Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Grading their Politics

It's grading season again, and since Emery has taken to posing questions in recent posts, I thought I'd turn to a query of more immediate practical import (for me) than golden tablets and magic rocks. When, if ever, is it OK to downgrade student papers for their politics?

As we all know, the good PC liberal position is "never." It's also the "professional" position. We're supposed to be grading skills--thinking, writing, research, etc., matters of process--not judging substance per se. Such a policy adheres well to the principles of "liberalism," generally, insofar as liberalism promotes open discussion, tolerance toward diverse views, and official "neutrality" on questions of "the good." The professor's immediate responsibility focuses on what is sometimes called "instrumental reasoning," but liberalism tends to assume that by cultivating reasoning as process, individuals become more capable, in a substantive sense, of participating in and contributing to a pluralistic society. One of the big up-sides of this practice is that it helps to depoliticize our judgments, at least to some extent, while still cultivating socially useful behaviors among our students.

But in practice, I'm not sure these distinctions always hold up. Conservatives, for example, commonly complain that academia's lefty tilt results in a persistent political bias. David Horowitz has been travelling the country railing against the persecution of conservative students by the academy, which discriminates against anyone to the right of Lenin. Poor little conservatives, fragile flowers, you are a beseiged and victimized majority in a society run by a "murderous" Marxist minority. (TMcD's sister, LoquaciousMcD, recently had the pleasure of attending one of DH's campus rants.) Most of this claim is silliness, of course: right-wing victim chic offered, paradoxically, in a society currently run almost exclusively by the far right. Sure, academics as a whole tend to be left of center, but the numbers vary by discipline, and who ever said that every segment of society had to be politically representative. Are the military, the corporations, or the evangelical churches politically balanced? Of course not.

Still, there's a kernel of truth in Horowitz's complaint. We can't always avoid political judgments in grading, especially for those of us who actually teach politics. I recently graded a paper where the student's argument could be summed up as follows: although I haven't read it (!), I believe that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after 9/11 gave the president absolute powers to do whatever he wants in matters of war, because that's what the president says it says, and after 9/11 we have to trust that whatever our president says is true without questioning or else the terrorists will win. Now that's pretty common conservative reasoning these days, but it's also pretty clearly a case of bad reasoning, at least when presented with the rhetorical overkill and lack of practical evidence or legal precedent this paper offered. Sometimes the substance of a political position derives from faulty process, and in critiquing the latter we inevitably denigrate the former. Or, to quote Steven Colbert from yesterday's White House Press Association banquet, sometimes "reality has a liberal bias."

I'm sure that Horowitz would be apoplectic were he reading this. But does he really think professors should offer NO judgments? It seems unlikely. I can't imagine he'd want high grades given to well-written papers advocating far left positions. Which brings me to my second example. I read a paper yesterday with the following argument: Fidel Castro is not a "totalitarian"; he's a profoundly "modest" and benevolent man (why, he even says so himself!), a hero of his people who has created an "Eden" in Cuba, one where people ride bicycles because it is more environmentally friendly, and where they have a real "freedom" the West cannot appreciate. Hmmm. . . . OK. So what this student has shown me is a complete inability to distinguish between objective analysis and agitprop oblivious to factual reality. I gave that paper a bad grade too. But I won't deny that politics played a role.

Any thoughts from my comrades?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Monster Island, Protestant Christianity Edition

[Note: I worked on this post for awhile last week, but then got distracted and never really finished it to my satisfaction. And let's face it, that's a pretty low hurdle to get over. But here's most of what I wrote.]

More great stuff on the great faith debate. Link.

Rebecca: faith, it seems to me, has nothing necessarily to do with God. that is, my first point is that the discussion is waaay too focused on the Mediterranean religious episteme, which in turn is then used to filter other epistemes such as 'polytheism' (aka Hinduism, a 'religion' which is a recent historical construction joining together a whole raft of belief systems which, in some forms, are not even polytheistic). this is a problem because it assumes a unity to faith that doesn't exist, and it reads all religions as fundamentally similar, which they are not.

I agree that any discussion b/w TMcD and me will be focused on Christianity, one of the offshoots, if you will, of "the Mediterranean religious episteme." (Btw, I love that phrase and promise to use it in the future.) My first point is, to be fair to TMcD and me, that when that particular episteme was being originated, our ancestors were hitting each other with clubs and worshipping the pagan gods. Second, both TMcD and me are, alas, stuck within Christianity . . . stuck within Protestant Christianity, even. That's where we fight out our battles. Just like Godzilla and Mothra on Monster Island (with guest appearances in Tokyo and in horrible American remakes, New York), we just can't fight this thing out anywhere else. In our favor, I think that I can speak for TMcD that we are both (painfully) aware that this is the ground on which we can duel; for my part, I admit my ignorance of non-Mediterranean epistemes. Oh, yeah.

But to return to the point (as much as I ever do), here, on Monster Island, faith has everything to do with God.

Golden Bible Follow-up

In this earlier post, I asked how you would react to a vision or revelation from God--or, at least, to what subjectively appears to have been a revelation. In comments, Rebecca says that she uses this question with her students (her courses must be more fun than the ones I teach), and offers the example of Mohammed's wife, Khadija. Which raises an interesting question . . .

This time, it's not you. Your spouse (or significant other, or close sibling, if you're unattached) comes to you and tells you that they had a vision/revelation. S/He describes the vision or revelation in detail and really, really seems to believe that this happened. Now, you're initial reaction is omigod I'm married to a crazy person. I'm sure of that. But what would it take to persuade you that the vision/revelation was true? Maybe not specifically, but in terms of the kinds of evidence that would help sway you.

I'm not sure, for my part, that I get past that first reaction. Not without my own vision, that is.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Cunning of Treason

Cal Thomas has my vote for "Worst Major American Columnist." It goes without saying that he's a partisan hack, but that doesn't necessarily distinguish him from a host of other writers, particularly on the right, and partisanship isn't necessarily a bad thing. Given the adverserial nature of our political system, rival perspectives need vigorous advocates. What most galls about Thomas, however, is his rank hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.

In his column today, for example, Thomas goes after Mary McCarthy, the CIA officer recently fired for leaking classified information to the media. Rumor has it that McCarthy was the one who leaked stories about the CIA's secret torture prisons in eastern Europe to Dana Priest at the Washington Post, a story for which Priest won a Pulitzer. As it happens, this is unconfirmed by any official source, and McCarthy denies that she was, or even could have been, the source for that particular story, although she has admitted speaking with Priest about something CIA related. So we don't yet really know what happened here. Nonetheless, Thomas is fast out of the gate with charges of "treason": "Former CIA operative Aldrich Ames went to prison for selling American secrets to the Soviet Union. McCarthy allegedly gave hers away. If she is prosecuted and found guilty, her fate should be no less severe." He goes on to say, "Has politics come to this: that the national security of this country can be compromised for political gain? In previous wars, traitors were shot or served lenghty prison terms. Now they get fired and the reporter who prints the secrtes, possibly damaging her nation, wins prestigious journalism awards. Morality and patritoism appear to have been turned upside down."

So for Thomas, this whole story is about "political gain," an indictment of Democrats as America-hating traitors, a theme that has sold a lot of books for the prominent neo-fascist, Ann Coulter. Not surprisingly, Thomas skates over most of the important issues here. Is leaking to American reporters the same same thing as selling secrets to a foreign government? Yes, if our own press qualifies as "the enemy." Of course, you can be convicted of spying for an ally, as the Jonathan Pollard case shows, but that was at least a foreign government (Israel). What we've got in the McCarthy case, by contrast, is a leak of secrets to the American people, which would suggest that we are the government's real enemy. We might also ask what the "harm" done here is--has al Qaeda been able to raid our secret prisons? Have they suddenly realized that they might be tortured if captured? Maybe they hadn't already heard about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. No matter. Treason is treason. Leakers must be punished.

Well, OK, maybe not all leakers. The elephant in the room is the leaking that Rove, Libby, et al. did to discredit Joe Wilson by exposing his wife's undercover CIA status. That's a case that, unlike McCarthy's, actually did compromise American intelligence operations abroad in ways that could damage national security. So why no condemnation from Thomas? I presume it is because Bush can be seen as authorizing that leak, and if the president does it, it cannot be treason. That would be a contradiction in terms. Why then, an American citizen might ask, does the Constitution itself specify that a president can be impeached for treason? I don't know that what Libby and Rove did was "treason" in the strict sense, but I do know that any serious examination of this issue would raise both cases, not just the one. For my part, I'm happy to say that a whistleblower leak that reveals potential government illegalities to the American people cannot be equated with selling out to the enemy. Such a position makes our government an overlord at war with its own people. John Locke would call that "tyranny."

The Golden Bible Question

I've been reading Richard Lyman Bushman's new, expanded biography of the (first) Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. It's quite good, and interesting because Bushman is both a widely respected historian and a believing Mormon. Which means that his treatment of certain issues, like the visions, is interesting, to say the least . . . as he's cross-pressured between, um, religious faith and empirical evidence.

But anyhoo . . . here's the question. Joseph Smith reported several visions throughout his life. Now, I can't know what Smith actually experienced, subjectively, of course. It's possible that, in the Sacred Grove in upstate New York in 1820, he actually (subjectively) observed a pillar of light, "two personages," God the Father and Jesus Christ, and heard God's voice say, "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased." I mean, I wasn't there, and even if I had been, I wouldn't have been inside Smith's head.

Here's the question. Let's say that you were walking in the woods one day, all alone, and then there was a pillar of light . . . and two personages appeared . . . and so on.

How would you interpret that event? Would you think that you had actually had a vision of cosmic significance, a new revelation to Mankind? Or would you get to a psychiatrist as fast as you could? What evidence would it take for you to accept the vision as real (true, and not a delusion)?

Speaking of Saints

Novacula has a column in the WaPo this morning about Romney's "Mormon problem" with Christian evangelicals in the GOP. It's worth a look, especially because Novacula's coumns always have a subtext. My guess here is that the subtext is that Romney's Mormonism is a bigger problem for his candidacy than many GOPpers think, especially more secular GOPpers drawn to Romney's candidacy.

But, maybe it's time for the United States to have a national conversation about one of our most important indigenous religious traditions, not to mention a national discussion of the ancient history of the Jews in the New World.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Not So Fuzzy

[Edited version]

FFB's own TMcD and Sam were having an interesting conversation the other day about secularism and intelligent design. I'm afraid that I haven't responded/chimed in in anything resembling a timely matter. But here's a brief set of thoughts on the matter.

Here's Sam: Anyway, TMcD called me out for my casual dismissal of ID. First, let me say that I do not wish to be one of those non-believers who plays the dogmatist when it comes to so-called secularism. Indeed, on this front I follow Connolly's recent work: the line between religious faith and secular belief is thin and fuzzy. We are all animated by some sort of 'existential faith', and the hard line defence of 'secularism' is just a dogmatic form of faith rather than a reasonable one.

I'm not so sure that that line is really that fuzzy, if you apply anything approaching a reasonable definition of "religious faith." (My guess is that TMcD will agree with this point.) Religious faith means something like the acceptance of the truth of statements (beliefs) that cannot be (and could not be) proven/supported through empirical evidence and investigation. Going even a little further, one might add that the "religious" part of the statement means that these beliefs are about a certain subset of subjects: the (supernatural) origins of life, life after death, the "meaning" of the Universe.

A consistent secularism starts from the proposition that one will only accept as "true," and then only provisionally, only those statements about the Universe that are supported by empirical evidence.

That seems like a pretty fim line to me: the consistent secularist rules out supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon, including the Universe as a whole. Those with religious faith accept at least some supernatural explanations; they believe in "miracles," in "divine intervention," "guardian angels," intelligent design. Things that cannot be observed by the senses or measured by even the most sensitive of our intsruments.

I'm not sure that the "existential faith" point works, either. OK, sure there are always human desires, but those are an empirical fact. People, um, have them. Those desires motivate their behavior, etc. Sure, it's true that some people's desires are based in beliefs about the supernatural: they want to obey/please God, or whatever. But it's perfectly reasonable to have desires that have no grounding in the supernatural. Does that mean that, in some cosmic sense, that those desires are "arbitrary"? Again, maybe, but that's really irrelevant, because it's at a cosmic remove from the desires themselves.

Is this dogmatic? Well . . . is it dogmatic to state that one does not believe in MAGIC because the evidence is all against it? If so, then maybe it's dogmatic. But it seems to me that the risk of being "wet" on the kinds of evidence that you will accept leads you to some strange places. I mean, there were eleven witnesses to the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was purportedly written. Is it dogmatic to reject the truth of the Book of Mormon? If not, what's the distinction between the Book of Mormon and the holy Scriptures?

(Btw, I'm reading another book on Joseph Smith, so expect new Mormon thoughts. Oh, boy.)

This is my old gripe with agnosticism. The Agnostic says that "I can't make up my mind whether God exists or not. So I won't decide." But the Agnostic is really saying that s/he can't make up her mind whether s/he believes in the Christian God. But, then, why isn't the Agnostic agnostic toward the existence of the Jewish God, too? The Muslim God (Allah is "God" in Arabic)? The gods of pantheistic religions? The Greek and Roman gods? Hell, the Norse gods (my personal favorites)?

Once you accept non-natural explanations, you are on the slippery slope to all sorts of beliefs. Or, at least, you are on the path to being unable to distinguish your beliefs from the beliefs of others that you reject out-of-hand. Again, that seems like a firm distinction to me.

Btw, this is not to denigrate anyone's beliefs (except, perhaps, agnosticism). My point is simply that, from a secular perspective, there is a pretty firm line between religious faith and a consistent, non-religious worldview.


If you were watching the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer just now, you heard Bob slip and refer to "Secretary Rumsfail . . . er, Rumfeld." Oops.

Btw, did you see the clips of Rumsfailure speaking in Baghdad today? He seemed like he was tired. Very. Tired. What was wrong with him? Just jet lag? Maybe a bad, bad case of job lag. Or, maybe he stood up all the way over on the flight over.

A Post-Roe Landscape

Following up on the excellent earlier post by TMcD, I'd like to point out some additional difficulties for Republicans should Roe be overturned. There is no reason to assume that abortion regulation will, in fact, be devolved back to the states. In the absence of Roe the national government can ban abortion clinics, just as it can ban marijuana trafficking. The folks who brought you S. 653 "For the Relief of the Parents of Terri Shiavo" aren't exactly strict observers of states' rights. There will be demands for a national abortion ban: why should murder be permitted anywhere, after all?

But even if the controversy were confined to the states, banning/restricting abortion will require pro-lifers to resolve scores of difficult legal issues. What will the punishments for violators be? Will women be punished, or only providers? Will there be an exception for rape? If so, where is the burden of proof? Will women have to prove rape? Will there be special courts or agencies set up to process all the cases? How will they expedite those "life of the mother" exceptions so that they're not aborting viable fetuses? If the waiver is granted, will there be appeals or injuctions on behalf of the to-be-terminated fetus? What kind of documentation/portfolio of evidence will be necessary for women to get their health/life exceptions? What health conditions during pregnancy actually constitute a threat to a woman's life? (Pre-eclampsia? Heart disease?) Will women be permitted to abort severely malformed fetuses? (What is "severely"?) New judges will have to be hired to process all these claims; a whole new body of case law will have to be developed, all rife with potential scandal and controversy. Regardless of the paperwork/bureaucracy involved, it will involve unpleasant indignities for women who will become progressively more outraged.

The Post-Roe landscape is filled with landmines for pro-lifers. It's easy--as Democrats know so well--to be opposed to something when you don't have to implement an alternative. The pro-life movement has enjoyed 30 years of this kind of out-of-power irresponsibility. Just let them try to govern in the aftermath of Roe, and they'll wish it were back in place.

CWRU mocked on NYT op-ed page

It's behind the registration wall, not the pay-to-read firewall, so no link. But the NYT op-ed page runs a piece mocking Case's SAGES program. The mockery is scathing: the author of the piece just quotes SAGES materials.

To quote it is to flame it.

Check it out, CWRUsters.

Local Controversy: Parking

I'm tired of national politics. So, Rummy and Rice make surprise visits to Baghdad. Big deal. We've seen this again and again. What would be news would be an announced visit to Baghdad. Of course, we know that the security problems an announced visit would present make such a thing impossible. So members of the Cabinet, or the VP, or even Bush himself, sneak into the country, and then leave as quickly as possible. To demonstrate how well things are going (does this really work? with whom?).

But anyway . . . I have been following a local story here in N.W. There are many, many churches in the Logan Circle neighborhood--many, many Baptist churches to be exact--but there is precious little parking. So on Sunday mornings, hundreds, probably thousands of cars pour into the area, but there aren't parking spaces for all those cars. So the churchgoers double-park, all up and down local streets. Generally, they do this on side streets, as opposed to main streets, and on streets that are relatively wide, like Vermont Avenue. Now, much of the time, churchgoers double-park in one another. But that doesn't mean that they won't park in your car, you godless heathens, if it happens to be parked on one of the streets that gets double-parked every Sunday morning.

Now, for a long time, when the Logan Circle neighborhood was not that nice, this wasn't a problem. But now, with gentrification, i.e., with all the damned Yuppies moving in, many of whom have to park on the street . . . there's conflict. Because many of the Yuppies really dislike getting parked in on Sunday mornings. There's also a race element here, of course, as the churchgoers are African-Americans, the Yuppies are mostly white.

My take on this is that the Yuppies, at least the ones voicing objections to this practice, are overreacting. First, the fact is that you can almost always avoid getting parked in. Because this happens on the same streets, the same time, every weekend. So . . . you might get parked in once, and be surprised. But, as the president once said, "won't get fooled again." (Or was that the Who?) This means that, if you are going to need to drive the car on Sunday morning, make sure that you park in a spot that doesn't get parked in, like a spot on a major street, or a spot at the end of a block.

I should add that I do this, myself, every Saturday. Not that big a deal, with a little foresight. It may be a little inconvenient, but when you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose some inconveniences (and some conveniences, of course).

Second, the fact is that there really isn't parking for all the churchgoers, and the churches can't really do anything about that. They can't move the churches, and they can't build parking. Some of the churches actually have people park at Howard, where there is some parking, and shuttle some of their congregants to the churches. They might do a bit more of that, but I'm sure that that is expensive, and these are pretty modest congregations.

The Yuppies will lose this one, politically, of course. (Has the godless, sleep-in-on-Sunday crowd ever beat the churches?) But I just wish they would stop their bitching. They're going to give all us Yuppies a bad name in this neighborhood.

Monday, April 24, 2006

In Times of Trouble, Go With What You Know

CNN is reporting tonight that, as Bush's approval ratings plummet to 32% in their latest poll, Josh Bolton, the new Chief of Staff, has a "Five Point Plan." I guess the three-year time window was too short for them to steal Stalin's slogan in its entirety, but at least they capture his spirit. Having tried everything else--OK, nothing else--they've decided on hard line ideological retrenchment. Tax cuts for rich people. Bash illegal immigrants. Saber rattle with Iran. "Brag More." (That is a direct quote.) And, finally, suck up to the press but attack them when they report reality. Brilliant! Sounds like the new boy will fit right in.

In related news, CNN also reports that FOX News anchor Tony Snow will replace Scott McClellan as the new press secretary, making him the highest ranking Davidson College graduate since Vince Foster. (I'd make a joke, but Foster deserves some respect, so I'll restrain myself.) Go Cats!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

I'm the Decider

I am he this site is free as you can see and we can laugh together.
See how he's sung about idiots and their guns, see how they lie.
I’m smilin’.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Ponnuru, Festival for Pro-Lifers?

In the New Republic Online, Ramesh Ponnuru, normally an editor at the National Review, offers a rebuttal to TNR's long-stated editorial view that the overturning of Roe v. Wade would be a godsend to liberals. The counterintutive TNR position, defended most notably by Jeffrey Rosen, suggests that because Roe occupies such a crucial symbolic and galvanizing role in the pro-life movement that its repeal would both (a) remove a burr from the right-wing behind, and (b) cause them to overreach in banning abortion procedures generally supported by the public, thus creating a strong pro-choice backlash. Ponnuru counters this argument by asserting that pro-lifers will do quite well in the post-Roe environment: pushing the issue back to state legislatures will keep the issue active while also giving pro-choice, blue state Republicans more wiggle room at the national level. As a result, abortion laws will gradually become more strict, especially in red states, as the public gets more accustomed to the changes and recognizes that the sky is not falling.

The most obvious weak point in this argument is the claim that the pro-life movement would embrace caution and moderation so as not to overplay its hand. Hmmm. . . . I wonder what pro-lifers he's been watching? Is there one example from the last decade when anyone in the GOP played it safe for fear of overreaching? One of the major premises of Ponnuru's argument is that the public may be less pro-choice than public opinion polls generally indicate. Most polls, for example, fail to distinguish between what Ponnuru calls the "moderate pro-life" position (allowing exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother), and the "moderate pro-choice" position (allowing a range of abortions but only in the first trimester). Polls thus show a large middle opinion that would uphold Roe with restrictions, yet without distinguishing what those restrictions are. Ponnuru believes that the pro-life movement, generally content with incremental changes, would be unlikely to go beyond the moderate pro-life view that he sees as the true majority preference. That sounds like fantasy or rhetoric to me.

I also wonder about Ponnuru's assumption that the moderate pro-life position is a politically stable one in practice. Aside from the fact that all of today's pro-life rhetoric posits "life" as an absolute right without qualification, there's the incentive problem that such a position would create once put into law. If abortions are only available to women who have been raped, or who suffer some other extreme circumstance like incest or likely death, what's the likely real-world consequence? "Rape! I was raped, I swear!" Now, maybe Ponnuru agrees with radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, who has asserted that women simply do not make false claims of rape. But it seems to me that such a view would exempt women from the principle of rational self-interest that is one of the central premises of our culture and legal system. Not surprisingly, such a legal standard would be especially burdensome on men, and since men still hold the vast majority of elective offices, I suspect that this line will be a hard one to maintain over time, thus creating pressure for either the moderate pro-choice or strong pro-life positions. As an aside, let me say that I've long had a strong sympathy for the moderate pro-life position, which, at least at a purely intellectual level, strikes me as the most sound moral position. (That's a controversial subject for another post.) I'm just dubious that it can work in practice.

Finally, my last problem with Ponnuru is that he neglects the powerful role that Roe plays in driving other issues not directly related to abortion. In particular, Roe is the one and only solid plank in the GOP's moneymaker claim that the federal judiciary is dangerously "activist" and "liberal." Even if the pro-life movement survives Roe's repeal intact, that little bugaboo is unlikely to remain. And if pro-lifers do win lasting policy victories in red states, they'll instantly lose the one issue that has given the GOP momentum in consolidating the South and West, at least in the aftermath of the declining political salience of racial backlash. In other words, Ponnuru dreams that abortion can continue to work as a successful GOP "wedge" even after the status quo has completely flipped. If you believe that, I've got some Iraqi WMD to sell you--cheap.

[Postscript: Cass Sunstein has just posted a nice rebuttal to Ponnuru at TNR, making most of the same points I did. Of course, he says it better, but I take some comfort in having gotten the argument to you at FFB first. The one point of mine he leaves out is the one concerning the perversive incentives of the "moderate pro-life" position, where I was trying, apparently unsuccesfully, to be both provocative and a little offensive. Oh well, maybe next time.]

Review: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Ibsen has aptly been described as the father of modern theatre and he’s also lionized for his realism – both qualities on display at times in his A Doll’s House. I’ll dispense with comments on the acting in the Off-Broadway production in Ann Arbor Friday night, other than to say I thought it was excellent, and get right on to the play itself. Ibsen wrote it while residing, not in his home country of Norway, but in Germany. It was published in 1879. The main characters are Nora and her husband Torvald Helmer. The play opens Christmas Eve. Nora is quite giddy this year because her husband has just been promoted to the position of manager at a bank and she can finally be more free in spending his money. He on the other hand, tells her not so fast – the money is not in hand yet and nothing is more morally reprehensible than borrowing money. After all, a slate tile may fall on his head and strike him dead and she’ll be left holding the bag. She is depicted, like most women of her day, as nothing more than a grown child whose only source of power is her ability to manipulate first her father while he lived, and then later her over-bearing husband – the latter with flattery and her good looks. She’s a doll living in a doll’s house and both Nora and Torvald appear to like it that way. In particular she especially likes to manipulate him to get some extra spending money, and he enjoys playing the father figure and telling her she burns through it irresponsibly.

As the plot unfolds we find out, however, that Nora has done at least one independent and naughty thing in her life – she had illegally contracted with her father’s forged signature a loan of 10,800 Crowns to pay for a year of living in Italy so that Torvald could recover from some consumptive affliction there. Torvald, being the patriarchal tightwad that he is, of course had refused to borrow the money to save himself. Shortly after taking out the illegal loan, Nora’s father dies so it appears her secret is safe as long as she can pay her creditor. Naturally, the real reason she is always wheedling Torvald for money is to pay off said creditor, not simply for lavish spending on herself as at first we believed.

Torvald’s first act as manager of the bank is to fire a certain Nils Krogstad because of his questionable ethics. Krogstad, however, turns out to be the one who loaned Nora the money, and he also figures out that she forged her father’s signature. He threatens to expose her double life and to ruin her Barbie-doll existence unless she can cajole her husband to rehire him. Nora fails in her appeals to her husband because he cannot countenance his underlings believing his judgments can be overridden by his wife, nor will he stake his own reputation at the bank on a man like Krogstad. When Nora realizes that she will be exposed, she contemplates suicide, but cannot bring herself to carry it out. When the secret comes out, Torvald naturally castigates his wife’s profligacy and deception because it now threatens his own reputation and standing at the bank because some may believe he actually persuaded his wife to forge her father’s signature to save his own skin. While being excoriated, Nora realizes that she is nothing more than a trophy wife for Torvald and she has an awakening. Krogstad, then suddenly reverses his threats to bring them both down and he sends the forged document to Nora to destroy. It is intercepted by Torvald who reads it, is elated that the story will be kept secret, and he throws it in the fire. For Torvald all is now well, and he wants to resume their life in Barbie-land after a small bump in the road.

OK, so far so good. Ibsen has brilliantly captured the real standing of women in his era as nothing more than childlike dolls as well as the men who want to keep them that way. But it’s at this point where the plot becomes preachy and Ibsen fails to plumb the depth of realistic theatre. Husband and wife have a long heart-to-heart as adults – something they’ve never done. Rather than acquiesce to her husband’s wishes and return to their safe existence, Nora decides to go off to become an adult. While an emotive ending, I thought it did not confirm to Aristotle’s eikos – that is a realistic portrayal of what would have likely happened. Rather, I would have thought it better to have either Nora run away immediately without any word and only later have the tête-à-tête with Torvald, or more likely temporarily re-submit and then let the awakening percolate up to the point that she could no longer take it and then leave. Any kind of lengthy conversation with Torvald the very night of the exposure would have been out of the question. Also, he was the kind of man who would have become violent with his wife rather than let her harm his reputation by running off. Perhaps that kind of ending was just too much for Ibsen’s day and we should be thankful for how far he did push the envelope of realistic theatre.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Friday Catblogging: Anniversary Edition

This is one nervous kitty. She's asking, "What are you putting that cell phone in my face for? Cats don't use cell phones. Fool."

This will have to do for a few days. I'm heading out of town until Sunday. Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Um, This Is Not How It's Supposed to Go

I'm sure you've seen the story about the Chinese protester at the White House ceremony with Chinese "President" Hu Jintao today. The problem here, of course, is not the protester herself. It's that the "incident" put the president and so-called leader of the Free World in the position of defending (or reassuring) this Communist party apparatchik:

Bush, standing next to Hu, leaned over and whispered to Hu, "You're OK," indicating the Chinese leader should proceed with his opening remarks. Hu, who had paused briefly when the shouting began, resumed speaking.

Yeah, "President" Hu, "You're OK."

This might actually cost Bush a few more points with his Republican base. And he can't afford that. Really. Because this is not how anti-Communist Republican presidents act.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Freedom from Blog: One Year and Counting

I started Freedom from Blog exactly one year ago today. Here's my first post, a rumination on the readings for my American Political Thought class. To be honest, thinking of a first post was really the major obstacle to starting the blog . . . that and thinking of a name for the blog. And, again, to be honest, I've never really been that happy with the name, but, well, you have to make do.

Blogging for a year has been an interesting experience. It's really become a way for me to keep in touch with a number of people that live, for the most part, pretty far away. I've blogged about politics, but also about books, movies, and my own experiences--none of which, I realize, are really that interesting. Well, maybe interesting to people who know me, which is really the intended audience of the blog.

Anyway, one year and counting. Of course, Freedom from Blog is not just mine, anymore.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Film Review: The Constant Gardener (dir. F. Meirelles, 2005)

OK, not so crazy about this one. For one thing, I never bought that the Fiennes character and the Rachel Weisz character worked as a couple. She was a young, speak-her-mind student, he was a cautious, introverted diplomat when they met--and they end up in bed after that first meeting. Really? But even if that happened, would they end up getting married--because she asked him to marry her? Maybe I don't understand women, but these events seem inexplicable to me.

And don't even ask me about the plot. The drug companies are testing drugs on Africans. OK. And I know that drug campanies really do this. But what, exactly, the drug companies are up to, why the drugs are deadly, what the profit motive is, here . . . less clear than most health care topics are to me, which is not very clear. (It's possible that what was going on would be clear to someone smarter than me--but, in my experience, few films are actually made for people smarter than me.)

And even if the Weisz character was doing all this investigation . . . her husband would be completely in the dark about it, until she was killed?

OK, enough complaining. The movie is beautiful, and it deals with issues of importance, even if it deals with them in a confusing and less-than-illuminating fashion. The acting is quite good. But that story . . . what happened, again?

Film Review: Brick (dir. R. Johnson, 2005)

This is one of the better things I've seen in a long time. Maybe I wouldn't have had such a strongly positive reaction to it, if I weren't a fan of film noir. But even if you generally don't care for noir, this film is so original and so, well, clever, that you will like this.

You probably know the set-up already: It's a noir-like story but set in a California high school. It's a high school drug story, but set to a 1940s beat. That description might not do the film justice, though. Brendan gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, asking for his help. She comes up missing shortly thereafter. Brendan goes to his friend, "the Brain" (a great character), and asks him about words in the ex's phone call that he didn't know, including "the pin." The pin is "the Pin," short for kingpin, the drug kingpin of the high school world. Like Humphrey Bogart might have, Brendan works his way into the Pin's good graces to find out what "the brick" is, and what happened to his ex.

All the way through, the characters use NoirSpeak, asking each other things like "what's your play here?," and saying, "you'll take the fall for this." They even use noir words like "yeg." They get the cadence and the delivery right, too (which actually makes some of the dialogue hard to follow in places). Seriously funny.

In fact, my theory of why the film works so well (and it works, even though this description might make one skeptical), why it's so clever, is that the whole movie is one enormous sight gag. The characters are supposed to be high schoolers; of course, the actors are a little older than high school age, but they're still young. And they're dressed like one imagines California high schoolers dress. But. But they talk like Bogart, Peter Lorre, Lauren Bacall. They act out a crime drama in finished basements and on the football field behind the high school. The juxtaposition of these aspects of the film has a surprising effect. And when was the last time that you were surprised by a movie?

The Memory Hole

I agree wholeheartedly with TMcD's post on the new talking points about retired generals criticizing "the civilian leadership" of the military. Indeed, the rule seems to be that retired generals can express any political or policy views that they wish, so long as those views are supportive of the Administration. I mean, didn't retired General Tommy Franks actively campaign for President Bush in 2004?

As TMcD points out, just another inconvenient fact flushed down the memory hole. Like the fact that the same folks now arguing that the president is effectively, totally above the law were the same folks less than ten years ago arguing that the president (a different one, of course) was wholly subject to discovery in ordinary litigation. That the same party that once pressed for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution has presided over record deficits.

And so on. But really, pointing out the hypocrisy of the current leadership of this country is too easy to be fun anymore.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Count Every Military Ballot!

I'm shocked, shocked I say!, to see retired generals calling for the scalp of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. The United States has a long tradition of "civilian control of the military." When the generals deign to criticize their civilian masters they erase that distinction and start us down the very dangerous slope of politicizing the military, raising the specter of Latin American juntaism.

By now I'm sure you've heard this meme, the latest credulous narrative to emerge from the Bush administration-MSM PR complex. I heard Cokie Roberts repeating it this morning on NPR, which means it's now such conventional wisdom that even the doyenne of Washington journalistic laziness can recite it as if she'd discovered it herself. Now, you and I may think we remember that this is the administration that has politicized military service more than any other. They swept into office on the slogan of "Count Every Military Ballot! (Even the Illegal Ones Without a Name, a Valid Pre-Election Postmark, or that were Filled Out by Katherine Harris Personally)." You may think you recall that they then set about using the military as a political prop at every available opportunity, most notably when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in a flight suit to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. As a few people pointed out at the time, this was an unprecedented act, since presidents, even those with heroic records of military service, have long avoided donning military regalia on the theory that it might make them look dangerously like Napoleon or Fidel Castro. Not our Bush.

Need we forget that he's also the guy who ran for reelection by deploying a platoon of right-wing vets to slander his opponent (a genuine war hero) as a war criminal who had also faked his wounds to get fraudulaent purple hearts? "What self-respecting military man could serve under that Frenchie flip-flopper? I bet he's got 'I Heart Cheese Eatin' Surrender Monkeys' on the butt of his speedos." And, finally, isn't this the same president whose party sends out military men in uniform to serve as props at congressional campaign events in violation of long-standing DoD regulations? Isn't this the president who is loath to speak in public unless he's at a military base surrounded by cheering crowds of pre-screened Republicans? And isn't this the same president who has spent the last two and a half years hiding behind the excuse that he can't be blamed for failures in Iraq because the generals never asked for more troops, even after he had conspicuously retired the one general (Shinseki) who had done so in front of Congress?

You may think you remember all that, but I'm sure it's just combat fatigue. You surrender monkey!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Some General remarks on Rumsfeld

I had a chance to see General John Batiste’s interview with Jim Lehrer on the New Hour last night. He’s one of a growing chorus of retired Generals who are singing for Rumsfeld’s head. One of the more interesting claims he made was that he and several of his compatriots did ask for more troops, but were denied those assets. This, of course, flies directly in the face of what Rumsfeld and Bush have been saying in public, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the story. Such criticisms of Rumsfeld are perhaps an important step forward in the process of eventually getting the troops out, but at this point I suspect that they are really only part of one baby-step forward that will lead to two giant steps backwards. I say this because Batiste is still refusing to criticize Bush and the decision to go to war. In fact, he was arguing that if we would only replace Rumsfeld and change tactics, such as adding more troops on the ground, then we could still win this thing. This is the same argument that John McCain and Lieberman have been making and it’s an attractive one for the dead-enders. But if this argument carries the day, and I think it very well may given that the admission of defeat is anathema to most Americans, then surely this will mean that there will have to be a draft and 4 more years of war after Bush is gone. At that point we will have reached 10 years in Iraq -- a figure eerily similar to another war in history (and I’m not talking about the Trojan War).

Thursday, April 13, 2006

David Brooks Dances With Himself

In the New York Times today, David Brooks finally suggests that he's got an answer for Iraq: they need Moses. I guess that what passes for good cheer among the GOP smart-set today is the hope that Iraq may eventually turn out OK after we spend forty years wandering in the desert. Three down and only thirty-seven to go. Hooray!

The column is interesting less as an explication of Iraq's realities than as a deconstruction of Brooks's troubled psyche. I've always liked Brooks, despite the fact that I commonly disagree with his glib cultural analysis. In general, he's a thoughtful and moderate sort, capable of making fine distinctions and offering insightful readings of people like Walt Whitman and Reinhold Niebuhr as they apply to modern politics. But too often he seems to be on a fishing expedition--he uses his chosen thinkers less to instruct his judgments than to prop them up, and sometimes those judgments go horribly wrong. Today's column is a case in point. Brooks stages a debate between the two warring sides of his own mind: the realist who reads Elie Kedourie's classic critique of British imperial goofs in Iraq, and the optimist who has "adopted the Exodus mentality." The realist knows history and recognizes that Iraq's bloody and fractious past cannot be simply willed away; the optimist believes that while all change is painful, great transformations are possible as "generational journeys." How Haight-Ashbury! Brooks dubs his yin and yang "Mr. Past" and "Mr. Future"--thus giving the game away--although they're clearly his empiricist brain fighting against his Bush-lovin' heart. You can guess who wins.

So a war that began as an effort to unify the country behind the GOP, as bearers of an unadorned heartland authenticity (to cop a Brooks trope), has unravelled as a schizoid identity crisis for the intellectuals of the Right. It's Fight Club without the happy ending. As Project Mayhem explodes, we're comforted only by the prospect that flowers may grow in the dung heap. In thirty seven years.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ominous Bellweather (CA-50)

It's hard to see how Francine Busby's 44% showing in the CA-50 special election yesterday is a cause for optimism as Democrats look forward to the fall elections. The news could not be more unfavorable to Republicans right now: unremitting violence and stalled politics in Iraq; Abramoff plea agreement; DeLay's resignation; immigration implosion. The district's own Republican incumbent had just been jailed for bribery and corruption.

Despite all those advantages, Busby in 2006 polled no better in the district than John Kerry did in 2004. To top it off, turnout was very light. If Democrats are energized and Republicans are demoralized, there was no sign of it here. Sure, Busby improved on her standing from last time around. But if the presidential vote of '04 was an indicator of partisanship,in the end, CA-50 voters stood pat right along partisan lines.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Future of America?

Emery and I ran down to the national mall as the immigrant rights rally was just winding down last night. It was hope-inspiring to see all those families and groups of friends proclaiming their love for the US and celebrating their own pride and dignity. The demands almost seemed secondary to the sheer joy of self-expression. Everyone we saw on the streets was smiling. The mall was left in beautiful condition. Despite the thousands upon thousands who had assembled, there was no more litter than usual, the turf hardly looked trampled. Their presence seemed to honor the place. One really did feel, as Sen. Kennedy put it, that assembled there was the future of America. They were so young and so energetic, and there were so many children.

Being there did give me a feeling similar to the one Publius so beautifully describes in his post today: maybe this is a turning point. There was a hopefulness, a positive energy, an expansiveness that made recent politics seem so small and petty and somehow over. Perhaps it was all an illusion, and we will return to the politics of resentment and fear described by TenaciousMcD. Perhaps we're doomed to Paul's Aeschylean fall. But I came away with the first taste of political optimism I've felt in a long time.

When the Humiliations Bloom

I'll give the Bush administration credit. There might be nothing better to take our mind off the national embarassment that is Iraq than the fear that would be Iran. How better to end one abusive relationship than to start another? These guys are certainly masters at misdirection. Ever the gamblers, they always double down on a losing hand.

Before we lose sight of Iraq, however, there's a question I'd like to see addressed that, to my knowledge, has yet to be asked. When the light finally dawns and we as a nation fully realize that we have LOST--not just Iraq, but much of our previous international standing, credibility, and influence--how will we react? What will the cultural costs of our humiliation in Iraq be? World powers do not usually "lose" with grace. I think of Germany post-WWI, China post-WWII, and Russia today, but we could go on (and I'm sure Paul will have some good examples from ancient Greece). It seems to me that a lot of Democrats believe that retaking Congress and/or the White House coupled with a withdrawal from Iraq would represent a fitting endgame. George Bush retires discredited and everything can go back to normal. But that seems highly unlikely. Isn't the more plausible scenario that there will be recriminations for years to come, giving added fuel to the despair and grievance of the most fervant culture warriors? The Iraq War itself is partly the result of Vietnam hangover: "if we can just win another big one, we could purge the memory of that loss from our national consciousness!" Losing Vietnam certainly did hurt, and it's what stained the 1970s in much of the conservative imagination, but you could read it as an anomaly. Losing Iraq means we're starting a trend.

The war's opponents need to start thinking seriously about what a post-humiliation America will look like. Because history is not "fair" in any simple sense, the long-term landscape may become more, not less, treacherous for liberals.

Delusions of Omnipotence

I've noticed a very troubling pattern in news coverage of the standoff with Iran over nuclear weapons. The media typically frame these stories by asking: Should the US bomb nuclear sites in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology?

The question assumes that bombing will stop Iran from developing nuclear technology. At the cost of a few bombs, we can just make the problem go away.

Few military experts believe that bombing alone would do more than set the program back a few years. We don't know where all the sites are in any case. Meanwhile, the costs and risks are severe: Iran would have to retaliate, perhaps by attacking US troops in Iraq, perhaps by inciting a state-sponsored campaign of terrorism against the US. A bombing campaign risks setting off a regional war. It would certainly consolidate popular support for the Iranian regime, enhancing its grip on power. It would incentivize the regime to resume a crash course of nuclear development as the only way to protect itself.

This frame engages in the most pernicious kind of delusional thinking: that the US can control events. It's very pleasing to imagine that the US is in a position to dictate terms to the rest of the world, rather than cope with risks and manage negotiations. Because the US is as powerful as it is, this delusion is particularly dangerous.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Huh? Not a Big Deal, I Guess

I just watched George Snuffalumpagus on ABC News "debunk" the Sy Hersh story on the U.S. plans for attacking Iran. He said that he hadn't talked to anyone who said that this was in any kind of operational planning. Host Elizabeth Vargas asked why people were saying these things, if we are not "poised to attack." GS answered that the most likely answer is that this is being leaked by generals/military planners who are opposed to an attack on Iran and thus are trying to short-circuit any such move by leaking.

OK, then. Maybe this hasn't reached any magical operational level of planning, whatever that means. (Although what we know about the Iraq War tells us that planning, at least for the initial attack, if not the post-war, was underway for a very, very long time before anyone placed an "operational" label on things.) But apparently GS believes that there are generals, in some kind of position to know what's going on in the White House and the Pentagon, who fear that the WarHawks are serious enough about attacking Iran that they are willing to leak to try to stop the attack.

Yeah, not a big deal if the military brass is leaking the story to Sy Hersh. Nothing to see here. The shit is still miles away from that fan, George. Now, don't worry your objective little head about it, and get your eyebrows waxed again.

The president, btw, called these stories "wild speculation." Applying the patent-pending Bush-Lies-180-Degrees test renders that phrase: "more true than you want to believe."

The shit is on the launching pad, and someone is about to switch the fan into the "on" position. Remember, the non-denial denial says that these stories aren't true, but that, at the same time, all options are on the table, and Cheney recently said that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. If the Iranians bury their nuclear program in bunkers that require tactical nukes to take out, well, I guess all options are on the table.

Bush today, on "the doctrine of prevention" (what the hell?): "It doesn't mean force . . . necessarily."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

That Bumper Sticker Has Neither Rhyme nor Reason

I saw this on a bumper sticker today (car had Virginia plates, if that's relevant, which it probably isn't): "Be Smart/Be Chic/Make It Click."

The bumper sticker refers to buckling your seat belt, of course. The "author" of the slogan--does a slogan have an author?--paired up "chic" and "click," so s/he apparently doesn't know how one of those words is pronounced. It's possible that in Virginia they pronounce "click" as "cleek," but I doubt it.

Now for the no reason part: Buckling your safety belt may make you safer (er, that's tautological?), but it doesn't make you more "chic." Or cooler. I doubt that bumper stickers can change this.

What Would Judas Do?

Here it is, Palm Sunday, and one of the lead stories of the past week--on ABC News, in the New York Times, and in a special on the National Geographic channel--has been the recently released translation of The Gospel of Judas. Let's just call it Easter "synergy."

Having taught the Gnostics for years as the major part of a prelude lecture to Augustine's Confessions in my Classical Political Theory class, I've been a sucker for the story of the second century (?) text of Jesus' "secret teachings" to Judas, his special disciple and close friend. I haven't yet gotten a chance to read this gospel, but from the media accounts, it suggests that Jesus fully expected and maybe even authorized his own betrayal by Judas, who was redeemed despite his act. Much of the coverage of this story has revolved around whether or not, like The DaVinci Code, it can claim to be "true" in an historical sense. That, I suspect, is the least interesting--and plausible--part of the tale. Odds are that, like most of the "gnostic" gospels, it post-dates the four Christian gospels, penned between 70 AD (Mark) and 100 AD (John), by at least a few decades. (The one notable exception, The Gospel of Thomas, may have been a key provocation for the writing of John, as Elaine Pagels has argued.) But it does reflect some of the creative diversity of religious experience associated with the early Christian movement, much of which the budding Church would eventually disavow as heresy, thanks to the effort of Irenaeus and others to define a set of precise dogmas that could serve as reliable organizational principles for an institutional religion.

As a protestant Christian with a healthy anti-authority streak, I have to admit having a mixed reaction to this dialectic of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The gnostic texts represent both (a) a flourishing of the individual religious imagination, opposing the conformity of the Church as "mediator" of salvation, and (b) a significant "Greek" deviation from the main contours of Christian faith, often denying the physical world and the tragic suffering it entails in the name of a radically "spiritualized" conception of the soul and its divinity. No surprise then that writers as diverse as Eric Voegelin and Harold Bloom have isolated "gnostic" tendencies in American protestant religion and its offshoots: the Puritans, the Mormons, Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists, and even Southern Baptists. Christianity, I suspect, can never escape from this kind of fragmentation, while at the same time never ceasing to think that it must, which is why we get an ongoing whip-saw of betrayal and repression. But who is the real betrayer in this dialectic? Is it the churches that restrict Christian experience or is it the sects and the believers who substitute their own idiosyncratic judgments for those of the churches' approved experts? And how do we treat those on the other side of the divide? This is the question of Judas. If there's a positive lesson for Christians in this new gospel, it may be never to underestimate the power of divine forgiveness for sin, nor to overestimate our own powers to grapple with human frailty. Confident Christians should probably be reminded that Peter, symbolic foundation of all institutional Christian churches, "denied" Jesus no less than Judas "betrayed" him. To live is to betray, and while the wristbands may ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" the sad example of Judas more closely resembles the universal experience of Christians themselves.

Garry Wills offers a striking political parallel for this in today's New York Times, where he writes that,

THERE is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

Wills adopts the Kierkegaardian position here (who would have known!), contending that Jesus' teaching was neither political nor even "moral" in the practical conduct, family-values sense, but instead was radically eschatological, or what the dour Dane once dubbed in Fear and Trembling the "teleological suspension of the ethical." The demands of man always crumble before the unpredictability of God and His transcendence. But can we, like Wills, confidently separate our religion from our politics? Isn't his anti-politics nonetheless a politics? Wills certainly seems like a good "separation of church and state" liberal in his day job writing academic history. Isn't his own just one more futile attempt to follow Jesus when, in reality, we are all doomed, like Judas, to render our religion (or irreligion) political? In other words, to be a Christian is to embrace the moral and political tragedy that to live is to betray. There may be no one who exemplifies this kind of religiosity better than Tom DeLay, of course. The more he proclaims his "Christianity," the more he seems to betray it. And yet, his story is less the exception than the rule--the Christian dialectic of betrayal writ large. While I'm happy condemning him politically, I'll try to remember the Gospel of Judas before my faith casts too many stones at his.

War Drums II

Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker:

There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. “That’s the name they’re using. They say, ‘Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?’ ”

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

Well, that is scary. "Another world war?" If Ahmadinejad is Hitler, who is Tojo? Mussolini? The legacy business, though, is even scarier. Indeed, that line suggests that, the worse Bush's numbers are, the more determined he will be to leave a "positive legacy."

Anyway, read the whole thing. Hersh is usually six to nine months ahead of the MSM.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Thinking About Harry Taylor

By now, everyone has seen the video of Harry Taylor scolding the worst president ever.

My reaction to the video is more about Bush's reaction than Taylor's words. I mean, Taylor seems like a pretty standard "Bush hater," a term that applies to many, with pride. But watch Bush in the video. He seems bound and determined--hell, resolute, to stare this guy down, so to speak. He even does a little "Al Gore" move, walking toward the speaker to close the distance. He mocks the guy with his "not your favorite guy" crack. Bush gets credit from some corners--not here--for telling the crowd that they should let Taylor finish. But the point of Bush's reaction is a pseudo-tough guy, "go ahead and dish it out, I can take anything you want to say to me, little man," reaction. It's the reaction of a bully.

But the reaction of a nervous bully. He squirms, he shifts around, he tried to shield his eyes from the lights.

So instead of Clint Eastwood, we get what we usually get with Bush: a guy acting tough, trying to keep it cool, while visibly behind the facade, the desperation that his audience is accepting the facade. Taylor demonstrated that when Bush's audience rejects the facade as bluster, Bush really loses it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Moussaoui Sentencing: Phase II

Um, am I just really dense, or is it really necessary for the Government to "persuade" the sentencing jury that 9/11 had a horrific impact on the families of the victims? To put that slightly differently: How much evidence does the Government have to put on? This seems like a pretty easy case to me.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

But Then, It Would Be President Cheney

The Showdown with Iran: Do I Hear War Drums in the Distance?

It looks like I'm not the only one who fears that the Bush Administration is moving, inexorably, toward unilateral action against Iran this year, just in time for the 2006 election. Some of you may have heard me say that the Congress will vote on a use-of-force-against-Iran resolution this autumn--September or October. Expect to see lots of stories about Iranian support for terrorism, Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iranian connections to al Qaeda . . . you remember the drill.

Many of you may have read it, but here's a lengthy excerpt from a great column in Foreign Policy, by Joseph Cirincione, "Fool Me Twice" (registration required):

I used to think that the Bush administration wasn’t seriously considering a military strike on Iran, because it would only accelerate Iran’s nuclear program. But what we're seeing and hearing on Iran today seems awfully familiar. That may be because some U.S. officials have already decided they want to hit Iran hard.

Destination: Iran? Pundits and experts are debating the merits of U.S. airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Does this story line sound familiar? The vice president of the United States gives a major speech focused on the threat from an oil-rich nation in the Middle East. The U.S. secretary of state tells congress that the same nation is our most serious global challenge. The secretary of defense calls that nation the leading supporter of global terrorism. The president blames it for attacks on U.S. troops. The intelligence agencies say the nuclear threat from this nation is 10 years away, but the director of intelligence paints a more ominous picture. A new U.S. national security strategy trumpets preemptive attacks and highlights the country as a major threat. And neoconservatives beat the war drums, as the cable media banner their stories with words like “countdown” and “showdown.”

The nation making headlines today, of course, is Iran, not Iraq. But the parallels are striking. Three years after senior administration officials systematically misled the nation into a disastrous war, they could well be trying to do it again.

Nothing is clear, yet. For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.

I argued with my friends. I pointed out that a military strike would be disastrous for the United States. It would rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular regime, inflame anti-American anger around the Muslim world, and jeopardize the already fragile U.S. position in Iraq. And it would accelerate, not delay, the Iranian nuclear program. Hard-liners in Tehran would be proven right in their claim that the only thing that can deter the United States is a nuclear bomb. Iranian leaders could respond with a crash nuclear program that could produce a bomb in a few years.


The unfolding administration strategy appears to be an effort to repeat its successful campaign for the Iraq war. It is now trying to link Iran to the 9/11 attacks by repeatedly claiming that Iran is the main state sponsor of terrorism in the world (though this suggestion is highly questionable). It is also attempting to make the threat urgent by arguing that Iran might soon pass a “point of no return” if it can perfect the technology of enriching uranium, even though many other nations have gone far beyond Iran’s capabilities and stopped their programs short of weapons. And, of course, it is now publicly linking Iran to the Iraqi insurgency and the improvised explosive devices used to kill and maim U.S. troops in Iraq, though Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace admitted there is no evidence to support this claim.

If diplomacy fails, the administration might be able to convince leading Democrats to back a resolution for the use of force against Iran. Many Democrats have been trying to burnish a hawkish image and place themselves to the right of the president on this issue. They may find themselves trapped by their own rhetoric, particularly those with presidential ambitions.

The factual debate during the next six months will revolve around the threat assessment. How close is Iran to developing the ability to enrich uranium for fuel or bombs? Is there a secret weapons program? Are there secret underground facilities? What would it mean if small-scale enrichment experiments succeed?


The administration should now declassify the information it used to estimate how long it will be until Iran has the capability to make a bomb. The Washington Post reported last August that this national intelligence estimate says Iran is a decade away. We need to see the basis for this judgment and all, if any, dissenting opinions. The congressional intelligence committees should be conducting their own reviews of the assessments, including open hearings with independent experts and IAEA officials. Influential groups, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, should conduct their own sessions and studies.

An accurate and fully understood assessment of the status and potential of Iran’s nuclear program is the essential basis for any policy. We cannot let the political or ideological agenda of a small group determine a national security decision that could create havoc in a critical area of the globe. Not again.

The second bolded portion is the part that scares me, and Yglesias, too. As he says, Democrats need to think about how they are going to address the Iranian war hysteria . . . or they are going to be scrambling in October. See this great Slate article, too.

Do They Hate You 'Cause You Love Jesus?

Tom DeLay's appearance on Hardball yesterday was a thrilling display of the kind of self-pitying victimology that has become the stock and trade of the Christian right. Not surprisingly, Chris Matthews spent most of the interview pandering to the Majority Leader's sense of righteousness and entitlement, constantly praising DeLay as a man of faith and integrity, and repeatedly asking questions like, "Are they coming after you because of your deep Christian faith?" (I'll be paraphrasing here since I couldn't find a transcript on-line yet). Did it ever occur to Matthews to challenge DeLay's conveniently self-justifying invocations of faith? Christianity isn't an ideal religion for the greedy, the proud, and the powerful--there's that little Sermon on the Mount, after all--and you'd think someone with even a mild familiarity with Christian doctrine might push DeLay on his hypocrisy. No such luck. In today's discourse, Christinaity is less a faith or a creed than a PC "identity": an unchallengable mark of one's authenticity and virtue. At least if you're a conservative evangelical.

The funniest part of the interview, however, must have been when Matthews asked DeLay if there were any Democrats in Congress he respected. DeLay hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before saying, "Barney Frank." I kid you not. His explanation: "Unlike most of these Democrats, you at least know who Barney Frank is." Hmmm. . . . How to read this? Sounds to me like he's saying that, although the Dems are all Commie fags, they don't have the guts to stand up and tell you so, except for Barney Frank, who he respects for having confirmed all his violent hatreds of that party and its agenda.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In Flagrante Delicto

Various bloggers on FFB have of late commented on the Democrats' need to use a bigger baseball bat, catch a wave of discontent with higher oil prices and tie Republicans to cronyism, corruption and scandal. MoveOn has a series of new adverts aimed at a few of said party members "caught red-handed" that seems to take our collective advice. For a look, click here. Just ignore all the donation stuff and go to the upper right hand corner and under "Watch the Ads", click on one of the "ad" words in red. I think the imaging of the old apothegm, the association of the color red with a certain party, and utilizing the emotion over higher oil prices, corruption and cronyism, may be quite effective, no?

The Hammer Hangs up His Claw

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigns rather than get beat in the general election. At least, that's how this is being reported, and that's what the Post says DeLay's motivation is. But I wonder . . . it's possible that DeLay's legal team says, "Hammer, we've got to plead." Based on new evidence, new state's witnesses. But who wants to plead while still in the House? Or, who wants to plead a week after resigning? My guess--just a guess--DeLay will plead guilty rather than go to trial, but the story will get less press than it would have, had he not resigned.

Of course, DeLay is extremely arrogant, and he hates the Democrats, so he couldn't stand to lose to the Dems. That's true, too.

Monday, April 03, 2006

An American Hero

Deputy Secretary Gordon H. Mansfield was on Hardball tonight, talking about Iraq veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. He seemed like a competent and decent guy, who really knew his stuff. So I looked up his official biography. Worth checking out: two tours in Vietnam, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, wounded in the Tet Offensive, 1968, executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America for something like eight years.

Not every Bush appointee is an unqualified political hack, apparently.

These are Their Stories?

Law & Order: Criminal Intent may be the most ironically named show on television, not for its title but for its subtitle.

If you haven't had the pleasure, the show, a spin-off from the original Law & Order series, follows two detectives from New York's "Major Case Squad" as they investigate high profile crimes. Unlike the original L & O, Criminal Intent styles itself less as a courtroom drama than as a Sherlock Holmes-inspired cat and mouse game between the detectives, Bobby Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe), and their prey, taking you inside the mind of each week's criminal super-geniuses as they plot their dastardly deeds and scheme to cover their tracks. Both in its title and in its conception, the show claims to take you into the mind of the beast, offering a window into the human psyche by exposing its base extremes. Goren, the ersatz Holmes, discerns not just every practical detail of his crime scene (e.g., the specific metal used in ceiling tacks for high end condos), but also the secret motivations that drive mad minds. Ya see, he himself is part genius, part craaazy. As the show's tagline says: "Where intellect defies evil."

The problem? I don't think I've ever seen them depict a criminal with an even halfway plausible motivation. Take last night's episode as a good example. Bernard, an aging playboy (Michael York) who actually grew up in a Thai prison, travels the world with his haram of rich, blond Manson-girls; in NY he runs a party-planning business, finding pretty people to populate socialite soirees, just as one of his nymphs, a real-estate agent, sizes up wealthy marks who can be wined, dined, and drugged out while their apartments are stripped to the bone, before they are eventually left for dead via herion OD. Bernard also hires an aspiring writer to chronicle his "heroic" life but is shocked when the guy depicts him as a sexually insecure psychopath. Imagine that. Well, long story not-so-short, Bernard has a male lackey chop the guy's head off, and they accidentally leave it in the fridge of an apartment they've stripped. Oops. As payback for the stupidity, Bernard has his newest nymph strangle the drug-paralyzed lackey with his own necktie while the other nymphs stare on in admiration. Bernard finally gets his when, after making bail (!), he's stabbed with a syringe by a former nymph who has gone solo--and lesbian--and who is the show's recurring psycho-ette (Olivia D'Abo). I'd describe other episodes but they make even less sense. OK, OK, did I mention the racist billionaire (Malcolm McDowell) with the young Vietnamese wife who killed his own son so that his other son wouldn't move to Seattle? You get the point.

In other words, the show which purports to be full of psychological insight into "criminal intent" is really just a trashy melodrama. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it ain't exactly the cold realism you'd expect from the title. I do have to laugh at lines like these, however, from Wikipedia: "Criminal Intent plots and characterization are notably more complex and subtle than the original Law & Order, indicating that the series is aimed at a more sophisticated audience." What the show really is is an attempt by NBC to hang with CBS's similarly surreal cop noir, CSI. Where the one takes you inside the sinews, the other takes you inside the synapses. Both offer the illusion of insight, either scientific or intuitive, while instead giving you malevolent mannequins. In both CSI and CI, each show starts off with an interesting set up only to unravel with a final act filled with cackling, scenery-chewing villains and sloganeering, morally indignant officers. Although I often watch CI (and sometimes even CSI), I typically end up longing for the days of cop show plausibility: the gritty realism of NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street. In those shows, the bad guys were usually just stupid, confused, or overwhelmed, but at least they seemed recognizable: the "banality of evil" to namecheck Arendt.

Of course, those dramas thrived in a more realistic era--the 1990s. Today, we like our Snidely Whiplashes painted in bright, psychotic colors, just in case we're the ones who are confused.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Facts and Figures (Immigration Debate Edition)

To be honest, I'm not sure what one should think about the immigration debate underway in the Congress. So no issue advocacy here. But I just wanted to raise one issue that has been troubling me in the debate. Some people say that there are eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States. Others say that there are twelve million. Now, the first thing that strikes me is that these numbers "seem relatively close," as in eleven is close to twelve. But really, in absolute terms, the greater is a million illegal immigrants greater, and in relative terms, the greater figure is almost ten percent larger than the lesser. So there seems to be a lot of uncertainty in terms of the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the United States today.

Yes, those figures are clearly estimates. There's really no way to actually count illegal immigrants.

Now, I don't know how these estimates have been arrived at. And I haven't had time to research the issue (maybe tomorrow). But my point is a simple one: We don't actually know how many illegals there are, in the United States today, and the estimates that we have are not really that similar. It's conceivable that the number is greater than twelve million; it's conceivable that it's less than ten million.

But in the debate, the number is always eleven or twelve million.

The Worst PM in Europe?

While on the subject of the worst president in American history, I can’t resist a post on possibly the worst current PM in Europe and the most colorful, longest-lasting, controversial, Prime Minister in post-WWII Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. Here’s a guy who owns Mediaset (the largest private Italian TV and Radio empire) while at the same time using his office to interfere with the public media outlets (called RAI). As PM he has defended Mussolini, has defended Putin’s actions in Chechnya and in arresting the head of Yukos, has said that Western Civilization is superior to Muslim, has invited foreign investment in Italy because they have beautiful secretaries, has, at his debut as the rotating president of the EU, suggested that a German MEP would be fitting for the role of Nazi concentration camp leader, has attacked the Euro, has insulted Finnish food, has compared himself to Jesus, has been convicted of corruption but had the statute of limitation changed so he got off, has had another Italian law changed so he could build his own sprawling villa on Sardegna, and has, most recently, claimed that the Chinese have boiled babies...

If the polls hold, it looks as if the Italian people on April 9-10 may finally take a cue from a certain similar looking Italian-American jurist and send him and his Forza Italia party the following message: