Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dahlia Lithwick on the Bush administration's modus operandi

A lot of people have linked to this already--I found it courtesy of Andrew Sullivan. But the article really is excellent. Dahlia Lithwick is a great writer who is able to make obscure and not so obscure legal stories interesting and to tease out their ramifications. She has a great piece over at Slate on the meaning of Bush's use of presidential signing statements.
His signing statements are not aimed at persuading the courts, but at
reinforcing his claim that both courts and Congress are irrelevant.

She makes the point that even though Bush's signing statements may not have legal authority, they have a direct effect on the executive branch for whom these statements indicate how Bush intends them to implement, or not, legislation.

I'm certainly not doing the piece justice here, but I want to post it up. It's well worth a read.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Edmund Burke on genuine conservatism

Our institutions are the results of a kind of natural selection: they are the
ones that continue to work. If they falter in our time, they need
reform. Only if they collapse totally or work iniquity under these new
circumstances should they be replaced, for total innovation is a chancy business,
and men's lives are at stake. In guiding and reforming institutions, and
in innovating, if it comes to that, we must be guided by reflection on history,
for that is the way to learn the lessons of the human race.

How many Republicans today would defend this notion? Certainly, the leftist radicals of the 60s undermined many institutions, but now so-called conservatives embrace change just as extreme to root out this "aberration". These "conservatives" do not deserve the appellation--rather they are right called only reactionaries with respectability and power. They have no claim to the mantle of Edmund Burke and the rest of the conservative tradition.

Defending Google on China

I've always been a big fan of Google, and the company's action in regards to opening its new China search portal certainly made me want to find out what the whole deal was. I read too many pieces condemning Google outright for any concessions made to the Chinese government; I read too many sanctimonious pieces explaining how Google has betrayed it's users and fans around the world. More than all that, I've read too much from Google about how its motto is that a business can make a profit without doing evil and seen how for Google, this is not just a meaningless phrase, but a way of doing business--from offering free products to producing the best results for customers, Google is more than just a business. It represents a way of doing business. And so, I was wary when I began to read all these bloggers and columnists and congressmen deciding that Google had betrayed its values.

Sebastian Mallaby in the WPost

After I did a bit of research, I found that I was at least partially right. A great column in the Washington Post makes a great case for why Google's engagement with China is not just good business, but the best decision the company could have made for the Chinese people. He explains that Google stands out for it's nuanced position on China:

Google's answer to the China dilemma is better, and more subtle, than that of other Internet firms. It does not simply assert that engagement with China is always good. It recognizes the arms race between China's repressive state power and China's liberating economic growth, and it accepts the conclusion that follows: Some forms of engagement hasten liberal trends; others empower jailers.

Sebastian Mallaby, the author of the piece, then goes on to compare how Google tried to ensure that its service would be a positive force in China--making sure that it would not be in a position like Yahoo! was where the company tracked down a democracy activist through its e-mail; making sure that Google would not be helping to create the Great Firewall of China as Cisco Systems did. Google has agreed to engage with China, but not to aid the government in oppressing its people. A small but important concession Google extracted from the government was that users would be notified if information they were searching for was withheld:

Google has negotiated the right to disclose, at the bottom of its Chinese search results, whether information has been withheld -- a disclosure that may prompt users to repeat their search using google.com instead of google.cn. Of course, the second search might be frustrated by Cisco's routers. But disclosing censorship is half the battle. If people know they are being brainwashed, then they are not being brainwashed.

It's a good op-ed piece overall, and worth a read. And it reinforces my growing suspicion of all "purists" who oppose compromise or engagement in all spheres of public life. So many of those people who were quick to declare that Google had gone over to the dark side reeked of that streak of Puritanism that Rebecca Solnit identified as one of the scourges of the left.

Contemporary Puritanism

That is certainly one of my obsessions--contemporary Puritanism in general, and especially in politics. Puritanism is not the most accurate term, but it is a useful one within the American context. More specifically I am referring to fundamentalists, traditionalists, orthodox, reactionaries, neo-conservatives, radicals--people of both the left and right, atheists and believers who adopt a "purist" approach politics and other human endeavors--an approach I believe is, in the end, a denial of what it means to be human.

And this entry must end here as the new family puppy is calling my name--that is, barking incessantly.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Political Teen: Just a Partisan Hack?

I'm not sure. I came across this kid's site while voting in the "Sixth Annual Weblog Awards". I thought: politics is cool; I should check this site out. (My thoughts generally are this profound.) I was expecting something different than what I got though--so far as I have looked, this kid's site is little more than brainwashed talking points sent to him by the RNC. Or more likely, imbibed more naturally from overexposure to Fox News.

But, being the "dialogue freak" that I am, I thought I would try to suggest an alternate interpretation of the "facts" this kid laid out. He seems very keen on repeating the misleading fact that Abramoff clients contributed to both the Democrats and Republicans--true, but misleading because as Joshua Micah Marshall points out, American Indian tribes have historically supported Democrats, and still do; Abramoff clients though suddenly gave large amounts to Republicans while their Democratic support was reduced or stayed the same. So, I tried to post this in a comment--which I had to register to be able to do as well:

I'm a bit confused here. I didn't see Howard Dean, and I'm not a big fan of his, but it seems to me that your attacks on him here are little more than partisan bs.

First, Bush has admitted to surveilling Americans without approval of the FISA court. The details are sketchy, and contradictory, with a Pentagon source saying that the program involved specific wiretaps and an NSA operative claiming that he wasn't able to state precisely what was going on, but that it was a "vacuum"; he said this in an interview with the libertarian Reason magazine, along with other comments that suggest that Bush has authorized the use of the top-secret Echelon to spy on Americans with connections to terrorism (connections meaning anything from calling numbers associated with terrorists to calling numbers associated with people who called numbers associated with terrorists.) The former NSA guy was also the source for the NYTimes story that said that millions of Americans had been surveilled without a warrant. This also fits with the WPost story in which the FBI claimed that it followed up thousands of leads generated by the program that led to nothing.

So, basically, I'm not sure why you're objecting to Dean on this point.

Secondly, the Abramoff scandal is a Republican scandal. Abramoff has been considered a top Republican operative for years now--by himself among others. Democrats certainly aren't all pure and good when it comes to accepting favors and money from lobbyists--but since the K Street project focused on excluding them, they have had much less to be corrupted by.

Looking at the evidence, Abramoff cannot be said to have directed funds to Democrats. It is true that a number of American Indian tribes that were Abramoff clients contributed to Democrats; but these tribes (like virtually all tribes) donated previously almost exclusively to Democrats. The Abramoff clients continued to give to Democrats, but the levels stayed the same or went down in almost all cases. The contribution to Republicans, though, went up several hundred percent.

Abramoff was a conservative Republican. And the Democrats have no power today. Couple that with the evidence above (which is reported in bits and pieces all around, but compiled by TalkingPointsMemo.com) and you can't honestly say that the scandal is a bipartisan one.

Abramoff did not direct his clients to donate money to Democrats. And it insults people's intelligence to suggest so.
This comment doesn't seem able to post on Political Teen's site. So, I thought I'd give him the chance to respond by posting it here.

As I see it, the main difference between a hack and a partisan individual who is involved in politics is that a hack has no interest in dialogue except as a means of bludgeoning his or her opponent. A partisan individual, though, wants his or her party to be the best, and is willing to look at how and where it fails honestly.

The question now is this: is the Political Teen a hack, or is he an honest partisan?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Do these people read what they write before they publish it?

Over at the right wing Washington Times, the editorial board published this odd little nugget:

Precisely what the Bush administration's National Security Agency wiretap program is, technically speaking, remains unknown to all but perhaps a few people in Washington. Certain aspects of it are becoming clearer by the day, however, and no doubt more will emerge in congressional hearings. In the meantime, the more that emerges, the less the program looks like Big Brother than it does a powerful antiterrorism tool that scans millions of communications. That tool could be abused in theory, but instead already appears to be responsible for successes in the war on terror. (italics added)
Oh yes. It's not big brother--its just a tool that scans millions of innocent communications (presumably, unless there are millions of terrorists). The line about successes is, in fact, based on nothing. The only story that has commented on tips from the program said that it sent the FBI on several thousand goose chases.

Quality editorial of the day

A clever argument from Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation. She connects the Bush administration's reluctance to make their own records private with their insistence on the executive authority to wiretap extralegally, saying: "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." A selection from her piece:

I'm happy to let Dick Cheney analyze my Google records and discover that my most frequently searched terms are "Brad," "Angelina," and "baby," if the NSA will data-mine his computer for the keywords: "Joseph," "Wilson," and "wife." The White House can eavesdrop on my cell phone calls to my daughter, if it gives a detailed accounting of its dealings with Jack Abramoff. I don't even mind if George Bush learns the title of the last book I checked out of the library, if the FBI will tell me when the last time W. was in a library.

If NSA spying were really an issue of security, as the all-out media assault by the Bush administration claims it to be, it should accept the deal. But it's not. Rather this is all part of their neocon dream of an American Empire. You see, in a republic the lives of private citizens are private while the workings of public servants are public, but in an empire, Caesar's dealings remains shrouded in secrecy while he spies on citizens looking for threats to the regime. It is up to the Congress to put a stop to this idolatry: the emperor as God, mysterious and omniscient.

Misusing the War on Terror

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush spoke to a stunned nation from the Oval Office and reconvened America’s on-again, off-again “war against terrorism.” Beginning in the shock of that moment, and continuing through the elections of 2002 and 2004 and on to today, the administration has conflated the “war on terror” with an existential battle for our survival. This was a change from when Ronald Reagan had talked about the winning “war on terrorism” to the United Nations in 1986 and when Bill Clinton declared “war on terrorism” after the al-Qaeda bombings in Africa. Both men were using a very particular definition of war. Like the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on music piracy, they portrayed the war on terrorism as an attempt to mobilize our society’s resources against an intractable problem.

The “war on terror” has remained just this type of rhetorical war, despite the Bush administration’s constant attempts to portray it otherwise. The administration has acknowledged this in their strategy: making incremental enhancements to the safety and security of America, trying to undermine the causes of terrorism in the Middle East, and pursuing America’s long-term economic and strategic interests. This is no “war” as it is commonly understood, but, instead, is a campaign to reduce a threat. This is shown most clearly by Bush’s decision to invade only Iraq rather than to eliminate the entire “axis of evil”. Though North Korea and Iran posed more imminent and more dangerous threats, Iraq was seen as the key to affecting the Middle East tactically, economically, and politically. And so we invaded Iraq and left the rest alone.

World War IV

Many defenders of this administration, though, have called the “war against terrorism” World War IV. They claim that we are in a fighting against evil and for our existence. They speak of this “war” as if it were more like World War II than the War on Drugs; yet despite their attempts, they have no convincing enemy that poses a genuine threat to America itself, only groups of terrorists. Bush himself has often given the impression that the “war against terrorism” is a fight for our survival, rather than a “limited war” for strategic interests. He explained that the terrorists hate our democracy, our freedom, and our liberty insinuating that they seek to destroy these ideals—and this may be so, but they attacked us because of our role in the Middle East, not to stop us from voting.

Why is it that the Bush administration and its supporters continue to insist that this war is an existential one rather than a strategic one? The answer lies in the many political strengths that an existential battle confers on those who wage it, especially in a democracy. In a war for a nation’s survival, democracies confer great power to those who try to protect it; dissent is minimized; the entire country is mobilized for war; and the “rally around the flag” effect solidifies support for the Commander in Chief. By contrast, “limited war” has always been unpopular in democracies and subsequently has been undermined by protests and dissent.

Ambiguities and Mis-Leading

To all those champions of the administration who insist that the “war on terror” is necessary and good, I say: yes, it is a benefit to the world that we are removing the shackles of oppression and allowing democracy to take hold in the Middle East; yes, removing Saddam Hussein was a great good; yes, many of the forces that oppose us know no bounds of human decency and often glory in the nihilism of suicide bombings; yes, there is a significant threat to America’s cities and it’s citizens abroad, and the awful specter of a mushroom cloud over Washington or New York that Vice President Cheney has often invoked must be prevented by any means necessary; yes, yes, yes.

But none of this justifies misleading the public by conflating the idea of an all-out existential war with our attempts to undermine the sources of terrorism and advance our interests. The “war on terror” is being used as a rhetorical excuse to consolidate power domestically and advance America’s strategic interest abroad. There is nothing wrong with the latter. But unless the American public is clear that the steps we are taking and the troops that are dying do so to advance our strategic interests rather than to counter an imminent danger, then democracy is lost. Would the American people accept their sons dying to protect America’s role in the Middle East? Is it worth one American life to ensure our economic primacy in the world? Do our long-term strategic concerns justify the death of a single American? A single Iraqi? These are questions worthy of the oldest surviving democracy in the world. But they are questions that have never been asked.

Next time you hear a politician justify some decision saying: “We are a nation at war…”, think again about what war he is talking about. If we give up our real liberties in the face of phantom threats, if we allow our nation to commit evils in the name of our protection, if we allow our leaders to lie in order to accomplish their goals, no matter how noble, then democracy itself is in peril.

Politics as a ballgame without an umpire

I wrote this piece for the Daily Kos, but want to develop it further...

Kos wrote an interesting piece responding to Andrew Sullivan's charge that there are few things more valuable to GWB and the Religious Right than dKos. I understand where he is coming from—as Sullivan's charges as non-specific, broad, and immensely insulting.

But Kos's response, as well as many of the comments to his response, reveal the partial truth in Sullivan's point. (Please read on before you write a comment.) Sullivan is certainly blind to the value of a community like dKos--which manages to be an enormous fact-checking resource, a great place to organize political action, a place to vent, and a place to test political arguments. But much of the site's potential is obscured for anyone to the site's political right by the extremist rhetoric of so many diarists.


While many Americans may oppose Bush and much of the Republican agenda, they are basically happy with the way things are--as a character on West Wing said of the status quo: "It should be hard. I like that it's hard...But it should be a little easier." That is what people want--not radical change, but modest progress. There us an electoral majority in this country that wants a party that fights for the little guy, that pushes for modest but real social and political progress, that favors a strong and practical position on national security—and the Republicans are not that party.

If the strength of dKos is its activist, passionate (and currently extremely frustrated) community, then its weakness stems from its attempt to fight the Republicans on the Republican's terms. The time for discussion is never over in a political community. The left needs to fight back—but if the best we can do is to meet every right-wing attack with one equally vicious, if the best we can do is to let our contribution to the public debate settle into the mirror image of the extremist language that Republicans use, then we might as well give up; for the right wing has won.

(Much of the rise of the Republicans has been a direct result of their ability to portray Democrats as extremists and themselves as practical conservatives. The rhetoric that comes from dKos about fascism, theocracy, etc. only reinforces this Republican propaganda.)

The errors of dKos and attacks on MSM

Right wing groups set out to systematically undermine the mainstream press beginning in the late 1960s as part of a larger plan. These groups wanted to take out the "umpire" who could give an objective assessment of political stories. And in this, they have succeeded. The MSM has been reduced to reporting controversial stories in a "he said, she said" manner—the Swift Boat coverage is a perfect example of this. Even when the media does take a strong stance, much of the public has been taught to regard it as a biased source. We are now playing a ballgame without an umpire.

Republicans took advantage of this change in public perception before the Democrats and began to launch smears, cite blatantly partisan reports, engage in character assassination, and otherwise take advantage of the situation. Without an umpire, the public assumed that both sides bore some measure of the blame.

The second part of the right wing plan was to begin building a conservative brand centered a kind of "Team Republican". Rather than building a party on policy positions, Republicans had the novel idea of building it by creating an attractive brand. The brand was based on an emotional attachment and a kind of pure partisanship common to sports fans. At the same time, they created as their mascot a kind of “identity conservative”—a traditional white Christian (which happens to represent a large portion of the population).

Liberals have yet to find a credible means of responding to this identity conservatism. Some at dKos have settled on trying to create a mirror “Team Democrat” to respond to the partisan attacks of the right. This brand of politics might win a few battles, but it will never win the war because this war is being fought in an environment created by the right wing.