Monday, October 26, 2009

Military Dysfunction

No Sift next week. Back November 9.

Cultural insensitivity is militarily dysfunctional.

-- the Defense Science Board
Understanding Human Dynamics, March 2009.

In this week's Sift:
  • Afghanistan: No Good Choices. If we stay, things probably keep getting slowly worse. Leaving might speed that process up. The NYT's David Rohde and New Yorker's Jane Mayer provide a lot of insight, but no solutions.
  • Like a Fox. Mainstream pundits all seem to think that Obama's attack on Fox News is a mistake; it will just make Fox stronger and increase the power of people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity to define the conservative movement. But what if that was the point? (And besides, it gives us all a chance to review Fox's most outrageous journalistic abuses.)
  • What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Liberals? The Catholic League's Bill Donohue knows, and tells the world in his new book.
  • Short Notes. Two new videos nail congressional Republicans. What ever happened to W? Rolling Stone exposes widespread nakedness on Wall Street. Senator Vitter avoids offending his racist supporters. Rape has become a pre-existing condition. Global warming deniers are convincing people. And more.

Afghanistan: No Good Choices
As a child I had my own recurring balloon-boy nightmare: I held balloons that were lifting me upward. If I let go, maybe the fall would kill me. If I held on, I would go higher.

That seems to be the choice President Obama is facing in Afghanistan. Everything we've done after our initial success (in chasing the Taliban out of the major cities and establishing the Karzai government) has been counter-productive. We've fallen into the trap David Kilcullen outlined in The Accidental Guerrilla: Afghans are recruited into the insurgency for purely local reasons -- to defend their homes and local communities from us -- and then are radicalized into seeing their local struggle as part of the global jihad.

So do we get in deeper and possibly make the Taliban even stronger and more radical in the process? Or do we get out and risk that Afghanistan returns to its pre-9/11 state?

In general, I'm not afraid to make a cut-and-run argument. In 2005 I wrote this about Iraq:
We're not fixing anything by staying. Whether we leave in a week or a year or in twenty years, Iraq will be a broken country. The only difference is this: Will 1,800 soldiers have died in vain, or thousands more?
Well, thousands more of our soldiers -- 4351 total at last count -- have died there. I have become a bit more optimistic that there might eventually be a stable Iraqi government, though I'm don't know how much that better than Saddam that future stable government will be. I remain pessimistic about democracy in Iraq, for the two reasons I outlined in my Pirate Treasure essay in 2008:
  • Lasting democracy requires not just elections, but a broad consensus about all the issues worth killing and dying for. If an issue is too important to decide by voting, the losers of an election will start a civil war.
  • Countries whose wealth is overwhelmingly oil-in-the-ground are poor candidates for democracy, because oil is like pirate treasure: It has no obvious owner; if you can steal it, it will belong to you just as legitimately or illegitimately as it belongs to whoever claims it now. In an oil-rich country, ownership of the oil will always be worth killing for.
The exception-that-proves-the-rule here is Norway. It was already a democracy with strong ethnic homogeneity and a broad consensus on many issues when the North Sea oil was discovered. It already had a modern economy with many opportunities unrelated to oil. Iraq is not Norway.

Afghanistan has the advantage, democracy-wise, of having zero natural resources. But there's not a lot of national consensus, either. It's a country of ethnic and tribal loyalties. If somebody starts killing Tajiks, the Pashtuns and Uzbeks aren't going to lose any sleep over it, or vice versa. If the U.S. were like Afghanistan, people in 49 states would have responded to the Balloon Boy incident like this: "Ah, those Coloradans. They live like animals anyway. Who cares what they do to their children?"

The most I could imagine is some kind of democratic Pashtunistan that eventually united a big chunk of Afghanistan with the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan. But nobody is proposing that or working toward it.

If we're just talking security rather than democracy, maybe some Saddam-like strongman in Kabul could control the Afghan countryside well enough to prevent them from plotting any more 9-11s out there. And maybe the Islamabad government in Pakistan could eventually make similar guarantees about its tribal areas.

Maybe. That would be years down the road, after God knows how many lives and how much money gets spent. It's not a scenario I look forward to.

But what's the alternative? When the Bush administration was telling us that we couldn't pull out of Iraq, they claimed Al Qaeda would take over the country and push the jihad into all the neighboring countries, not to mention attack us here in America. That was always a bogus argument for a lot of reasons. But a similar argument about Afghanistan is not so crazy. The most likely candidate to control the country after we leave is the Taliban, which is not identical with Al Qaeda, but not so different either. And what then happens to Pakistan, which is fighting its own war against the Taliban?

Lots of good journalism is focused on Afghanistan these days. Check out the five-part series by New York Times reporter David Rohde, who recently escaped from seven months in Taliban captivity. The Times/Rohde home page also has a good video about his series, including an animation of his escape.

Rohde's articles underline the dilemma of our mission in Afghanistan. One the one hand, Rohde makes it obvious just how counter-productive American intervention has been so far. Prior to his capture:
I spent two weeks in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, and was struck by the rising public support for the Taliban. Seven years of halting economic development, a foreign troop presence and military mistakes that killed civilians had bred a deep resentment of American and NATO forces.
After capture, he sees how our harshness justifies theirs:
When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?
He also sees how the Taliban is radicalizing as the war goes on:
After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
So do you let these worse-than-before Taliban take the country back? Or do you risk making them even worse than this?

The other can't-miss article this week was Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on the Predator drones. Mayer was also interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR and by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. (Mayer appears at the 3 minute mark).

The debate over the drone attacks against the Taliban is a microcosm of a larger debate between the original Bush kill-the-bad-guys strategy and the Petraeus/Kilcullen protect-the-populace strategy. The question is whether the civilian casualties from drone strikes help the Taliban more than their insurgent-losses hurt.

Pascal Zachary of In These Times makes the get-out-now case.

Like a Fox
Opinion inside the Media Village is just about unanimous: The Obama administration is making a mistake by pointing out that Fox News is not really an objective news organization. WaPo's Ruth Marcus puts the case like this:
The Obama administration’s war on Fox News is dumb on multiple levels. It makes the White House look weak, unable to take Harry Truman’s advice and just deal with the heat. It makes the White House look small, dragged down to the level of Glenn Beck. It makes the White House look childish and petty at best, and it has a distinct Nixonian -- Agnewesque? -- aroma at worst.
I'm going to make a wild guess that the Obama people know all that, and knew it before they raised this topic. But they also know that one of the President's most important unstated powers is the power to define the opposition. So I think this is just like their earlier feud with Rush Limbaugh. Yes, it will build Fox up, but the people who will look small in comparison are the elected Republican leadership.

These days folks like Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell are Lilliputians next to Rush, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. And that's deadly for the Republican Party. The elected Republican leadership desperately needs to get control of the party's message, and to pitch something that won't alienate 3/4ths of the country.

But Rush, Sean, and Glenn operate by a different calculus. If they can get the most right-wing 10% of the country to tune in every day, they'll be happy. And so will President Obama.

Matt Yglesias puts it this way:
Obama-skeptics worry that Obama is failing—that his efforts to create jobs aren’t working, that his reforms of the health care system won’t improve access to quality care, etc.—whereas the conservative Republicans worry that he’ll succeed. They believe, à la Beck, that the Obama administration is pursuing a secret agenda aimed at the deliberate destruction of the United States. Focusing on this rather outlandish claim makes it difficult to get in touch with the more banal worries of the marginal voter.

The administration is also providing the rest of us an excuse to point out just how biased Fox's alleged news coverage (not its opinion shows, its news coverage) is. Huffington Post, for one, compiled The Ten Most Egregious Fox News Distortions.

Jon Stewart contrasts Fox's wall-to-wall coverage of the teabagger march on Washington with the less-than-four-minutes-total it spent on the comparably sized gay rights march -- using footage borrowed from ABC, no less:
You didn't even send your own camera crew? You have a Washington Bureau. Tell them to go to the window and point the camera down. Gay people aren't vampires. They show up on camera.

Orcinus provides a list of misinformation Glenn Beck ought to correct. Salon examines how quickly elected Republicans start repeating Beck's points.

Lest you think that only liberals notice Fox's bad journalism, watch this piece by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute. He notes many outright falsehoods in Fox's coverage of Congress amending and reauthorizing the Patriot Act. And then he "defends" Fox like this:
Folks on the Left would say that this is all evidence that Fox News is lying to viewers. But I don't think that's true. There are so many weird little mistakes in this report, so many strange random inaccuracies, that I think it just shows they don't know what they're talking about.

This clip from Media Matters shows the artificiality of the distinction between Fox's news and opinion shows. In the first segment, Glenn Beck (opinion) edits a video of White House advisor Anita Dunn to make her statement seem outrageous. In the second, Brit Hume and Bret Baier (supposedly serious journalists) discuss the "news" story of the controversy created by Beck's show -- and play the same edited video.

So Fox's opinion-makers create "news" which Fox's news people then "cover". This is a regular pattern on Fox. The whole teabagger march, for example, started out as Beck's 9/12 Project. Stuff like that never happens on the legitimate news networks.

Finally, watch Rachel Maddow go meta: Fox News has distorted the Obama administration's dispute with Fox News, and Fox commentators like Karl Rove (!) seem to have completely forgotten how the Bush administration handled the media.

It's a mistake to compare Fox to MSNBC, because MSNBC really does maintain the news/opinion distinction, and its sister network CNBC has a conservative bias on its opinion shows. The proper comparison for Obama/Fox is Bush/Air America, not Bush/MSNBC.

What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Liberals?
Catholic League President Bill Donohue sees through people like me. He realizes that all the reasons we liberals give for our positions are shams:
  • Gay people seeking marriage equality aren't looking for social support for long-term loving relationships, and they don't really want to adopt children or serve in the military, either.
  • Abortion rights? It's got nothing to do with women wanting to plan their lives better, raise only wanted children, or even just avoid propagating the genes of their rapists.
  • Those of us who aren't gay or female don't promote their rights out of compassion or a sense of justice.
  • The reason liberal Catholics, Protestants, and Jews stay in their churches and synagogues (or even devote their lives to a career in the ministry or religious orders) isn't that they interpret God's call differently than conservatives do.
  • Secular organizations like the ACLU aren't really trying to defend the Constitution or human rights.
Nope. We just made up all those reasons. And there's no use denying it any more, because Donohue has figured out what we really want: to completely destroy the civilization we're living in.

I'm amazed it has taken this long for somebody to see past all our subterfuge. I know I wake up every morning resenting that I had to be born into a society that more-or-less works, rather than the post-apocalyptic Mad-Max hellhole where I really belong. And that's why I work night and day to tear down the Judeo-Christian tradition that upholds this culture and keeps us all from eating each other. I'm sure all regular Sift readers feel much the same way.

If you want to see just how totally Donohue has us nailed, check out his new book Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America. Or read his online WaPo column. Or, for the full dose, watch Pat Robertson interview him.

Seriously -- you knew I was kidding, right? -- I've been at a loss to imagine what I would say if I met Donohue. Facts and logic seem beside the point when someone embraces such sweeping stereotypes.
I know what you're thinking: What would Jon Stewart do? I don't know. But here's what Stephen Colbert did in 2006. BTW, if you clicked the Secular Sabotage link, did you happen to notice the blurb from Stephen Colbert?
Other religion news: I guess the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have had their 15 minutes of fame. So now it's time for the New New Atheists.

By coincidence I'm in the middle of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, which probably counts as a new new atheist book. The main difference I'm seeing is that Wright has actual insight into Abrahamic religion -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- while Dawkins and Harris just take fundamentalism at face value and then cluelessly assume that all non-fundamentalist religion is just watered-down fundamentalism. (But I've ranted about that before.)

Associated Baptist Press tries to answer an interesting question: Why are conservative Christians so quick to email misinformation to each other? Isn't that covered under "bearing false witness"?

Short Notes
One comment I keep hearing about Republican in Congress is "These people are so far out there you can't even make fun of them." Yes we can. And this DSCC video is pretty good too. (Why do Apple commercials lend themselves to Democratic conversion?)

Or maybe they'll tear each other up faster than we can tear them down.

Matt Taibbi has a must-read article at Rolling Stone about the market manipulations that brought down Bear-Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the people who profited from it.
It would be an easy matter for the SEC to determine who killed Bear and Lehman, if it wanted to — all it has to do is look at the trading data maintained by the stock exchanges. But 18 months after the widespread market manipulation, the federal government's cop on the financial beat has barely lifted a finger to solve the two biggest murders in Wall Street history.
The key idea in this article is "naked short-selling" -- a practice where you claim to own shares of stock that you don't really own, and then sell them; you sell your IOU for the stock rather than the stock itself. The hardest thing to understand about naked short selling is how blatantly crazy it is. If you find yourself thinking "That can't be right", you're beginning to get it.

Train of Thought examines the enduring myth (contradicted by just about every poll) that the public option is unpopular. ToT sees this as a specific case of the general myth (also contradicted by most polls) that liberal ideas are out-of-step with mainstream America. (If the white-on-black formatting hurts your eyes, the same piece is black-on-white at DailyKos.)

Whatever happened to ... George W. Bush? Your whole office can find out today for only $19. At least he's not building houses for the homeless like that loser Jimmy Carter.

MoveOn's new ad in favor of the public option is pretty good.

Last week I ignored the story of the Louisiana justice of the peace who refuses to perform interracial marriages, figuring (i) it's a local issue, (ii) everybody (including Republican Governor Bobby Jindal) already seemed to be reacting with the proper outrage, and (iii) I have low expectations of Louisiana anyway.

It turns out that (ii) was unjustified, but not (iii). While every other Louisianan with a political pulse quickly condemned the guy (Keith Bardwell), Senator David Vitter (of D.C. Madam fame) has dodged and hedged. At first he didn't comment, and then when his non-comment started attracting attention he released a statement saying only that "judges should follow the law as written" without mentioning racism, interracial marriage, or Bardwell's future as a judge.

Vitter is up for re-election in 2010. Maybe he doesn't dare alienate the racist vote.

Another example of how profit and care don't go together: A Florida woman was given a knockout drug at a bar and woke up later assuming she had been raped. Doctors gave her an anti-AIDS drug as a precaution. Now, with that drug on her medical record, she's uninsurable.

The campaign to deny global warming seems to be working.

Ezra Klein outlines the possible public-option-like compromises being considered in the Senate.

I'm on the road next week. If you happen to be in Quincy, Illinois on Sunday morning, I'll be preaching at the Unitarian Church.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Should I Be Happy Now?

When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much
happier if it is called "the People's Stick".

-- Mikhail Bakunin

In this week's Sift:
  • Civil Liberties: Where Are We? Bush was bad, Obama is better. But is he better enough?
  • Hispanics Strike Back at Lou Dobbs. Should CNN spend an hour every night dissing Hispanics? And Jon Stewart wonders why CNN fact-checks SNL skits, but nothing else.
  • Short Notes. Which is scarier: Some vague number of Muslim interns who might be trying to infiltrate congressional staffs? Or four conspiracy-mongering wackos who have infiltrated Congress itself? You can argue that Obama's Nobel was undeserved, but unconstitutional? No, people are not praying to Obama. A tip: If you're planning to deny rape victims their day in court, don't let Al Franken interview you. The teabaggers turn on Republican Lindsey Graham. Bonddad is getting optimistic about the economy. And more.

Civil Liberties: Where Are We?
In my mind, the #1 reason to get rid of the Bush administration -- more important than wrecking the economy or starting two wars they didn't win -- was what they did to our rights and our system of government.

Teabaggers like to throw around words like tyranny, but everyone seems to have forgotten the Jose Padilla case. The Bush administration argued before the Supreme Court that the president could make an American citizen's rights go away just by signing a memo declaring him an enemy combatant. Padilla was eventually convicted of a vague conspiracy charge, but that was only after he had been held without charges for several years in conditions amounting to sensory deprivation. During his trial, his lawyers believed his treatment by the government had driven him insane.

While all that was happening, the only legal difference between Padilla and the rest of us was that memo signed by President Bush. Padilla was quite literally a victim of tyranny, and all of us were just one signature away from similar treatment.

So, are we better off now or not? Let's go issue by issue.

Enemy combatants. The courts largely rejected the Bush administration's arguments, but the administration maneuvered to prevent the Padilla case from becoming a binding precedent. (Just before the Supreme Court could rule on his detention-without-charges, the administration charged Padilla with a crime and made the case moot. They did something similar in the Rasul and Hamdi cases.) So we never got the ringing affirmation of our rights that would prevent the Obama administration from making similar claims. But so far it has not done so. Unless they're doing it secretly, the Obama administration is not holding any American citizens as enemy combatants.

Guantanamo. President Obama still has a few months to make good his promise to close Guantanamo during his first year. But the problem isn't literally Guantanamo, it's what Guantanamo represents: a legal black hole to swallow up the people we don't know what to do with. Bagram prison in Afghanistan is a similar black hole, and it remains open.

Torture. Back in January, President Obama issued an executive order (i) recognizing that the Geneva Conventions apply to everyone we detain; and (ii) limiting interrogation techniques (by all agencies, including the CIA) to those listed in the Army Field Manual. In less formal statements, all the Bush-administration word games about torture seem to have ended: It's illegal, and we're not fuzzing things up with euphemisms like enhanced interrogation.

Where the Obama administration falls down is in its insistence that we "move on". If torture is illegal, and if there are credible accusations that people have been tortured, then the rule of law demands that those alleged crimes be investigated and prosecuted. Attorney General Holder has opened the door to prosecuting low-level interrogators, but not to prosecuting those who gave the illegal orders. The administration is also fighting civil suits by torture victims against Bush officials.

People like Dick Cheney are claiming that torture is a "policy difference" between the administrations, not a crime. Obama is behaving as if he believes the same thing. And that means we'll likely start torturing again during the next Republican administration -- secure in the knowledge that no one is ever held accountable for such crimes.

Warrantless wiretaps. Wiretapping without warrants (and without any probable cause of wrongdoing on the part of the victims) may not have been the worst thing the Bush administration did, but it was the most transparently illegal. The Fourth Amendment couldn't be clearer:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
That list -- "persons, houses, papers, and effects" -- constituted everything the Founders could think of. So the bias should be to interpret the Fourth Amendment expansively rather than tightly, and the courts generally have. If the Founders had used email, mobile phones, and computer databases, they would have been on the list too.

Here's what I'd like to see: A clear statement from the administration saying "This is what the Bush administration did. We think this part of it was legal and this other part of it was illegal. We've put a stop to all the stuff we thought was illegal." I haven't seen anything like that.

Administration officials have been cagey about saying what is legal and illegal. They've continued blocking the release of information about the program, and have repeated the Bush administration's abuse of the state secrets privilege to keep information out of court.

Have they stopped the law-breaking? My pro-Obama bias says yes, but who really knows?

Signing statements. When a president signs a bill into law, he sometimes issues a signing statement. The practice goes back to President Monroe and can have a legitimate role in the executive-legislative rivalry when used in good faith. For example, if Congress gives the President permission to do something he was going to do anyway, the President can defend his prerogatives in a statement saying, "Thanks, but I already had the power to do that."

The improper use of a signing statement is to invalidate the law, a practice that started in the Reagan administration (allegedly thought up by a young lawyer who is now Justice Alito), continued under Bush the 1st and Clinton, and then wildly expanded under Bush the 2nd. The statement can say, in effect, "For enforcement purposes, we're going to interpret the word up to mean down." The Constitution already provides the president with a veto (which, unlike a signing statement, Congress can override). If he doesn't use it, he should enforce the law as written.

Here's the tricky case: A tiny part of a large and urgent bill tells the president to do something he thinks is unconstitutional. So he signs it, but says, "I'm not going to do the unconstitutional part." The Founders didn't plan on that, but they also didn't plan on Congress passing omnibus bills with thousands of individual provisions.

In March, President Obama issued a memo describing his criteria for signing statements. He leaves open the possibility of ignoring unconstitutional provisions of laws, but says he will "use caution and restraint", grant that laws passed by Congress have a "presumption of constitutionality", and apply only "well-founded" constitutional interpretations (presumably a slap at the self-serving unitary executive theory of the Bush administration).

Charles Savage, the reporter who publicized the Bush administration signing statements, is keeping track of Obama's as well. So far he seems to be carrying out his stated policies in good faith.

Separation of powers. This is the issue where Obama has the best record, and he's getting no credit for it. On major issues like the stimulus bill or health care, he has insisted that Congress write the laws. This has led to some messy public debates and probably some bills that are not as good as if administration experts had written them behind closed doors and then shoved them through Congress, as the Bush administration used to do. But it's better democracy and healthier for our system of government.

Our media, however, has developed an affection for the imperial presidency, so letting Congress write the laws is often damned as "lack of leadership". Sometimes Congress itself seems to resent being asked to work for a living.

Summing up: Is Obama's civil liberty record better than Bush's? Undeniably. But I can't help feeling that an opportunity was missed. Obama's inauguration was the right moment for the U.S. government to plead temporary insanity. The precedents set by the Bush administration could have been rejected root and branch. Waterboarding and legal black holes could have joined slavery, the Native American genocide, Jim Crow laws, and the Japanese internment as things we did when we were crazy, and that no one should ever suggest doing again.

Instead, Obama is treating Bush's abuses -- now I'm doing it; they weren't just abuses, they were crimes -- as if they are part of the normal back-and-forth of American politics. Obama has (for the most part) stopped the assault on our rights, and has rolled back some of the worst Bush actions. But others he has ratified.

Procedures that survive administrations of both parties start to seem normal. On the whole, then, American democracy is going to come out of the Bush/Obama years in worse shape that it was at the end of the Clinton administration.

Hispanics Strike Back at Lou Dobbs
If you haven't listened to CNN's Lou Dobbs in a while, you'll be shocked when you do. He has joined Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and O'Reilly as cogs in the right-wing noise machine. No matter how meritless the latest wingnut talking points are -- ACORN, Obama's birth certificate, czars, and so on -- Dobbs reliably repeats them with proper outrage.

Lou has always had a populist streak, but he used to exercise it on issues like the shrinking middle class. But illegal Hispanic immigration has become his signature issue, and it has moved him to the Right. For a long time now he has been relentlessly pushing falsehoods about the crime and disease that Hispanic immigrants allegedly bring with them. This dirty-wetback image, in turn, leads to discrimination and even violence against all Hispanics, including American citizens.

Now Hispanic-Americans are trying to strike back with a campaign to get Dobbs fired. They're using the premier of CNN's Latino in America as a moment to focus on this issue. Check out their video and decide whether you want to sign their petition. Or watch the coverage of the anti-Dobbs campaign on GRITtv.

Dobbs is responding to this campaign with a specious free-speech argument. The First Amendment won't let the government put you in jail for what you say. But it doesn't guarantee anybody a TV show, as liberals like Phil Donahue and Bill Mahr know well.

Here's somebody else CNN might think about getting rid of: Alex Castellanos, whose consulting firm works for AHIP, the health-insurance industry PR group. Castellanos is introduced as a conservative or Republican commentator (which is fine), but viewers are not told that he is in the pocket of the health-insurance companies.

This brings back the question I asked in April 2008: Who works for you? When I watch a news channel, is it too much to ask that the commentators there -- liberal, conservative, or whatever -- be working for me to help me understand the world, rather than working on me for someone else?

Ditto for the liberal Richard Wolffe on MSNBC. The whole system is corrupt, not just one end of it.

Jon Stewart rips CNN for fact-checking Saturday Night Live's sketch making fun of President Obama, but not finding time to check all the misinformation their guests spew about health-care reform. And he wonders if CNN's crack staff has also discovered that land sharks do not deliver candygrams.

Short Notes
Florida is becoming famous for bizarre legal cases (Elian Gonzalez, Terri Schiavo). Here's another one. As I typically do in such cases, I've been trying to imagine how things would play out if the religions were reversed -- if Muslims were preventing a Christian family from reclaiming their daughter.

While we're talking about the Committee on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), four Republican Congresspeople are demanding action based on a new book published by the conspiracy-mongering website WorldNetDaily (best known for its work on the burning issue of Obama's birth certificate). The book's author infiltrated CAIR as an intern, and has uncovered a conspiracy to infiltrate the staff of congressional committees as interns.

So having uncovered this dread conspiracy, can either the Congressional Republicans or WorldNetDaily give us the name of even one such intern? Can they name even one piece of legislation influenced by this conspiracy? Uh ... no.

What scares me here isn't the hypothetical Muslim interns -- interns, as we all know, being the very chrome on the levers of power. It's that Congress itself has been infiltrated by at least four conspiracy-theory wackos who think WorldNetDaily is a reliable source. (See Glenn Greenwald for more details on what he calls "the most despicable domestic political event of the year.".)

The Washington Post opinion section seem to get weirder and further to the right every day. Friday they published an op-ed claiming that President Obama's Nobel isn't just undeserved, it's unconstitutional. Fortunately, we don't have to get our constitutional interpretations from the Post when Yale professor Jack Balkin is still blogging.

This is how myths start: George Will criticized Obama's ego and vanity, citing as evidence that he overuses first-person-singular I/me pronouns. Anybody else who wants to make that point can now reference Will.

The problem: Will made the whole thing up. Mark Liberman of Language Log looked at the speeches Will was talking about, counted, and then examined comparable speeches by Presidents Bush the 2nd and Clinton. Obama actually uses significantly fewer I/me pronouns.

One more myth: The supposed clip of people praying to Obama. In some iterations of the litany, you can clearly hear the crowd saying "Deliver us O God." In other iterations they get out of rhythm, so there seems to be an extra syllable at the end. Jaundiced ears heard that garbled "O God-od" as "O-ba-ma". And now, in certain circles it is considered a fact -- don't tell us otherwise, we've seen the video -- that Obama is being worshiped as a god. Probably those are the same people who think he's the Antichrist. (I'm not sure how you fact-check somebody being the Antichrist, but Snopes says he isn't, in case you were curious.)

In spite of all the rhetoric about Obamamania and the Obama personality cult, progressives have in general been far more critical and less worshipful of President Obama than conservatives were of President Bush. Glenn Greenwald fleshes this point out.

Bill Mahr outdid himself in this clip. It wasn't until Bush got out of the way that comedians could give all the other ridiculous Republicans the attention they deserve. "This was truly a bizarre year for Republicans. Their sex scandals were with women."

It's good to have Al Franken in the Senate. Here he grills an attorney from KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary that does government contract work in Iraq. In particular, Al is asking about their policy that all disputes within the company be handled by binding arbitration, and how that policy has applied to Jamie Leigh Jones.

I read some of your testimony to Ms. Jones. You said that the net result of the use of arbitration is "better workplaces". ... She was housed with 400 men. She told KBR twice that she was being sexually harassed. She was drugged by men that the KBR employment people knew did this kind of thing. She was raped. Gang-raped. She had to have reconstructive surgery, sir. ... And then, she was locked in a shipping container with an armed guard. Now, my question to you is: If that's a better workplace, what was the workplace like before?

Background: Mother Jones magazine (no relation) covers Ms. Jones' ongoing legal case. Fake conservative blogger Jon Swift summarized the conservative blogosphere's reaction to the case.

Franken's first legislative act was to propose an amendment not allowing such arbitration clauses to cover rapes of government contractors. It passed the Senate, but Jon Stewart wonders why 30 Republicans voted against it.

The Obama administration is changing federal policy on marijuana. The feds will no longer waste their resources arresting people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. This is a victory for local control and states rights and all that stuff conservatives are supposed to like. Why do I think they won't applaud?

Studies show that many Americans (Harvard says 45,000 a year) die because they don't have health insurance. Faced with this argument, Senator Kyl counters:
I'm not sure that it's a fact that more and more people die because they don't have health insurance. But because they don't have health insurance, the care is not delivered in the best and most efficient way.
Translation: "Not gonna look. Not gonna look. Can't make me. Nyeah, nyeah, nyeah."

I'm sure Harvard has no answer for that.

I've mentioned before that the potential savings from reforming medical malpractice are trivial compared to the overall health-care budget. The Congressional Budget Office agrees.

For years there has been a gentlemen's agreement to pretend that Fox News is a legitimate news channel rather than the conservative propaganda vehicle that conservative political operative Roger Ailes founded it to be. The Obama administration has decided not to play along any more. It'll be interesting to see where that goes.

If you're feeling bad about your parenting, watch this. (The baby is OK.)

The Onion reports that 93% of all newspapers are bought by kidnappers.

Conservative politicians are only beginning to realize what genie they let out of the bottle when they pandered to the teabag protests. Here Lindsey Graham gets heckled because his global warming position is "a pact with the devil" -- i.e., John Kerry. One heckler yells over and over that Graham should read Article I, Section 9. I did. I have no idea what he's talking about.

Liberal economic blogger Bonddad loves graphs. He thinks they show the economy is starting to turn up.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thinking Big

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. -- Joseph Goebbels

In this week's Sift:

  • Mad Men 2.0. Our national conversation is changing. Spin is out. Complete disregard for the facts is in.
  • Workers' Comp as a Malpractice Model. Malpractice reform would do almost nothing to make health-care more affordable. But the system does suck. Why not reform it in a liberal way?
  • Nate Silver vs. Strategic Vision. I used to think I was a sophisticated reader of polls. But it had never occurred to me that a pollster might interview no one and just make the results up. Nate Silver suspects somebody did just that.
  • How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me ... Whatever I Want It To. Maybe you thought the Bible was conservative enough already. The folks at the Conservative Bible Project disagree. They want to edit out all that permissive-liberal stuff about forgiveness.
  • Short Notes. Rachel Maddow on Obama's Nobel. More southern church/state issues. Electric buses don't need wires any more. Newsmax calls for a military solution to "the Obama problem." Where I was last week. And more.

Mad Men 2.0

The most interesting article I read these last two weeks was David Sirota's "Mad Men 2.0" in In These Times. He's pointing to a change in our national conversation that is obvious when you think about it, but is not getting much attention: Outraged assertions unconnected to reality are replacing fact-based forms of persuasion.

The new strategy's key component, Sirota writes,

is replacing spin—the artful highlighting of partial truths—with a total rejection of all facts. This PR device is based on the theory that in a post-Watergate, post-Monicagate world, the public will view spinned parsings as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as ineluctably true.

Attacks on health-care reform -- "death panels" and so on -- are the most obvious recent examples of high-intensity arguments divorced from reality. But individuals and corporations caught red-handed have changed their tactics too. No longer do we see tearful pleas for forgiveness like televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's in 1991. Instead, no matter what the evidence, perps just keep repeating "I did nothing wrong" like Rod Blogojevich.

After last year's financial meltdown, Wall Street didn't even purge a few symbolic scapegoats; they awarded themselves bonuses instead. The Bush administration gave us a new and particularly brazen way to break the law: You order your lawyer write a memo saying that what you want to do is legal.

Spin is out. Complete-break-with-reality is in.

The article's title makes a connection to the last great change in persuasion tactics, from hard-sell marketing ("Brighter! Whiter!") to soft-sell marketing ("Join the Pepsi Generation!"). Rather than push the virtues of the product, the soft sell created a pleasing image of you and the product together. This change in strategy (which Sirota calls "Mad Men 1.0") is part of the background of AMC's 1960s ad-agency drama Mad Men.

The Mad Men 1.0 strategy hit politics in a big way with the "New Nixon" campaign chronicled in Joe McGinnis' The Selling of the President 1968. But after forty years the public has adjusted, and those adjustments make us vulnerable to new tactics.

Through decades of commercials, congressional testimony and political punditry, we’ve been taught to believe that institutions and individuals may evade and prevaricate, but they will never defend or promote themselves with brazen, up-is-down fabrications because they know such lies can be easily exposed.

The Internet ought to make it easier than ever to expose outright fabrications. But perversely, it also makes them easier to defend. If you have enough money, you can create your own echo chamber of astroturf organizations that repeat your lies and portray you as the true victim. Or, if you belong to one of the partisan blocs, you can take advantage of a ready-made echo chamber. Anyone who tries to cut through the noise (like me, for example) will just sound like more noise.

Sirota offers no cures (and I'm not sure I have one either). But it's good to have a diagnosis.

Workers' Comp as Malpractice Model

Recently I met a lawyer who has worked both sides of medical malpractice. I asked him what should be done about malpractice -- not so much because I expected an answer as because that's how I make conversation with strangers: I get them talking about things that they know better than I do. (My Dad, perhaps afraid he was raising a know-it-all, often told me, "Everyone in the world knows something you don't.")

To my surprise, he had an answer I hadn't heard anywhere else: The malpractice tort system should be replaced with something like the workers' compensation system.

As everybody knows these days, tort reform is a conservative issue. Trial lawyers are a major Democratic constituency that contribute a lot of campaign money, and so they make an appealing target for Republicans. Republicans can frame "frivolous malpractice lawsuits" as the source of all the wastefulness of our health-care system and know that Democrats will not call their bluff by supporting their proposals.

I've outlined before why I think the tort-reform issue is smoke and mirrors: The numbers just don't work. The size of malpractice settlements is miniscule compared to our healthcare costs, and (except for one suspect study that gets quoted as if it were a dozen studies) estimates of the cost of defensive medicine (the unnecessary stuff doctors do to protect against lawsuits) are not that high either. States that have tightened the rules on malpractice suits or limited the size of settlements have not seen their health-care costs drop.

So malpractice-reform-as-healthcare-reform is a joke. But that doesn't mean that our malpractice system is perfect or even good. As a way to compensate victims, it's horribly inefficient. On one end of the pipe you have all the money that doctors spend on malpractice insurance, and on the other you have what victims get many years later. Money gushes into one end of that pipe and trickles out the other, because so much winds up in the hands of insurance companies, lawyers, and various other middlemen.

I'm sure the workers' compensation system has its own problems, but it works much better than medical malpractice. If you're injured on the job you won't get rich, but you stand a reasonably good chance of seeing timely compensation. The basic idea is that fault is not worth arguing over. You don't have to prove negligence to collect, and the employer doesn't gain by showing that you were an idiot.

In our current malpractice system, juries are impressed by stories of criminal negligence and not by cases of honest and understandable medical mistakes. But honest mistakes are real and have expensive consequences to their victims. Those victims ought to get compensation, and they ought to get it quickly.

My new lawyer friend wasn't optimistic about seeing his vision become reality, though, because no organized special interest would benefit from it. The beneficiaries of the current system -- mainly the lawyers and the insurance companies -- know who they are. The beneficiaries of a better system -- mainly people who will suffer from future medical mistakes -- don't.

Nate Silver vs. Strategic Vision

When a poll comes out with unlikely conclusions, a lot of people are smart (and cynical) enough to wonder if the pollster might have manipulated the responses somehow: by the way the question is worded, the question order, the interviewer's tone-of-voice, and so on. But it had never occurred to me to wonder if maybe the pollster just made the whole thing up. What if they didn't ask anybody anything?

That level of audacity went right off my scale. Well, it doesn't go off Nate Silver's scale. Nate is the baseball-stat wonk who took the polling world by storm in 2008. In primary after primary, his predictions were dead-on -- not because he polled anybody himself, but because he knew what to do with other people's numbers. When I made my surprisingly accurate prediction of how election night would unfold, I was mainly just comparing Nate's final poll-of-polls estimate to a list of poll-closing times.

Anyway, Nate asks the question: If a pollster did make the numbers up, how could you tell? Is there something in the internal structure of a poll's results that would be hard to fake? And he asks these questions with a clear example in mind: A survey of high-school students done by Strategic Vision for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

Nate thinks they made it up.

The Strategic Vision survey claims to have asked 1000 Oklahoma high school students 10 questions off the exam given to people applying for U. S. citizenship. The reported results are awful, and allowed the OCPA to write one of those mournful why-is-our-kids-so-stupid articles. (For example, less than 1 in 4 of the students could name George Washington as our first president.)

Right away the results look suspicious. The article doesn't say whether the survey was multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank, and some of the answers only make sense one way or the other. For example, 10% of the students say that Franklin Roosevelt was the first president. That would make sense as a multiple-choice answer, but not as a fill-in-the-blank. (How many kids don't know George Washington was the first president, but can come up with Franklin Roosevelt's name?) On the other hand, would 46% of kids really answer "Don't Know" to the question asking them to name the two major political parties if "Democrat and Republican" was sitting right there in a multiple choice list?

But that kind of stuff is subjective -- it doesn't look right to me, but if it does to you there's not much I can say. Then Nate goes nerd. He compares the question-by-question data to the distribution of students' scores -- which in themselves look strange because out of 1000 students there is not one politics-nerd who gets all ten questions right, or even nine. Nate comes to the conclusion that the survey's correct answers are uncorrelated: In other words, the kids who knew the answer to one question seem to have no advantage on the other questions -- which is ridiculous. He goes on to give a few other wonkish-but-objective measures of believability, by which the Strategic Vision survey fails. Like: Why do so many of their numbers have a final digit of 8?

Strategic Vision executive David Johnson says: "We have a call into our attorney on this and fully intend to take action that will vindicate us." (Their attorney must be hard to reach or something.)

How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me ... Whatever I Want It To.
Conservatives fervently believe they need their own institutions, because all the standard institutions have a liberal bias. They need Fox News to be a right-wing propaganda channel because CNN (they say) is a left-wing propaganda channel. They need the Conservapedia because the Wikipedia has the same left-wing bias as its writers and editors -- the general public.

And now they need their own Bible -- a conservative Bible as opposed to the liberal one we have now. I wish I were creative enough to have thought this up as a parody, but no, I'm not. They're really doing it.

OK, I overstated just a little: They think they need a Conservative Bible Project to create their own English translation of the Bible. Why? Because "there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible." This sad state of affairs came about because Biblical scholars are liberals -- just like journalists and the people who give their time to update the Wikipedia are liberals.

What are the liberal biases in our current English Bibles? Well, the main one seems to be this bizarre lefty idea that you should forgive people who do wrong rather than, say, stone them. Remember that story of Jesus getting an adulteress off the hook by saying, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."? Left-wing fabrication. The Conservapedia comments:
The Mosaic laws clearly state death as a punishment for sin. So the argument that an individual must be perfect is not relevant. The God-ordained government has the responsibility for punishment.
"Nearly all modern scholars agree" that this story "is not authentic." It contains "multiple absurdities" and is not included in "the earliest and most reliable manuscripts." So it's not going to be in the Conservative Bible. (If they apply those standards consistently -- which they probably won't -- the resurrection story at the end of Mark also shouldn't make the cut. It's not in the earliest manuscripts, and a dead guy getting up and walking out of his tomb is kind of absurd.)

And that line about "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."? (Luke 23:34) More permissive liberal nonsense. It won't be in the Conservative Bible either.

Neither will all that nasty stuff about rich people, about camels and needle-eyes and so forth. Bad translation. Liberal bias. Jesus was pro-capitalist.

They're still debating about what to use in place of the word Pharisees, which I guess they figure is meaningless by now. (Although one of their ten principles says they shouldn't "dumb down" the Bible.) The candidate translations so far are intellectuals and self-proclaimed elite. (I think fundamentalist would be more accurate than either.)

I wondered what the CBP would do with the pacifist Matthew 5:38-39. The NIV translates it like this:
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The CBP can't find an excuse to edit this out completely, but they did tone it down:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you: Don't be quick to stand against evil. To whomever hits you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also.
So you can still invade Iraq, if you've warned Saddam several times first. Just don't be hasty. The CBP's "be quick to" addition, as far as I can tell, has no support in the original text. No other translation says anything like it.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Salon suggests rewriting Matthew 5:5 like this: "Blessed are the children of the rich, for -- once Congress finally eliminates the death tax -- they will inherit the earth."

One of the movers and shakers behind both this and the Conservapedia is Andy Schlafly, son of (you guessed it) the famous anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Which reminds me of this story: When I was a grad student in the math department at the University of Chicago, Phyllis' son Roger was an instructor there. As far as I could tell, Roger was not all that political. But mathematicians in general are very liberal, so within the department Roger took a lot of grief.

One day the Tribune published a multi-column article about whatever outrageous thing Roger's mom had just come out with, and the headline just had her last name: "Schlafly Says ... " Well, it got posted on the department bulletin board. I didn't do it, but I happened to be standing there when Roger walked by. He sees the headline, takes one step toward the bulletin board, but then thinks better of it and keeps walking. "I don't care what she said," I heard him mutter.

Short Notes

Whenever things went wrong during the Bush administration -- or rather, whenever the wrong things became undeniable -- the inevitable line was "No one could have predicted ..." Well, Meteor Blades proves this wrong, at least for Iraq, by quoting at length from the speech California Representative Pete Stark gave seven years ago Saturday: October 10, 2002, five months before the invasion.

Full disclosure: I wrote about Stark for UU World two years ago.

The best thing I saw on Obama's Nobel Prize was Rachel Maddow's reaction. Her main point is that Obama fits reasonably well into the Nobel Peace Prize tradition. The prize is often awarded for ongoing work the Nobel committee wants to encourage, rather than for finished accomplishments. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, won his prize ten years before apartheid actually fell.

Dasheight on Daily Kos raises an interesting question: How long do Obama's poll numbers have to go up before the media will stop reporting that they're going down?

There's yet another church-and-state controversy brewing in Texas: The ACLU is objecting to school districts allowing the Gideons to distribute free Bibles to public-school students under favorable terms: Letting the Gideons into the classroom, teachers and administrators appearing to endorse the Bible, and so on.

A spokesman for the evangelical Liberty Legal Institute accuses the ACLU of "trying to add the Bible to their banned-books list." But there's a simple rule-of-thumb that would resolve the majority of these cases: If you wouldn't allow the Koran or Sam Harris' The God Delusion to be distributed under the same terms, you're doing something wrong.

Take the case of Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where the high school football team is no longer allowed to enter the field by bursting through banners of Bible verses. One cheerleader says "Our freedom of speech and freedom of religion is being taken away." But just picture two Muslim cheerleaders holding up a Koran verse for a player to burst through, and the problem becomes obvious.

Rhetoric Watch. Conservative news source Newsmax published and then withdrew a column predicting/suggesting a military coup to "resolve the Obama problem." Republican Congressman Paul Broun points to Nancy Pelosi as the kind of "domestic enemy of the Constitution" that Marines are sworn to defend us against. Rep. Trent Franks goes one step further and proclaims Obama "an enemy of humanity."

Who knew that knocking up the governor's daughter would such a great career move? Now Levi Johnstone is going to be in Playgirl. His Vanity Fair article from last month is now available online.

Paul Rosenberg on Open Left explains why the Right sees nothing wrong with rooting against an American Olympics or an American president winning a Nobel Prize:
in their minds, they alone are America. If they're not running things, then it's not America. It's just that simple. Which is why it's fine to talk about secession as soon as they lose an election ... If you are the real America and everyone else is not, well, then, you can do pretty much whatever you want--and do it all in the name of America.
This pretty much echoes my who-are-the-People analysis from a few weeks ago.

Is the liberal blogosphere going to defend Charlie Rangel just because he's a Democrat? Doesn't look like it.
The next generation of the electric bus doesn't need overhead wires. Story. Video.

John Kerry and Lindsey Graham claim to have the formula for bipartisan greenhouse-gas-controlling legislation: Include some nuclear power and natural-gas-drilling perks along with a cap-and-trade emissions-control system. Grist's David Roberts is hopeful, but wants Democrats to get real commitments of Republican support in exchange for whatever conservative ideas they put in the bill -- unlike what Max Baucus did in his health-care bill.

What I've been up to: The reason there was no Sift last week was that I had other things on my plate: I gave this talk to the "Conversations Toward a Better World" workshop on Saturday the 3rd, and this sermon (twice) to the Community Church of Chapel Hill on Sunday the 4th.

Suggestion: If you'd like to nominate articles to be Sifted next week, leave a comment.