Friday, January 30, 2009

Still digging through Oral History

This, to me, is the total money quote. My jaw dropped. Emphasis is all mine:

Michael Brown, director of fema [sic], which becomes part of the Department of Homeland Security: Bush’s strength was—he would say to everybody in the room, Tell me what the problem is and I’ll make a decision. The detrimental aspect of that is the president would make a decision and in his mind it was over with. There was no changing course. The blinders are on. You had to work incredibly hard to get back in front of that line of sight to say, We need to take a different tack here.

I’m asked at one point for my input, and I basically say we should not have a Department of Homeland Security, because it’s going to be disruptive to create it in the midst of all of these things going on. [Later,] I remember being in the car alone with Bush, where I’m talking to him about the department and how it’s not working and how we really need to make some changes. And while I thought he may have been listening, I quickly came to the conclusion that he wasn’t, because his answer to it was: Well, we’re bringing in a new leader, a new secretary or deputy secretary, and he’ll be able to fix all these things.

He had made the decision, and we’re going forward. And if things aren’t working, we don’t need to revisit the original decision. We’ll just put somebody else in there.

David Kuo: Every time you had a conversation with him, he would make it clear the subject was important. Bush would say, I care about this. Let’s get this done. But it was like a ship whose wheel is not attached to the rudder.

I'm speechless. I'm absolutely just--I mean--this is the opposite of leadership, all right?

A snippet

From that Vanity Fair Oral History:

Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary: What happened was the president made the point to the staff that, if America ever goes to war, we go to war because it’s the right thing to do regardless of the cost. That is a moral issue, and so we should not be talking to anybody about how much it may or may not cost; the whole issue is, do you or don’t you go? And if you go, you pay whatever the cost is to win. The day the president dismissed Larry and Secretary O’Neill, I remember he said to me that he noticed that morning that everybody in the Situation Room was sitting up a bit straighter.

This makes a lot of sense in what we've seen of Bush's worldview. In some ways it has its merits as an approach--but, to me, it would have to be one approach among several applied to the decision.

In any case, somewhere Larison is sardonically explaining why this is unremarkable as a phenomenon, noteworthy only because it took the usual ideologies of foreign policy a little further.

How is it even possible?

How is it possible for people to live in such completely different realities? For example, I know for a fact that most domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women. Dov Charney, on the other hand, seems to think otherwise:

“Women initiate most domestic violence, yet out of a thousand cases of domestic violence, maybe one is involving a man. And this has made a victim of culture out of women.”

I'm not honestly sure what he's actually saying when you try to parse the grammar, but it's hard to imagine a way to get it back to a sentiment that reflects reality in any way. Renee has the rundown on statistics and I suggest you read her post on this generally. [H/t Feministe]

Dov Charney is the owner of American Apparel. He is also, for some reason, highly invested in denying women ownership of their reality. Women are battered by men in the vast majority of cases, and the ability to speak of, name, and share that pain is important both to recovery and to prevention. Charney, apparently, is so threatened by any notion that his gender might bear some responsibility for this--and it is sad that he can't separate himself from a generalized notion of maleness--that he must insist it's actually men who are victimized by a culture of victimhood. If he were less focused on gender wars he might be able to notice that things that some men do are not definitive of all men; if he liked women better he could, perhaps, hear their words as truth and not as threats and scolds.

It boggles my mind. Women try to translate their pain into something constructive and Charney's response is, "but you're hurting our feelings!"

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Essential reading (no, really)

I know I've been linking and doing not much else, but these two pieces are true tours de force. (I've been swamped with work and trying to get back into the rhythm of school after ICCAs, okay, I have obligations and whatnot.)

The first is "An Oral History of the Bush White House" from Vanity Fair. I'm only on page 2 myself, but it's already been amazing hearing people from Richard Clarke to Germany's foreign minister give their uncensored, undiplomatic takes in colloquial language on various moments of the administration. The piece has also illuminated a number of moments or occurrences that I never knew had taken place.

I found the piece through Ta-Nehisi, who gave it a stirring endorsement:
...folks should read the piece just because it really is stunning to see it all laid out before you. Rarely does one see cravenness, arrogance and incompetence married in such expert fashion. I was 25 when Bush came to office, and I never thought it would get this bad. But Purdum and Murphy show how things almost necessarily--from day one--had to go this way.

I read this piece on the plane ride out West, yesterday. I got halfway through and couldn't take it, I had to take a break. Finished it just we were coming over Utah, and I was just stunned. Journalism takes a lot of heat on this blog, perhaps some of it undeserved. So it's only right that I call out something when it's well done. Read this piece. Read it. Read it. Read it.

Second, Radley Balko explains with inimitable and wide-ranging logic why the War on Drugs is both a failure and a costly, harmful, and and misguided effort to begin with in "War on Drugs: The Collateral Damage" over at Culture 11. I particularly found his points about the militarizaton of police to be fascinating, though I suppose that's not surprising given all the studying of political power and state formation/state institutions I do. The piece is a comprehensive indictment of the drug war and its attendant policies and it's very much worth reading for the higher-level perspective that is generally so lacking in discussions of drug policy.

A note on Culture 11--it's a website (webzine?) dealing with culture as well as politics, geared to the American cultural conservative. It's been cited by many conservatives who have been revolted by the contemporary Republican party. I moseyed over there once before and was unimpressed, but this article has caused me to revise my estimation--clearly the piece I read that time was not fully representative of Culture 11's offerings. I'll be interested to see what comes out of the site as part of my continuing effort to understand what the hell this "conservatism" business is actually all about.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I have no words

This was done in the name of the people of the United States. I am, as I said, speechless. How do you put abject horror and grief for someone you have never known into words?

I wish I knew something I could do.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hilzoy takes a truly damning look at GTMO's case files and some other details of a particular detainee's case. It's an honestly incredible combination of evil practices and incompetence.

I think I had a tendency to imagine the torture regime as either coldly, calculatingly, inexorably evil, or deeply misguided but mostly well-intentioned. This was because it's hard for me to understand how anybody would get into government who didn't have either a nefarious plan or a desire, however misdirected, to do good--what's the motivation? The degree to which the Bush administration appears to have been just floundering around in everything it did is truly breathtaking. I can't get my head around what any of these people set out to do when they entered public service, except perhaps for Donald Rumsfeld, who at least articulated a vision of streamlining the Pentagon.

I suppose in Bush's own case some of it had to do with personal failures and some daddy issues, but in order to empathize with that I would have to suspend my respect both for government and for myself. Being who he was, Bush could never have been anything but an embarrassment of a President, and attempting the Presidency was the kind of personal overreach that could only end in tears (cf. Sarah Palin, Rod Blagojevich). Deciding to attempt it demonstrated a profound lack of self-awareness and of self-respect. On top of that, going into government for such selfish reasons (if that is indeed the case--I could be entirely wrong about this whole line of thought) requires such a disregard for the meaning and significance of politics and governance that I am offended at the thought.

Which would be worse--Bush having decided to attempt the Presidency out of a need for affirmation and a disregard/sense of entitlement for the office, or having attempted it in good faith and truly being just that ineffectual and lacking in vision?


Is all I really have the energy for right now. School during Chicago wintertime is enough by itself. So here we go:

Ezra Klein reports that China is moving on universal healthcare and may get there before the U.S. It's a particularly interesting case because their incentives are almost precisely opposite to ours.

Sullivan posts a reader email on the unsung profundity of the changes Obama has already made since taking office.

Bob Reich has some thoughts on what Keynesianism means in today's world. Interesting and probably quite politically controversial; I need to think a bit before I can formulate an opinion about it. I'm not qualified to say whether the economics makes sense on a level any more detailed than the very general layman's language Reich used.

A very interesting and detailed examination from the WSJ of how Israel might have contributed to Hamas's rise.

It would appear that Congressional Republicans are throwing up roadblocks to the stimulus bill over...federal aid to state budgets. Really? Steve Benen has the logic, such as it is.

The more predictable Republican objection to the stimulus plan: $200 million for family planning.

Finally, if you're interested in what I'm listening to, I've made a playlist here. Not sure if that will work or not--this is one of the more confusing websites I've ever dealt with.

A more perfect human

The man is just so articulate.


Forbes has a list of the 25 most influential liberals in the media up. Reading through it, it becomes pretty clear that their definition of "liberal" is, well, touchy. As far as I can tell, Chris Hitchens is on there solely for not liking Sarah Palin (plus maybe for being an atheist). Seriously, guys, your last sentence in describing the man who loves waterboarding is that he has "supported the war on terror as enthusiastically as he has excoriated Sarah Palin" and he's on your influential liberals list? Not your influential war-supporters-with-self-respect list?

Anyway, it was clear what angle the list was coming from when they referred to Sullivan as viewing "virtually everything through a 'gay' prism" (gay in quotes, huh?) and to Hendrick Hertzberg as "having the purest voice in the choir of the East Coast liberals' 'high church'". Hell, it was clear what angle it was coming from when Chris Matthews made it on.

But what really stopped me dead in my tracks was Rachel Maddow's entry:
The presenter of her own MSNBC show, Maddow, a lesbian, has outpaced Keith Olbermann and other colleagues to attract a cultish following hooked on her blunt outsider's perspective.

It's not the fact that they mentioned she's gay. That's fine. I've mentioned it myself when introducing her, usually in the context of "Squeeeeee!" It's just the way they laid it out there--no particular point, just you ought to know--she likes chicks. In the context of the list I'm pretty sure it stands as a liberal credential, just like Andrew Sullivan being gay, Chris Hitchens being an atheist, etc. She's one of those. Gay people are never conservatives, natch (no, Sullivan, you're on the list too, see?).

It makes me shiver.

There are a lot of people on the list who make sense being there--Maddow, Ezra Klein, Michael Pollan, David Shipley, etc. But there are a lot who don't. I find myself concluding that the editors at work here don't understand "liberal" to mean anything other than liking Obama/disagreeing with Bush, and/or having some characteristics (homosexuality, for example) that Joe the Plumber wouldn't like. There's no sense of policy principles or a basic unity of opinion.

Chris Matthews doesn't like Obama because he's a raging liberal; he likes Obama because he's an intellectually shallow TV journalist whose Pavlovian programming responds well to good TV. I think most liberals would be very unhappy to count Chris Hitchens among their ranks, and I think most of the progressive bloggers I read would be unhappy with much of the list. I know Sullivan is pissed to be on it.

I think this is analogous to the Republicans' general problem: they're not thinking in terms of policy, philosophy, or principles. They're thinking in terms of political maneuvering (supporting Bush or Palin, opposing Obama) and culture wars (oh noez, not an ATHEIST!). As a result, they have nothing to offer but poor sarcasm (seriously, guys, at least be funny) and infighting (okay, that's funny). Sullivan wrote at the end of his defense of his own conservatism:

For the record: self-confident political groupings seek converts - look at Obama. Failed and failing political groupings seek to punish and list heretics.

This is an astute way of looking at what's going on now, and I think that's part of why you see people who I would call odd ducks (Sullivan) or moderates (Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum) being put in the liberal column.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Song of the moment

It's long, but it's worth letting it develop till about 3:30. If slow intros annoy you, skip the first thirty seconds.

Because they're impossible to understand, here are the lyrics:

My Girls - Animal Collective
It isn't much to admit I need
A solid soul and the blood I bleed
With a little girl, and by my spouse
I only want a proper house

I don't care for fancy things
Or to take part in a precious race
And children cry for the one who has
A real big heart and a father's grace

I don't mean
To seem like I care about
Material things
Like a social stats
I just want
Four walls and adobe slabs
For my girls

That "Howwwww!" after "for my girls" gets me every time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Conservative, adj.

I have been forced to conclude that I don't know what conservatism is, in large part because of the political times I have grown up in. To me, "conservative" has been loosely identical to "Republican," and almost certainly identical with "opinions I don't agree with." Because of the way public Republicans have been comporting themselves over the past ten years or so, that in turn means that I associate racism, aggressive religiousness, global warming denial, anti-choice attitudes, neocon-style foreign policy bluster and aggressiveness, anti-regulation dogma, ridiculous tax policy, and anti-gay attitudes with the word--though all of these attributes might not be present in a given individual, a good sampling was likely to.

But as I've explored the blogosphere, I keep running across these people who are "conservatives" but who have removed themselves from the Republican party because they can't stand it, and I don't know what to make of them. They're very brilliant, very knowledgeable, and very serious. In many respects they are more radically outside the Washington mainstream than any Democrat or progressive when it comes to foreign policy, a quality I value immensely in these men. In that realm, I find myself agreeing with them.

On social issues, they fit the profile somewhat but they do it differently. Which is to say, I haven't encountered racism, and the anti-gay and anti-choice stuff is at least deployed with actual arguments. That is to say, it's not stupid, blind bigotry. It's the kind of disagreement I feel I could stand to maintain with a friend, rather than the kind of disagreement that tells me that this person is a useless human being (for that, see Sadly, No).

But generally speaking, they really don't fit the profile. And if that's what conservatism is, then I've been torturing the word for years along with all the wingnuts and congressional Republicans, and I owe it an apology.

The prompting for this post was Greg Djerejian's foreign policy manifesto for the new administration. That, and Eric Martin's remark in passing it along:

Sometimes I think to myself: what if most conservatives were like Djerejian, Larison, Bacevich and Joyner, and the outliers were Douthat and Salaam. And then I go and read Sadly, No! and am reminded of the strength of the Palin/Neocon factions.

Oh, well.

It would be an entirely different universe, and I can't get my head around it.
Hilzoy on the details of yesterday's executive orders.

Read it if you feel like smiling.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Science resurgent

Steve Benen notes American scientists' jubilation at what seems to be President Obama's unusually strong commitment to supporting science.

This reminded me of the posts I saw from my friends studying the sciences who were delighted to hear him shout them out in his inauguration. It also reminded me of my seatmate on the bus from Boston to New York on New Year's, who was about to leave New York (having finished his Ph.D. at Columbia in theoretical chemistry) for I think Denver to work in a Dept. of Energy lab that was going to be trying to develop gasoline fuel alternatives under the new administration. He was so excited, not only about the science but about the project.

I won't lie and say I liked him personally all that much--I felt a bit used for entertainment, frankly--but I couldn't help but think of him when I read that post and feel a little glad.

In a clever rhetorical twist on a) the subject and b) the nature of the post, plus the fact that I used the phrase "shout them out", I give you "Shout Me Out" by TV on the Radio off their 2008 album "Dear Science".

It breaks my heart

From Laila El-Haddad:

A Palestinian astrophysicist working for NASA tells us how his son was killed in the Israeli offensive, and how he could be by his son's bedside in Egypt but not attend the funeral in Gaza:

And, on the calm in Gaza after the storm:

And so the cowering uncower. The homeless return to no homes. The decomposing dead are unearthed from the rubble, only to buried once again.

The damage is surveyed.

Uprooted trees. Entire groves. A city eviscerated. People burned to a cinder. Disemboweled streets. And more tales of horror on every corner.

A woman's 5 sons are killed in the assassination of Saeed Siam. they lived in the building over.

25 more bodies recovered from Samouni family. An ethnic cleansing.

Reports of executions by young trigger happy Israeli soldiers, cheerleaders on the borders. A boy, 15 years old. And in between air force pilots on playstation. " I want to destroy the city" said one gleefully. And sub-contracts are handed out to further enforce the siege. Hands are shaken. Lives taken.

Link dump

Hillary arrives at Foggy Bottom to a very warm welcome:

A thoroughly depressing report on an area of Pakistan that has spent the last ten years descending into Wahhabism and violence, plus some thoughts on girls' education.

From Abu Muqawama ("a blog dedicated to following issues related to contemporary insurgencies as well as counterinsurgency tactics and strategy"; a new discovery that I owe to Andrew Sullivan), a dead-on take on the current struggle between Hamas and Fatah over who gets to rescue the starving Gazans:
So this is the fight to watch next. Pay close attention to who rebuilds Gaza -- and how Hamas will seek to get credit for every bit of aid that is delivered to the people. That fight will help determine the long-term strategic effects of this latest spasm of violence.

Glenn Greenwald is pleased with Obama's first few days, and I have to say, when Greenwald lays it all out like that, so am I.

One of Andrew Sullivan's ever-astute readers wrote in about another reason to close Gitmo and a reframing of the question "but then what do we do with the prisoners?" It's a useful perspective I haven't seen before. In the same vein, Chris Brodenner wrote at Sullivan's place that while politicians may be adopting a NIMBY stance toward relocating Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil, the actual consitutents who live on that soil don't seem to feel that way.

Just to be clear, stopping the military tribunals at Guantánamo is one of the things Greenwald (me, too!) is happy about. More positive moves by Obama here. In a last bit of Yay Habeas Corpus fawning, dday writes:
Obama is really setting a bad precedent of keeping campaign promises and abiding by the rule of law. It's like the oath of office reboot, setting the horrible precedent of acknowledging mistakes and seeking to rectify them. Who does this guy think he is?

DipNote love continues

DipNote has a post up inviting suggestions for foreign policy priorities.

I started reading through the comments, but I had to stop. I discovered, see, that while the commentariat at the more wonky political blogs that I tend to read (as opposed to less wonky and more big-name, like Politico and DKos, which I don't really read) generally self-select to be intelligent and knowledgeable, the commentariat at an Official Government Blog is going to be...less self-selecting.

This isn't to say that the thread is full of trolls (though there was one bit of KEEP GITMO OPEN spam) or people writing in ALL CAPS ABOUT RANDOM CRAP (cf. Gitmo spam)--it's not. For the most part, from what I read, it's people writing in good faith, trying to answer the question. That's wonderful. And regardless of the quality of the feedback and whether it's taken very much into account--I rather doubt it'll set much of State's agenda going forward--it's a great thing to be doing.

Mostly, I was just struck by how little sense people seemed to have of what "foreign policy" means in terms of the State Department's jurisdiction. It does not mean immigration policy. Depending on what exactly you want to talk about, it doesn't necessarily mean the War on Drugs, even when we're talking about crossing into Latin America, and certainly not when we're talking about federal criminal penalties for marijuana. It definitely does not mean anything to do with education policy.

Like I said, it was surprising. However, there were also some great thoughts there too and, it seemed, impressive individuals (oh hai 17-year-old abolitionist who has started two organizations and been working since the age of 12). It's worth taking a look just to see what's on people's minds.

Also, it really depresses me when people still fail to spell things like Hamas or Barack. On the other hand, it makes me smile to see an American living in Kuwait abbreviate the country as "q8". This is why DipNote > Briefing Room.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some links

One of Obama's first acts on his first day was to call President Mubarak of Egypt, Olmert of Israel, Abbas of the PA, and King Abdullah of Jordan. It's nice to see the President caring about the Middle East.

From DipNote (already, I know), an update on the international response to piracy off Somalia.

Advocates for the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law, as well as anybody who doesn't like crazy detention and torture policy, should be happy to see Neal Katyal Principal Deputy Solicitor General.

A linguistic analysis of racial dialect in Obama's inaugural. I can't decide if this piece is a total trainwreck of unnecessarily racialized horror, a well-meaning attempt that ends up trying for too many reaches, or legitimately interesting. I think there are some aspects of all three. The last paragraph definitely makes me unhappy, though:
So: The son of an African immigrant picks up a sonority of speaking from the descendants of slaves brought here from Africa centuries before--and then uses it to help seduce a nation full of descendants of slaveholders into making him their master. Linguistically as in so many ways, Obama embodies the extent to which we are all more "fellow citizens"--as he opened his oration--than we might think.

I mean, "master"? Really? That's not only a heavily laden term in this context, it's the kind of thing you'd read over at The Corner written by people who were expecting the inauguration to feature him lighting Abe Lincoln's Bible on fire, producing a turban from under his jacket, and screaming "FARRAKHAN 4EVAHZ YO!" before demonstrating the proper application of jihad by beheading Justice Stevens to the accompaniment of an illegally immigrated mariachi band and Bill Ayers on the banjo.

Plus, it's not like nobody noticed the topsy-turviness of a black man being elected President, you know? Stick to linguistics.

Government blogs, ctd.

The State Department has one, too.

Predictably, while I know that the White House site is going to be in many ways more where the action is and where a lot of important information will be deployed, I find State's version (DipNote) far more engrossing reading. I suppose this is why I'm an International Studies major.

I just wrote four and a half pages on how long wars, particularly in a context of overpopulation (i.e. excess labor capacity), create mercenaries. I spent about an hour and a half on it and I have no idea if it was much good or not, but it was an interesting mental exercise and I look forward to being able to apply some of those thoughts to Blackwater et. al. when this class gets there (we're still in ancient Persia, so it'll be a while).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama has read his Reinhold Niebuhr

Marc Ambinder has some nice rhetorical and literary annotations of Obama's speech. Part I, Part II.

I am very privileged--I'm young, straight, white, upper middle class to upper class, not disabled in any way, etc. So I can't speak the way many can of having been left out or ignored of public discourse, inaugural addresses, etc. But when I got to this:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Has a president ever acknowledged non-believers before?

I teared up just a little bit. It's not that I wasn't all right before; I sort of just accepted that nobody was too concerned with atheists, and I thought that was fine--it wasn't as though (in my experience) atheists were suffering discrimination or oppression. But reading that made me feel, "Hey--he took the time to go back and mention me, in the part of the speech that is usually by definition not about me." And that was far more moving than I would ever have expected it to be.

I can only imagine what this day must be like for some others.

ETA: The listing of America's essential values is mostly full of things I've heard before that have little resonance because they're so overused: "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism."

But "tolerance and curiosity," now. These have been missing from this list for a long time, it seems to me.

The mind reels

The first post at The Briefing Room, the White House's new blog, is up.

Go read it. I was just sort of nodding along with the described program of what this website will do, and then I had a shock when I remembered that the website I was reading about wasn't a journalistic organization, it wasn't one of TPM's new projects--it wasthe freaking White House.

I'm having a hard time comprehending this. In a good way.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The conversation on race since the '80s

There has been an interesting conversation going on about how race relations in the U.S. have changed since the 1980s, which has gone (as I understand it) more or less like this: 1. We elected a black man/biracial man who reads as black President of the United States--crazy! 2. Black-white relations have improved distinctly since the 1980s, when political conversations were very much charged with racialized conversations about welfare, affirmative action, and busing. 3. Yes, but is this only because we're now more afraid of Arabs/Muslims than we are of African-Americans?

Hilzoy's post on this references these ideas as well as putting forward some ideas about a natural and necessary evolution of race relations. It's well worth reading and I encourage everybody to do so.

What frustrates me about this conversation is this. On the one hand, yes, race relations have come a long way, and that is not nothing by any means. On the other hand, we are still not really talking about race relations in terms of anything but black vs. white, and there are still unspoken problems in terms of Asian-Americans, Latin@ Americans, immigrants of many stripes, and any other ethnic group you can think of. It makes perfect sense that the issue of black vs. white Americans is the centerpiece of our race debate: it is also a central problem of our history, a "birth defect" as Condoleezza Rice put it in response to Obama's race speech. But we have yet to even really begin to deal with other racial issues, let alone with our general sense that race is a category to be dealt with in terms of either/or, boxes to check on a census. What about biracial or multiracial Americans? How do we understand them?

I think a lot of the often-clumsy discussion of Barack Obama's race over the course of the last Presidential campaign illuminates how clumsy we still are in understanding and discussing these issues: why does he have to be "more white than black," or solely black because he chose to marry a black woman, or some sort of post-racial chameleon and panacea? Why is it so hard to get our heads around the fact that he's simply a biracial man of African and white American ancestry? I took a class on late antique North Africa last quarter, and more than once students brought up questions of race relations. The professor had to emphasize over and over that the Romans/Greeks/Byzantines/Berbers/Arabs simply didn't think of things that way. They weren't living in a racialized discourse and society, and in ancient North Africa there wasn't a question of whites vs. blacks nearly so much as there were questions of class, of imperial allegiances (at various times) and military power, of religious identification, and of linguistic heritage. We can't seem to get away from this oppositional framework, even when the data do not fit into it and never suggested it.

On a more positive note: Josh Marshall's point that perhaps the receding of black vs. white questions has been in favor of Judeo-Christian vs. Muslim or "Western" vs. Arab issues is, I think, well taken. However, it is not as simple as just swapping one opposition for another; in the "us" and "them" of these more current polarities, in this particular "self" and "other," African-Americans are more in, are more "us" and "self" than they have been in a long time, if ever (I am not qualified to make an absolute statement on that). As disheartening as it is that some Americans regard Arabs and Muslims as "other", it is still significant that, at least for some white, xenophobic Americans, American blacks stand with them against the national threat. This is not meant to justify anti-Muslim attitudes, but to say that this is not a zero-sum game. Improvement in one area coupled with antagonism in another does not cancel out. It is simply that: improvement in one area, disimprovement in another. That improvement should not be discounted. It can be built upon.

10 other things that Martin Luther King said

From Jay Smooth.

Happy MLK Jr. day.

Food for thought

In the vein of passing along other people's work or observations, here is a reading list for Barack Obama from the Washington Monthly (it's a great list; in my wildest dreams, I would maybe have time to complete it), and a reader message to TPM on the inauguration, reproduced here in full:

Honestly, my dominant emotion on anticipating this inauguration is melancholy.

It is part of the American national character to imagine a new day, to believe as Ronald Reagan was so fond of saying that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again." Americans are perhaps alone among the world's peoples in believing this, and it may be more true here than it is anywhere else. But it is not entirely true even here,

I rate the symbolic value of Barack Obama's inauguration lower than most; to my mind symbolism without substance is for suckers, and we haven't seen substance from Obama yet. I reserve the right to revise my opinion later, and dearly hope I will be able to, but I cannot forget the staggering failures, the personal unworthiness and systemic decay that have made Obama's accession to the Presidency possible. The first half of the 20th century was a period of great hardship and devastating wars; that the period that succeeded it was marked by a general increase in prosperity and the spread of freedom throughout the world even in the shadow of the greatest threat mankind had ever known was largely due to American power and American leadership.

These trusts were inherited by the last administration and recklessly squandered. America's good name was sullied, her power diminished, and a lot of people got killed. However, it is not just the outgoing President and his administration that have let the country down. Congress, the very heart of the American system of government, has made itself less relevant to national policy, while decadence and corruption have pervaded a culture of a people more capable of seeing the potential of man than any other, but also one prone to conceit and empty self-congratulation.

These are heavy burdens to be inherited by the new President, and not burdens he ought to be expected to bear alone. His challenge, and ours, is a challenge we have made for ourselves, the greatest we have imposed on our own country since the war that almost destroyed it so long ago. I contemplate with melancholy the necessity of meeting that challenge, and the sorely limited resources I have at my disposal to ensure it is met successfully.

Unexpected, but encouraging

I've been faithfully scanning the news and the blogosphere, but not much has managed to penetrate my fog of illness to generate a response or interest worth blogging about. (Yes, I am both busy with a cappella and sick, now.) However, via Andrew Sullivan, I was surprised to see the Cadets' Choice Award:

WEST POINT — Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy Thursday announced the nominees for the 2nd Annual Cadet Choice Award for the movie character that best exemplifies West Point leadership.

The nominees are:

* Bruce Wayne in “The Dark Knight”
* Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in “Valkyrie”
* Dr. Henry Walton "Indiana" Jones, Jr. in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
* John Hancock in “Hancock”
* Harvey Milk in “Milk”
* James Bond in “Quantum of Solace”

“West Point is all about producing leaders of character,” said the cadet public affairs officer Cristin Browne. “Leaders influence people to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. A leader of character seeks to discover the truth, decides what is right, and acts accordingly. Furthermore, West Point values are Duty, Honor, Country. That leadership, those values, are what this award celebrates.”

One of these things is not like the others, hey? I think it's great.

To abandon the "OMG gayz teehee!" angle, I must say I hope that neither Bruce Wayne, Indiana Jones, nor James Bond wins this one. They're badasses, and they're very skilled and, arguably, disciplined, and they're highly successful--but I'd never say they're examples of leadership of any kind. They're lone wolves, all of them. We don't want our commanding officers to be like them. Milk is, in fact, a fine example of a great and honorable leader. I can't speak as to the other two nominees.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Truth to power

I wrote my last post not having finished the Economist's editorial, which I now have. I was looking through the comments and came across this one, from Peter Figmo:

Throughout the 8 years of the Bush peoples plundering of the US Constitution, I have remained baffled by the rather mild scoldings of Mr. Bush from the Economist's editorial board. Mr. Bush, one of the greatest political scoundrels, and dare I say, openly criminal near dictators in the history of the United States, was actually given tacit legitimacy by even indulging in the farce of legality of the actions of this spoiled, crude frat boy who pretended to be the "leader" of the US.

Had the Economist editorial board placed the appropriate scalpel like incisions on the Bush body of injustice - let's say something of the depth and size of incision reserved for the likes Chavez and other global "bad boys," the Economist would have retained my full respect as a legitimate reporting network for Global affairs. I think the boards nearly blind commitment to idealized capitalism for its own sake has now damaged its vision permanently; yet another victim of Mr. Bush's aggressive criminal behavior in the name of "democracy" that exists for the wealthy 5%, under the umbrella of idealized capitalism.

Even more interesting, the comment has received 24 "Recommend" ratings from other readers, far more than I would have expected. I would dearly love to know how the editorial board would respond to this criticism. I have the feeling it would be a disappointing enumeration of some little-heralded good aspects of Bush's presidency or a lamentation that hindsight is 20/20, when what I really want is to hear the Economist's editorial board get into a spirited critical theory discussion of capitalism as an ideology/rationality rather than as a reality.

Sadly, I'm pretty sure this fantasy will never be a reality either.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Heavens to Murgatroyd, I've found it

..."it" being perhaps the only case in which it is possible and appropriate to describe the Bush administration as "fascist" without sounding like a fourteen-year-old who's trying to come off as knowledgeable and self-righteous when he or she is really just whining. I am not the only person to have thought of this, it turns out--this looks like very interesting reading--but I'm pleased that it occurred to me independently as a result of my fine education in the history of political liberalism.

I was reading The Economist's thoughts on the exit of President George W. Bush, and was struck by these bits:

Yet Mr Bush’s presidency was also poisoned by his own ambition. Mr Bruni’s “timeless fraternity boy” wanted to be a great president. He not only wanted to win the second term that Bill Clinton had denied to his father—though that mattered to him enormously. He also wanted to usher in a period of prolonged Republican hegemony, much as William McKinley had done for his party in the late 19th century. After the September 11th attacks he not only itched to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He also wanted to tackle the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East. Mr Bush frequently spoke about how much he hated anything that was “small ball”. His close advisers repeatedly described him as a “transformative president”.

...Other facets of Mr Bush’s personality mixed with his vaulting ambition to undermine his presidency. Mr Bush is what the British call an inverted snob. A scion of one of America’s most powerful families, he is a devotee of sunbelt populism; a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads. Mr Bush is a convert to an evangelical Christianity that emphasises emotion--particularly the intensely emotional experience of being born again—over ratiocination. He also styled himself, much like Reagan, as a decider rather than a details man; many people who met him were astonished by what they described as his “lack of inquisitiveness” and his general “passivity”.

...Ron Suskind, a journalist, has argued that Mr Bush created a “faith-based presidency” in which decisions, precisely because they were based on faith, could not be revised subsequently.

I think we can all recognize this characterization. We've seen it before. This in particular--"emphasises emotion...over ratiocination" and the notion of a "faith-based presidency"--combined with the Economist's view of GWB as desperate to prove himself in a big way, put me in mind of some of Carl Schmitt's thoughts from The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. I direct your attention to Chapter 4, "Irrationalist Theories of the Direct Use of Force". (Emphasis added.)

Bakunin gave this struggle...the character of a struggle against intellectualism and against traditional forms of education altogether. ...Even science does not have the right to rule. It is not life, it creates nothing, it constructs and receives, but it understands only the general and the abstract and sacrifices the individual fullness of life on the altar of its abstraction. Art is more important for the life of humankind than science.

The ability to act and the capacity for heroism, all world-historical activities reside, according to Sorel, in the power of myth. ...Only in myth can the criterion be found for deciding whether one nation or a social group has a historical mission and has reached its historical moment. Out of the depths of a genuine life instinct, not out of reason or pragmatism, springs the great enthusiasm, the great moral decision and the great myth. In direct intuition the enthusiastic mass creates a mythical image that pushes its energy forward and gives it...the courage to use force.


From the perspective of this philosophy, the...ideal of peaceful agreement, an ongoing and prosperous business that has advantages for everyone, becomes the monstrosity of cowardly intellectualism. Discussing, bargaining, parliamentary proceedings, appear a betrayal of myth and the enormous enthusiasm on which everything depends. Against the mercantilist image of balance there appears another vision, the warlike image of a bloody, definitive, destructive, decisive battle.

I could go on--the book is full of things I think are applicable to the Bush Administration. I have several pages that I dogeared because I ran across them in looking for this part and I felt they were relevant in a way I hadn't yet thought of, but I'll spare the length and let it lie.

Anyway, it must be noted that I have excised all the analysis of Marxist thought because while it is important and interesting, I'm interested in Schmitt's conclusions about politics as a whole rather than in particularly how Marxism contributed to those conclusions, since we are not dealing with a Marxist president (although there are some respects in which one could argue that his administration thinks in terms of dialectics and heightening the contradictions).

I do think it's interesting, as in it somewhat upsets the ideal case, how the heroic myth became located in Bush himself and, to an extent, the Iraqi people (in Bush's thinking, that is) rather than in the people Bush ostensibly actually rules. It's as though the American polity were consuming popular will that's been manufactured overseas. Think about all the rhetoric about the "Iraqi people" and their freedom, or the freedom they need to have. The American occupation has been a sort of attempt at educational dictatorship--we will take them by the hand and teach them not only to vote but to vote for people who will do things we like, because then they will have learned to be free; we know better than they what they want and need--in a classical Marxist sense. Ironic, eh?

Schmitt, to be completely clear, was a big fan of dictatorship as a political ideal and is widely considered to have contributed intellectually to Nazism, whether intentionally or not. He is also a big hit among neocons--the very people who brought you George W. Bush and, more recently and more directly, Sarah Palin.

Theory of the unitary executive, anyone?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

quick thought

I'm way too swamped with a cappella right now (our ICCA quarterfinal is in a week and a half) to really write anything of any weight, though I have what seems like eight hundred tabs open of interesting things I want to read and discuss. Just a quick thought about the House Democrats' stimulus proposal.

I can't imagine it's going to play well that they're taking money out of future Social Security funds (by reducing withholding) for stimulus now. I know the CW is that we have to handle this now and then we'll deal with the long-term budget and entitlement issues we're facing, but I have the feeling the Blue Dogs as well as many Republicans will be all over that.

I'm not even sure how I feel about it. I'm inclined to agree with The Economist when they say that now is the time when the government will have enough political capital and leeway to start handling these problems as part of an overall economic strategy, and furthermore that showing that these issues are being taken seriously will help revive investing and general confidence.

Monday, January 12, 2009


...and on the heels of Ehud Olmert's bizarre confessional, the Israeli parliamentary election committee bans Arab political parties from participating in the upcoming elections.

I don't understand how an entire country, apparently, could suddenly be overtaken by political tone-deafness. I mean, the last party to be banned from elections was the party that advocated for expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Does that not suggest to Labor, Kadima, and the other parties that supported this that this might be a bad plan? Especially in the context of invading and shelling Gaza?

Meanwhile, Ehud Barak, Labor chairman, "did not comment on the vote and his aides said he would not deal with political issues these days."

The war, of course, being entirely apolitical. I can only imagine how this is going to play in the Arab world.

I should make it clear that I think this is terrible, although I'm not as up in arms as I might be since most seem to think this will get struck down in the Supreme Court fairly quickly. It's a really sad comment on Israel's political climate regardless. But for the record, I'm not just apoplectic over poorly executed political posturing; I am, however, more surprised at bad Israeli politics than I am at Israeli dislike for Arabs.

Severe own goal

I can't believe this happened. Really? Really, Ehud Olmert?

Condi Rice sponsored a U.N. ceasefire resolution. Olmert wasn't happy. Olmert called Bush, Bush called Rice, Rice abstained from the U.N. vote.

How do I know this is the chain of events? Because Olmert said so in public.


So. Condi already just got herself humiliated and backstabbed by Bush (and, it turns out, Olmert) at the U.N. at the end of her tenure as Secretary of State. Now Olmert is going to go out and tell the world that this happened because he "shamed" Bush into it?

Olmert is going to simultaneously humiliate his greatest and staunchest ally and confirm the Arab and global perception that Israel is the tail that is wagging our particular dog?

I don't know what to make of this other than to say that that was incredibly stupid. So stupid was it that I assumed I must have read something wrong at first. Especially given how the Gaza offensive has been going and the timing of this incident, this is going to come back to haunt Israel but good. As Levy wrote (linked above):

This is not a way to publicly treat your friends. What example does this set for Israel with its other friends when the prime minister embarrasses an outgoing president and secretary of state in this way? Message to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: whatever you do for Israel over the next four to eight years, don’t be surprised if this is the gratitude you get. Not a clever message.


When world leaders take phone calls from their Israeli counterparts and are convinced to take on-board an Israeli position and act on it, should they now always expect to be similarly publicly humiliated?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

History has a sense of humor

It didn't occur to me to mention this here until just now, although I learned it a few days ago. The Arabic word for "church" is kineessa*. This is the same word as Knesset, which is the name of the Israeli Parliament. Both come from an Aramaic word meaning "to assemble".

I don't have any particularly detailed or meaningful point to make about this. It just makes me smile.

*I don't know whether kineessa means specifically Christian church or just "worship," since our professor supplied the word in aid of a classmate who was trying to say that he had gone to church on Sunday. I remain undaunted. Even if the etymology can't make me smile over Abrahamic religious history, it can still make me smile over the relationship between representative democracy and Abrahamic faith. So there.

A Plumber Speaks

Some of Joe The Plumber's journalism over in Sderot (let's face it, it takes rare courage to spend one's first day covering a war arguing for the abolition of war journalism):

I don't have anything to say about this. What can one say? I guess I hope Pajamas Media is happy with their investment.

Hizballah's political maneuverings

Fascinating analysis from Electronic Intifada of Hizballah's perspective on the current conflict in Gaza: what the organization thinks about this, whether it might intervene, under what conditions, how it has coordinated with Iran to put pressure on Egypt, etc.

It is quite long, but it's worth a read, especially for the politicking:

While many have dismissed Nasrallah's verbal barrage on the Mubarak regime as little more than a diversionary or compensatory tactic designed to divert attention from or compensate for Hizballah's inaction, such a view fails to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this attack, as well as the wider strategy underpinning it. Not since the 1980s has Hizballah adopted such an inflammatory discourse against an Arab regime, or even singled out any one for attack. Not even during the July War, when Arab complicity with Israel was at its peak, did Nasrallah call on the Arab masses to exert pressure on their governments, nor did Hizballah's relations with those regimes take a turn for the worse thereafter. At the time, Hizballah clearly did not want to burn its bridges with Arab regimes or provide them with ammunition to invoke the Shiite scarecrow and stoke Sunni-Shiite tensions. In Gaza though, Hizballah has not found any such room for diplomacy and self-restraint. In his 7 January speech, Nasrallah warned that although Hizballah did not make enemies of those who had betrayed it during the July War, "we will make those who collaborate against Gaza and its people our enemies."

Hizballah's policy shift and its coordination with Iran on this matter signal a joint Iranian-Hizballah strategy of exposing the Mubarak regime's collusion with Israel and pressuring it to lift its siege of Gaza. These goals also fulfill the grander objective of shaking the foundations of the Egyptian-Israeli alliance which, in turn, would serve to weaken Israel's regional position. A strategy of this kind is deemed necessary given Egypt's "public embrace" of Israel, as one Israeli journalist put it (Haaretz, 9 January).


While Nasrallah's strategy has failed to persuade Mubarak to open the crossing, it did serve to greatly embarrass his domestic and regional standing and reduce his regime's role to a purely defensive one, preoccupied with formulating lamentable counter-arguments to the Hizballah chief's accusations, and rallying its moderate allies to its defense.

I argued, in a recent paper, that both Hamas and Hizballah are pseudo-states, political actors with comparable clout to that of the governments of the countries where they are located. (A proper explanation of this reasoning will have to wait for another time.) To me, Hizballah's alliance with Iran and its pressuring of Egypt signal that the organization is a political actor on par with regional governments. In the paper, I had discussed domestic aspects of pseudo-statehood: supporting a population (service delivery) filling a power vacuum, control of the use of force, etc. It's interesting to see a similar phenomenon occurring in an international context as well.

You'll notice that no one seems to care what Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has to say about Gaza.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tough love?

Earlier I wrote a post about the prospect of American diplomatic engagement with Hamas.

Matt Yglesias, writing at The American Prospect, triggers some more thoughts in the same vein for me:
The parties to the conflict aren't really in need of any brilliant new substantive ideas from the United States -- the basic shape of what an agreement would look like is well understood. Nor are our services as mediators really needed -- the Norwegians have proven capable of playing that role when asked, and no doubt others could do the same. What's needed is something that changes the Israeli domestic calculation -- a sense that the nature of the Israel-U.S. relationship will depend, in part, on the nature of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Any administration willing to publicly chastise an Israeli government will inevitably wind up ruffling some feathers and taking political heat for it, but it will almost certainly be for the Israelis' own good. Jimmy Carter's tough-love approach didn't win him any fans among Israel's most strident supporters, but at the end of the day, the resulting Egypt-Israel peace treaty has been enormously beneficial to Israel.

To me, the first bit--about the U.S.'s superfluity--recalls my discussion of the perceived need to revive the U.S.'s dominance as a global hegemon and settler of disputes through some kind of perceptible improvement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The point Yglesias makes that the only real motivator will be a change in "the Israeli domestic calculation" is a good one, and this is the first time I've seen it made. It's also the best argument for U.S. non-superfluity: that Israel might regard American disfavor as dangerous enough to change its behavior. It would depend, of course, on exactly what "disfavor" would mean, but Yglesias's formulation ("the nature of the Israel-U.S. relationship would depend...on the nature of Israeli policy") suggests a pretty fundamental potential shift: from cherished allies to, well, not (that is the "nature" of the relationship, no?).

In that case, then yes, I think that could be a strong incentive to Israel to change. I'm just not sure this is realistic. I don't know whether Israel ever really felt threatened in its status as a U.S. ally under Carter, but it's very difficult to imagine any American president actually punishing Israel severely enough to suggest that "the nature of the relationship" had changed. I agree with Yglesias that it could be effective, but I don't know that it's likely. He nods to that difficulty in further paragraphs, but even in a scenario where, say, military aid got reduced, I'm not sure I would say that the relationship had changed so much as that a message had been sent.

But, of course, I could be wrong.

Storytelling and statistics

I took up a pencil and paper and began trying to give a description of [the last] sixty seconds as a novelist might, and when I hit six pages I stopped--not because I was finished but because I was so far from finishing. I read the pages aloud, doing it as if I had a listener, and that took a little more than ten minutes. I totted up and figured: even an abbreviated retelling of one hour of my life would take ten hours to relate, and one working day--could I remember it all--would, with an hour of rest each day, require a week to retell, and that meant a single year needed seven years, and my half century of waking life would consume 350 years, about the time from the Mayflower till now.

While I may pass my life in continuity and completeness, I comprehend it only in discontinuous fragments; of the lives of people around me my understanding is utterly fractured and piecemeal: scraps, shavings, smithereens. Family or friends tell me a story in a few details, and I say, I see....

...To American Indians who believe that the past is to a people as dreams are to a person, stories are the communal snaggings of generations, the nets that keep people from free-falling toward pointlessness...and they are also the knots of matter that help people into dreamtime, where the listener, the traveler, can imagine he sees links between smithereens; from that hallucination, everything we value arises. I'm speaking about shards and grids and crossings, about that great reticulum, our past.

--William Least Heat-Moon, in Prairyerth.


"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."
--Albert Einstein

Or, in another view of the matter, fooled by randomness.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Making it real

From Al Jazeera, a Palestinian medic going to collect a body gets shot through the leg:

H/t Laila El-Haddad at Raising Yousuf and Noor.

The Green House?

The People's Green House, to be precise.

Interesting look at some subcommittee swapping going on in the House of Representatives. Apparently Ed Markey of Massachusetts (REPRESENT!) is now in charge of both the Energy and Environment Subcommittee and the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

The Energy and Environment Subcommittee has something the Select Committee does not:...legislative jurisdiction. It will be the key subcommittee pushing climate/energy legislation through the House.

Conversely, the Select Committee has something the Subcommittee doesn't: total freedom, an absence of jurisdictional restraints. The climate/energy issue is so big that Markey can hold hearings on national security, jobs, housing, refugees, trade, you name it. Those subjects are outside the E&E Subcommittee's legislative bailiwick but within the Select Committee's bully-pulpit bailiwick.

This gives Markey a one-two punch: he can craft and help pass climate/energy legislation through the Subcommittee while using the Select Committee to educate other committee chairs about how the issue affects their jurisdictions. I can't think of another committee chair who has the same kind of megaphone with which to drum up support for his own legislation, in the House and among the public.

Change I can believe in

The Guardian reports that the incoming Obama administration is considering initiating low-level, back-channel, informal, as "who, me?" as you can get-style talks with Hamas.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The Guardian has spoken to three ­people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start ­contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.
Obama has defined himself in part by his willingness to talk to America's enemies. But the president-elect would be wary of being seen to give legitimacy to Hamas as a consequence of the war in Gaza.

I am fascinated. I don't know what will happen if such a thing takes place. I do think that some publicity, as unwelcome as it might be for the administration, could actually do a lot for perceptions of American even-handedness in this conflict.

"We will be perceived to be weak and feckless if we are perceived to be on the margins, unable to persuade the Israelis, unable to work with the international community to end this," said Aaron David Miller, a former state department adviser on the Middle East.

"Unless he is prepared to adopt a policy that is tougher, fairer and smarter than both of his predecessors you might as well hang a closed-for-the-season sign on any chance of America playing an effective role in defusing the current crisis or the broader crisis," he said.

This bit, of course, is about American hegemony. Especially in the last few years, the U. S. has essentially become just another player in the endless cycle of conflict. We all know how the scenario goes, and we all know what the U.S.'s role is just as we know Israel's and Hamas's and the PA's. We know what everyone is going to say.

That makes the U.S. look pretty bad if your diplomatic brand name is The Mediator. The U.S. was the country that you couldn't seem to resolve a conflict without, although I would bet that has more to do with picking winners than it does actual conflict resolution.

I would not personally regard that status as a particularly good thing, but it was a form of power. Getting sucked into a conflict and essentially being subjected to it is not a way to preserve that power. What Miller is saying is that we are rapidly losing our hegemony and we don't have many chances left to save it; and that the way to do so is to become more of a mediator, a communicator, than a partisan. He's right.

One consequence of declining U.S. hegemony has been the emergence of regional arbiters to mediate conflict: Turkey and Qatar in the Middle East, South Africa in Africa. I think this is fantastic, but of course it reduces dependence on the U.S.--and so what "we" need, for advocates of American power, is a flagship conflict to shake right up.

Here it comes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

This op-ed about China vs. India is about a week old, but I finally got around to reading it and I'm not sure what I think.

It's an interesting topic for sure. I'm just not sure the cultural analysis holds much water. It's this paragraph I have an issue with:

The idea of becoming a military power in the 21st century embarrasses many Indians. This ambivalence goes beyond Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for India’s freedom, or even the Buddha’s message of peace. The skeptical Indian temper goes back to the 3,500-year-old “Nasadiya” verse of the Rig Veda, which meditates on the creation of the universe: “Who knows and who can say, whence it was born and whence came this creation? The gods are later than this world’s creation. Who knows then whence it first came into being?” When you have millions of gods, you cannot afford to be theologically narcissistic. It also makes you suspect power.

I don't know, it just seems too easy. I'm not sure why this should be all about theology. Is China theologically narcissistic? Uh, not so much. I think a stronger argument could be made about India's massive diversity vs. China's more homogeneous society. Don't get me wrong--China is not nearly so homogeneous as we Westerners tend to imagine. But the cultural, regional, and ethnic differences present in China have been handled by government very differently from the ones in India for centuries, and it seems quite reasonable to imagine that China's imperial history could lead to a different set of political values and ideas than India's hugely varied history of colonialism, foreign rule, and diversity as enshrined within the government (Emperor Akbar). The notion of one unified China has been around in the public consciousness much longer than a corresponding notion of one unified India, and that notion has been concieved very differently in China than in India.

This seems more like an issue of different historical experiences and paths taken in government policy and political consciousness than it does of Hinduism vs. Confucianism or whatever the Chinese equivalent would be. If there's an underlying, endemic cultural component, it is very difficult to separate from those historical factors since it would have to have been at least partially shaped by them. For example, it seems backward to posit Ghandhi's pacifist approach as a cause for the attitude discussed here; a more productive question might be to ask how this cultural orientation might have not only produced Ghandhi and his ideas but allowed them to be popular enough to be effective.

New government office

Obama has named Nancy Killefer, a McKinsey executive, Chief Performance Officer. This is a new office; her task is to find "government efficiencies".

From what the article tells us (not all that much), it sounds like a perfectly good idea. I have some doubts about how effective she'll be able to be, since bureaucracy, pork, and random waste (like socks in the dryer) are endemic to government and very difficult to eliminate. In addition, some things that may seem like inefficiencies may turn out, once eliminated, to have been important or effective in some way that wasn't obvious. Just because a government process or byproduct doesn't contribute to a particular stated objective doesn't mean it has no effect.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this goes and whether the office survives into the next administration. No matter what happens, it is certainly a title and an action that plays well publicly.

You can't make this stuff up

Joe the Plumber, war correspondent.

No, really. He's heading to Gaza.

The meaning of the word

You know what has been bugging me lately? The word "oversight."

It means both a mistake--accidentally missing something--and the function of overseeing a process or entity to make sure that everything is as it should be. That is, its two meanings are not quite directly contradictory, but they're close.

Both meanings are commonly used in political vocabulary. I guess to me, the latter definition is the primary one (I'm not saying this is a general fact, it's just my personal use), so whenever a political figure refers to a negative event as an "oversight", as in an innocent mistake ("I'm confident it was an oversight and we can move on"), I find it jarring and somewhat eerie.

I guess the anthropological side of me is wondering about the dual function. I wonder if the closeness of the words reflects, or could be used to stand for, the general acceptance that government is an imperfect set of institutions and processes and that it will routinely fail in its primary duties: oversights as failures of oversight.

I don't mean to imply that it's consciously used that way at all or that there's really any linguistic-historical there there. I just find it interesting in light of some thoughts I was toying with for my Anthropology of Policymaking class last quarter.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Russia's economy not looking so good.
The U.S. House of Representatives has reworded its rules to be gender neutral. Hallelujah!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Andrew Sullivan passes on some thoughts about what Israel's bigger strategy in Gaza could possibly be (answer: an indirect blow to Iran). An excerpt:

The first is an absolute cease-fire. Previous cease-fires allowed Hamas to launch two or three rockets a week into Israel and to smuggle weapons into Gaza through tunnels. To obtain a cease-fire now, the international community should recognize Israel's right to respond to any aggression over its international border and monitor the closure of Hamas' weapons-smuggling tunnels.

Above all, the goal is to ensure that Hamas is unable to proclaim victory and thereby enhance Iranian prestige in the Arab world.

The trouble with apocalyptic movements like Hamas is that they will proclaim victory regardless, no? Hamas will only be defeated by the Palestinians, in the end. Which is why Kramer's notion of pitting the PA against Hamas makes more sense. But the idea that this time, pure violence and enforcement of a blockade will force a change of heart among Palestinians and Arabs more generally seems utopian to me. The risk is that this could ignite pro-Iranian Jihadism across the region.

A couple of thoughts:

The one big problem with closing the weapons-smuggling tunnels is that they are also the food-and-supplies-smuggling tunnels. The tunnels have played an important role in keeping Gaza afloat, from a humanitarian perspective, under Israel's economic embargo.

The tunnels existed in some form before this particular depressing situation occurred, since (as I understand it) Israel has not allowed Gaza's economy to operate freely across borders in decades. I read at least once, I believe in the 2008 Crisis Group Report on Gaza, that tunnel smuggling began because cheese was cheaper in Egypt (the tunnels are primarily under the Gazan-Egyptian border). When Israel created the embargo after Hamas's 2006 victory, activity increased; when the embargo was intensified after Hamas violently took over the Strip, Hamas took over and expanded the tunnels as a way to generate revenue (they instituted taxes on particular goods) and maintain the role they have played since before their electoral victory as a provider to the people of necessary goods and services.

Furthermore, Gazans have come up with other methods of smuggling and I don't doubt they'd find a way to get weapons in without the tunnels. (I remember a story of a Gazan trader smuggling powdered cement--cement is not allowed into Gaza under the siege--disguised as flour.) Smuggling, via the tunnels and otherwise, has proven extremely difficult to stop or police. The only solution is to eliminate the need for smuggling, since many of the items smuggled are quite necessary for civilized life (cement, medical supplies, spare parts, food, whatever) and demand for them is not going anywhere. This means that Israel will have to lift the embargo if it wants better control of weapons going into Gaza, through closing the tunnels and other means.

Ironically, part of Hamas's domination of the tunnel economy was an effort to control weapons' entry into Gaza and their dispersal within the territory--another move by the organization was to institute rules making it illegal to sell weapons or carry them in public. If Hamas had been more successful in this effort, it would have been better able to control groups like Islamic Jihad that also fire rockets at Israel--with or without Hamas's permission--and that see Hamas as having sold out and moderated too much (hard to believe, but there it is) since rising to power, and Israel could arguably have seen fewer rockets into its territory since these groups could have been neutralized or at least controlled. Hamas's ability to control these groups has never been very strong, and part of their argument for including lifting the embargo as a condition for ceasefire was that they would never be able to get these organizations to respect one without the kind of political capital that that promise would give them.

For both of these reasons, then, the ceasefire that Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren call for in the quotation probably will not happen, and certainly will not be effective, without lifting the embargo. This would be the smart thing to do anyway, as all the siege does is make Gazans more dependent on Hamas for their livelihoods, give Hamas an easy scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on its watch, and make Israel look mean. I think the current offensive may actually provide an opportunity to do so: when Israel decides to end this round of warfare, it can pull out and then, perhaps, lift the embargo while looking generous and measured rather than weak. Indeed, it could even look like a sign of confidence in their victory.

With regard to "pro-Iranian jihadism", I don't have comprehensive empirical knowledge to offer, but I can tell you that Iran is hardly universally popular in the region. It is seen by what I believe to be a decent chunk of Arabs as meddling in other countries' business and politics and as a general promoter of chaos and instability. Reasonably, they're not fans of that. I was talking to an Egyptian friend yesterday about this and he feels exactly this way.

Furthermore, Iran is not the automatic ally of all Shi'ites in the region--their puppetmaster image and their Persian ethnicity can and do set them apart. Shi'ite militias in Iraq, for example (including the Badr brigades) don't like the idea of Iran meddling with them and have disparagingly referred to each other as "Persians" or lackeys to Tehran.

On a practical note, jihad (which I take to mean terror in Sullivan's usage) as practiced by non-state actors is much easier to mobilize in response to visible suffering like Gaza's current situation than in response to a diminution of political capital. Yes, Iran could be struck a blow here, but it's hard to see that blow as an effective rallying cry for terrorist recruitment. Established organizations like Hizballah or Al Qaeda (though AQ is highly unlikely to engage on Iran's behalf) that more easily practice a broader political agenda are better positioned for this, but the advantage is that such organizations are known quantities that can be attacked with rhetoric and military force.

When it comes to Iran's traditional allies, Hizballah would certainly be very unhappy; in light of the recent backroom negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan, Syria is a bit of a wild card here. However, if, in this scenario, Israel had just lifted the embargo, it would be better positioned politically to denounce any repercussions against it by these or other actors and to strike back forcefully against any aggression. Going back to the difficulty of mobilizing around what I think would be a fairly abstract political point, it's true that aggression as retaliation for Israel's invasion of Palestine could be an effective rallying cry, but Arab rhetoric about abuses toward Palestinians would be deflated by a lifting of the embargo. It would make little sense to strike Israel on Gazans' behalf after Israel had taken such a positive action toward Gaza, and the international community would, I think, have little sympathy.

Which doesn't mean no one would do it. We've seen people do stupid things in this conflict for decades. It just means that if someone did, it would likely be a fairly limited phenomenon, not a wave "across the region," and Israel would have a much better chance of looking like the good guy as well as better cover for dealing with it forcefully.


Some lighter fare: a British man was caught in the Mumbai attacks and "shattered his body" trying to escape. During his recovery (back in Britain) he missed an Eddie Izzard show he had been really looking forward to, and his father wrote Izzard asking for a letter of condolence or somesuch.

Well, Izzard decided that a much better idea would be to come to the hospital and do the routine by his bedside. All 90 minutes of it.

This isn't that, but here's the clip of Izzard they embedded in the article. Bloody hilarious as always.

Bits and bobs about Gaza

Indonesian reactions to the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It's worth noting here that Indonesia boasts the largest population of Muslims in the world.

Islam is not an Arab religion; it is a religion. We must remember that, both to avoid counterproductive racialization of the religion and our conflicts with Muslim nations, and to understand the full ramifications of our foreign policies. The Middle East+ (i.e. ME plus Afghanistan, Pakistan) is not the only site of Islam by a long shot.

Meanwhile, Syria sends humanitarian aid to Gaza through a totally reputable Syrian humanitarian organization.

This is, er, not good political news for Israel.

Dammit, when will people learn to privilege their long-term interests over their short-term interests?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Defining terrorism

Nir Rosen in The Guardian:

Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims' struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

Counterinsurgency, now popular again among in the Pentagon, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.

Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.

Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate and basic method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day; the Palestinian people is being eradicated day after day. As a result, they respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel. Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity with the support of an overwhelming power, then they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can.

Not long ago, 19-year-old Qassem al-Mughrabi, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem drove his car into a group of soldiers at an intersection. "The terrorist", as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called him, was shot and killed. In two separate incidents last July, Palestinians from Jerusalem also used vehicles to attack Israelis. The attackers were not part of an organisation. Although those Palestinian men were also killed, senior Israeli officials called for their homes to be demolished. In a separate incident, Haaretz reported that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she threw acid n his face. "The terrorist was arrested by security forces," the paper said. An occupied citizen attacks an occupying soldier, and she is the terrorist?

I don't agree a hundred percent with this, mostly in that I'm not as radical about it as he is. A few points:

1. I believe that there is a useful and meaningful place for the word "terrorism." The main difference between intimidation as practiced by states and their armies and intimidation as practiced by terrorists has to do with power relations and technology. When states do it, it is a military action implemented by a national power against an equivalent or lesser national power or population. It has conventional military technologies and huge resources. When terrorists do it, they are by definition less powerful in the arena of force than their object--that is, they can't invade the object of their terror and just make what they want to happen happen. Their primary tactic is to get what they want through intimidation, whereas a state army uses intimidation among a broader array of tools (subjugation, shaping government policy, trying to win hearts and minds among the population). In addition, terrorists cannot engage on some level of diplomatic equality the way two governments, particularly two governments of similar military strength, can. The terrorists are not a government; there is no reason for a more powerful state to negotiate with them until they can make themselves known and dangerous by posing a threat. Until then, they are only concerned foreign citizens and easily ignorable.

Properly used, "terrorism" is a name for a particular technology or form of implementation, subject to severe military and political asymmetry. This is why terrorism and insurgency--another term for a technology or form of political-military action--are so frequently correlated; they are subject to the same restrictions in terms of power, resources, and legitimacy as a political actor. The distinction between intimidation as practiced by states and intimidation as practiced by small, non-state actors is important and useful. The problem is that "terrorism", predictably, is a highly politicized word that has come to include a negative moral dimension, which means it is very useful for anyone involved in any conflict to describe their opponents as terrorists--which, as we have seen, everyone does. Israelis are terrorists according to Palestinians and vice versa. The U.S. is a terrorist nation according to, well, lots of people, and lots of people are terrorist organizations or nations according to the U.S. The fine line between "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" has been discussed many times before (more on that later).

2. Following on that, and provided that that politicized context is present, I absolutely agree with his assessment of how "terrorism" is defined in practice, which is as any use of force that is inconvenient to the more powerful actor. Since the more powerful actor typically has the sympathy of the media as well as greater control over it, not to mention comity of interests with other powerful actors (for example, the U.S. and E.U. lists of terrorist organizations look pretty similar), it generally gets to dictate these terms more easily. This is the valuable thing about this article--he lays this out incisively and convincingly.

3. The paragraph describing the attacking of civilians as a last, most desperate use of force by people or groups without options seems a little too morally pure, and in places too radical, to me. The fact is that powerful actors with lots of options do it too--this is part of why Rosen is so pissed at Israel. Plus, it is entirely possible to understand why Hamas does what it does, or why groups operating sometimes with Hamas's consent and sometimes not such as Islamic Jihad do what they do (bomb Israel), why it makes sense for them, and why it's even morally understandable (everybody understands frustration and revenge), without declaring it morally justified. This is the difference between compassion, and/or realism, and partisanship.

I find his claim that the Israeli government "uses civilians", by which he means settlers in this instance, a bit far-fetched. Are there elements in the government--or at least in Israeli politics--who still refuse a two-state solution and see the settlers as a means toward eventually eradicating Palestinian territory? Almost certainly. Is that state policy? No. The Israeli government has, in the past, agreed to massively curtail settling and relocate existing settlers, and has in fact done so--at fairly intense political cost--rather recently (was it 2006? Maybe 2005--my memory is not perfect). The radical elements among settlers can safely be said to have gone rogue from the state, and this has been seen when Israeli soldiers attempt to intervene in neighborhood Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. That the state has not yet publicly acknowledged and faced this problem does not make it state policy. The more general version of this claim, that powerful actors use civilians as props in conflicts, is certainly possible and historically documented--I just don't think it applies here.

4. The final paragraph, I think, points to another sloppy elision in the use of the word "terrorist". A terrorist individual or organization has a stated objective, which they attempt to achieve through the planned and organized use of spectacular, pyrotechnic, but small-scale violence (as distinct from military force) and coordinated threats. Most of his examples seem to be instances of very frustrated and, at that moment at least, reckless individuals attacking their oppressors. If it can be proved that these individuals acted at the behest and with the support of actual terrorist organizations; and/or, that they planned these attacks in advance and attempted to extract some kind of concession from their victims before or after the attacks, then they can be said to be terrorists. If these conditions are not present, they are not terrorists; they are violent, and they are quite arguably very amateurish and disorganized freedom fighters.

5. Coming back to the definition of "terrorism", it is important to point out that it is objectively very possible to be freedom fighters and terrorists at the same time--in fact, especially in modern times, it is likely. "Freedom fighter" describes the objective, and "terrorist" the method. Theoretically, one can fight for freedom conventionally, without employing terrorist or guerrilla tactics (I'm having a hard time distinguishing between those two, and I'm pretty sure in practical terms the distinction is entirely moral and subject to the power relations described by Rosen), but that would require a balance of power, popular support, and resources that is almost never present in terrorist/guerrilla situations. Anticolonial struggles could take this form, since it became people's militias against the state, as could conventional civil wars (see the American or Spanish examples), but these circumstances are largely obsolete. At this point, any oppressed group within any state is small enough and oppressed enough that it cannot martial these kinds of resources, OR, in the case of some civil conflicts in Africa that come to mind (Rwanda, the Sudan) the violent group has always chosen to employ terrorist tactics even though it doesn't have to.

Now, an actor with the parity just described that engaged in the kind of horrific and pyrotechnic violence typical of terrorist acts could, I think, be objectively described as morally bankrupt and despicable (shout out to the janjaweed), and treated as such, because it would be engaging in horrific acts when it has other options. The Mongols might be an example of this. I would say, frankly, that Hiroshima or the firebombing of Berlin might count. That's why we have the term "war crime". (Abu Ghraib, anybody? Nazis?) This does not apply to any Palestinian organization, however, no matter how violent and horrific its tactics.

In this sense, then, the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists tends to be whether we like them, and/or whether we dislike the state or people they are attacking. Turkish Kurds are, for some Americans, freedom fighters who sometimes employ regrettable or even terrorist tactics; Islamic Jihad, to many Americans (if many Americans had ever heard of IJ instead of lumping them in with Hamas, as is common), would be terrorists who are, admittedly, in a shitty situation. That's what the many discussions of the line between freedom fighting and terrorism reflect.

Very rarely, of course, freedom fighters adopt the spectacularly nonviolent tactics of Nelson Mandela or Ghandhi. One could argue that these freedom fighters are also terrorists, but the force they bring to bear is not bombs or killings but the threat of total international disgust, divestment, and even military intervention by others to save the peaceful resistance from the violence of the state. However, since I firmly believe that "terrorism" refers properly to particular tactics of force, this would not be terrorism. I'm not sure there's a name for it; "nonviolent resistance" is such a politically and morally sanitary and sugar-laden term that it escapes the pragmatic element of tactics that I want to denote.