Monday, June 15, 2009

The First Duty

We have now sunk to a depth at which the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious. -- George Orwell

No Sift for the next two weeks. The Weekly Sift returns on July 6.
In this week's Sift:
  • The Discussion We Ought To Be Having. Beyond all the divisive nonsense lies a question Right and Left ought to be collaborating on: What kinds of things should government be doing?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. He comes down hard on Blackwater, but finds a strange empathy for the guys carrying guns. Meanwhile, I suggest some beach reading.
  • The Spectrum of Crazy. Mainstream Republicans would like to a claim that a firm boundary separates them from the right-wing terrorists. But where is it?
  • Short Notes. Juan Cole on Iran's election. Swine flu is a pandemic. The latest clever Republican wordsmithing. And more.

The Discussion We Ought To Be Having
It's easy to make fun of the state of political discourse in America today. In both the major media and in our own conversations over coffee, we spend valuable time and energy talking about David Letterman's jokes, Obama's birth certificate, and the latest ridiculous thing Rush Limbaugh said. I do it too; it's hard not to. This stuff is the junk food of politics. It gives you lots of quick energy, but does nothing to nourish our democracy. Even if you try to give it up, other people push it at you. ("Have you tried these barbecue potato chips? They're fabulous!")

So what should we be talking about? Where could Right and Left alike devote their attention to a meaningful discussion, one that could go somewhere? Last week I interpreted Obama's Cairo speech in terms of rebuilding a center and depolarizing the America/Islam split. What would do the same thing for Right and Left in America?

It seems to me that the answer is obvious: We ought to be talking about the proper role of the public sector in our economy. That same basic issue shows up again and again in various forms: What should the government role be in health care? In banking? In rebuilding the electrical grid? In the transition to renewable fuels? In mitigating the consequences of global warming? How long should the government continue to own General Motors, and how active a shareholder should the Obama administration be?

In spite of all the polarizing rhetoric on both sides, there actually is a center to build up. Americans share a broad consensus about some basic principles, and our differences can be framed as differences of degree (that can be compromised on) rather than differences of kind (that can't).

For example: Other than a negligible number of radicals on each side, Americans largely agree that we need a mixed economy. Some things the government should do directly, some things the government should stay away from, and some things should be done by private industry with greater or lesser amounts of government regulation.

The book I review in the next section examines a situation where we let the private sector go too far -- mercenaries in Iraq. Military action and profit incentives don't mix well. We want soldiers to be motivated by patriotism, by a sense of honor and duty, and by loyalty to each other -- not by a big paycheck. And when military power gets misused, we need the kind of transparency you just can't get in the private sector.

But even very far-Left liberals learned from the failure of the Soviet Union. The government does a bad job of innovating, of coming up with new products, of responding quickly to consumer preferences, and of converting to whole new models of delivering services. In a classic Adam Smith situation, where you have a bunch of commodities with a bunch of uses (none of which are matters of life and death), you can't beat markets for allocating those resources quickly and efficiently. A lot of seed money to develop internet technologies came from porn -- no government would have thought of that. One reason research in carbon-fiber materials is paying off is that people happily pay big money for ultra-light bicycles and tennis rackets and golf clubs. No one has ever been quite that excited to pay their taxes.

Health care (which I promise to discuss in more detail when the Sift comes back in July) is a difficult issue precisely because it combines both aspects. Medical emergencies are like hostage situations: "Do what we say or someone you love will die." The free market is absolutely the wrong model here. You're in no position to negotiate. You need to trust your doctors and believe they have your best interests at heart -- not make allowances for their salesmanship or take the buyer-beware attitude that a market requires.

But routine-care delivery resembles retail. Subtle changes in technology or social preferences or skilled-to-unskilled salary ratios might completely transform the best way to deliver particular kinds of care. If some guy thinks he has a better way to manage chronic pain or do basic prevention or follow-up care for wounds or whatever -- why not let him try, and profit or fail depending on his success?

We need to have a national discussion about where the borderline should be: What needs to be public? What is better kept private? Both Right and Left have a case to make. We could be having that discussion across the board -- it's in the background of almost every domestic issue we're facing.

An article in the journal Open Medicine compares the U.S. and Canadian health care systems:
Available studies suggest that health outcomes may be superior in patients cared for in Canada versus the United States, but differences are not consistent.
Or, as Matt Yglesias summarizes: "Canada’s is probably slightly better, almost certainly no worse, and definitely cheaper."
The NYT editorial page is also promoting that health-care article by Atul Gawande that I told you about two weeks ago. They claim President Obama is making his staff read it.
Matt Yglesias defends the value of the public sector.

The Next Time You're at the Bookstore ...
... look for Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. This is a current-history book that reads like an action novel because Fainaru
  • got assigned by the Washington Post to investigate a fascinating topic: the "security contractors" carrying guns in Iraq
  • got "lucky" (in the journalistic sense) when a horrifying event happened right under his nose
  • had the insight to see the parallels between his own psychology and that of the mercenaries he was covering
  • had the sense to make himself a character in the story he wrote.
When he gets to Iraq, Fainaru finds himself hanging around with Crescent Security Group, maybe the most slipshod group of mercenaries in the business. They live in Kuwait and "commute to the war" as Fainaru puts it. They guard convoys going into Iraq.

The group's medic wears an EMT hat, but explains that he isn't really certified: "They made me the medic because I've read a lot of books. I just haven't gotten around to taking the tests." The rules-of-engagement are ... well, there aren't any really. Just don't lose the convoy, and shoot them before they shoot you. Those are the Big Boy Rules, not the wimpy rules that the Army and the Marines have to live by.

If you end up shooting somebody you shouldn't have, well, that's a shame. Fortunately there's nobody in a position to punish you for it, because security contractors are exempt from Iraqi law and not covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You should file a report about it. Or not. It doesn't really matter.

Fainaru rides with the talkative and endlessly charming Jon Cote'. Cote' served a tour in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne, then went home and tried to be an accounting major at the University of Florida. It didn't work out. After the blood and explosions of war, the sights and sounds of student life barely registered. He thought it would be idyllic -- Florida, the girls, the parties. But nothing was a matter of life-and-death there, so why do it? He found himself taking bigger and bigger risks until he got arrested for doing motorcycle tricks on a main drag while drunk. Coming back to Iraq as a mercenary -- it got him out of a bad situation and would soon get him out of debt, plus it put him back in a world of life-and-death. So it was a win all around.

Fainaru is 21 years older -- exactly, they have the same birthday -- but he sees a lot of himself in Cote'. War correspondents also get addicted to blood and explosions. Fainaru had spent in a lot of time in Iraq before coming home to cover safer stories -- and it didn't work out for him either. He didn't have to return to Iraq, but he wrangled a way. Like mercenaries and unlike soldiers, war correspondents aren't there for their country or to save anybody's life or freedom. They can tell an idealistic story about the people's right to know, but really it's about fame and fortune. And blood. And explosions. War is not pleasant, but it's very real -- and after a while, nothing else is.

Then a subplot cuts in: Fainaru abruptly goes home for one last trip with his brother and his Dad, who is dying of lung cancer. The brother has his own drama going: He's been covering the Barry Bonds steroid scandal. He published some confidential grand jury testimony, and he's about to go to jail if he doesn't reveal his sources, which he's not going to do.

The trip may have saved Fainaru's life. While he was gone, a Crescent convoy got hijacked and several of the mercs were taken, including Cote' and the medic. We know the story in detail because two mercs survived in the most random way possible: The insurgents threw their captives into an SUV when they heard the Army coming, and the SUV wasn't big enough for all of them.

The convoy hijacking is a story of screw-ups. Half of a typical Crescent crew is Iraqi, and they pick them up at the border. Except the Iraqis didn't show up that day -- maybe they were tipped off. Crescent should have cancelled right there, but the convoy was half across the border by the time they figured out what had happened. Turning around would have been a mess, and the run to Basra was usually tame, so they went for it. A few hours later they were hijacked by a group of Iraqis that probably included some disgruntled former employees, who were way underpaid compared to the Americans.

Nobody claims responsibility or asks for ransom. The official investigation starts late because Crescent forgot to register the convoy with the authorities. And nobody seems to be working all that hard to find the missing mercs -- not Crescent management and not the military. Soldiers (who are also way underpaid compared to the mercs) strangely are not that wild about risking their lives for guys who live by no rules and then yell for help whenever they get themselves in trouble. Who'd have thought?

Fainaru starts hanging out with the families -- mercenaries have families, it turns out: parents, brothers and sisters, children, and a lot of ex-wives. For reasons of their own, they love these guys, and they'd like to know what happened to them. It takes a long time, but eventually they find out. It's not a happy ending.

I started reading Big Boy Rules out of good intentions. I thought it was a subject I should know something about. But then I got pulled in by the story and characters, and I ended up learning about mercenaries almost by accident. But the book actually does contain a lot of information. For example, Fainaru provides the first coherent explanation I've ever heard about how Blackwater got so far out of control: It was a token in the turf battle between State and Defense. Early on, Don Rumsfeld outmaneuvered Colin Powell, and the State Department got shut out of any significant role in Iraq. But Blackwater fell under State's jurisdiction, because their main contract was to guard diplomats. So when the generals had complaints about Blackwater, State wasn't inclined to listen. And that meant that Blackwater was virtually unsupervised.

Fainaru does a good job of painting a complex reality. He has little doubt that the contractor system is inherently corrupt, and that the contracting companies are war profiteers. Killing people is just not a business that private industry ought to be in. But he is ambivalent about the mercenaries themselves. They are exploiting the situation for their own profit, but are simultaneously being exploited for someone else's profit. Few of them manage to save much money, and most don't even have a clear idea of what they'd be saving for. Many of them die -- how many? no one counts because no one really wants to know -- and some are just broken and tossed aside.

Fainaru never says this explicitly, but I think he believes that when Jon Cote' got caught doing drunken wheelies in Florida, he should have been offered help -- not a gun and a big salary. Maybe he would have found some other way to get himself killed. But maybe not.

If I'm going to be gone for two weeks, I have to suggest some beach reading. For a few months now, I've been chomping down Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels like salted peanuts. They're action mysteries with a heavy dose of weapons and tactics. But unlike Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan, Child is a real writer and Reacher is an interesting character.

The Spectrum of Crazy
Two weeks apart, we've had the murder of late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller and an attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Most of the Right would like to claim that these are unpredictable acts by lone-wolf crazies. And that's even true up to a point: There's no sign of any broader conspiracy to carry out those specific attacks.

In a broader sense, though, the spectrum of right-wing craziness stands on a slippery slope. At the far end you have the Scott Roeders and James von Brunns -- people who appear to have carried out acts of right-wing terrorism. One step closer to the mainstream are the web sites and blog commenters who think that the Roeders and van Brunns are heroes.

One more step brings you to the people who wish for violence without threatening to do it themselves, like whoever took out the ad saying: "May Obama follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy!" Here we find Southern Baptist pastor Wiley Drake, who was Alan Keyes' vice president on the American Independent Party ticket last fall.

Drake thinks Tiller's murder was the answer to his prayers. He wants to revive the practice he calls "imprecatory prayer" -- praying for God to harm your enemies. "It is in the Bible," he says, "and we are proud to say as Southern Baptists that we believe the Book." (Hmmm. Didn't some minor character in the Bible also say: "Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you."? But that's a plot twist from the second half of the Book, so maybe Drake hasn't read that far yet.)

When radio host Alan Colmes asked Drake who else was on the wrong side of his prayer list, Drake replied: "The usurper that is in the White House is one, B. Hussein Obama."

Colmes: Are you praying for his death?

Drake: Yes.

Colmes: So you're praying for the death of the president of the United States?

Drake: Yes.

Another step gets you to the people who don't advocate or even root for violence explicitly, but provide justification for it. When Bill O'Reilly repeated denounced Tiller as "the baby killer", he didn't ask anyone to stop Tiller by violence. But how big a leap was that? The folks (like Alan Keyes) who keep pushing the "birther" conspiracy theory (that Obama actually isn't president because he wasn't born in this country) -- what solution are they advocating? When you combine Obama-usurper rhetoric with charges that he's secretly a Muslim who hates whites, is ruining our American values, is about to take away our guns, and is conspiring with ACORN to rig the census and fix elections -- well, what is a heroic young man who believes all that supposed to do, exactly?

One step further in brings you to mainstream Republicans who use Biblical/apocalyptic code words to pander to the crazies in a deniable way. At the recent Republican fund-raising dinner, master-of-cermonies Jon Voight advocated "staying the course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama." If some warrior-of-God decides to bring an end to Obama with a sniper's rifle, I'm sure Voight will express a completely guiltless sense of shock, if he sees a need to comment at all.

Take one more step and you arrive at Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and countless other big-name mainstream Republicans who attended the dinner: They applauded Voight. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he "really enjoyed" Voight's remarks.

I'm with Paul Krugman on this:
Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.
Like Frank Rich, I'm waiting for some Republican leader to stop pandering to the violent and take a stand for sanity. John McCain did so a couple of times late in the 2008 campaign. Fox News' Shepard Smith is doing it now. But who else?

And that's the real problem: Not the fringe nutjobs, but the mainstream voices who tolerate and exploit them. We don't need to censor the Birthers any more than we needed to censor the people who thought that Bush conspired in 9-11. But mainstream Republicans who wink and nod at this craziness are playing with fire. How many people will have to die before they stop?

Charles Krauthammer continues to advocate a polarized, Manichean world. To him, Obama's efforts to reconstitute a center internationally represent "a disturbing ambivalence towards one's own country." Krauthammer also feeds the false-prophet rhetoric:
Not that Obama considers himself divine. (He sees himself as merely messianic, or, at worst, apostolic.) But he does position himself as hovering above mere mortals, mere country, to gaze benignly upon the darkling plain beneath him where ignorant armies clash by night, blind to the common humanity that only he can see.
Not that Charles would advocate striking down such a self-aggrandizing ruler. Of course not!

Scott Bateman animates Newt's bizarre warning about Druids-under-the-bed or Stonehenge-in-your-closet or something.

Short Notes
The source I'm following about the Iranian election is Juan Cole. Cole believes the election was stolen, and that (in spite of protests) the regime will get away with it -- for now. "But the regime's legitimacy will take a critical hit, and its ultimate demise may have been hastened, over the next decade or two." Real change, he suspects, will have to wait for a generation of leaders who never knew the Shah.

It's official: Swine flu has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Not all conservatives buy the party line on Sotomayor. Daniel Larison, for one.

The Plum Line blog has identified another one of those clever Republican name-changes (like changing the estate tax to the death tax). The photos of detainee abuse that the ACLU is trying to get released -- they're terrorist propaganda photos now.

The new name goes a long way towards denying what the photos are: pictures of things that actually happened. We're not trying to prevent our enemies from telling lies about us; we're trying to cover up what we did.

In a move that will undoubtedly endear them to factory workers across the country, right-wing yakkers Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt are urging a boycott of GM now that the U.S. government is a majority shareholder.

Meanwhile, GM's former Saturn brand has been bought by Penske, which plans to subcontract the whole car-making part of the business. Seriously. And the Chinese own Hummer now.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What Everybody Knows

It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true. -- President Barack Obama in Cairo Thursday

Diplomacy is not simply going in and threatening them and saying, "There, I talked to them. Okay? You guys do this again, you're dead." Diplomacy is not simply going in and saying, "I'll give you this. You give me that." It's about changing people's perception of their future possibilities. -- Wesley Clark

In this week's Sift:
  • Obama's Cairo Speech: How to Rebuild the Center. The speech was quite deft, if you understood what he was trying to do. Self-centeredly, I read the speech as a vindication of what I was saying in 2004.
  • Where's the Real Media Bias? Nobody to Obama's left is getting a seat at the pundit table. And it's not because there's nobody to Obama's left.
  • Short Notes. Online socialism. A baby fashion convention. If we could rerun 1988 today, Dukakis would win. Same-sex marriage reaches New Hampshire. "Onward Christian Soldiers" isn't just a metaphor any more. And more.

Obama's Cairo Speech: How to Rebuild the Center
Back in 2004, I wrote a piece called Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz, which explained that an extremist's path to power has two major steps. Everyone knows about Step 2, which is fighting an apocalyptic war against the extremists on the opposite side. But it's much less well understood that Step 2 only happens after Step 1: Deflate the center.

You see, the greatest threat to any power-seeking extremist is the human tendency to muddle through. All over the world, most people would rather make a living, marry their true love, and raise the next generation than fight an apocalyptic war. If nobody interrupts that process, folks on both sides of just about any divide will support moderates, and the moderates will negotiate peace with each other -- maybe not a millennial lion-lying-down-with-lamb peace or even a Disney small-small-world peace, but peace enough for most people to muddle through.

If you're an extremist, that's a disaster. Your apocalypse never gets off the ground. But fortunately for you, you have one big ally in Step 1 -- the guy you're planning to fight in Step 2, the would-be commander of the other side in the apocalyptic war. The two of you don't even have to conspire, because your interests just naturally coincide in a long sequence of attacks and reprisals. You get revenge on the evil bastards for their last attack, and then they get revenge on you for yours, and on and on. Of course you never defeat the extremists of the other side -- what would be the point of that at this stage? -- but between the two of you, you make normal life impossible. Look at, say, Gaza, or Baghdad in 2006, or many parts of Afghanistan today: There are no jobs, and planning to raise children to adulthood seems even crazier and less likely than winning a jihad. In those places, Step 1 is nearly complete.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Bush administration played its assigned role in this process. Bush and Bin Laden both did the deflate-the-center dance: You're either with me or you're with him. The Other Guy is a conscienceless madman, and his threat justifies us abandoning our consciences and acting like madmen. Either Bin Laden is a demon that only Bush can defeat, or Bush is a demon that only Bin Laden can defeat. And so on until the apocalyptic war really gets rolling.

That's the situation that President Obama has inherited: The center is deflating, the world polarizing. On both sides, the muddling-through vision of a world where people of all faiths can work and love and raise the next generation in some good-enough peace -- it's been looking more and more like naive wishful thinking. Or it's been turning millennial: You can work and love and raise the next generation in peace only after we win the apocalyptic war.

I think Obama has as much ego as anybody, but I don't believe he sees himself as the Great Apocalyptic Commander. He wants to stop this polarization and rebuild the center. But how?

Rebuilding the center is a process of un-spinning and de-propagandizing. It begins with stating facts calmly, respectfully, and in terms that people leaning towards the extremes can still accept if they're not too far gone. You want to build a substantial mass of things-everybody-knows and things-everybody-knows-that-everybody-knows. That's what Obama was doing in Cairo on Thursday. (You can read the text or watch the video.) In the middle of the speech he makes the rebuild-the-center case very clearly:
regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations -- to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.
Here are some of the simple, common-sense points he made:
  • In America, Muslims live in peace and freedom, and are protected by the government just as Christians and Jews are. This is a constant subtext of the speech, and starts right at the beginning. Lots of commentators remarked on the "Assalaamu alaykum" in Obama's first paragraph. Fewer noticed how he frames it: as "a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country." Elsewhere he says "Islam is a part of America" and notes that the 7 million American Muslims have an average income above the national average. These American Muslims have a tremendous symbolic value: If Muslims can live well in America, non-American Muslims can live well inside the world order that America promotes.
  • Islam and American democracy share many principles. Like the Bible, the Quran can be quoted out of context to sound pacifistic or blood-thirsty or anything in between. If you pick bloodthirsty, you can frame the idealistic parts as window-dressing that's just there to con the unwary. Obama chooses to take the idealism of Islam seriously, as moderate Muslims do. American democracy and Islam, he says, share "principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
  • Obama himself knows Islam as a reality, not a caricature. He says explicitly that he is a Christian, but mentions his Muslim ancestors, his childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia, and the American Muslims he worked with as a community organizer in Chicago. (Specifics are important here; all over the world, Muslims turned to their neighbors at this point and said, "My cousin went to Chicago.")
  • Muslims are civilized. He called attention to Muslim contributions to civilization, like algebra. (Just about any English word that begins with al goes back to the Muslims: algorithm, for example. Even alcohol, which is banned by sharia, gets its English name from the distilling process that Muslims used to make perfumes. The Crusaders brought it back to Europe and invented whiskey.)
  • Caricatures of America are just as wrong as caricatures of Islam. Obama presents us as a nation formed in reaction to colonialism and empire; hence our ideals of equality. (Unspoken: Egypt and America were both British colonies.)
  • 9-11 really happened. Al Qaeda killed 3,000 innocent people that day. But Obama frames Al Qaeda as the common enemy, not as a taint on all Muslims. He notes that most of the innocent people killed by Al Qaeda have been Muslims. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer."
  • If Americans could be safe from further attacks, we would bring our troops home. In both Iraq and Afghanistan "we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources."
  • The Bush administration over-reacted to 9-11. Bush is not mentioned in the speech. But Obama describes Iraq as "a war of choice" and says that 9-11 "led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals." While not explicitly confessing that the Bush administration tortured people at Guantanamo, Obama forcefully says he has banned torture and will close Guantanamo.
  • The Holocaust really happened. "Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful." Anti-semitism is real too. America is committed to the existence of Israel, and Israel has sound historical reasons to be hyper about its security.
  • Palestinians have gotten a raw deal from history. They deserve something better than refugee camps. "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."
  • Violence hasn't been getting the Palestinians anywhere. Obama contrasts their continuing suffering with the accomplishments of the non-violent civil rights movement in America, in South Africa, and elsewhere. (I've believed for years that the Israelis are textbook targets for nonviolent tactics, because they have such a strong self-image as a moral people. Gandhi would have turned Likud inside-out by now.)
  • Building Israeli settlements on disputed land makes peace harder to achieve. This is one of those things "everyone knows" that needs to be said out loud.
  • The United States and Iran have done bad things to each other. We overthrew their democratically elected government in 1953 and put the tyrannical Shah back in power. They violated our embassy and held our people hostage in 1979.
  • A nuclear Iran would be bad for a lot of people, not just the U.S. or Israel. I think this was a subtle reminder to Sunnis that Iran is on the other side of the Sunni/Shia divide. If Iran gets a bomb, don't the Saudis and Egyptians need one too? Where does that scenario go?
  • America wants to support democratization in Muslim countries, but not force them to be just like us. Bin Laden wants all Muslim countries to believe that if the U.S. ever gets done with Iraq, they're next. Obama wants to assure Muslims this isn't true. He had to tread carefully here, because Egypt is a dictatorship with some democratic stirrings. Obama didn't want to spit in his host's face, but he also didn't want to give his blessing to the Mubarak government.
  • Muslim women can be free without abandoning Islam. This point was widely misunderstood in America because we take the underlying idea for granted. Many moderate Muslims of both genders don't like the vision of womanhood they see in American media. They want a daughter to be free to get an education and a find career if she wants; they don't want her pressured to compete with Britney Spears. The two ideas are tangled up in Muslim imaginations in ways most Americans don't quite grasp.
Conservatives have characterized the speech as self-abasing and weak and even un-American, and the trip as an "apology tour". For the most part, criticism was based on either not getting or actively denying the goal of rebuilding the center. I thought David Frum did the best job of stating this position:
in Cairo [Obama] exhibited the amazing spectacle of an American president taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies. It is as if he saw himself as a judge in some legal dispute, People of the Islamic World v. United States. But the job to which he was elected was not that of impartial judge, but that of leader and champion of the American nation.
Charles Krauthammer put it this way:
The problem is we are in a War on Terror, we are in a struggle against Iranian nukes. We are also in a struggle of philosophy between our way in the West and the more extreme examples of Sharia law. And if you don't defend them unequivocally and without apology and without moral equivalence, you are conceding defeat in advance.
In other words, Frum and Krauthammer take the Bush/Bin Laden polarization for granted, and feel that it is an American president's job to uphold the Bush pole, to present anti-Muslim pro-American-empire spin as convincingly as possible. The idea that Bush and Bin Laden are both extremists who abandoned the ideals that most Americans and Muslims share -- it doesn't even enter their minds long enough to be rejected.

Most of the rest of conservative criticism was nit-picking that supported this central point. Much was made, for example, of the fact that the word terrorism doesn't appear in the Cairo speech. (Fox News falsely implied that Obama avoided the subject of terrorism, not just the word. And Sean Hannity went completely around the bend.) What conservatives don't recognize and can't admit is that they broke the word terrorism by misuse. A terrorist was any Muslim the Bush administration didn't like; the word didn't apply to anybody else. When Muslims hear the word terrorist now, they assume they're just hearing anti-Muslim propaganda.

Another you-don't-get-it criticism is "moral equivalence" charge. Whenever Obama mentions grievances of opposite sides, the Right accuses him of claiming the grievances are equal. He never makes that claim. Most of the time, such a claim wouldn't even make sense.

But the height of cluelessness comes from Fox News' Gretchen Carlson:
Was it only me who thought that the release of the audio of Osama bin Laden is just so extremely significant here? Because if you're trying to reach the radical members of Islam, you haven't.
Jon Stewart replayed that clip, and then stage whispered the obvious: "He's not trying to reach the radical members of Islam. Those are the people he's trying to push aside." Then he played a clip of Carlson reading figures about America's unpopularity in the Arab world and asking, "They don't like us, so why are we wooing them?" To which Stewart replied (slowly, as if talking to a moron): "Because they don't like us. That's why you woo."

In spite of the bad predictions I made in Question 9, Terrorist Strategy 101 holds up very well after 4 1/2 years. I was surprised to discover that separate copies of it showed up at #2 and #4 when I did a Google search on the term terrorist strategy.

While touring the pyramids, President Obama noted that an engraved figure with big ears "looks like me". How long before somebody claims the image as evidence that Obama is the Antichrist?
I wish our pundits would learn the difference between Muslim and Islamic. It's not that hard: Something is Islamic if it's part of the religion of Islam. But it's Muslim if it's associated with the human beings who practice Islam. So if a bunch guys from the mosque rob a bank, it's Muslim crime. It's not Islamic crime unless bank-robbing is some kind of holy ritual.

Where's the Real Media Bias?
An interesting discussion was started by Matt Yglesias -- or maybe by Bill Kristol. In response to North Korea's latest nuclear tests, Kristol said on Fox News that "targeted air strikes" might be the "wise" choice. And that provoked this observation from Matt: There are no pacifist pundits. If you think that war is never the answer, there's very little chance your voice will be heard on the major networks or your writings will appear in major newspapers. But Bill Kristol, who thinks that war is always the answer, has no trouble getting major media outlets to provide a soapbox for him. Why is that?

Chris Bowers responded with this observation:
A pacifist is excluded from holding prominent national media positions not because of the invalidity or unpopularity of such a position, but primarily because they clearly do not demonstrate a willingness to use our power to damage and destroy other people. As such, they are not "serious." Whatever else someone can say about pacifism, it is an inherently non-exploitative position, and thus actually dangerous to powerful, exploitation institutions. You aren't serious until you demonstrate that you are willing to use power to damage other people.
E. J. Dionne makes a similar point in more general terms:
For all the talk of a media love affair with Obama, there is a deep and largely unconscious conservative bias in the media's discussion of policy. The range of acceptable opinion runs from the moderate left to the far right and cuts off more vigorous progressive perspectives.
And then it loops back to Matt Yglesias. He points out that the economists (like Paul Krugman) who thought the stimulus package was too small got almost no airtime, and then concludes:
And you see this time and again. Yet, everyone could always tell from Obama’s voting record in the Senate, from his statements as a candidate, and from basic common sense that Obama is not, in fact, the most left-wing politician in the United States of America. On issues from climate change to health care to Afghanistan to stimulus to banking regulation there is a critique-from-the-left that doesn’t get heard at all.

Short Notes
When I was a kid, you could always count on magazines like Popular Science or Popular Mechanics to have an article on how you could make your own jet airplane in your garage for about the price of a car. I didn't have the price of a car and my parents would never have let me take over the garage if I did, so I never found out if any of those plans worked.

These days, you can almost always count on a magazine like Wired to tell you that some radical social change has started on the Internet. With that caveat, this article (The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online by Kevin Kelly) is pretty interesting

Jon Stewart comments on Dick Cheney's media tour. The clip starts slowly but it gets good about the 1:50 mark and the real punch is in the last minute.

The latest state to allow same-sex marriage is my own New Hampshire. We did it the old-fashioned way -- not by court decision, but by a law passing the legislature and being signed by the governor. From my desk I can see the Nashua River, so if it turns to blood or there's a plague of frogs or something, I'll be sure to let you know.

Chris Bowers has an interesting way of demonstrating how demography is working against Republicans: Mike Dukakis would have won the 2008 election. Dukakis got 40% of the white vote, 89% of blacks, and 70% of Hispanics, which in 1988 added up to 46% of the vote. In 2008, that would have been over 50%. Bowers estimates that there's a demographic current flowing towards the Democrats, at a rate of about 2% every four years.

As we move into summer, "The Worst Cinematic Crap That's Ever Been Made" turns its attention to beach movies.

Unemployment hit 9.4% in the numbers released Friday. But cheer up, things are getting worse at a slower rate. (I can't decide whether I wrote that sarcastically or not.)

The Conventional Wisdom video series takes us to a couple of mind-boggling conventions: baby and tween fashion and the latest in video games.

I've talked about this before, but it's not like the problem is going away: Little by little, evangelical Christianity is taking over the armed forces of the United States.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Majestic Equality

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.-- Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. -- Justice Henry B. Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896.

In this week's Sift:
  • The Ideas Behind the Sotomayor Debate. The various objections and defenses of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination are all parts of one big objection and one big defense.
  • Do We Need Another Sputnik? The sorry state of American math and science education may not be news, but it's probably more important than a lot of things that are.
  • Prop 8 Upheld -- Sort Of. The California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8 by interpreting it to mean as little as possible.
  • Short Notes. Advertising for assassins. 100 days of Fox News reduced to five-and-a-half minutes. The downward trend in Afghanistan and maybe Iraq. What doctors' attitudes have to do with health-care costs. And right-wing terrorism in a Wichita church.

The Ideas Behind the Sotomayor Debate
By far the biggest story this week was President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. I doubt you missed that story, and on all the specific points raised against her, Sotomayor's defenders -- see Rachel Maddow here and here, for example, or TPM -- are doing fine without me, so I think the Sift's time would be better spent trying to make some kind of larger sense out of the discussion.

The pro-Sotomayor and anti-Sotomayor arguments are based on two very different pictures of how the law works and what the courts should be trying to do. That's why each side is more likely to react to the other's points with a you-don't-get-it headshake than with reasoned discussion. I'm far from neutral myself, but let me at least try to lay out the differences.

Conservatives are arguing from what we might call a modernist perspective. Modernists believe that a text like the Constitution has a clear and unique meaning. What they want in a judge, then, is a legal calculating machine who can work that meaning out and apply it objectively to the case at hand, uninfluenced by emotions or personal experiences. Their ideal Supreme Court is the nine "best qualified individuals" -- the country's nine best legal calculators.

Liberals are arguing from a post-modern perspective. Post-modernists believe that interpreting the Constitution is a more of an art than a science. There isn't a unique meaning in the text, waiting for you to pull it out, because the text is often being applied to situations the authors could not have imagined, and is being asked to resolve questions the authors never considered. So rather than deducing the text's unique meaning, an interpreter has to make reasonable choices among many possible meanings. Over time, the meaning of the text evolves through the choices that interpreters make. That's why liberals will sometimes talk about a "living Constitution" -- one whose meaning evolves through a dialog between the text and its interpreters.

Evolving phrases. That all sounds very abstract until you look at examples. Think about the Second Amendment's "right of the people to keep and bear arms". What are arms? Probably in their own day, the Founders would not all have answered that question the same way. But even if they had, what do you do with weapons they couldn't have imagined, like Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles? Does the Second Amendment entitle me to keep and bear a Stinger near Logan Airport? There's not one unique and obvious way to calculate an answer to that question directly from the text. But an answer (no) has evolved through a gradual process of interpretation.

Or when the authors of the 14th amendment said "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" did they intend person to include fetuses still in the womb? Many pro-lifers think so; pro-choicers disagree. Can we really compute a right answer? Or do we have to accept that the authors weren't thinking about that question and just make a choice?

Experience and the post-modern Court. Taking things one step further, people with different experiences will have different opinions about what interpretation is most reasonable. In 1896, for example, the Supreme Court thought separate-but-equal facilities for whites and coloreds was a reasonable way to fulfill the 14th Amendment's promise of "equal protection of the laws". But in 1954, the Court decided it wasn't. What changed? Not the 14th Amendment. But the nine white men of the 1954 Court lived in a different world than the nine white men of the 1896 Court. They brought different experiences to bear, and it led them to a different answer.

In the Henry Brown quote at the top of the page, you can hear echoes across the vast gulf that separated him from "the colored race". The whole Plessy v. Ferguson case was a conversation among white men. Even the plaintiff, Homer Plessy, was only 1/8th black.

But by 1954, in thousands of ways great and small, the distance between the races had lessened. Willie Mays was having an MVP season; all over the country white boys were running out from under their caps and making basket catches like Willie did. The races had fought together in Korea, because President Truman had integrated the military in 1948. Most important of all, the 1954 justices had to look into the eyes of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who argued Brown v. Board of Education. Maybe the justices couldn't forsee that in 1967 Marshall would join the Court himself, but none of them could deny that Marshall was a human being with thoughts, feelings, and desires not so different from their own.

The 14th Amendment hadn't changed, but the 1954 justices were beginning to be able to imagine black experience. It made a difference. In the post-modern view, it should have made a difference.

So the ideal post-modern Court is not the nine best individual legal calculators. It's a team of justices who (in addition to having fine legal minds and good training) collectively have a wide range of experiences and individually have empathy -- the ability to imagine and take seriously the experiences of others. In easy cases, where law and precedent are clear, this Court makes the same decisions as the modernist Court. But when new interpretations are necessary, its intuitions about what is reasonable should more closely reflect the nation, rather than the parochial interests of a single race, class, religion, or ethnic group.

Sotomayor. With that background, we can make more sense out of the Sotomayor debate. Conservatives are jumping on Obama's statement that he was looking for a nominee with empathy, as well as two of Sotomayor's statements. In a 2001 speech she said:
I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
And in a 2005 panel discussion at Duke (in which judges answered law students' questions about legal clerkships) [sound bite, larger context, full 51-minute session] she said:
Court of appeals is where policy is made.
From a conservative modernist point of view, this all wraps together into a horror story: Sotomayor isn't even trying to calculate the outcome of the law impartially. Instead, she's going to ignore the law and "make policy" to favor the groups she empathizes with (women and Hispanics) over white males. The Ricci case -- which we'll get to in a minute -- is supposed to show her doing just that.

Charles Krauthammer made this argument on Fox News:
Her job on the court is to be an impartial adjudicator. And if she is not, if her empathy and her concern for certain ethnicities overrides the idea of justice and equal justice, I think that is a troubling concern.
In his WaPo column, Krauthammer called Sotomayor's appointment an example of "the racial spoils system". Her wise-Latina quote is "identity politics, which assigns free citizens to ethnic and racial groups possessing a hierarchy of wisdom and entitled to a hierarchy of claims upon society." John Yoo (we're supposed to listen to John Yoo? about law? really?) wrote: "Empathy has won out over excellence."

But from a liberal post-modern point of view, the same Obama and Sotomayor quotes look not only harmless, but (if you read them in context) obvious. Courts "make policy" whenever they choose one possible intepretation over others. The experiences that the justices have or can imagine (through empathy) affect those choices, whether the justices want them to or not. (Another Anatole France quote: "He flattered himself on being a man without any prejudices; and this pretension itself is a very great prejudice.") The current Court is overweighted with white males and light on everything else. Consequently, Sotomayor's Latina experience can only enrich the Court, and her mere presence is bound to change the discussion -- particularly in cases involving discrimination (which was the subject of the section of the speech where her "wise Latina" quote appeared).

Without that broad base of experience, it is far too easy for the Court to accept a status quo that favors people like the justices themselves -- to make, in other words, more decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson.

For an example of such status-quo thinking today, check out Friday's Michael Gerson column. As a senator, he says, Barack Obama
opposed John Roberts for using his skills "on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak." He criticized Samuel Alito for siding with "the powerful against the powerless." Obama made these distinguished judges sound monstrous because they stood for the impartial application of the law.
Gerson's column doesn't even address the possibility that "siding with the powerful against the powerless" might not be "impartial application of the law". I'll bet if he wouldn't have oversights like that if he teamed with a Latina who grew up a housing project.

OK, the Ricci case. Frank Ricci is a white New Haven firefighter who got the top score on a written test-for-promotion in spite of being dyslexic. He studied hard and spent $1000 on tutoring, but the test was thrown out when it would have resulted in no blacks and only one Hispanic being eligible for promotion. Along with some other high-scoring white firefighters, he sued the city.

The district court found against Ricci, and Sotomayor was part of a panel that upheld the district court ruling. The case has since been heard by the Supreme Court, which should rule this month.

The best account I've found is by Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford. According to him, current affirmative action law says this: If an employment test produces an adverse effect on a discriminated-against group, the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the test faithfully reflects the requirements of the job. Ford gives a hypothetical example in which a weight-lifting test screens women out of a job where strength is not that important. Even if the test is applied fairly and the discriminatory effect is unintentional, the employer needs to do something else.

When the firefighters' test results came back with an adverse effect on non-whites, New Haven figured it couldn't meet that burden of proof, so it started over. That's what current law says it should do. You've got to feel for Ricci -- just like you'd feel for a guy in Ford's hypothetical who worked out until he could bench-press 300 pounds -- but it makes sense.

So basically, this is an example of Sotomayor doing what conservatives claim they want: applying the law in spite of the fact that the plaintiff has a sympathetic story. But it's a white guy with a sympathetic story, so that changes everything.

The Sotomayor nomination is making Republicans choose between the white racists in their base and the Hispanic voters they'll need in the future.

Sane Republicans have got to be pulling their hair out whenever former Colorado congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo goes on TV. Thursday he compared the Hispanic civil-rights group La Raza to the KKK, and interpreted La Raza as "the Race". (It actually means "the People"; you get "the Race" out of it by assuming that Spanish is some kind of mispronounced English. And radio talk-show host Gordon Liddy can't even say the word Spanish. He talks about what La Raza means "in illegal alien".) When asked Friday whether he agreed with Rush Limbaugh that the Obama administration "hates white people", Tancredo replied: "I don't know."

Do We Need Another Sputnik?
A lot of important issues don't get the attention they deserve because they hardly ever make "news". For example: the sad state of math and science education in the United States.

Day-to-day, nothing reportable happens. (Picture it: "This just in: Today 5,433 American fifth-graders gave up and decided that they will never understand fractions. Details at 11.") Occasionally a blue-ribbon panel will issue a report or we'll hear about SAT math scores going up or down, but even those events can't compete with missing co-eds, celebrity drunk-driving arrests, or the latest offensive slip-of-the-tongue by some public figure.

Gadgets or pictures from outer space sometimes make news, but those things get covered as if they were magic. Rocket scientist has become slang for somebody who understands mysteries unapproachable by mere mortals, and it's almost always used in the negative: "He's no rocket scientist." (In the movie Roxanne, it's a little jarring when Steve Martin says, "Well, actually, she is a rocket scientist.")

Recently in the Boston Globe, Boston College math professor Solomon Friedberg tried to call attention to this non-news-making subject. [Full disclosure: Sol and I were graduate students together at the University of Chicago. We once shared the bonding experience of driving from Chicago to San Diego in a $200 car.] Among other issues, he calls attention to the way that our educational culture replicates failure: If a kid is no good at math, what do you tell him or her to go into? Education.

It's as if there were a disease that caused infected people to go into nursing. How many second- and third-grade teachers transmit the vibe that math is something hard and scary, and that you just need to get through it before you can move on to something fun like reading? I ran into a lot of their students years later when I was teaching calculus to freshmen. These were smart people -- they got into the University of Chicago -- but often my hardest task was to convince them that they could think about math, that they didn't have to just memorize something and perform by rote. Where did they get that?

I don't believe anybody wants a witch-hunt to purge all the math-phobes from the teaching profession. But the balance needs to change. One math-challenged teacher is probably not going to cripple a kid, especially if that teacher has compensating strengths elsewhere. I worry, though, about kids getting the idea that math anxiety is normal, that only a few geeks with a specialized math-module in their heads can understand this stuff. (What if kids got the same idea about reading?)

The solutions are -- I guess I have to say it -- not rocket science. Sol suggests targeting financial aid at math-capable students who go into education, giving more attention to math and science in teacher-training programs, continuing math-and-science opportunities for teachers already in the schools, and higher pay for math and science teachers (who are hard to retain because they could make more money elsewhere).

I've thought about the higher-pay idea before, and the main obstacle is the everybody-is-equal culture of teachers' unions. Maybe we could work around that culture rather than fight it: Let math and science teachers apply for federal grants that have nothing to do with the pay they get from their school districts.

But how will we marshal the political will to make any of those changes happen? Sol finds himself rooting for another Sputnik; rather than this slow-but-steady falling behind, some sudden symbolic wound to our national pride.

Something, in other words, that would be news.

Prop 8 Upheld -- Sort Of
I was disappointed when the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in California. But having looked at the decision, I think the CSC got the law right.

The main issue in the case was whether Prop 8 was a simple amendment, which the voters could pass by majority vote, or a revision of the California Constitution, which would require a more arduous process. Prop 8 opponents argued that taking away one of your neighbors' fundamental rights has to be a revision.

The CSC disagreed, but it did so by interpreting Prop 8 as narrowly as possible -- as
eliminating equal access to the designation of marriage, and as not otherwise affecting the constitutional right of [same-sex] couples to establish an officially recognized family relationship.
The same-sex marriages already performed will stand, and civil unions in California will be marriages in all but name. Given the precedents defining the amendment/revision distinction, I don't see how the CSC could have done more.

Now a suit has been filed in federal court to throw out Prop 8. Like John Dean, I'm skeptical. Same-sex marriage has momentum now among both voters and legislators. Why not see how far that goes before making a game-changing move?

Short Notes
Republicans claim that Democrats hated Bush just as rabidly as they hate Obama now. But I don't remember liberals taking out newspaper ads calling for a presidential assassination.

Media Matters collects 100 Days of "Fair and Balanced" coverage of the Obama administration.

The American death toll in Iraq, which had been drifting downward since the summer of 2007, might be starting back up again. We had 9 troop deaths in March, 19 in April, 22 in May. Three data-points doesn't make a trend, but this bears watching.

The database I follow doesn't break deaths in Afghanistan down by both country and month, so I'll talk about coalition deaths rather than American deaths. Deaths have been up every year since 2003: 57 coalition troops died in 2003, 294 in 2008. So far 2009 is worse. At the end of May in 2008, there were 77 deaths; there are 115 so far in 2009. The big fighting season in Afghanistan, June-through-September, is just starting.

The New Yorker's Atul Gawande tries to figure out why a small, poor town in Texas has the nation's most expensive health care. His conclusion: The biggest factor affecting health-care costs is whether a community's doctors think of themselves as healers or businessmen.

Yesterday an abortion doctor was killed while ushering at church in Wichita, and the suspect belonged to anti-abortion groups. This looks like the kind of incident I've been predicting, and that I think we'll see more of. Violent rhetoric eventually reaches crazy people who will carry it out. In a quick scan of Monday-morning coverage, I don't see any major media outlet calling this incident by its true name: terrorism.