Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's that time again

Link dump!

First off, Marc Ambinder brings us this graphic from Pew on party ID:

I think this is great news. The two-party system is moribund and the lesser its hold on the voting population, the better.

Next: Kevin Drum meditates on torture. An excerpt:

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn't be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn't be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there's no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.

Whether the point of civilization really is as much moral advancement as physical (what does that mean, concretely?) and technological advancement is, if you ask me, up for debate. But the liberal political project (and I mean liberal not in the American political sense but in the philosophical sense that includes both Rousseau and Burke) certainly argues that it is. Without that presumption the entire structure of liberalism is undone. The American democratic structure is deeply predicated on that framework, and so while I think from a realistic, anthropological, and even historical viewpoint Drum's assertion may be questionable, I think it's useful in terms of this discussion.

Finally: I've been a bit curious about John Huntsman, Governor of Utah, since he revealed that he supports civil unions--who wouldn't be? Utah is about as solidly red as a state can get, and that redness is very cultural. He himself is a Mormon. Finally, as it's starting to seem that he'll run for President, I got myself over to his Wikipedia page and I must say the man holds my interest. I think he falls under that category of politicians whom I like and respect and want to see do well--but not so well that I'd vote for them. I have the feeling that I'm diametrically opposed to Huntsman on most fiscal and economic policy, but I respect the independent thinking (or, potentially, political brilliance) that his social heterodoxy would seem to represent.

It's midterms week here, and I've had two tests, two papers, a B.A. thesis proposal, and the nervewracking act of asking an important professor to be my thesis advisor to handle--and it's only Wednesday night!--so that's all I got. Time now for my brain to be allowed to shut off.

Should Bush be tried for war crimes?

AOL of all places is hosting a poll on whether Bush should be tried for war crimes. Here are the current results:

I find the disparity between "yes" and "no" disappointing but not surprising. I do think that the list of which particular states ended up in the "yes" column contains some surprises, though (click See State Results and allow the pop-up): Alaska? North Dakota? (Admittedly I know nothing about ND politics). Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maine are obvious candidates for the "yes" column, and one could argue perhaps that the demographics in any state more likely to vote "yes" are also less likely to patronize AOL, but regardless I'd be interested to see what Nate Silver would have to say about this--or, preferably, about a more rigorous and methodologically sound poll.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My B.A. thesis proposal

Well, I gave in a BA proposal today, and for anybody who might be interested here it is.

I am interested in investigating political violence in the modern Middle East, particularly violence that takes place within national borders. This classification will primarily include civil conflict, as in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Mandatory Palestine; repressive violence perpetrated by the state against its citizens and the political ramifications thereof, as in Iraq, Syria, and the Gaza Strip under Hamas, may also be considered. Finally, time and length permitting, I hope to explore the products of torture and other state-sanctiond and –practiced forms of institutionalized, ongoing violence within the broader political landscape of violence in relevant countries (Iraq, Syria, Gaza, perhaps Pakistan).

My aim is to create a healthy balance between theoretical analysis and fact-driven, concrete insights. (I may or may not include policy recommendations, depending on the structure of my conclusions, but I would like to.) Theoretically, I hope to investigate such violence from a political science perspective, discussing the political mechanisms and structures that variously shape, allow, encourage, thrive off, or are destroyed by such violence; and from an anthropological perspective, attempting to understand the meaning of violence in specific cultural and temporal locations, its technologies, and what work it does for its constituents. I will employ Foucauldian analytical tools throughout in considering the power structures and institutions shaping the environments in which violence has developed. Concretely, I plan to incorporate statistical and econometric research on conflict onset, statebuilding and state repression; firsthand research documents such as Crisis Group Reports and, I hope, my own observations from the two months I am about to spend in Syria this summer; and, of course, a historical perspective, examining causes and effects on a broad timescale. When completed, the paper will offer one attempt at a fairly comprehensive perspective on some of the most controversial and thorny political intra-state conflicts of the 20th century. If I am successful in achieving my desired balance between theoretical and grounded analysis, the paper will function both as an edifying policy document and as an interesting academic analysis.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The more things change...

So I'm in the midst of writing a paper on the political efficacy of violence between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs between 1929 and 1948. I took a quick Internet break and came across this meditation on the Bibleand wow, some of the irony is rich:

Throughout “Good Book,” you talk about violence—between tribes, between family members, between men and women. Leaders flying into rages; people being sacrificed to mobs. Were you surprised by the prevalence of violence in the Bible?

I don’t think it’s surprising. Every great epic and myth and religious text is shot through with violence. The surprising part is the way we try to whistle past the violence in order to make the book more morally palatable. The Book of Joshua, for example, is an account of a divinely ordered genocide: God commanding His people to exterminate every person in the land of Canaan, even down to the boys and girls. Yet in our happier retelling, this book is the story of the Jewish arrival in a land of milk and honey, and their rightful assumption of the land God promised to them. To focus on the milk and honey rather than the blood and guts is a willful refusal to grapple with the morally problematic nature of the Bible.

The overarching theme of the Bible, particularly of Genesis, is real estate. God is Trump-like, constantly making land deals (and then remaking them, on different terms). When Sarah dies, for example, there are two verses about her death, and a whole chapter about Abraham negotiating to buy a burial site for her in Hebron. It’s not just land that the Bible is obsessed with, but also portable property: gold, silver, livestock.

...perhaps...the Israelites were just as maniacal about land ownership as we are. None of them wanted to rent in the Promised Land. They all wanted to own (and there wasn’t even a mortgage interest deduction).

It kind of set my head spinning, especially because Hebron is still there and still named Hebron; it's the biggest city in the West Bank.

Combine that with the incredibly tragic and frustrating way that by 1939 the dynamic that we see today among Israelis, Palestinians, neighboring Arab states, and the heavy-handed superpower of the day (Britain then, the U.S. now) was already in place, and it's all very frustrating. Rueful might be the best word to describe the way it makes me feel.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Andrew Sullivan just assessed Dick Cheney, and if the man had any shame I would say it was going to leave a mark:

It is very rare to get someone with the same stratospheric levels of arrogance and incompetence as you find in Dick Cheney. Let's go to the tape: A war launched on false premises, a trillion dollar debt in a period of growth, a destruction of America's moral standing, the loss of one major city (New Orleans) and the devastation of another (New York City), two horribly bungled military campaigns that have trapped his successors for decades, a political party decimated for a generation, his closest aide in jail for obstruction of justice, his own daughter and grand-child targeted by his own party as second-class citizens in the state they live in. And a war criminal. Did I miss anything?


File under "don't know whether to laugh or cry"


I've been trying to come up with something intelligent to say about torture for a long time now. There are all kinds of things I could go into--the 1984 angle; the freakishly bureaucratic and clinical language delineating what was and was not allowed, like something straight out of a Foucault lecture; the sheer, tragic stupidity of how this seemed to start, with Zubaydah; the frightening bending of good science on sleep deprivation and learned helplessness; the even MORE tragic idiocy of the apparent massive ignorance of many of the higher-ups involved (not knowing these techniques were used in SERE training? Really?); and on, and on. And on.

But all of those bases are being covered, adequately and intelligently. On some level I'm too tired to do the kind of diligent reading that would allow me to come up with something of my own to say. I'm tired of knowing that this is even a question. I'm tired from living in a country where we all squawk about prosecution and looking forward, backward, and upside down and nothing happens. It's draining to live ina place whose rules are in the process of crumbling. So all I really have to say, when it comes down to it, has been admirably said by Shep Smith of Fox News in the video above.

I suppose were I delivering the same remarks I probably would focus less on "this is America" and more on the fact that torture is not okay anywhere for anyone, but I guess that's why Shep works for Fox News and I am a dirty liberal. Or something.

I will say this: the day the memos came out, although there was plenty in there that I knew already, I felt a little bit orphaned. I think it was seeing all of these acts ordered, described, and justified, on purpose, in advance, in writing that is horrific in its mechanical and professional language and its obdurate refusal to see the forest for the trees. That moved it from "things people I never liked anyway did" to being part of the structure and the body of the U.S. government, which I have had some love for. I think some of that love is gone, because under the government structure for which I felt affection, none of this would have been possible. Something is very, very broken, and I'm afraid I've been given little faith it will be fixed. That's what I see when I look forward, not backward: disintegration and decay.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Things fantastic

Ron Paul seems to be advocating privateering as a solution for Somali pirates [h/t TalkLeft]:

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and a growing number of national security experts are calling on Congress to consider using letters of marque and reprisal, a power written into the Constitution that allows the United States to hire private citizens to keep international waters safe.

Used heavily during the Revolution and the War of 1812, letters of marque serve as official warrants from the government, allowing privateers to seize or destroy enemies, their loot and their vessels in exchange for bounty money.

He is absolutely correct that this is a good idea if you want to have some sort of naval presence off Cape Horn for minimum cost. That this idea is being floated at all is fascinating to me given that we are living in an age of mercenary rebirth and proliferation; it seems everything old really is new again in the realm of privatized violence.

The trouble with privateers is that they date from a time when states weren't very powerful. They couldn't afford to police their own waters, so they allowed privateers (whose mission was not only to police but significantly to hand some booty over to the Crown) to operate more or less unrestricted. Privateers disappeared, just as mercenaries did, when states developed the power, capacities, and institutions to perform these functions themselves.

We have had states powerful enough for this for a long time. International law and custom has evolved based on a framework where states control and are responsible for the actions of their citizens, by and large. To willfully set a bunch of bloodthirsty Americans free somewhere across the world will not be well-received. Piracy is messy. It is unprofessional. There will be unpalatable deaths, probably rape, the wrong sort of plundering, etc. The U.S. will still be held accountable for such occurrences in a way that the French monarchs in the 16th century simple could not be. Furthermore, it is my opinion that resorting to piracy will make the U.S., whose superpower status is in many ways based on its military superiority--and I mean that conceptually, not historically--look weaker than if it had not gotten involved at all.

That such ideas are being floated may represent how much smaller Ron Paul wants the U.S. military and government to be. Or they may represent how strapped for cash and truly weakened they are. I actually find it bizarre that Paul, generally quite consistent when it comes to smaller government and military nonengagement, thinks we need do anything off of Cape Horn at all; there is no direct, let alone existential, threat to the U.S. Perhaps I'm missing something here, or maybe Ron Paul just really wants to be able to vote for a letter of Marque before he dies.

Meanwhile, Blago is trying to get on reality TV: "Ten celebrities will be dropped into the Costa Rican jungle 'to face challenges designed to test their skills in adapting to the wilderness,' a network statement said."

I admit it. If Blago is on it, I think I'd watch.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quick Hit: Fiji

Less than 24 hours after a Fiji court declared the country’s military backed government to be unconstitutional, Fiji’s president has voided the country’s constitution, made himself head of state and dismissed the country’s judiciary.

The issue stems from a Thursday, April 9 court ruling stating the military leader Frank Bainimarama came to power illegally in December 2006 when he dissolved Parliament and ousted the government of Laisenia Qarase. Later that day, Bainimarama said he would step down and allow the President to appoint a caretaker government as ordered by the three judges.

Speaking to the nation mid-morning Friday, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo said he was incapable of following the Court of Appeal’s ruling to appoint a caretaker government because the constitution provided him no powers to do so. Because a country cannot survive without a standing government, he was forced to take over the government and will appoint an interim Prime Minister in the next few days. In perhaps his biggest surprise, the President said this interim body will rule Fiji until elections can be held in five years time, no later than September 2014.

Well, damn. I don't know whether to hope they make it hte five years to election time without another coup or to hope for a coup on schedule--there have been four since 1997.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


You may have heard about this:

Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents.

Already Koh is getting the smear treatment we saw with Chas Freeman.

The Scott Horton quotation above came via Hilzoy, who added as a final thought to a great post the following:

[T]his is one more piece of evidence that the Senate is broken. It needs to change its rules. I support keeping the filibuster for judicial nominations, which are for life. I can imagine a world with a sane opposition in which I would support keeping it generally. But this is not that world. At the very least, the rules need to be changed to force people who want to filibuster to actually be present in the Senate chamber.

The "Filibusters Gone Wild" meme has been bouncing around for a while now. As a government and politics geek, I admit I am a fan of the filibuster. It's one of those quirky things I love--see this episode of the West Wing, where a Senator whose grandchild is autistic filibusters a bill that didn't fund child autism and eventually gets the help of other Senate grandfathers, for a sappy take on how it can be great. Even without the "save the children!" storyline, though, I just love the concept. It's such a crazy bastard thing to have in the rules--and I'm a sucker for the crazy (principled) bastard mythos of Senators--that it just makes me happy.

I wrote a paper back in high school when the Republicans were threatening to eliminate the filibuster defending it. My selfish instinct is to keep defending it. I must agree, though, that the filibustering of every damn thing that moves in the Senate is stupid, counterproductive, and mean-spirited and it has to stop. Not to mention we don't seem to have too many principled crazy bastards around anymore, just lunatics. (The only person who comes close that I can think of is Ted Kennedy.)I don't know if there's a way to amend the filibuster rules to keep it available on all forms of legislation while making it impossible to abuse it the way it has been, but if one can be found I would be all in favor of it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Newspapers and democracy

Newspapers have been linked before by theorists of democracy as practiced in nation-states (read: as developed in Western Europe and the U.S.) to healthy democratic practice, by informing the public and holding politicians accountable. Fourth Estate theory, one might call it.

There's a pushback meme going around right now that argues the contrary:

The dominant institutions of the press...actually work to keep reality from us, whether it's the truth of money in politics, the social costs of 'free trade,' growing inequality, the resegregation of our public schools, or the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation.

[Bill Moyers quoted by Jack Shafer at Slate]

Or, at least, that they're not as essential as we think they are.

I don't have a particularly strong opinion about newspapers' function as the fabled Fourth Estate, though I do generally feel that in all aspects they are probably less important than we think they are, and that institutionalized investigative journalism is less important for any ability to puncture the powerful than it is for simply collecting information we mightn't get otherwise--the Baghdad Bureau function is hard to fulfill with volunteerist citizen journalism, for example. That is, I don't think that information is as powerful as we like to think it is.

The reason I think it's not super-important for democracy is related to some concepts that came up in Lisa Wedeen's class last quarter. We tend to assume that the way democracy developed in W. Europe, alongside the emergence of the nation-state, is the only way. Newspapers have been fairly convincingly linked to nation-building by Benedict Anderson in his classic work Imagined Communities (though I'd love to see some statistical research on that similar to Collier's and Fearon's work on civil conflict onset); whether they, or some analog, are necessary is not obvious to me. However, democratic practice need not coincide with liberal values; see Wedeen's book Peripheral Visions for examples of their decoupling in Yemen, for example. Democracy does not necessarily require a strong bourgeois middle class, intense property values, a Fourth Estate, humanist notions of the equal value of every human being, etc. Not all democracy is liberal, and not every democracy is European-style. To me, this is the strongest theoretical argument for why newspapers are not so essential as we think they are. For a more pragmatic argument, Shafer's piece also makes some good points:

Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. [...]

On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption "damage" democracy by increasing the public's cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.

The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers.

Friday, April 3, 2009


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The 10/31 Project
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

I would marry Stephen Colbert. I about died laughing watching this thing.

For more mocking of Glenn Beck, let's go to Shep Smith of Fox News: