipitously for decades -- indeed for centuries and millennia. Human health and wealth improve steadily. Yes, we could derail ourselves, wholly or partly, by terror or environmental depredation or some other unforeseen pitfall. But the general movement is in the other direction. Indeed, while radical Islam is scary and the prospect of Islamists getting and using WMD is real, it is essentially a rearguard action against modernity. And while I think that your disillusionment with Bush's transformative fantasy was brave and important, I also think you still buy into an alarmist, monolithic frame for the so-called "war on terror" or war against Islamofascism, a term that I understand you coined and that sloppily lumps together disparate movements and threats, just as anticommunists did with the various communist regimes throughout the world. Perhaps even your humane faith has an apocalyptic tinge?

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