Monday, May 31, 2004

Is It Fear?

The Washington Post has observed that, while both parties are using deceptive, negative ads, the Bush Administration is setting new records in its use of such tactics. What does this mean?

Is the Bush Administration so afraid of its record, that it fears running "positive ads" featuring the President's "accomplishments"?

Is the Bush Administration so afraid of how Kerry's skills honestly stack up against those of the President, that they fear an honest comparison?

Ordinarily, one might expect the incumbent to point to his victories, and to argue that his opponent is less suited to carry them forward. Bush seems to be trying to avoid addressing his failures, and to convince the nation that although he created a big mess for the nation, Kerry is even less suited to lead us out of the mess. Other than ideologues like Bill Kristol, does anybody find that message to be compelling?

Saturday, May 29, 2004


Today's Washington Post warns us that the United States is at risk of falling behind the rest of the world in the hard sciences:
Yet the reports from the National Science Foundation and elsewhere indicate that the decline is not only relative. It is also absolute: American science is growing weaker, although not across the board. The boom in research and funding for the biological sciences -- including genetics and molecular biology -- has been matched by a decline in funding for, and interest in, physics and math. Because the decline has multiple sources, the solutions will have to be multiple. Poor teaching, and especially poor high school math teaching, bears part of the blame. Even in an era of heavy testing, the standards for high school math are very low. The American Diploma Project pointed out that few states even require the basic Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra II sequence needed just for many entry-level jobs, let alone for higher education.
(Apparently we leave no child behind if kids can add, but don't leave any children behind if they can't do algebra?)

The collapse of science in public education in the United States is not a new phenomenon. Sometimes, as with evolution, it is part of a deliberate effort by pressure groups to strip science out of the classroom. Sometimes, as with the math example presented in the Post, it is a matter of student interest (making the "tough" classes elective) coupled with an institutional desire to save money (nobody takes the "tough" classes, so they can be cut from the curriculum).

In the past week, I have seen two movies which reminded me of the state of science in America. The first, "Super Size Me", highlights the issues of nutrition and obesity in this "fast food era". The film does raise some valid scientific points, but the central experiment (the filmmaker's undertaking a decidedly unhealthy "McDonalds-only" diet) is nonscientific, and many of its broad assertions represent the filmmaker's opinions as opposed to the result of scientific or social research. The film suggests, for example, that fast food is the only major change in our nation's diet, because the other factors (home cooked meals, neighborhood restaurants) have existed for centuries - but overlooks the fact that in the modern era the portion size at most restaurants has been significantly increased, that even "home cooked meals" now often rely heavily on high-calorie packaged and prepared foods, and that (in contrast with most of human history) red meat is now both abundantly available and affordable, and is made a part of a typical meal in portions which would astonish our ancestors. Many of its points are valid, and the film has a significant impact, but the nonscientific approach to the issue may serve to diminish even its most valid points in the eyes of skeptics.

The second film, "The Day After Tomorrow", starts out as a decent action pic - a bit slower than most of its genre, as its action relies on bad weather as opposed to car chases and shootouts - but decent nonetheless. Then it becomes an adventure story. Finally, it culminates with heavy-handed environmental moralizing which is exceeded perhaps only by the Steven Seagal voiceover in "On Deadly Ground". Actually, it is perhaps more comparable to the moralizing at the end of "The China Syndrome", but you get the idea.

It is a bit like watching "Get Smart" in reverse. Rather than Smart's, "This place is surrounded by 5,000 agents... would you believe 30 agents and a K9 unit... would you believe three old ladies with umbrellas", we get "Global warming could plunge us into an ice age in perhaps 1,000 years; no, make that six or seven months; no, make that by the end of the week; actually, supercooled air from freakish storms will instantly freeze people into human popsicles as fast as a dip into liquid nitrogen." Granted, it is hard to make an apocalyptic action picture based upon actual scientific knowledge of the behavior of storms, but as one reviewer put it, the director's prior work, "Independence Day", is more scientifically plausible.

I don't want to draw too many conclusions from those two examples. Even with the sermonizing, it isn't reasonable to expect Hollywood to put hard science before box office bucks. And "Super Size Me" makes many valid points about the state of the world's nutrition, while being far more watchable (albeit sometimes queasily watchable) than many "traditional" documentaries (which, for that matter, are not necessarily better rooted in hard science). But I wonder if movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" ultimately trivialize the subjects they supposedly treat seriously, making it even harder to teach the real science.

Friday, May 28, 2004

No Child Gets Ahead?

NewsHour questions whether the "No Child Left Behind Act" is resulting in a nationwide trend to defund programs for gifted education. (Programs that are typically woefully underfunded to begin with.)

Tax & Spend versus Spend and spend and spend and spend....

It has been obvious since Reagan's time that the classic definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" have no real meaning in American politics. Even as compared to recent history, the definitions are shifting. A few years ago, a political conservative would have been expected to be a fiscal conservative - concerned with the growth of the government, fiscal responsibility, and balanced budgets. Now, thanks to G.W. Bush, we have a new definition of "conservative" which scoffs at the notion of restrained spending, balanced budgets, and governmental bloat. While this new brand of "conservative" still uses the tired cliche of the "tax and spend Democrat", this new "conservative" can perhaps be fairly described as the "spend and spend and spend and spend and spend and spend Republican".

So is the objection of the "GW Bush Conservative" that Democrats are too fiscally responsible? They are too focused on raising revenue before spending the nation into an oblivion of oversized deficits? Or is the objection that the Democrats spend on the "wrong things" - that, rather than offering staggering subsidies to corporate interests and engaging in a huge military build-up, the Democrats want to spend money to improve America for the average, and even the disadvantaged, American? Increasingly, I think the objection is both: The "GW Bush Conservative" wants to see a tax policy that puts pretty much the entire burden of financing the nation and the servicing of the exploding national debt on the working masses, but wants a spending policy which almost exclusively favors the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporate interests.

As he complains about "income taxes", why doesn't Bush want to address payroll taxes, and the absurd double- and triple- taxation of the wages of working men and women? Why doesn't Bush want to address the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which will soon rake back most or all of the meager tax benefit his "reforms" have provided to the working masses? It isn't Bush's fault, I suppose, that so many wage earners are ignorant of what the term "income tax" means, don't know the difference between "income tax" and "payroll tax", and have never heard of the AMT - a lot of the fault for that lies with the media's abysmal coverage of these issues - but he certainly takes advantage of their ignorance in pitching "tax reforms" that overwhelmingly favor the rich, while refusing to even consider reforms which would truly benefit the working masses.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

What Does Al Qaeda Want?

As the Department of Homeland Security issues a notice of increased terrorist threat which apparently does not justify an increase in the alert level, various commentators have suggested that this announcement has less to do with a genuine threat of terrorist activity and is instead intended to boost Bush's falling popularity. The history of such announcements and changes in the alert level gives some amount of credence to that cynicism - but it really is impossible for anybody without a high level security clearance to assess the "buzz" or information behind the alert changes, so as to know if they are truly justified.

One reaction to the latest announcement from the DHS has been, "Al Qaeda would be stupid to attack before the election", because conventional wisdom is that such an attack would boost Bush in the polls and help him secure reelection. This country is unlikely to follow Spain's example of punishing a government which failed to protect them from an attack on the eve of an election - and lied about the probable identity of terrorists. Not only has this nation has demonstrated over the past several years a surprising willingness to excuse and rationalize lies and false claims from the highest levels of government, there is a popular sense that Republicans are "better at defense". (While some question whether the facts bear out that popular conception - and it is fair to observe that the military which acquitted itself so well in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a level far beyond its performance a decade earlier, is the product of Clinton's defense policies - it nonetheless persists.)

But to presuppose that Al Qaeda would forestall an attack to prevent Bush's reelection is to presuppose that Al Qaeda doesn't want Bush to be reelected. Is that truly the case? What would better advance Al Qaeda's stated goal of drawing the U.S. into a large-scale conflict in the Middle East that it cannot win? A presumed Kerry policy of using a combination of international cooperation, pressure on "rogue nations", and special forces operations to detect, defund, decapitate, and "take out" terrorist cells and networks? Or a presumed Bush policy of invading additional nations in the Middle East? Which is more likely to result in the overextension of the U.S. armed forces, an unpopular conscription to man a growing number of military operations and occupations, and an economic stress which may reach the magnitude of that which helped collapse the former Soviet Union?

Who says Al Qaeda isn't cheering for Bush?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Razing Abu Ghraib

Now that the decision has been made to tear down Abu Ghraib prison "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning", what message will the demolition send? A year ago, it might have been the Iraqi equivalent to the storming of the Bastille. A few years from now, though, will that land contain a monument to the nation's liberation from Saddam Hussein, or will it be our prison scandal that is most remembered?

Monday, May 24, 2004

Palestinian Elections?

In today's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl does a pretty good job of examining the benefits of holding elections in the Palestinian territories - and why they are not favored by either Bush or Sharon.
Addendum: If only.... As time went on, Bush ignored warnings of the likely outcome and pushed for the inclusion of Hamas in Palestinian elections over the objections of the Israel, resulting in the election of Hamas.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

If it doesn't leave marks....

Is it still torture?

I recall once hearing an anecdote about a police officer who had elicited a confession from a suspect by handcuffing the suspect into an uncomfortable position, and forcing him to remain in that position until he confessed. The defense attorney claimed that the confession was false, and was given only in response to the severe pain inflicted by the officer, and sought to suppress the confession. The police officer insisted that he had done nothing wrong or coercive. The judge indicated to the officer that, if that was the case, surely he wouldn't mind giving his testimony while seated in the same position he had required the defendant to hold. The officer agreed. About fifteen minutes later, as the officer's visible discomfort grew unbearable, the court declared the confession to have been coerced.

This, as it turns out, is deemed by the Pentagon to be a "stress position", and apparently (along with simulated drowning and sleep deprivation) is an accepted "interrogation" technique in Iraq.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Love At First Sight

When I read editorials about Ahmed Chalabi, they tend to be either by people who have never met him or never liked him, in which case they are typically critical, and by people who have met him, in which case they are typically flattering and dismissive of all criticism.

How powerful is this man's charisma?

Parents & Education

Apparently, Bill Cosby recently addressed the subject of the role of parents in raising educated, well-socialized children, or perhaps more accurately the failure of many parents in impoverished communities to do so. In describing Cosby's statements, Colbert King suggests that this is in large part a racial issue. However, my experience with similar populations of individuals of other ethnicities suggest to me that Cosby's comments, for the most part, can be widely applied to a subset of any given ethnic group.

Unfortunately, this is one of those problems which is easy to identify and very hard to solve. Particularly in a society that, although extraordinarily wealthy, is unwilling to make a significant investment in breaking that cycle.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Legal Defense for Indigent Clients

Many years ago, when I started my first private legal practice, I accepted court appointed clients through a County court system. The county at issue paid a decent hourly rate for legal work and, despite a few instances with judges who took the attitude of "I don't care how much you worked or whether it was necessary, because you exceeded what the court administrator tells us is appropriate for this case", for the most part had no problem getting my bills approved. (And, in case you were wondering, not once did I have a judge or court administrator complain that my bills were too low.) Taking appointed clients can be a great way to get experience with court time, and also to learn client management skills with some very difficult clients. (While most are not any more difficult to work with than private clients, a minority of appointed client will be among the most trying a lawyer is likely to encounter in the course of a career.)

The system in that county worked pretty well. A surprising number of experienced lawyers kept their names on the list. But the experience was quite different in neighboring counties, where different systems of appointment and reimbursement existed, and it was difficult to get any reasonable number of appointments without knowing a judge, or without engaging in some form of "assembly line justice" - going to court with several appointed clients, such that an aggregate of the typically flat fees paid for particular cases provided a decent return. Going to trial was almost guaranteed to be a money losing proposition. Nonetheless, there were some excellent trial attorneys accepting appointments in those counties. But the inadequate "flat fee" system is also the type that makes for the worst stereotypes about appointed practice - the client meeting the lawyer for the first time in court, and getting only a few minutes of consultation before being called up to enter a plea.

There is a national prejudice against "public defenders" - which, technically speaking, are different from appointed attorneys (although a public defender's office or an attorney from that office may well be "appointed" to represent a particular indigent client). An appointed attorney is typically an attorney in private practice, who accepts appointments to provide indigent defense. A public defender is employed by a governmental unit to provide indigent defense on a full-time basis. (A third possibility is where the county will accept bids from private lawyers and law offices to provide indigent services, and the winning bidder essentially becomes a public defender - usually with far less money and resources to work with than a true public defender's office.) Contrary to stereotype, full-time, professional public defenders are typically sound legal practitioners. The best and worst criminal defense attorneys are typically private lawyers.

In many, perhaps most, parts of the U.S., indigent criminal defense is not adequately funded. For example in Virginia, even after increased funding,
Crimes that can land a defendant in prison for 20 years, for example, can net an attorney no more than $395 -- no matter how hard a lawyer works or how long a trial goes. The state pays on average only $12 more for a criminal defense than it did three decades ago. No reform that fails to lift these ludicrously low fee caps will give Virginia the system it needs to meet its constitutional obligations and protect people from wrongful convictions.
Of course, that is unlikely to change unless people become concerned about wrongful convictions and quality of justice. In other words, that is unlikely to change.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Obsessive Need to Declare....

"I told you so".

Pretty much from the age children understand the meaning of those words, they (or some variant) become a common part of playground banter. It's human nature not only to want to be right, but apparently also to want to rub an opponent's nose in their defeat. Fear of an "I told you so" is probably one of the factors which explain why some people have such great difficulty apologizing for their misconduct or admitting to errors.

Watching the world of punditry, it is not uncommon to see editorials which are little more than an "I told you so". So perhaps we should not be surprised that the so-called "blogosphere" is replete with individuals who can't wait to use some form of that retort on their rhetorical enemies. But in some debates an "I told you so" seems out-of-place; and admission of error seems like the best course of action.

In relation to the Iraq conflict, to their credit, an increasing number of pundits associated with the neo-con movement have been issuing statements which have been anything but "I told you so". They have admitted that things are not going as planned in Iraq, but pressing for perseverance in the face of what might happen if we don't stabilize that nation with a reasonable government prior to withdrawal. That may not satisfy those who were opposed to the war, or whose skepticism to the apparent lack of planning for the original invasion and occupation - well, let's face it, some people really want to grab a neo-con by the scruff of his neck, stick his nose in a big pile of Abu Ghraib photos, and exclaim "I told you so".

And perhaps that reaction is made more understandable by the number of "I told you so's" issued by pro-war factions during the prior year. The "I told you so" after Iraq's defenses quickly collapsed. The "I told you so" when President Bush landed a military jet on an aircraft carrier and declared an end to major combat operations in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. The "I told you so" when many Iraqis did express gratitude at Hussein's removal. Muttering, "Where are the WMD's" was probably of little solace.

During the past year, however, despite the claim that the problem is one of media focus - "they're only telling us the bad news, not the achievements of the occupation forces" - it has become pretty clear that the occupation has not gone as well as planned, and democratization even less well. It is hard to know what to make of some of the opinion polls, where some Iraqis express that their lives were better before Hussein's ouster, but it is apparent from the polls that a growing number of Iraqis see things as getting progressively worse post-liberation as opposed to progressively better. Whether this is a true comparison to the former regime, or if it reflects fatigue from living under a clumsy occupation, is a question I'll leave to others. But I do know that if we can't convince the Iraqi public that their lot in life is improving, our opinion of the occupation doesn't much matter.

Some partisans just can't stop declaring "I told you so" - those on the extreme anti-war side who declare that Abu Ghraib proves that Iraq is a failure, versus those defenders of the war who turn to any minor news (such as the recent discovery of a spent artillery shell which may have contained sarin) as a basis to declare "I told you so", are missing the point - and, in my opinion, the pro-war partisans who engage in such conduct are doing far more damage to the end goal in Iraq than the fiercest anti-war activist. Why do I say that? Because we are presently occupying Iraq, and emphasizing the mistakes and misrepresentations of the early conflict distracts us from our ultimate goal, while emphasizing those subjects upon which the pro-war side has the least credibility.

Whatever side you're on, it seems like it's long past time to bite your lip and swallow your "I told you so's". This is too important.

And the World Didn't End....

Congratulations to the lucky couples.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Getting Out

The media focus toward Iraq has seemingly shifted from "we have to stay the course" and "we have to get it right" to "how can we get out - and how soon?" This weekend, the Washington Post provided a perspective on possible "exit strategies", none of which are ideal (and some of which seem a bit loopy). Other editorials, such as this one, endorse a particular exit strategy with a zeal that is, perhaps, excessive. (Think of how well the "Articles of Confederation" worked, even given the similarities between the early U.S. colonies, and....)

Whatever "exit strategy" is chosen, the media seems increasingly convinced that Bush and Blair want out, ASAP. If true, political reality (i.e., their futures at the polling booths of their respective nations) is getting in the way of the notion of reinventing Iraq as a stable, progressive democracy.

Do you think these stories are correct, incorrect, or that they represent the Bush and Blair Administration's manner of testing the water - of gauging public reaction to a rapid exit in advance of announcing an official strategy? I'm guessing #3.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Doing The Math, II

The New Yorker poses a possible explanation for the seemingly anomalous numbers I commented on yesterday - the extraordinary number of pictures and videotapes of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, as compared to the number of people charged with offenses:
The government consultant [and former senior intelligence official interviewed for the article] said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything—including spying on their associates—to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, "I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population." The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said.
Granted, an unnamed informant.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Hating That Comments Thing

A visitor notes, quite appropriately, "Oh yeah, I hate your comments thing now."

Don't we all. It's part of the reinvented blogger, along with a block on the execution of the javascript which powered the previous, unattractive but easy-to-use third party comments function.

Beyond having to click through two pages to enter a comment, the comments function is probably not so bad if (a) you have a blogger account, (b) you are logged into it, and (c) you want to post under your default name. Oh yes - and (d) assuming it is working. It's been down quite a bit since it came online. Otherwise, at least in my humble opinion, it blows giant chunks.

Doing the Math

Last I heard, seven reservists have been charged in association with abuses at Al Ghraib prison. Yet apparently there are more than one thousand, eight hundred (1,800) pictures and videos of abuse, torture and rape at Al Ghraib, presently in the hands of military investigators.

As I look at those numbers, either the seven reservists were some of the most unreserved shutterbugs in military history, or a lot more people need to be charged....

Thursday, May 13, 2004

British Sarcasm and Cynicism

Writing in London's Independent, Mark Steel brings us some trademark British sarcasm (and cynicism):
There's a charmingly off-key, surreal logic to the line coming from the British establishment, that any repercussions from torturing people are the Daily Mirror's fault for telling us it happened. For example, this Colonel Black says, "The decision to publish has played right into the hands of the insurgents. There will be more people prepared to kill the troops." So it's not torturing that annoys people, it's showing photos. Perhaps the people who've been tortured will scream, "Oh my God they've shown my worst side. I told them my left profile always makes me look chubby when there's a sack on my head. Now I'm really annoyed."

Whatever the origins of the photos, none of the figures condemning them seem to dispute that torture is taking place. So the idea must be that the Iraqis would never have known we were torturing them if it wasn't in the newspapers. They'd think "There is a sharp buzzing in my left testicle consistent with the pain experienced following primitive torture techniques, but there must be some other explanation because I've looked in the Daily Mirror and there's nothing about it at all."

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Sexual Privacy

Sure, it's a few days old, but it is worth making a few comments about Buckley's latest idiotorial. In 1967, the late Prime Minster of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, refusing to advance an reactionary sodomy bill into law, famously observed that "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Apparently, Buckley's clipping service is running behind, as he devotes an entire editorial to dissecting that notion:
Nobody should be permitted to say flat-out that "the government should stay out of the bedrooms of America." What if a civil-rights hate act was being conducted in the bedroom? For that matter, what if Daddy was forcing his way with a 10-year-old girl? Or Mom was starving her 10-month-old boy?

The phrase is an idiotic invocation of a taboo whose single purpose, in current usage, is to illegitimize concern about sexual activity.
Well, no. It is now what it has been since day one: An expression that the state should not be criminalizing consensual sexual acts which occur between adults in the privacy of their own homes. It is Buckley (and opponents of sexual privacy for adults) who wish to twist the phrase to give it different meaning. And when Buckley asks, "There is to be no concern over sodomy in the bedroom. But are there limits?" he knows the answer. It isn't with his reductio ab absurdum, that Trudeau's line might be used to somehow excuse civil rights crimes or infanticide within a bedroom. It begins and ends, as always, with the private, consensual sexual lives of adults.

Buckley continues by railing against those who criticize the Catholic church for the suggestion that John Kerry should not receive communion, because he has taken a pro-choice stance. Buckley tells us that the expression of such an opinion is somehow wrong, because it attempts to impose state values on a church. Perhaps Buckley confuses private comment with state action - there is nothing in the Constitution which prevents individuals from criticizing religious institutions, or noting hypocritical stances (such as going after Kerry for being pro-choice, but refusing to take any note of Catholic politicians who oppose other aspects of church doctrine, such as by supporting the death penalty, or who oppose the Pope - who by church teaching is infallible - in his opposition to the war in Iraq). I don't recall that Buckley, either, has run a piece taking on such "hypocritical" politicians in the manner in which he presently attacks Kerry. Go figure.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Sex Education

The London Guardian takes on efforts to export "abstinence education" and "virginity training" to England:
"Studies of the Dutch experience ... have concluded that the underlying reason for success has been the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception." Requests for contraceptives there "are not associated with shame or embarrassment", and "the media is willing to carry explicit messages" about them that are "designed for young people". This teeming cesspool has among the lowest abortion and teenage birth rates on earth.

America and the UK, by contrast, are "less inclusive societies" where "contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a 'closed' atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy". The UK has a higher teenage pregnancy rate not because there is more sex or abortion, but because of "lower rates of contraceptive use".
With regard to "abstinence education", the author notes that the most pronounced effect appears to be through the non-use of contraceptives by participants,
Abstinence campaigns such as the Silver Ring Thing do delay sexual activity, but when their victims are sucked into the cesspool (nearly all eventually are), they are, according to a study at Columbia University, around one-third less likely to use contraceptives, as they are not "prepared for an experience that they have promised to forgo". The result, a paper published in the British Medical Journal shows, is that abstinence programmes are "associated with an increase in the number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants". You read that right: abstinence training increases the rate of teenage pregnancy.
The author also notes the political agenda of the Bush Administration: "[Bush] also forced [the CDC] to drop their project identifying the sex education programmes that work, after they found that none of the successful ones were "abstinence only"."

Monday, May 10, 2004

I Just Read This Book, And....

If you read enough weblog entries, inevitably you will come across entries which praise various books, often involving political or economic theory. Sometimes the blogger posts a review worthy of publication, but more frequently you get something else. While a good book review tests an author's theories and assumptions, far too many weblog book reviews are adulatory - the author is not analyzing the book, but is instead endorsing it as if Moses just delivered it from the peak of Mount Sinai.

Sometimes this is taken to an even more comical extreme, such as where a blogger will insist that nobody can present valid criticism of his ideas until they have read a particular book, as if reading a single book on economics or politics could provide a global and current understanding of anything but that particular subset of the author's beliefs. In fact, anybody who would believe that a single book on economic theory, directed at a lay audience, could be so transformative could only be somebody with a very incomplete understanding of economics. The same applies to law, politics, and history.

The mistake behind these reviews essentially boils down to "I agree with this author, so this author must be right". Sometimes the author has thought about the subject more deeply than the blogger, and perhaps the blogger's thinking has been shifted by the book. But the uncritical blog entries at issue don't even suggest that much thought has occurred. This is not to suggest that the ideas endorsed are necessarily wrong - but such a nicety is of little consequence to the blogger's agreement or endorsement.

If you read professional editorials, perhaps particularly in the U.S., you will find that this phenomenon is not limited to bloggers. For example, in yesterday's Washington Post, George Will gushes over an author's theory of "Hard America, Soft America". Being hard on people - depriving them of such things as a social safety net, job security, unions and workplace regulation - the author (and thus Will) postulates, results in a more efficient, competitive, functional society.
In the Soft America of 1970, the tapestry of welfare benefits had a cash value greater than a minimum-wage job. In the Harder America of 1996, welfare reform repealed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a lifetime entitlement to welfare. And in the 1990s, welfare dependency -- and crime -- were cut in half. A harder, self-disciplined America is a safer America.
I can't speak for the book, as I have not read it, but Will's understanding of the book seems to be an absurdly simplistic confusion of correlation and causation. (He also makes the mistake of looking only at our society, whereas other nations have had markedly different experiences - for example, similar drops in crime while maintaining high welfare benefits.) Were Will as conversant in social research as he is with, say, baseball, he would not have endorsed such a simplistic analysis. But since the book corresponds to his politics, and he had a certain number of column inches to fill, he uncritically endorses some rather weak thinking.

As if to prove my point, after describing how the book's author criticized racial preferences on the basis that they "fence some blacks off from Hard America, insulating them in 'a Soft America where lack of achievement will nonetheless be rewarded'", Will continues,
What institution is consistently rated most trustworthy by Americans? The institution that ended its reliance on conscription, that has no racial preferences and that has rigorous life-and-death rules and standards: the military.
An admiration that, in Will's case, has always occurred from a very safe distance. Too far away, it appears, to recognize that the military continues to advance affirmative action programs, and has absolutely no intention of reducing or eliminating those "soft" programs. Positive experience with affirmative action has made such military notables as Colin Powell and Wesley Clark speak firmly in its favor.

Will also doesn't want to think about the other side of his argument - that the absurd wages, lack of oversight, and general "softness" of both the regulatory and law enforcement response to corruption and incompetence has led to the "corporate scandals" of recent years. While Will seemingly endorses the end of welfare and a return to the workhouses for indigent families, all in the name of saving them from themselves, he utters not a single word about the mismanagement and looting of firms like Enron or Tyco, let alone a system that would tolerate Dennis Kozlowski's $2 million birthday bash for his wife.

From what he has written, Will derived no lessons from this book which did not accord with his prior beliefs. If the book actually advanced the notion that the military does not utilize affirmative action, Will didn't even engage in even the most basic fact-checking. Will's column is, unquestionably, worthy of being posted to a mediocre weblog. But I am left wondering why it is in a national newspaper.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Pressing "Reset"

In today's Times, David Brooks tells us that the advancement of U.S. interests around the world remains possible, but only if we "reboot":
We've got to reboot. We've got to come up with a global alliance of democracies to embody democratic ideals, harness U.S. military power and house a permanent nation-building apparatus, filled with people who actually possess expertise on how to do this job.
Brooks presents the peculiar caution that,
In this climate of self-doubt, the "realists" of right and left are bound to re-emerge. They're going to dwell on the limits of our power. They'll advise us to learn to tolerate the existence of terrorist groups, since we don't really have the means to take them on. They're going to tell us to lower our sights, to accept autocratic stability, since democratic revolution is too messy and utopian.
I am not sure that I would support continued governance by "unrealists" who believe we can ignore the limits of our power, act when we lack the means to properly take on our targets, and promote "democratic revolution" when we aren't prepared to pay the price associated with seeing it through. I certainly don't want to support the "surrealists" who advocate all of those positions while telling us that accomplishing our goals will be easy, and that people around the world will welcome us as liberators with cascading showers of candy and flowers.

But perhaps Brooks should also recognize that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too - you just might have to moderate your portion. To the extent that the "realists" argued that reconstruction and democratization of Iraq would not be a cakewalk, they were right. To the extent that the "realists" argued that it would have been a good idea for the Bush Administration to entertain the thoughts of people they instead ignored - that is, everybody who had any expertise regarding the Arab world, and anybody who had any expertise on nation-building... and let's not forget the advice of military experts such as General Shinseki about what it would take to effect a successful occupation - and to go into Iraq with an appropriate plan for the post-war period, they again were right. Even if that would have meant modifying the Administration's plans, setting more realistic goals, or delaying the start of the war. In retrospect, there is a growing consensus that the cost of getting it right is dwarfed by the cost of getting it wrong.

Brooks intentionally conflates "realists" with a different set of people: those who (figuratively speaking) stand on streetcorners in dirty robes, ringing bells and crying "doom". That's understandable, given that Brooks was at best an "unrealist" and quite possilbly a "surrealist" in his pre-war cheerleading efforts. He diminishes the contribution of the "realists" because any alternative would force him to look in the mirror and be confronted by the ugly truth.

In any event, whatever Brooks means by his call for a "reboot", I think we should interpret it as follows: The system is up for a full check this November, at which time we can effect a system-wide "reboot" by voting Bush out of office.


Friday, May 07, 2004

"I Take Full Responsibility...."

Why is it that political types can only bring themselves to utter those words when they know there will be absolutely no consequence? I recall when Janet Reno was being applauded in the press because she took "full responsibility" for the fiasco at Waco. Few bothered to point out that acceptance of responsibility where there is no possibility of a negative consequence is... of little consequence.

Now we have Donald Rumsfeld taking "full responsibility" for the torture, er... he prefers to call it abuse, of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, having been already assured by President Bush that his job is completely safe. But wait a minute - the General who headed the prison when the torture occurred was relieved of her command, and according to Rumsfeld's own statement he is no less responsible for the abuse than she was....

Tortured apologies followed by hollow words. What a shining example of democracy.


Thursday, May 06, 2004

Tortured Apologies, Continued....

Now we are being told that Bush has apologized for the torture of Iraqi prisoners, but....
"I told him I was sorry for the humiliation and suffering" felt by the detainees, said Bush, who had stopped short of apologizing in two interviews a day earlier with satellite television networks aimed at the Middle East.
There is an enormous difference between this:
"I am sorry that Iraqis were tortured and humiliated by coalition troops."
and this:
"I am sorry for the humiliation and suffering felt by the detainees."
The former is an apology for the bad acts; the latter (presumably intentionally) overlooks and does not apologize for the bad conduct. The media shouldn't pretend otherwise, or allow themselves to be snowed.


Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Tortured Apologies

I think he could have done better. But then, some believe that being President means never having to say "I'm sorry".


The Thin Line Between "Us" and "Them"

A couple of years ago I was discussing the horrors of World War II with a friend, and I commented that as a child the events of WWII had seemed like part of the distant past, but that as I grew older they seemed frighteningly proximate. She responded that they still seemed like ancient history to her. And I think a lot of people continue to view WWII that way - as something that happened "a long time ago" and, figuratively speaking, "in a galaxy far, far away".

More recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the atrocities of the Holocaust with somebody a few years younger than me, who had just seen the Dustin Hoffman film, "Marathon Man". In that film, Lord Laurence Olivier played Dr. Christian Szell, a sadistic Nazi war criminal presumably inspired by Dr. Mengele. Ensuing discussing revealed that over the course of twelve years of public education and four years of college, the Holocaust had never entered into her school curriculum, save as an abstraction.

Today in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum represents my view of human nature. After detailing the great effort some make to claim that cultures like pre-WWII Germany are somehow so different from our own that they created horrors that "could never happen here" she observes the brutal truth:
The argument that torture or mass murder could have happened only in a particular culture has deep appeal: No wonder it has been made so many times, about so many cultures. During any conversation about the Soviet Union, someone will eventually claim that Soviet totalitarianism derived from ancient Russian traditions of czar-worship. Many people also assume, even if they don't say so, that the mass slaughter in Rwanda would not have happened in a less primitive, more "civilized" place.

And yet -- the Soviet Union exported its concentration camps to places as un-Russian as Romania and North Korea. The Nazis found allies across Europe, in France and Holland as well as Lithuania and Ukraine. Explaining the Rwandan massacres by pointing to "primitive" Rwandan culture doesn't explain the Cambodian massacres, which took place in a very ancient, very different Buddhist society. Surveying the history of the 20th century, it's clear that any culture is capable of terrible atrocities, given the right conditions.
As some have pointed out, the American Indian didn't fare particularly well in early North America, both Canada and the United States were all-too-willing to round up and intern men, women and children of Japanese descent (but not of German descent) during WWII, and prior to the Civil Rights era many Americans suffered through a dark period of Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynchings. While Appelbaum correctly notes that offenses such as the torture at Abu Ghraib (or, although not mentioned in her column, the internment of the Japanese) are of a different order of magnitude than the crimes of Nazi Germany, "their actions do prove, if further proof were needed, that no culture is incapable of treating its enemies as subhuman."

There is an enormous comfort in thinking "it can't happen here", whether because of better social safety mechanisms or because "'we' aren't like 'them'". But we know that in individual cases, people still do commit unspeakable atrocities, people still do attack or lynch other people for their race or sexuality (while in some cases others applaud the murder), and the Iraq incident demonstrates that even within the context of an authoritarian command structure ostensibly replete with checks and balances to prevent this type of misconduct, some Americans not only find it amusing to torment and abuse prisoners, they take pictures as souvenirs. We also know that it is human nature to let other people fight the system, to turn a blind eye toward government excesses or abuses (especially when the subject of the overreaching conduct can be compartmentalized as "one of them"), and to protest primarily in retrospect - "If only we had known", or "What could one person have done?"


Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Somebody Else's War

I don't agree with this editorial, in that we live in a nation with a volunteer military and I don't think it is wrong to leave the fighting to the military. Were there a draft, particularly one with a lot of loopholes for the rich and well-connected, there would be a lot more merit to the argument.

At the same time, I'm not comfortable with the manner in which this war is being pitched to the U.S. public. I think the author's personal connection to the war makes his attitude very understandable:
I am now the father of a young man who has far more character than I ever had. I joined the Marines because I had to; he signed up after college because he felt he ought to. He volunteered for an elite unit and has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When I see images of Americans in the war zones, I think of my son and his friends, many of whom I have come to know and deeply respect. When I opened this newspaper yesterday and read the front-page headline, "9 G.I.'s Killed," I didn't think in abstractions. I thought very personally.
Remembering the giddy reaction from the media at being "embedded" and getting 'really cool" footage from the front, and considering the disconnect between the average American and this war (with the President's wartime advice - "shop 'till you drop"), sometimes it seems like "support for the war" is about on par with support for the local professional sports team. It's heartfelt, but there's no real connection between those doing the fighting and those cheering from the sidelines, and perhaps this makes it too easy to vilify everybody else.


Monday, May 03, 2004

... And What To Do With The Torturers

With regard to "contractors" in Iraq who commit crimes or atrocities, while The Guardian implies a solution that is, perhaps, appropriate....
This leaves a vacuum. Phillip Carter, a former US army officer now at UCLA Law School, notes: "Legally speaking, they [military contractors] fall into the same grey area as the unlawful combatants detained at Guantánamo Bay."
They aren't actually suggesting Guantanamo. Still, when we catch military "contractors" committing crimes we need to do something better than what happened to the "contractors" who ran a sex slave ring in Bosnia.... um, other than a few who lost their jobs that would be, absolutely nothing....

If he's not willing to impose military law over contractors, and he's not willing to have them shipped back to the U.S. and tried under our laws which cover certain crimes committed outside of our borders, and he doesn't trust the "reconstructed" Iraqi system (despite its apparently being suitable for Iraqi criminals), perhaps Bush should grit his teeth, and ship them over to the International Court of Justice.


Saturday, May 01, 2004

A Day Late and A Dollar Short

With the coverage of U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners, various political players and factions are quickly stepping into their expected roles. We have President Bush expressing outrage - a response not so much to the report of the torture, which has apparently been on his desk for a couple of months, but to its being made public. We have the absurd claim by the torturers that they didn't know that torturing and sexually abusing their prisoners was wrong, and their general pulling a classic "Sergeant Shultz" maneuver - "I see nothing. I hear nothing. I know nothing" - but adding that if the abuses happened, they were encouraged by the intelligence officers in charge of the cellblock at issue. And we have some people on the "pro-war left" suggesting that the inevitable rage this will inspire in the Arab world is unfair, because Hussein's tortures were worse than ours, and because many Arab governments commit worse acts as a matter of routine.

With no disrespect meant to the military, it is pretty much a given that over the course of a military conflict some soldiers and even some officers will act inappropriately toward prisoners. The U.S. military is better than most at minimizing such incidents. But in this situation, the system broke down. The military could have built appropriate safeguards into its management of the prison to protect against this type of abuse. If the General formerly in charge of the prison is to believed, it in fact did so in all cellblocks but the one where the torture took place. Obviously the prisoners did not feel at liberty to complain about their torture, or if they did their complaints were ignored.

Like so many other things that have gone wrong over the course of the occupation, I am left wondering why appropriate preventive measures were not in place to keep this from happening - even granting that we cannot prevent isolated or spontaneous incidents of misconduct, this was neither - and why we again seemed so unprepared to deal with public disclosure. General Karpinski was suspended over misconduct in the prison in January - a fact that could not have escaped the notice of Bush's key advisors even if Bush himself chose to remain ignorant of the specifics. The report on the torture in her prison was completed in February. Granted, it is hard to "spin" this type of story, but we might have softened its impact had our leaders been expressing "outrage" before the pictures were broadcast on Al Jazeera.