Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I'm glad I haven't seen nearly as much of this nonsense as I did last year. I can't believe anyone ever dared to make it a political issue, given the other things we were and still are facing. I am elated that this tactic of diversion from substantial issues has backfired; the House that brought this ridiculous bill up for a vote has been cleaned.

I think Clark W. Griswold expressed the spirit of the season best:


History (Lesson) Repeats Itself


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Maybe he does get it...

The irony of most of this rant is fantastic. Omit the references to Palestinians and it's almost like he understands what happened on November 7. The sad part is that, as usual, he fails to respond to the question that was posed.

I hate to admit it, but Bush reminds me a lot of myself. I used to give responses that were nearly identical, at least in form, to those he regurgitates at press conferences. Throughout grade school I made a habit of not doing assigned readings for English class, and frequently I was called on to analyze a chapter or even an entire book that I hadn't read. Of necessity, I became a masterful bullshitter. I would make a great president: restate the question, but so vaguely that it sounds like an affirmative response. Now some filler; litter it with platitudes, especially uplifting ones like "peace is never dead, because people want peace," and other such vacuous verbiage. Restate the question again; differently enough to allow you to get completely off the original topic. More words. Smile. Weave your own narrative, one which may not have anything to do with reality, but which is plausible and internally consistent, and if you act like you're really buying it, other people will too!

There's no need to elaborate on that. I'm sure you know how it goes; we've all fabricated some ridiculous response about critically important foreign policy issues n English assignments, and in any case my BSing prowess is considerably diminished nowadays since I've come to appreciate an honest, well thought-out, to-the-point answer.

I guess that's the great irony of Bush's press conferences; he is so often an accidental prophet. For instance, he once said of Iraq, without even a hint of irony, "There are extreme elements that use religion to achieve objectives." Who knows whether he willfully or inadvertently forgot much of his own constituency when he said that, but he sure nailed it. And in attempting not to answer a tough question about the Middle East nearly a year ago, he actually gave a spot-on assessment of domestic politics today: the people are unhappy with the status quo, they want honest government, better education for their children, health care, and best of all, that "the elections should open the eyes of the Old Guard..." In the Palestinian territories, huh? Wouldn't that be nice.

Update: In conversation, someone had the audacity to dispute that Bush sounds like a high schooler bullshitting his English teacher at his press conferences. A quick Google search shows that about 1/3 of the internet is devoted to disputing whether and how much of an idiot he is, but as for my slightly different point, this sums it up nicely in about 36 seconds.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Feeling the Hate

A worthy read from Harper's about the people that scare me most.

He reminds us... that “ages of faith are not marked by dialogue but by proclamation” and that “there is power in the unapologetic proclamation of truth..." He tells the crowd to shun the “persuasive words of human wisdom.” Truth, he says, does “not rest in the wisdom of men but the power of God.” Then, in a lisping, limp-wristed imitation of liberals, he mocks, to laughter and applause, those who want to “share” and be sensitive to the needs of others.

Yes, what our embattled world needs most is certainly a condemnation of appeals to reason and reconciliation. Sigh.

I do not understand how a religion whose central tenets are love, forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and self-abnegation can be perverted into a movement that is so decidedly militant in metaphor and rhetoric, if not yet in action. The humble, peaceful teacher is now portrayed as Napoleon or Alexander the Great: vainglorious and monomaniacally bent on conquest.

I must admit, this type of speech does make me want to pray.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Hardly a no-brainer

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." -G.K. Chesterton

Let's talk honestly about what this torture debate (or more specifically, the debate over the Military Commissions Act which authorizes the President to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions) is n was n should really have been about.

Here is an interesting piece on waterboarding that includes the reporter being interrogated by SERE instructors. The most notable line is borrowed from John McCain.

I'm categorically opposed to torture. Pretty much everyone is. The point of contention lies with what constitutes torture, and what should be permissible "coercive interrogation." I completely agree with Dershowitz; if we want to use ethically questionable methods, then let's say so and put it on the table for a fair and honest discussion of its virtues and vices. If the benefits merit its use, then what methods are acceptable, and under what circumstances?

Perhaps a reasonable debate might lead to the conclusion that it is okay to use, say, Method X only in the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Even though this scenario is extremely unlikely, such a proclamation would provide accountability. If you use Method X, you must demonstrate that the conditions specified for a ticking bomb scenario were met when you used it. Otherwise, you face the consequences of having illegally tortured someone. Regardless of whether or not you choose to accept the time bomb scenario as justification for torture, such a system would be fair in the sense that it is consistent in application and resistant to abuse.

We cannot afford to allow a single person (or secret tribunal of unidentified, unaccountable people, appointed by a single person) to make those decisions without having to specify where the lines are drawn, what methods are used, when, why, etc. Again, while I personally would vehemently oppose a law like the one above, perhaps it is in our national interest to legalize, under certain conditions, some form of what the Geneva Conventions call torture. If so, then we should codify that decision into law so that we know when it is broken! This position, revolting as I find it, is at least in keeping with our identity as a nation guided by law. And it is NOT what Bush wants. He wants a "License to Torture," without oversight and without constraint. Consider this: the phantasmal enemy sent to haunt the dreams of those who oppose Bush's policies is "Islamofascism." For those who wield this political buzzword like a club, I would like to know just what unchecked power to interrogate by unspecified means smacks of to you.

When Dick Cheney defends the MCA by stating that "a dunk in the water...is a no-brainer" when it could save American lives, he is being dishonest in a not-so-obvious way. His official denial that he was referring to waterboarding, as well as all the fine-parsing by White House spokespeople and uber-analysis by media outlets, have done little to obfuscate the plain meaning of his comment. In fact, I suspect Cheney intended to be unmistakeable, because despite the coarseness of his words, they communicate a sentiment that many Americans can get behind: that it's okay to torture to save our own people. And therein lies the deception. He proposes a notion that is both fairly popular and also acceptable (if unpalatable) for discussion among reasonable people, in order to provide cover for a question which could never be posed honestly to the citizenry: Should one person effectively have the power to declare who is a criminal?

It's the old bait-and-switch. It is the most devious type of lie: not one of false assertion or even omission, but one of conflation. It is a tactic this administration has perfected. Cheney suggests that if you believe that saving American lives can justify torture, then you must support the MCA. Although it's only slightly more subtle then the insultingly simplistic "Support the war, or you hate the troops/love Saddam/club baby seals/are a pedophile" line, it still plays astonishingly well with the public.

Such dichotomies do not exist, and we must not capitulate to the claim that the only way to save our lives is to forfeit our liberty. I can, I should, and I always will unconditionally oppose the ceding of due process in favor of executive fiat. And this decision has NOTHING to do with the fact that I do not like or trust Bush; I would feel the same way if the powers in question were to go to the man I admire most. The problem is establishing a precedent on which this nation cannot survive. Consider the Romans enacting the suicide of their democracy by electing Julius Caesar emperor. He served Rome honorably until his death, but was eventually succeeded by a host of incompetent tyrants who destroyed history's mightiest empire. This issue is bigger than planes and bombs today, it is about avoiding our own induction into history's version of the Darwin Awards. Here's a quote that has been used an awful lot lately, but I could hardly say it's been overused, because it so desperately needs to be heeded: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." -Ben Franklin

Another important point is that interrogation methods aren't all of sudden more important since 9/11; the GCs were originally agreed upon as rules of war. In fact, several were introduced or amended in the wake of the immense bloodshed of World War II. If extracting intelligence from enemy soldiers during war won't save lots of (our) lives, then I can't imagine what will. And even in this case, when we are absolutely positive who the enemy is, and it is very likely that they have at least some useful information (since they have a much more centralized command than terrorists, who may really not know much), we still opt against those methods in favor of humanity and morality. We prosecuted German soldiers for waterboarding our boys in WWII! The fact that they were just trying to win the war for their side is no defense; such a practice was deemed inhumane and unacceptable regardless of the motivation. [Correction: It was actually Japanese soldiers that were prosecuted for torturing US soldiers, and they were subsequently executed for war crimes. Consider that the most compelling version of the ticking timebomb scenario involves nuclear weapons and densely populated areas, and you will see that we have no legal leg to stand on.]

Finally, needless to say, if we do not abide by these rules for others, they are likely to return the favor. In abandoning the Geneva Conventions, we are almost certainly subjecting our own troops to torture. Some might argue that our enemies are already failing to play by these rules. Maybe so, but in making the Convention optional, we are legitimizing that behavior. Rest assured that they will never even consider treating our prisoners humanely if we are not expected to do the same, and if furthermore there is no fear of reprisal. This is the fundamental notion upon which conventions like these rest; it's not that we don't want to reserve the right to torture, or have nukes, or pollute endlessly, we just can't allow other countries to do the same! But no longer will we have recourse to accuse and prosecute such barbarism; we have ceded that moral high ground.

Ultimately, though, all of this quasi-legal philosophy is irrelevant. McCain had it right: It's not about who they are, it's about who we are.

PS: About that last bit, I know we didn't sign Kyoto, and that our efforts at nuclear non-proliferation are hypocrisy defined (wow, are we really 0/3 on some of the most critical international agreements?), but the point is they are all good ideas . Indeed, Bush's plan to optionalize Geneva is just one manifestation of our tendency to try to hold other countries to a standard by which we are unwilling to abide, and this arrogance is largely responsible for all of the international goodwill that we have squandered. I know that a certain strain of self-styled patriot, the type more concerned with words and flags than with actions and ideas, bristles at Americans calling America arrogant. I really don't know what else you could call it.


I found a similar editorial by Dick Meyer here.
I also added the leading quotation.

Another pertinent link of Bush at a press conference discussing the act here. How loosening the standards of interpretation of the Geneva Conventions actually clarifies law is not explained. Here is Matt Lauer cornering him on torture. We clarify international law to "agree[ing] to disagree" with Amnesty International. Sounds like a good plan. He also explains that it is important we don't talk about techniques such as waterboarding, because if they are being used, confirmation of this would allow the terrorists to adapt. As Bush deftly recognizes, insane Muslim fundamentalists are notoriously capable of sprouting gills.


The Glass is Half Full...of Bull

Politicians have an infuriating habit of claiming a victory even in contests where they were clearly humiliated. A lot of conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have shifted their rhetoric from that of lamentation and outrage to one of, one supposes, disingenuous optimism. This sort of spinning a resounding defeat into a minor victory is certainly not unique to the right, and I condemn this sort of dishonesty in all politicians. The hope seems to be that claiming victory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; that you can rally your troops around an ass-whooping, as long as you can convince them that it wasn't one.

Here's a decent example. It's not so much a flat denial of the facts as a very, very sneaky portrayal of them, but it gets the point across.

Claiming that the new class of Democrats is comprised of a lot of moderate "blue dog" dems is one (true) thing, but extrapolating this into the notion that the recent election is in fact ultimately "a victory for conservatism" is horse shit. The more relevant facts are as follows: the dems picked up seats in dependably red districts, they overwhelmingly ousted incumbents (a near-impossible feat in the House and no easier in the Senate), and while some of the newly elected candidates may be considered conservative relative to other Democrats, they are NOT Republicans. Why don't you say this: The people have spoken, and our party will respond accordingly.

I guess this sort of lying is probably harmless; go ahead and call a rose by any other name. But my disgust stems from the fact that they really think I am stupid enough to believe what is manifestly false, just because they say it so certainly! It's like politicians accusing the media of only showing the "bad stuff" in Iraq, when in fact it's going ever so smoothly. I am offended by their apparent conviction that strong rhetoric can trump reality. It cannot.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Good News

I was a bit worried about what the dems would do with their newly acquired power. We're certainly not out of the woods yet, but if Chris Dodd has his way, we'll be reinstating Habeas Corpus, along with other civil liberties and the Geneva Convention.


Who the hell are they?!?

Mississippi lawyer Michael Wallace, Bush's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, was unanimously rated "not qualified," the lowest ranking on the scale, by the American Bar Association. This is rare for federal nominees, and, needless to say, does not bode well for his appointment.

I am amused and bewildered by Trent Lott's response. In The Hill , he had this to say:

“It’s just outrageous what [they] did...Who are they to decide who’s qualified and who isn’t?"

I believe we covered that; they're the American Bar Association, the governing organization for those who deal with the law, like judges. Now I'm no proponent of lamb-like deference to authority, but if the American Medical Association rated a surgeon as "unqualified," I would be uninclined to go under their knife.

Granted, Trent Lott is a lawyer, and I will assume that he knows a good deal more than I do about what qualifies a judge for a federal position. But he's also a prominent Republican, the former Senate Majority Leader and now Minority Whip (I bet he's always wanted to be called the Minority Whip, cuz, y'know... he hates minorities ) with a stake in this political game, and a friend and former colleague of Mr. Wallace to boot! His over-the-top incredulity reminds me of one of my favorite rants in the history of saying dumb things with a mic in your face.

So why we should believe the assertion of an interest-conflicted politician (pardon the redundancy) that the ABA has politicized their unanimous decision, even though they have favorably reviewed other highly conservative and controversial Bush appointees like Roberts and Alito, well that's anybody's guess.

I think this is an example of how the culture of anti-intellectualism takes our notion of democracy a step too far. A great deal of our country despises being told that someone else knows better, at least if that someone disagrees with them. A few weeks ago, a scientist I know was thrown in jail for contempt of court. He was offering testimony as an expert witness, and when something he said was disputed, the judge took umbrage at the fact that he resolutely claimed his position to be authoratative. The obvious question is: Isn't that what expert witnesses are supposed to do?

Whether it's global warming skepticism or intelligent design being taught in schools, people seem to think that democracy means everyone's opinion is equal, or even worse, that "might makes right". It does not. It means that every person is equal in a moral sense, and that their opinions should be entitled to equal consideration a priori, but it does not mean that opinions that are not supported by facts are equal to those that are. While the majority of a town may believe that evolution is false, this does not affect the truth of that assertion. The question has an objective answer, and even though experts may not always know what that answer is, if they are not to be trusted, then who? To paraphrase someone I have never quoted outside of a punchline, you make decisions with the best information available. But for those who resent the perceived arrogance of the literati, I want to be very clear about what I'm saying. My position is not one of presumption and hubris, or an advocation of a power-grab for the technocracy. It is in fact the most humble of appeals. I ask simply, If an expert opinion is worth only as much as anybody else's, is there such thing as expertise at all?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Your Seats Are Belong to Us

I mean this in the most conciliatory way possible.

From The Agonist.

The prequel, via YouTube

I consider this a good first post, since from here there's nowhere to go but up.