Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Supporting Democracy Everywhere (Else) in the Middle East

Back in the 1980's, before he developed his "suck on this" attitude toward the Muslim world (an attitude I hope he now recognizes as misguided), I recall conversations in which Thomas Friedman's tepid endorsements of Palestinian rights caused people on the opposite side of the debate to speak his name with contempt, even to the point of labeling him a self-hating Jew. That reaction seemed, and seems, pretty much insane. Friedman is an ardent and consistent supporter of Israel, and his occasional criticism is about strengthening that state, not weakening it. A more fair criticism would be that, when confronted by those who will never agree to peace, he offers what amounts to a, "Just kidding" rather than standing behind his prior sentiments.

Friedman's most recent two columns remind me of why his writings on the Middle East are so frustrating. When Friedman writes,
I am awed by the bravery of the Syrian and Egyptian youths trying to throw off the tyranny of the Assad family and the Egyptian military. The fact that they go into the streets — knowing they face security forces who will not hesitate to gun them down — speaks of the deep longing of young Arabs to be free of the regimes that have so long choked their voices and prevented them from realizing their full potential.
is it not fair to note that he never voiced similar "awe" at the bravery of Palestinian teenagers who took to the streets to protest occupation, even at the risk of being injured or killed? It's not difficult to find even strong Israeli partisans who question the tactics of Israel during the first Intifada, and question whether the harsh treatment of teenagers during that period caused serious blowback, contributing to increased militancy and the much more violent tactics of the second Intifada. Like most in the media, Friedman can't seem to find space in his columns to cover non-violent protest in the occupied territories, unless it's against Palestinian authorities.

My position has long been that the best thing for the Palestinian people and the region would have been for Israel to change its tactics, supporting the development of real democracy during the period when the Palestinians had secular, western-focused leaders. That is, after all, what Israel did with great success within its borders - about 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab. There is no reason to believe that such an effort would not have succeeded in the occupied territories and, given Friedman's long-stated desire for the creation of a model democracy within the Middle East, it would seem to have been a natural argument for him to make. Yet even as he presently writes,
Outsiders often underestimate just how much these Arab youths are determined to limit the powers of their militaries as a necessary step for achieving true democracy. What you see in Egypt today are young people from across the political spectrum and classes who are willing to join forces, break ranks with their own parties and return to Tahrir Square to press for real freedom. This is a generational rupture. It is the old versus the young. It is the insiders (the adults) versus the outsiders (the youth). It is the privileged old guard versus the disadvantaged young guard.
He can't bring himself to include Palestinians youth in his editorial or to speak of (or distinguish) what they want. His only point of consistency is his resort to the need of a "magic man" to solve the problems of any given group, nation, or industry:
Can they each make it without one? Only if they develop their own Nelson Mandelas — unique civic leaders or coalitions who can honor the past, and contain its volcanic urges, but not let it bury the future.
Mandela spent a quarter-century in prison for refusing to renounce violent resistance to the Apartheid regime. Had he been released from prison before Apartheid was on the wane, he likely would have continued to support violent resistance as opposed to engaging in the political process associated with the end of Apartheid and the enfranchisement of all South Africans. But Friedman has never been one to bog himself down with mundane details - as I've previously pointed out, the Mandela he is talking about is the one played by Morgan Friedman in Invictus. His Gandhi is likely the one played by Ben Kingsley.

In his latest column, Friedman hints at a commonality:
Israel’s fear of Islamists taking power all around it cannot be dismissed. But it is such a live possibility precisely because of the last 50 years of Arab dictatorship, in which only Islamists were allowed to organize in mosques while no independent, secular, democratic parties were allowed to develop in the political arena. This has given Muslim parties an early leg up. Arab dictators were convenient for Israel and the Islamists — but deadly for Arab development and education. Now that the lid has come off, the transition will be rocky. But, it was inevitable, and the new politics is just beginning: Islamists will now have to compete with legitimate secular parties.
Both Egypt and Israel made a similar mistake when they saw the growth of secular opposition to their tactics. Egypt fostered the fundamentalist groups that turned into the Muslim Brotherhood and Israel exiled the PLO while funding and supporting Hamas. In a sense these tactics worked - they did weaken secular movements and move the affected regions away from democracy. But by the time it was apparent that the fundamentalist movements were a far greater danger than their secular predecessors, it was too late to turn back the tide. Even in bringing back the PLO as an armed governing body, between Hamas's foothold, the PLO's corruption and the continued occupation, it was too late to turn back the clock on Hamas. As much as Friedman hopes for secular democracy to prevail, without mentioning elections he notes "The two weakest states on its border — Gaza and Lebanon — are controlled by Hamas and Hezbollah."

Friedman offers a great deal of seemingly willful self-deception and half-truth in relation to Benjamin Netanyahu, noting that Netanyahu favors stonewalling on the peace process in the wake of the "Arab Spring", but failing to note that Netanyahu has been a staunch opponent of the peace process throughout his political career, and is in fact far better known for his efforts to impede the peace process or roll back progress.


Friedman expresses, "I understand Israel not ceding territory in this uncertain period", but fails to acknowledge that there has never been a period in which Netanyahu has been willing to strike a deal that would return occupied lands to the Palestinian people, and as always he is presently expanding the size, scope and population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Friedman also fails to clarify that when he speaks of "ceding territory" he in fact is speaking of annexing territory - the 1967 Green Line border is well documented. The present dispute is not over whether Israel would cede so much as an inch of its own land - nobody has argued that it would do so except in the context of a voluntary land swap - but is instead how much Palestinian land Israel will demand be ceded to it as part of any peace deal.

Friedman pretends he doesn't understand what is happening,
What I can’t understand is doing nothing. Israel has an Arab awakening in its own backyard in the person of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority. He’s been the most radical Arab leader of all. He is the first Palestinian leader to say: judge me on my performance in improving my peoples’ lives, not on my rhetoric. His focus has been on building institutions — including what Israelis admit is a security force that has helped to keep Israel peaceful — so Palestinians will be ready for a two-state solution. Instead of rewarding him, Israel has been withholding $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues that Fayyad needs — in punishment for the Palestinians pressing for a state at the U.N. — to pay the security forces that help to protect Israel. That is crazy.
Friedman knows very well what is going on. Netanyahu, and those in government who are further to his right, are hoping that Fayyad fails in his efforts and that they can use the failure as their next excuse for why it's not possible to work toward a final resolution that they do not want. They want peace, if we define that as a Palestinian population that is kept out of sight and out of mind, controlled such that it can inflict a minimum of damage outside of its confines. But a final agreement that formalizes a boarder and creates a Palestinian state? There has never been a whit of evidence that Netanyahu wants such an outcome, and surely Friedman is aware of the far more radical views of Avigdor Lieberman and his followers.
Israel’s best defense is to strengthen Fayyadism — including giving Palestinian security services more areas of responsibility to increase their legitimacy and make clear that they are not the permanent custodians of Israel’s occupation. This would not only help stabilize Israel’s own backyard — and prevent another uprising that would spread like wildfire to the Arab world without the old dictators to hold it back — but would lay the foundation for a two-state solution and for better relations with the Arab peoples.
I agree completely. But unlike Friedman, I won't be making excuses for Netanyahu when it doesn't happen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Is This the Mitt Romney We've Been Waiting For?

We've been promised an introduction for years, and... look what the cat dragged in.

The Dems have started to run ads accusing Romney of flip-flopping. His initial response boiled down to, "We would like to respond to the accusation by... hey look, a bird!"
All told, Romney's campaign put on a dozen so-called "response" calls of their own, using surrogates like Nevada's Lt. Governor Krolicki and former Pennsylvania Congressman Phil English to attempt to hammer home the same message: the Obama campaign doesn't want to talk about the economy, they only want to tear down Mitt Romney.
Because nothing says "I'm presidential" by failing to refute any of the substance of the accusations against you (he's only had, you know, five years to think about it so how can you blame him for a flat-footed response) and reminding the public about your recent whopper of a lie. Romney's official excuse for the lie is the claim that he gave reporters a memo with the full quote, implicitly revealing the ad to be a lie. I'm not sure why he thinks that redeems his act of lying.

Meanwhile, he can't even hold the line on "Look, a bird!", and is pushing back by arguing that the campaign ad about his many flip-flops does not go into the nuances of his various positions. Given that we're talking about two or more competing positions on a large range of issues, I expect that covering Romney's nuance would require the production of a feature-length film. Romney's complaints are pretty thin:
Romney is shown saying: "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose." He made that statement at a gubernatorial debate in Boston in 2002.

The clip is juxtaposed with Romney saying: "The right next step is to see Roe v. Wade overturned." The quote, which is truncated, came from a 2007 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The full quote from the interview shows more nuance in Romney's position than the DNC ad reveals, with the candidate taking the position that each state should decide its own abortion rules.

Romney said: "First of all, my view is that the right next step in the fight to preserve the sanctity of life is to see Roe v. Wade overturned. And then to return to the states and the elected representatives of the people the ability to deal with life and abortion on their own."
That's the sort of milquetoast waffling one would expect from Romney - make it a "state's rights" issue rather than stating a clear opinion. "Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others." Except unless Romney's campaign is now asserting that Romney supports the right to choose at the state level, it's a distinction without a difference. And they aren't saying that, if judged by its timing as opposed to a dubious anecdote about a seminal discussion with a stem cell researcher, his flip-flop was all about pandering to the religious right.

Romney's team also complains about the ad's observation that he flip-flopped on health care reform by omitting "context" that showed his opposition to a public option. Except as Romney must be aware, there is no public option in the Affordable Care Act, so his "context" is irrelevant.

I expect that any number of third parties will engage in hair-splitting to lecture us that the ad was unfair in various ways to Romney by offering a highlight reel instead of the aforementioned feature length documentary. But it astonishes me how little Romney seems to care about veracity and how unprepared he is to defend his own record. No, I take that back. It's exactly what I've come to expect from him.

Myths Are Only a Problem If They're Actually Held By Somebody

Ross Douthat, apparently inspired by the cover of the latest Stephen King novel (although I won't rule out that he read the inside flap... or does that still count as the cover?) seems to take great offense that some people like President Kennedy. He outlines three "myths" of President Kennedy, along with an abbreviated history, that don't stand up to serious scrutiny.

I was going to ignore the column... yes, a lot of people who die young end up being romanticized, and Kennedy is often depicted through rose colored glasses; yes, people like Douthat hate, hate, hate Kennedy and want us to wake up to their version of reality, not that it's any more accurate than the myths they hope to destroy (although usually with a better eye toward what the myths and facts actually are). That song has been playing, on and off, for some fifty years and other than bringing Stephen King into the mix Douthat has nothing new to offer. Less than nothing.

But then I reached Douthat's conclusion, a patronizing lecture, and I thought... this is Ross Douthat?
This last example [that Kennedy was supposedly a victim of right-wing unreason] suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.
I guess my childhood in Canada left me deprived of access to the myth of Lee Harvey Oswald as a creature of the political right. Google tells me that on occasion somebody will make that claim and send the right-wing blogosphere into a frenzy, but I'm not sure what makes Douthat insist that it's a prominent myth that must be busted. Perhaps it's just a typical Douthat sneer at the left, "Can you believe what those people think", no more representative of reality than his express sneer about "the widespread suggestion that the schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner shot his congresswoman because Sarah Palin put some targets on an online political map." As I stated at the time,
You'll find few examples of anybody with any prominent making anything that resembles the charge. The closest actual example I've seen produced is a blog post to the Huffington Post by Gary Hart, somebody who long ago faded from the popular consciousness. And the criticism is not that people can't engage in free speech, but something that the vast majority of politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle demonstrate through their conduct - that when you're a prominent leader of an American political party, you should choose your words carefully. You won't find Mitch McConnell bandying about phrases like "blood libel" or using campaign slogans such as "don't retreat, reload", because he knows it's beneath him, that it's bad for the party and that it's bad for the political culture. The debate is about a handful of people who presently are the unofficial opinion leaders or potential political leaders of the Republican Party who think it's really cool to use violent rhetoric, and to give unqualified support to candidates who echo or expand upon their rhetoric.
But here I am, asking Douthat to think past right-wing talking points, and there's little cause to believe that's his strong suit.

Now we're at the point of a non sequitur. Douthat suggests that because some people supposedly believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a right-winger, we as a nation make all sorts of mistakes about how we approach politics. Obvioulsy I'm not seeing how the two are connected. More to the point, given that Douthat is able to "see through" his straw man "myths" about Kennedy and has no problem with violent rhetoric and imagery in politics, what's his excuse? Douthat complains, "We confuse charisma with competence" - sure, but that didn't start with Kennedy. Perhaps Douthat is offended that the public chose Kennedy's charisma over Nixon's competence? Whatever it is, when you hear people talking about which candidate has "presidential good looks" or which "gives good soundbite, and has shoulders you could land a 737 on", you're not dealing with deep or thoughtful analysis. When you hear somebody gush about a non-candidate "radiates youth", "has charisma and media savvy to burn", and his then-preferred non-candidate's presumed ability "attract voters on a visceral level" and appeal to "conservative YouTube watchers", you have to wonder if he has any business lecturing others about falling victim to form over substance.

The thing that pushed appearance and presentation to the forefront was not JFK's assassination - it was television. Unless Douthat believes that JFK's assassination played a role in why radio listeners tended to believe that Nixon won his debate with Kennedy while TV viewers tended to believe the opposite, he should have figured that out. Beyond the impact of television, and the expansion of public access to a candidate's unscripted moments, press coverage and media analysis of political issues tends to be poor. I won't lay the responsibility for that on any individual, but I don't see that it has anything to do with either Kennedy's assassination or any associated myths.

I'm also not sure how Douthat came to the conclusion that Kennedy's Assassination caused us to "find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame". I'll grant, if you buy into the conspiracy theories that Oswald was a patsy, set up to take the fall for whomever the "real killer" was, Douthat might be able to concoct some sort of association between the assassination and scapegoating, although even with that I don't see how he would transform Oswald into a "personal icon". But as with the confusion of charisma with competence, scapegoating has occurred throughout human history. Perhaps Douthat forgot about this example? What about defending people who cover up child molestation because you admire them? Is that something other than letting personal icons escape blame?

Even though he doesn't seem to be an admirer of G.W. Bush, Douthat wrote an exceptionally charitable interpretation of his Presidency. As willing as he is to judge Kennedy's foreshortened Presidency with the benefit of hindsight, he puts on those good ol' rose colored glasses for G.W., and I don't recall that he's ever taken a critical look at Ronald Reagan. As Joseph A. Polermo observed, on one of the blog posts linked above,
Not content to trash JFK from every which way and sideways Douthat also calls Kennedy “a serial blunderer in foreign policy,” even while calling him a few paragraphs later “a famously hawkish cold war president.” Douthat, a partisan Republican, doesn’t bother to enumerate these “serial blunders,” and one would think he would rejoice in Kennedy’s toughness toward the Soviet Union.... And what modern president CANNOT be characterized as a “serial blunderer” in foreign policy? (Certainly not Reagan — Douthat’s hero — with his fiasco in Lebanon during his first term, and the Iran-Contra Scandal during his second.)
Let's also not forget the strategy of building up fundamentalist opposition to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, resulting in the radicalization of Pakistan, and then abandoning the region once the Soviets withdrew, creating the void in which the Taliban rose to power and in which Afghanistan became a safe haven for the likes of Osama bin Laden. (In fairness to modern Presidents, I'm not sure that the adventurism of 19th Century Presidents looks much better through the eyes of history.)

I'm not sure where Douthat is going with his last point. If he's speaking literally, the U.S. has bee far less receptive to the concept "that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons" since JFK's assassination than it was during prior centuries. If he's speaking figuratively, I'm again not seeing the connection. Douthat told us that in his version of history people blamed the political right for JFK's assassination, so is he analogizing the political right to "subterranean demons"? I'm not attempting to do so - I'm just trying to make sense of Douthat's argument. And what's the connection to harms that "flow from fine words and high ideals"? Douthat, a professional writer, doesn't believe that people should strive to speak with "fine words" or that they should aspire to "high ideals"? That doing so is a mistake brought on by JFK's famous rhetoric?

The most charitable conclusion would be that he tacked on a closing paragraph that he thought sounded good without giving a second thought to whether it was consistent with or supported by his own columns, past or present, let alone his own behavior.

I don't mind the occasional lecture on the subject of our nation's superficiality - heck, I expect that I've made more than a few in this blog. I can even overlook the eccentric finger-pointing, an attempt to tie the irrational behaviors of humankind to a specific, modern event rather than acknowledging that they are part of the human condition, although my tolerance will be greater if it's offered in the context of a fair wake-up call as opposed to being tacked on to a partisan sludge heap. But I wish Douthat would focus on being part of the solution, not being part of a problem that he explicitly recognizes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Outsourcing on David Brooks and the "Democrat Party"

Cough, cough, hack, cough.

Sorry, something must have been caught in my throat.

Joe Lieberman, Offender of the First Amendment

Another wonderful idea from Joe Lieberman.

Now if only we can get the Senate to add buttons to members' pages so users can flag them for "pandering", "obfuscation", "mendacity", "bought and paid for", and "just plain idiotic".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The World's Simply Not That Just (Sorry, Ross)

Something that appears with some regularity in Ross Douthat's column is his notion that we live in a meritocracy, in which "the best and the brightest" rise to positions of power and fortune, and all the undeserving folks who don't manage to achieve that type of wealth or position should simply accept their lot - and certainly not suggest that the elite contribute even slightly more of their presumptively hard-earned wealth to the commonweal. Thus when Douthat makes statements like this,
The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans. It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.
At least if my current interpretation is correct, I was a bit unfair in accusing him of engaging in a form of class warfare, as he appears to sees accumulated wealth as something that is deserved - the war is thus not between classes, as such, but between the deserving and the undeserving. If you deserved more money you would have more money, and wouldn't need to join a union or suggest that rich people should pay more taxes. Undeserving seniors get Social Security and Medicare benefits that, in Douthat's eyes, they haven't earned. Rich people aren't selfish, even if they advocate a world in which they pay no taxes, because they don't have anything that they don't deserve. One might mistake him for a Calvanist.

It seems odd that would in all sincerity refer to the people who drove our economy into the ground or who have ruined companies and bankrupted investors as "the best and the brightest", given that the phrase was popularized by David Halberstam as an ironic reference to the well-educated members of the Kennedy Administration who pursued disastrous policies. After overt reference to "Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science", Douthat proclaims,
...for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.
Only ten years? It's been known for quite some time that giants often have feet of clay.

While Douthat reminds us that "pride goeth before a fall", it seems to me that Douthat confuses hubris with intelligence. That is, some people who profess to be intelligent, appear to be intelligent (often through the advantage of intensive coaching and tutoring, the use of professional speech writers, having questions submitted to them in advance, and the like), and even take great pride in their intelligence, turn out to possess less than impressive intellects. Douthat's example of "The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history" seems, to me, to be an example of exactly that phenomenon - bursting with pride, perhaps, but few of them appear to have been particularly bright.

Douthat urges that we, or perhaps I should say the Republican Party, seek
...intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.
Perhaps, though, we don't need "the best and the brightest," assuming we could measure it, let alone whatever subset of that class of people we could deem to have progressed sufficiently down the path toward becoming philosopher kings that we could trust in their humility. Perhaps what we need are people who are genuinely interested in the welfare of our nation and it's people, who have a clear sense of right and wrong, and who will attempt to bring the best solutions to the nation's problems without resorting to prevarication and hyperpartisanship. Above average intelligence would be a plus, but you can do a lot better than most of the present lot without being a genius.

As I previously indicated, Douthat's thesis extends into the world of business and finance, and he attempts to breathe new life into the Horatio Alger myth:
For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.
Reading that you would hardly know that upward mobility is in decline and has been for many years.

When Douthat observes that the "for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good", it's as if he cannot even conceive an alternate theory. Such as, some of the elites weren't as bright as he thinks. Such as, some of the brilliant people brought into the financial industry (e.g., physicists hired to create derivatives) were charged with to creating financial instruments that could not be understood by investors or regulators, not because they wanted to improve the economy but because it's easier to sell somebody a sow's ear if you first disguise it as a purse. That some of the people who were publicly denying a housing bubble were playing the same role as the tobacco industry executives who used to deny any connection between smoking and cancer - lying to make more money, and comfortable that even if others were harmed they, themselves, would continue to become richer. If Douthat paid more attention to the mindset of many wealthy people, and what a driving force money is in their lives, perhaps he would be less apt to confuse wealth with virtue.

I'm not sure what to make of the time frame Douthat proposes - while it is true that the dot com bubble and the housing bubble both burst during the past ten years I somehow doubt that Douthat, a self-described Republican, would argue that the Clinton Administration represented "the best and the brightest" doing things right - bright people making good decisions as a result of having "somehow learned humility along the way" - that he sees as absent from that same class of leaders starting pretty much when G.W. Bush took office.

Writing a defense of Joe Paterno, and of Catholic priests who covered up the sex abuse scandal in the church, Douthat takes a position that doesn't seem to square with his Catholicism, but does square with his idealization of the wealthy and powerful:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
It's not a matter of original sin, or that we're all sinners subject to temptation. People are either good and heroic, or are mediocre to bad. Deserving or undeserving. It's only after you decide that a person is "good" or "bad" that you can determine whether his sin reflects the cutting of corners and disinterest in aspiring to virtues, or if the sin reflects the person being so blinded by his own goodness that he simply cannot see that what he is doing is wrong.

Apparently it's easier for Douthat to perceive this "too good to do anything about horrific sin" phenomenon when he's looking at those who turn a blind eye to the horrific acts of others, as opposed to those who commit the acts. So he excuses a cardinal who helped cover up child sex abuse, who "praised a French bishop for refusing to denounce an abusive priest to the civil authorities, because that cardinal had previously done good things for the poor of Colombia. He similarly excuses Joe Paterno, who, according to a biographer, "'lived a profoundly decent life' and 'improved the lives of countless people' with his efforts and example", and can therefore be presumed to be "a good man", despite allegedly covering up the abuse of children by Jerry Sandusky.1

Wait a minute, you might interject, there are lots of very bad people who live lives that outwardly appear to be "profoundly decent", who devote time, energy and money to the aid of others, earning praise and adoration, who are ultimately revealed as frauds. A biographer might have described Jerry Sandusky as having "'lived a profoundly decent life' and 'improved the lives of countless people' with his efforts and example", but for the fact that this scandal broke. The same goes for Bernard Madoff. Even when someone repeatedly covers up misconduct, including the sexual abuse of women and children, that person cannot be presumed to be a human, and thus (as Douthat's church teaches us) a sinner. Douthat would instead project an odd version of the Madonna-whore complex onto the world at large, with some of us so pure that any sin could only be the "their very goodness", and the rest of us "bad or mediocre" whose objectively identical acts reflect our moral weakness.

Douthat asks in relation to the church cover-up, "How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Colombia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome?", but he doesn't back away from his notion that the cardinal was a good man simply trying to do right by his church:
It was precisely because Castrill√≥n had served his church heroically, I suspect, that he was so easily blinded to the reality of priestly sex abuse. It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley.
There appears to be a tribalistic element to Douthat's perceptions. That is, I don't believe he would look at the wealthy and powerful of nations like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Hussein's Iraq or Gadhafi's Libya and believe that the leadership represented a meritocracy who should not be asked to make a greater contribution to the less fortunate people of their nations, or whose bad acts can be excused out of a recognition of their saintly goodness. I doubt that he would extend that charity to the leaders of Greece and Italy. But when it comes to the financial industry, the Republican Party and the wealthy interests it serves, or popular football coaches, the blinders go on.

Douthat does not argue that sins committed "in the name of a higher good" are not sins. He instead argues that "No higher cause can trump" the obligation to serve natural Justice, "'what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt'" and that "not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark". That conclusion seems irreconcilable with Douthat's assertion that some people are so good and godly that they can be excused from moral judgment for doing exactly that, on a colossal scale, engaging in cover-ups that they had to have known would cause many additional children to suffer. While Douthat sees this as the result of a cognitive distortion ("they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution's various good works mattered more than justice"; they are "led into temptation... by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind" and "in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away"), for those who fall within his preferred tribes he cannot perceive the possibility that their motivations could be impure. He does not recognize that the patterns he describes - earlier lies or thefts or adulteries [that] make the next one that much easier to contemplate - are exactly those he claims would identify his idols as "bad or mediocre people".

Something Douthat does not appear to consider, at least with the context of his preferred tribes, is that some very bad people (and some who have no moral compass) work very hard to create a facade of being good and charitable, as the facade facilitates their gaining wealth, power and authority. There is no shortage of narcissists and psychopaths in our nation's board rooms, and some of them are extremely charming people. Douthat implicitly recognizes that the guy who creates a charity to help children in order to gain access to them for sexual purposes is a bad person. But what about the guy who creates a charity, not because he cares about its good works but because it will help his public image, because he knows he will be praised for his "good work", or because it will help him trick people into believing in his inherent goodness even as he schemes to deprive them of their money?

Douthat admits that among the good people of the Catholic Church there are "bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service", but how do you distinguish them from the others? Absent a scandal, from the outside it can be difficult to distinguish a charismatic psychopath, driven by lust for wealth, control of others, power and praise, from a true altruist who has risen to a position of authority, and scandals don't always come. But as scandals go, if covering up the sexual abuse of children isn't a sufficient test of who is good and who is mediocre, what is?

Douthat should consider that theodicy not only makes us ask why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to bad people. Particularly in terms of the distribution of wealth and power, the world is nowhere near as just as he assumes.
_________________
1. To me, the cover-up of scandals by powerful institutions exemplifies how "earlier lies... make the next one that much easier to contemplate", and even make the next lie necessary. Once you choose the path of the cover-up, you not only have to continue to conceal the original scandal, you have to conceal the cover-up. Also, institutions that cover up one atrocity rarely have covered up only that one - often it's their success in covering up nine out of ten such scandals, or ninety-nine out of a hundred, that inspires them to believe that they again engineer a successful cover-up. A cover-up, revealed, can do great harm to an institution, usually greater than that which would have resulted from initial full disclosure, but that harm may be less than what would occur were all of the scandals revealed to the public as they occurred.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tucker Carlson's 'No Judgment' Zone

Perhaps Tucker Carlson read David Brooks' column on judging others and... got the point? Missed the point? Sometimes it's hard to tell.
“But more than that, I say that as someone who’s philosophically committed to the truth that unless you fail — and I don’t mean in a minor I-didn’t-live-up-to-my-personal-expectations kind of way — but in a real way, where your neighbors avert their gaze when you pull into your driveway at night, when people think you’re a loser, if you haven’t had that experience, then you really don’t know yourself really well, you don’t know your limits, you don’t know what you’re capable of and more importantly, you don’t know what you’re not capable of,” Carlson said.

“I want to honor that, especially in a city that is given to quick and phony judgements about other people, the underlying point being ‘I’m better than him.’ I raise the middle finger to those people, and I raise a glass to Jack Abramoff and I’m proud to do so,” Carlson said.
Because nothing says "I'm not inclined to make quick and phony judgments about other people" like extending your middle finger to those over whom you're clearly professing moral superiority.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The ACA and the Legacy of Chief Justice Roberts

Scott Lemiux offers a short analysis of how he expects various Supreme Court Justices might rule on the Affordable Care Act. He references his earlier argument that the ACA is constitutional; I personally agree that the attempt to distinguish the regulation of "action" from "inaction" under the Commerce Clause is not justified by history, precedent, or the language of the Constitution. But as Lemiux argues, "The fact that the arguments asserting the unconstitutionality of the Affordable Care Act are weak, alas, doesn’t mean that the Court will reject them".

It's interesting to me that Lemieux gives almost no attention to Chief Justice Roberts,
Ruling that the mandate can be severed from the rest of the ACA would appeal to Kennedy and Roberts for two reasons: They like “minimalist” opinions that don’t go beyond what is necessary, and striking down the relatively unpopular individual mandate would probably not attract a great deal of public opposition.
Of all the Justices, Roberts has the most at stake here. You can view any other sitting Justice as a partisan, a hack, an incompetent, or the greatest legal genius on the court, but it is unlikely that any other sitting Justice will ever gain the title of "Chief Justice". Roberts is young and is apt to be on the court for decades to come. The same political considerations that led to his being nominated and made Chief Justice are not going away - his successor is apt to also be a new or newer, young appointee, who is anticipated to support the then-President's agenda for decades to come.

The decision in this case will be a large, if not overshadowing, part of Roberts' legacy. Will he be viewed by history as an activist, partisan hack who trashed health care reform, as a uniter who led the court through a difficult case and engineered a 9:0 (or 7:2) majority, or as the guy who oversaw a messy plurality that required years of additional litigation to parse. Lemieux doesn't actually state that there will be a clear majority opinion, but he also doesn't discuss the possibility of a plurality, possibly 4:3:2, or 4:3:1:1, or perhaps even more fractured with Justices joining parts of various opinions while dissenting from other parts and also writing their own dissents or concurrences.

Although some in the Republican Party appear to believe that the total failure of healthcare reform, and even the notion of universal access to health insurance, is misguided, the fact is that most Americans want decent health insurance. While shooting down the ACA may provide the "anti" faction of the Republican Party with a "feel good moment", it puts the nation right back on track to the disaster reform was hoping to avert - continued health insurance premium increases of 8% - 15% per year, rendering health insurance unavailable to more and more Americans. Strike the ACA and its various cost control measures and you place responsibility for that probable future squarely at the feet of the Supreme Court and the Republican Party. If you assume that Roberts is motivated either by his own legacy or by a wish to advance the Republican Party (as opposed to his personal legal philosophy that largely overlaps with the Republican Party's agenda), that has to give him pause.

The issue here goes beyond the mere appearance of creating a new constitutional doctrine in order to strike down a major piece of legislation, passed after extensive debate and controversy. Acceptance of the "action" / "inaction" distinction creates a line of argument that can be raised in pretty much any Commerce Clause case, including those that have largely been viewed as settled. Lemieux references the opinion of Laurence Silberman,
We think the closest Supreme Court precedent to our case is Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942). There, a farmer ran afoul of his allowed wheat acreage under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 by growing additional wheat, not for sale, but to feed his family and his livestock. Id. at 114-15, 118- 19. Filburn argued that the Act was unconstitutional as applied to him because he was not using the excess wheat for any activity in the interstate market. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected this claim. It held that even growing wheat for personal consumption, not for sale in any market, could affect the national price, and therefore was within Congress’s commerce power. Id. at 127-28. This conclusion was not only because his wheat might be diverted into the national market, as was recognized in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 18-19 (2005). Justice Jackson said even “if we assume that it is never marketed, it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market. Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon.” Wickard, 317 U.S. at 128 (emphasis added). Justice Jackson thus recognized that the Act “force[d] some farmers into the market to buy what they could provide for themselves.” Id. at 129. Although a regulation limited the size of the farms covered, the logic of the opinion would apply to force any farmer, no matter how small, into buying wheat in the open market. See Raich, 545 U.S. at 20. Wickard, therefore, comes very close to authorizing a mandate similar to ours, at least indirectly, and the farmer’s “activity” could be as incidental to the regulation as simply owning a farm.

Indeed, were “activities” of some sort to be required before the Commerce Clause could be invoked, it would be rather difficult to define such “activity.” For instance, our drug and child pornography laws, criminalizing mere possession, have been upheld no matter how passive the possession, and even if the owner never actively distributes the contraband, on the theory that possession makes active trade more likely in the future. And in our situation, as Judge Sutton has cogently demonstrated, many persons regulated by the mandate would presumably be legitimately regulated, even if activity was a precursor, once they sought medical care or health insurance. Thomas More, 651 F.3d at 560-61 (Sutton, J., concurring). The Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected these kinds of distinctions in the past–disavowing, for instance, distinctions between “indirect” and “direct” effects on interstate commerce–because they were similarly unworkable. See Wickard, 317 U.S. at 119-20; see also Lopez, 514 U.S. at 569-71 (Kennedy, J., concurring). [footnote omitted]
I recognize that the small faction of the political right that would love to see all of the New Deal decisions reversed would rejoice at the idea of the Supreme Court revisiting that era's Commerce Clause cases, but the implications of such a decision, both in terms of political consequence and judicial economy, are enormous.

I would like to tell you that none of this matters, or none of this should matter, but I would be wrong on both counts. Chief Justices (really, all of the Justices) do consider their legacies. And it is appropriate for the Court to weigh the impact of a decision on society, and the availability of remedies at the ballot box, when asked to invent new rules of law in order to strike major pieces of legislation. Chief Justice Warren knew the importance of public perceptions when he engineered a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). If he wants to demonstrate that he was a good choice for his position, Roberts would do well to work behind the scenes to obtain an opinion that is supported by a clear majority of the Court and rests firmly on established precedent.

Sometimes There's No Excuse for Inaction

One of the interesting things about human nature is how we recycle ideas and, each time, seem to regard them as brilliant new insights. For example, every few years you will read an essay deploring "kids these days" and wondering how the world will survive being led by such debauched slackers. And you can keep going back, a few years a time, and find what amounts to the same essay, over and over again, back to antiquity. There seems to be a temptation to view human nature as malleable and subject to dramatic change within a generation, even though we have millennia of human history that hold to the contrary.

A couple of things you may note if you review human history: many instances of false bravado, and many instances of the judging of behavior and conduct of others with little regard to what the speaker might actually have done under similar circumstances. Within the latter context, sayings like "Judge not lest ye be judged," "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and "Don't judge by appearance". Which is not to say that people should not be judged appropriately, just that you should not condemn others for sins equivalent to your own or without first having a sufficient appreciation of the facts, or judge others by the same standard you would have applied to yourself.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
To a degree, when David Brooks argues against feeling superior to others, his comment is fair. It's easy to feel smug and superior when you have no connection to the time and face no personal risk. But beyond that his thinking is exceptionally sloppy.
Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
Brooks spends some time discussing "motivated blindness", when people literally avoid seeing or processing information that makes them uncomfortable. There is a significant distinction between not fully understanding or appreciating a situation due to the foibles of the human mind, and fully appreciating the situation but choosing to do nothing, yet Brooks conflates the two.

One example of motivated blindness would be the victims of Bernie Madoff. If you read their statements, many of them explicitly state, "How could I not have seen what was happening? How could I have been so stupid?" Or even, "I knew it was too good to be true, but I still thought this was the real thing." We humans do have a remarkable ability to fool ourselves and there are few people who get through a lifetime without being scammed in a manner similar to Madoff's victims, albeit almost always with lesser stakes. It is fair to remind people who judge those victims of that reality.

But there are other atrocities, including the three described by Brooks, that don't fit well into the "people see but don't see" narrative. It's not that there aren't people who didn't see at all due to a lack of exposure, saw or perceived signs of trouble but for one reason or another dismissed them, or were willfully blind to the reality that should have been patent. But in all three examples there were people who saw horrors that they could not rationalize away and did nothing.

Even in that context, doing nothing may not be morally reprehensible. It is easy to point to a massacre and claim, "If I were there I would have done something," or "Shame on those people who stood by and did nothing." It's quite another when there are people with guns committing a massacre, your life is on the line and, objectively speaking, all your words or action will achieve is the addition of your body to the pile of corpses. Not every choice is that extreme but there are any number of situations in which the failure to speak or act is understandable, even if it would have been more honorable to do more.

Brooks wants to roll all of this into the bystander effect: "The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene." He complains that on YouTube there are videos of beatings, "with dozens of people watching blandly". Honestly I have not seen any of those videos and don't much care to go searching, but even accepting that dozens of such videos exist I think it's a bit presumptuous to assume that nothing was happening off-camera, or that you're getting the full picture from your impression of the "people watching blandly". It is fair to say that the bystander effect may be at play in some or all of the videos, with people assuming that somebody else will intervene, call the police or take other action. On one hand I wish Brooks had given an actual example, but on the other I appreciate that if he is able to link to a paradigmatic example I don't have to watch it.

Brooks attempts to provide splashy, non-YouTube examples, starting with the Kitty Genovese case that he tells us "is mostly apocryphal". It's unfortunate that the best examples of a phenomenon often turn out to be a bit "factually challenged". His next example is,
A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate.
Brooks didn't provide a link, but it was not hard to find the story.
At one point on that night, he said, an employee at the Apple Store next-door to Lululemon Athletica heard a woman’s voice cry out: “Oh God, please help me.” A worker pounded on the wall but did not take further action, he said.
The fact that one person, applying 20/20 hindsight and no doubt to his regret, learned that pounding on the wall was not an adequate response to the cry from next door is duly noted, but does not suggest "motivated blindness" or make it a compelling illustration of the bystander effect.

Brooks' last example involves a disturbing case, that occurred five years ago in France.
Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was tortured for 24 days by 20 anti-Semitic kidnappers, with the full knowledge of neighbors.
An account in the New York Sun describes how Halimi was kidnapped by a gang known as "The Barbarians" and that "Halimi had been held in several different places in and around Bagneux, whose residents, most of them immigrants, did not appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary." It's not clear how Brooks jumps from that to the idea that people outside of the gang were willfully blind to their actions, or knew and did nothing, and once again he doesn't offer the courtesy of a link to his source. It's possible that he was using this site, which claims without citation that "neighbors in the apartment block where his kidnappers had taken him (and where they lived) heard the commotion and came to watch", but we can only guess.

If we assume that occurred, the neighbors who came to watch weren't demonstrating the bystander effect - they were complicit. There is a huge difference between passively encountering a crime and intentionally going to watch the crime occur. Further, it seems self-evident that a violent gang of kidnappers would not let anybody watch their actions unless they were confident that the person would keep silent, and that those attending would understand as much. In terms of the possibility that some people in the gang's vicinity suspected that something was happening or chose to turn a blind eye, that seems more analogous to why people don't call police on gangs and drug dealers in dangerous neighborhoods around the world - it's typically not that they don't want the thugs prosecuted and jailed, but that they fear reprisal.

It is that last example that best illustrates the weakness of Brooks' thesis. Brooks argues that we should not judge bystanders. If that argument means, we should not judge the neighbors of a violent gang for not calling the police over noises they hear through the wall, it's fair. Neighbors of gang members often live in fear of the gang, or of the violence that can erupt around gang members and their households. If you don't have to worry that gang members will take revenge against you or your kids, or that you might catch a stray bullet from a rival gang by virtue of being too close to their intended target, you need to give the context more thought before you sound off about what you would do in that situation.

It is difficult to believe that this is lost on Brooks, but both the severity of an offense and the role of the "bystander" play a role in accountability. We're not talking about a dichotomy of offenders and bystanders. When you are talking about the collective action of a gang of self-described "Barbarians", even if some of the gang's members were away during this particular crime, it is fair and reasonable to judge them for their association with the gang. Even if some of the gang members did not directly participate in the crime, it is fair and reasonable to judge them. And there has never been a time in history when society at large would have adopted Brooks' supposedly superior approach, with the people quietly contemplating, "How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive", instead of judging.

People see other people litter, speed, and commit other trivial offenses all the time, and almost nobody calls the police. On the other hand, apocryphal accounts aside, when people see somebody being beaten or stabbed in a public street they typically do call the police.

Brooks tells us, of all things, that "we’re not Puritans anymore",
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Funny, I don't recall that the Puritans much hesitated to judge and condemn those who succumbed to "the evil within themselves". As ahistorical as Brooks' claim may be, I might have been more sympathetic to it had I not heard his prior version:
I don't think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don't have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it's wrong, but they've been raised in a morality that says, "If it feels all right for you, it's probably OK." And so that waters everything down. The second thing is a lot of the judgment is based on the supposition that if we were there, we would have intervened.
You know, "Kids these days". (Doesn't it seem like Brooks is, oh, what's the word for it, judging people here?)

Brooks is back to confusing bystanders with insiders and participants. People are not angry at peripheral players who either had no direct involvement or could suffer serious consequence through their action. Brooks, sneering at those who would judge, states,
The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
First, there's a good chance that a lot of the people speaking would have taken action over what Brooks, himself, describes as an "atrocity". And it is fair for them to note that, however much sympathy you may have for Mike McQuery the graduate student, it's more difficult to turn a blind eye to his knowledge that nothing was done over the course of the next decade, during which he built a career at Penn State and had additional encounters with Jerry Sandusky, including times when Sandusky was in the company of children. Similarly, other than the potential for a comparatively modest furor over how it happened, there would have been little consequence to Joe Paterno had he followed up and insisted upon an adequate police investigation of McQuery's report, and he was in a better position than McQuery over subsequent years to see continuing disturbing behaviors that he, also, failed to stop. As Scott Lemieux puts it,
When it comes to people who are sure that they would have stood up to the Nazis or thugs with machetes or school shooters or whatever then I agree that they’re just blowhards. But Penn State was nothing like those cases. It wasn’t a question of standing up to power; Paterno, Spanier, and Curley were the power. They didn’t face physical retribution or even (if they had acted in a timely manner) substantial career retribution for doing the right thing. To compare this to people who didn’t join the French Resistance is absurd.
Contrary to Brooks' claim, the problem is not that we have muddier moral waters or have lost our sense of evil, unless perhaps he's using the "royal we". Forty or more years ago, crimes like those attributed to Sandusky were far less likely to be reported, and it would have been much easier for somebody in his position to prey on vulnerable children without fear of retribution. Over the past forty years, ages of consent have risen in most states. Penalties for all forms of child abuse have been increased. And to the extent that 67-year-old Sandusky or 84-year-old Paterno have a muddied sense of right and wrong it is fair to note that they came of age during Brooks' golden years of moral virtue, not the sixties and seventies.

Worse, if we do things Brooks' way, nothing changes. If you don't press those who are in a position to right a wrong, to stop an "atrocity", or take Brooks' position that anybody who attempts to hold them to account is deserving of scorn, you all but guarantee that history will repeat itself. Contrary to Brooks' position, this counter to his position is anything but new. To quote John Stuart Mill, from his 1867 work "On Education", "Bad men need nothing more to compress their ends than that the good men should look on and do nothing." (A variant, "All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing" has been in popular use, in various forms, for many decades.) It is better that humans follow their nature and judge, sometimes inappropriately, than that we instead take the milquetoast, amoral approach endorsed by David Brooks and engage in navel-gazing rather than holding to account those who could stop evil.

Computers Can't Eliminate Poverty

I recently read a particularly cynical take on the effort to distribute computers to children in impoverished areas of the world:
What a child needs is to be sequestered from human contact with the latest technology. A third world educational initiative should be conducted in the manner of an experiment in developing the cognitive power of chimpanzees. Feel the techno-idiocy: it burns.

I remember this idea getting serious momentum years ago until it was pointed out to some of the philanthropists that the places they were planning to distribuite computing to didn't have electricity. Now they've figured out how to put solar panels in the things, so its let them eat laptops: the sequel.
In fairness to the cynic, the actual proposal literally involved "tak[ing] tablets and drop[ping] them out of helicopters", unaccompanied by "any adults or teaching resources" to "see if the tablets could be used to teach them to read without additional instruction", with allusions to the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy", an approach that does seem rather absurd.

Thomas Friedman's recent column on an initiative to distribute inexpensive tablet computers to children in India brought it to mind, sharing a second-hand account of a maid's reaction to learning of the program:
"'What can you do on it?’ she asked me. I said, ‘If your daughter goes to school, she can use it to download videos of class lessons,’ just like she had seen my son download physics lectures every week from M.I.T.’s [OpenCourseWare]. I said, ‘You have seen our son sitting at the computer listening to a teacher who is speaking. That teacher is actually in America.’ She just kept getting wider- and wider-eyed. Then she asked me will her kids be able to learn English on it. I said, ‘Yes, they will definitely be able to learn English,’ which is the passport for upward mobility here. I said, ‘It will be so cheap you will be able to buy one for your son and one for your daughter!'"
I think that a decent computer, along with an adequate source of power and access to content, can be a powerful learning tool. But let's be honest here. Even if we assume that they have access to quality instruction, most kids aren't going to spend hours staring at the screen of a notebook computer trying to learn math or English. We may be dealing with a particularly motivated population of students and parents, but even within that context there is going to be a lot of frustration and failure. Hardware is the easy part - creating and distributing quality, up-to-date, accessible software and content is costly and difficult. Even if you create it, absent strong motivation it's likely to be underutilized.

If a school district were to propose to Friedman that it was going to totally eliminate classroom instruction in favor of having kids buy notebooks, no verification of Internet access, lessons and content to be developed at some point in the future, I would hope he would be skeptical and critical. This type of technology distribution is much more of an "every little bit helps" approach than a magic bullet.

I would like to see India push forward and invest the necessary money in content, software and infrastructure to make distance learning a reality for every one of the nation's children. Even if we assume only 5% of kids will actually see a significant benefit, advancing academically at or above 'grade level' despite a lack of access to schools and teachers, or using the computer to push beyond what they can learn in class, that's a lot of kids. Although I agree that you can't eat computers, it is not likely that the kids who most need this type of program will have reasonable, equivalent access to educational opportunity.

Shorter David Brooks

First they came for the communists, But who are you to judge?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is That a Frog In Your Throat...

Or is it a Newt?

If you're a Republican, as flavors of the month go, either way I suspect it will leave yet another bad taste in your mouth.

I don't see Newt winning the race because... well, to understate the problem, he doesn't exude charisma and he has a long history of taking stances that probably won't help him in an election - no matter how vigorously he objects that it's unfair to accurately quote his past statements. As flawed candidates go, he's much more of a danger to the party than Romney.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Narcissistic Side of Twitter

In thinking about Twitter, and the reason it lives on despite its core functionality being replicated by services like Facebook and Google Plus, two things occurred to me. First, Twitter achieved its initial rise due to an influx of celebrities. Second, Twitter allows ordinary people to follow, or even be followed by, celebrities, to engage in what seems like a conversation, and perhaps even to experience the excitement of having a celebrity respond to or re-tweet something that they have said. Second, it is the faux relationships that continue to drive Twitter. The sense that somebody you have seen on television "knows" you, cares about what you say, or is even reading and writing her own tweets. Yes, some celebrities manage their own feeds. Others have publicists or staff members who handle that for them, yet even when they're known to use proxies other Twitter members still seem to feel the thrill of contact.

Twitter serves celebrities, in that much of celebrity is built upon a false sense of communality or camaraderie, and now you can have "proof" that a celebrity likes you and cares what you have to say. It's an automation of the historically slow process of receiving fan mail, perhaps responding to it, perhaps dropping in a head shot. It's like being a member of a celebrity fan club, but where the celebrity actually "knows you you are" and "shows up". Twitter may be the virtual equivalent of the butler at the door or, for those who tweet through proxies, the virtual equivalent of the intercom between the butler at the door and you outside the locked exterior gate. But if you can't see all of that distancing, is it really there?

What brought this to mind today? A smart person who probably should know better than to care about Paris Hilton in the first place:
Paris Hilton is tweeting up a storm about how much she loves Bali. It's her first visit. She tweeted a few hours ago, "Make a wish. 11.1l.11"

Since I've stood up for Paris on TalkLeft so many times during her various legal difficulties, I thought I'd ask her a favor. I tweeted her in reply:
@ParisHilton I wish you'd visit Aussie Schapelle Corby, doing 20 years for pot in Kerobokan Prison in bli, Pls Google her name.
"I've blogged favorably about her," meets, "She's on Twitter", and somehow that seems to become, "She may listen to me and perhaps even share my outrage at Bali's legal system". Even if we assume Paris manages her own feed, and doesn't pass that task off to a publicist or intern, what about Paris would make you think that her trip to Bali and her raving about the wonders of the country is being driven by her amazement? Would it not be a safer bet that she has been comped or compensated to promote the nation or certain of its attractions, and won't be saying anything negative? (Call me cynical, but I believe Paris's raving is a thinly disguised sales pitch from a somewhat over-the-hill celebrity spokesmodel. Bali isn't under FTC jurisdiction.)

If a celebrity "friends" you on Facebook or, if we're to that point, adds you to a Google Plus circle, you can see (or search for) your face among the tens of thousands of others. Yes, if you want to browse the members somebody claims to follow or his list of followers, your account will be every bit as difficult to find. But Twitter puts the feed, not the faces, front and center. And due to occasional celebrity retweets or responses, people do get reinforced that their tweets are being heard.

I heard a celebrity being interviewed recently (it may have been Louis C.K.) and he mentioned both that he didn't like Twitter and that people got angry at him because he didn't follow anybody. (Solution: Hire an intern?) To me, this highlights the extent to which Twitter flourishes upon the false sense of "He likes me too". Even if you never look at the feed, you'll have a happier population of followers, and probably a much larger one, if you make them think you care what they say. Twitter makes that easy.

I don't mean to diminish Twitter's value as a communication tool. There are people who like it for following news, politics, business tips, etc. I just happen to be coming to the conclusion that the thing that allows Twitter to continue is the false sense of community it creates between its high profile members and their followers and that, absent that, it would be a shadow of its present self. A mere year ago, Justin Bieber was responsible for a full 3% of Twitter's traffic. What does that tell you?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not the Republican Way

Newt Gingrich wants you to know that it's not "the right forum to criticize a fellow Republican" when you can see his face.

To maintain proper decorum it should only be done behind his back, from a safe distance.

Memory Problems Are More Significant When You're BS'ing

Rick Perry's inability to recall which government agencies he wanted to eliminate has evoked some sympathetic responses about human memory:
Texas governor Rick Perry's public "d'oh" moment makes for excruciating viewing, yet such is the fragility of memory, it's amazing this kind of thing doesn't happen to politicians more often.

Memory slips are a part of everyday life, from failing to remember a famous actor's name, to going upstairs to get something only to arrive and realise we've forgotten what we went there for. A pertinent study by Icelandic psychologists published in 2007 involved 189 healthy participants aged 19 to 60 keeping a diary record of these kind of memory slips. After a week, the participants had made an average of 6.4 errors each, with the younger ones actually making more errors than the older folk.
That particular article suggests possible reasons that Perry couldn't recall the hire agency because of context ("recall is easier when it's performed in the same context as encoding... If Perry could have simulated the stress of a live debate when he was preparing what he was going to say about the agencies, he would have been more likely to remember all three names when in a real stressful situation.") or interference with competing memories ("The very fact that Perry was able to recall the first two agencies could well have made it more difficult for him to name the third.")

I remain inclined to think that there was a different cause. But either theory reminds me of a video of Jim Morrison performing a Doors song while on the verge of nodding out. His microphone stand is probably the only thing holding him up, but he still hits every note and remembers every word. It's practiced, internalized, believed. But had you asked him to perform, let's say, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" the experience would have probably been more like Ozzy Osbourne's classic fail.

If Perry's memory problems are simply those that could happen to anybody, it is reasonable to say that it was a matter of how he prepared for the debate. That is, he was not presenting to the debate audience a list of policies that he had carefully contemplated and developed. He was presenting a list that somebody had handed to him, nothing more than a mindless talking point, something that he hadn't thought about, didn't believe, and didn't care about. He was regurgitating somebody else's thoughts onto his audience, and some of it got stuck in his throat.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that somebody can forget one of a list of points, even a short list, that they've internalized. And there are countless examples of people, including politicians, fumbling for a word or using the wrong word even when it's obvious that they know what they have in mind. What was disturbing about Perry was that the answer did not seem to be at the tip of his tongue. The reason it stands out from other similar cases is not that politicians rarely make mistakes, but that it felt like he didn't actually know what the third agency was supposed to be. That he was up there, BS'ing his audience.

The fact that Romney was able to offer up an agency to complete the list ("the EPA") reflects, I think, the shallowness of the Republican race - but really the shallowness of most modern political campaigns. Nobody in their right mind would propose that our nation would be improved by abolishing the EPA, but it's perfectly legitimate for Republican political leaders to engage in anti-EPA demagoguery. It's more than legitimate - it's expected. Call it the surprise of the night: Perry actually pushed back against that suggestion with "Reform, but not abolish". In this insipid political climate, he probably would have earned a round of applause if he had simply grabbed the EPA as #3 rather than continuing to fumble.

It would have been interesting to see how Perry answered a follow-up question, "What does the Department of Commerce do", because I expect that he would have fumbled that answer as well. Another question might be, "Why the Commerce Department?" or "How much money would that save - when we're talking about multi-trillion dollar budgets, isn't the Department of Commerce's annual budget in the realm of a rounding error?" When it's obvious that a candidate is simply reciting talking points prepared by others, why won't our nation's media hold his feet to the fire?

Jon Huntsman, who has suggested that the GOP cannot afford to run away from science, was challenged to identify which of his opponents stood against science. He demurred. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, that his demurral was to avoid looking like a jerk on camera, as it's easy for a direct response to lead to unpleasant exchanges, "What about so-and-so" follow-ups, accusations of being unfair, etc., but the moderator from that debate no excuse. The precedent is here:
Mitt Romney's recent flip-flop on global warming, and the ease with which he proposed the EPA as an agency that should be abolished, illustrates a problem for Republican candidates. They have helped cultivate a culture of scientific ignorance on the part of their base, and they are handsomely rewarded for doing so by certain industry groups. Romney is not the favorite candidate of the scientifically ignorant base, and I don't think his flip-flop was meant to earn favor with them. I think he was signalling to the energy industry and similar industries that he will allow more pollution, energy exploration in environmentally sensitive areas, won't attempt to regulate greenhouse gases, etc., to keep their money rolling into his campaign.

Mark Twain quipped, "Always tell the truth, then you don't have to remember anything." Romney momentarily lived that philosophy, expressing concerns about global warming consistent with science, then walked them back in the interest of his political career. Perry? He was presenting a packaged talking point that meant nothing to him and that he knows has no political future. And it overloaded his memory circuits.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Serious One"

Tongue bath vs. cold shower.

Was I Too Dismissive of Newt?

My thought on making Newt the anti-Romney, "that's not going to work". Paul Krugman, though, suggests that "there’s still another Anyone But Romney candidate in serious play" followed by a picture of... not Newt exactly, but you can't miss the reference.

Serious play? Or serious denial?

Somebody Needs to "Twelve Step" The Man

You may have read something a while back that seemed a bit odd - even when Perry was riding high in the polls, his most significant historic financial supporter (and "Swift Boat Liars" financier) Bob Perry "(no relation)" was sitting on his wallet, along with a number of others who might have been expected to be writing checks. Perhaps they knew something that is now becoming obvious to the world.

I'm not saying it's the only possibility but, to me, a display like this:
screams "I took a benzodiazepine, probable Xanax and probably in too high a dose, before taking the stage." Somebody once described benzodiazepines as "alcohol in a pill". In the video, to me, Perry looks like somebody who is very intoxicated but is trying to act sober. What else do benzodiazepines do? They cause confusion. They can interfere with short-term memory.

As the video above confirms, I'm far from alone in wondering if Perry was "drunk or stoned". If I were inclined to give money to his campaign, despite the "high on life" reassurances of his campaign staff, I would want to see a blood screen. As Jon Stewart put it,
Best-case scenario, that dude's hammered. Worst-case scenario, that is Perry sober, and every time we've seen him previously, he's been hammered.
I don't want to dump on the man. It's easy to laugh. But by all appearances the man needs help and in my impressions are correct those who keep pushing him on stage aren't much different from this guy.

My campaign song suggestion ("Rehab") was pretty pointed, but one might infer that his staff prefers "Comfortably Numb".

Newts and Hip Waders: Made for Each Other

This certainly would be advice worth seven guineas, or thereabouts , er, I mean $300,000 from Freddie Mac....
"My advice as an historian when they walked in and said we are now making loans to people that have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything but that’s what the government wants us to do. I said at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible."
Fascinating stuff. If you ignore his public silence on the bubble, even in the face of very public attacks on people who were explicitly warning of a housing bubble, and ignore the zombie lie that the housing bubble was rooted in banks giving too many loans to poor people, you could almost believe that he actually is the smartest man in the GOP.

What did Newt do to warn the public of this absolute insanity?
Gingrich talked and wrote about what he saw as the benefits of the Freddie Mac business model.
Sheer genius!

Campaign Songs for the Republican Nominees

Four years ago, I proposed a variety of campaign songs for the Republican and Democratic nominees. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney haven't outgrown my suggestions of that time:
  • Mitt RomneyEverything To Everyone, by Everclear. A song about a habitual appeaser for a man who will say anything to get elected, even if he said something completely different fifteen seconds earlier. The song is about how appeasement leads to failure, and I suspect that it will prove to be on the mark.

  • Ron PaulFool On The Hill, by The Beatles. There may be more to him than meets the eye, but few seems to notice.

The current crop of Republicans is not an inspiring bunch, but it's not too late - perhaps a campaign song is just the thing to transform Newt Gingrich from, um, okay that's not going to work. Let's see... To transform John Huntsman1 into a serious contender. Meanwhile, Romney and Paul could use updated music, right? So here goes.....
  • Mitt Romney: Stuck With You, by Huey Lewis and the News. "We thought about someone else, but neither one took the bait; We thought about breaking up, but now we know it's much too late", doesn't that about say it all?

  • Michelle Bachmann: Girlfriend, by Avril Lavigne. It's not entirely fair to her, but she had to have a pretty good idea of her job description when she entered the race: "Convince people to support you over Sarah Palin, then fade into the background." Really - has the right wing media paid her any real attention since Palin made it official that she would not be running?

  • Ron Paul: You Won't See Me, by the Beatles. It keeps with the general Beatles theme and seems rather fitting, given how the media largely treats him as the invisible man.

  • Jon Huntsman: Can't You See, by the Marshall Tucker Band. I suppose there are contexts in which being told, "Not if you're the last man on Earth" could mean, "Once she sees how flawed her other suitors are, and that I'm truly, objectively the smartest, most honest, most capable person in the bunch, she'll start to like me," but most of the time it actually means "Not if you're the last man on Earth".

  • Herman Cain: Out Ta Get Me, by Guns 'N Roses. Because nothing says "I'm innocent" like a series of contradictory statements and conspiracy theories. He's going to go down fighting and won't give up until... every last copy of his book is sold!

  • Newt Gingrich: Boy For Sale, by Lionel Bart. No, it's not an allusion to his appreciation for orphanages. I can't think of any genuine purpose for his campaign other than to remind us that he's the Ed McMahon of conservatism - if I were cynical I might say that if you give him "seven guineas... or thereabouts", before you know it he'll have half of the commentators on Fox complimenting his brilliance as an "idea man" for spewing your drivel on the air.

  • Rick Perry: Rehab, by Amy Winehouse. A song that seems suitable due to his periodic incoherence, his odd effusiveness and... I forget.

  • Rick Santorum: The Best Song In The World!!!!. You vote for this guy, you deserve to get rickroll'd. And the substance-free lyrics seem somehow fitting for a substance-free candidate in a substance-free race.

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1. You say John Huntsman can't be transformed into a serious candidate? Alright then, would you have preferred I say Bachmann? Cain? Santorum? Sure, some people take them seriously, and in the modern Republican Party you can simultaneously be a cartoon character and a frontrunner, but please.... Sure, not so long ago Bachmann was touted as a "top candidate", but as was Perry, but they're currently polling well below Gingrich, in what you might call "Ron Paul territory." "Stick a fork in 'em."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Self-Indulgence of the Rich, Powerful and Famous

There seems to be a point in every dictator's life when his biggest worry is whether his toilets should merely be gold-plated or if they should be solid gold - cases in point include Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the Emir of Kuwait, and I'm sure there is no shortage of gold-plated potties in Saudi Arabia. But as Donald Trump and many others can assure you the gilded life isn't just for dictators. And as Michael Jackson might have argued, who says you can't take it with you? Nothing in this is new - gold isn't a particularly attractive metal when used ostentatiously, it's not a practical metal due to its softness and weight, but it's expensive, so screw that "King Midas" allegory and "gild me up".

The fundamental issue is that when they have accumulated so much wealth (by whatever means) that how they spend the money simply doesn't matter any more, and whether or not the money is technically theirs to spend, some people will find absurd, self-indulgent ways to squander the money, whether to satisfy their troubled senses of self-worth, to flaunt their riches, or to selfishly indulge their eccentricities. There's a non-pathological part of this that is human nature ("keeping up with", or perhaps one step ahead of, the Joneses), as humans by nature seem to be materialistic and tend to like things that are shiny and expensive. But there's pathology at play as well. ("I can't simply have tigers - they must be white tigers." "The 'Elephant Man's' skeleton is for sale, you say? How much would it cost to buy it, and is it gold-plated... yet?" "You say that I can choose between a $20,000 toilet seat that plays music, automatically sends cleansing jets of water to my delicate areas then gently blows them try, perfumes the room in case I have guests whose leavings actually stink, and maintains itself at a comfortable temperature such that my cheeks will never be cold, or $6 million for a solid gold toilet seat that is icy cold and would make even a commercial airplane lavatory seem inviting.... What's the upside of the cheap one, again?")

I would like to say that this is simply the quaint way that the ultra-rich live their lives and spend their (or their country's, or their shareholders', or your) money on expensive self-indulgence that creates a bizarre form of trickle-down to the vendors of the absurdly overpriced trinkets. But as you know, when you look at the people who live in this manner their eccentricities and self-indulgence very often extend into the rest of their lives (with the notable exception of Donald Trump who is a billionaire and is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known). Reading about the manner in which Gadhafi came on to women is creepy, and his apparent regard for Condoleezza Rice as if she were a gold-plated toilet seat with diamonds is perhaps creepier. Michael Jackson's sleepovers, whatever happened? Creepy. Sex scandals in the Catholic Church (distinguished, unfortunately, by the size of the church, not by the nature of the scandal)? Penn State? How creepy can you get.

Speaking of Penn State, I read somebody rationalizing Joe Paterno's apparent indifference to Jerry Sandusky's reported conduct, with "He was so focused on football, he probably forgot about it." Because, yeah, when you hear something like that about somebody you work with, it's in one ear, out the other. Apologists, it seems, are easy to find. It reminds me of the saying, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Except that in most situations to which that phrase would apply, if you do nothing you're not a good man.

Moamar Gadhafi was not a good man, and it would seem fair to say that his sons were the rotten fruit of the poisonous tree. One particularly horrible story involves one of his son's (the one presciently named Hannibal) nannies, horribly burned as a punishment for refusing to beat one of Gadhafi's grandchildren. There was a good man in the household, but it would seem only one:
Eventually, a guard found her and took her to a hospital, where she received some treatment.

But when Aline Gadhafi [Moamar's daughter-in-law] found out about the kind actions of her co-worker, he was threatened with imprisonment, if he dared to help her again.
Here's the thing: the guard who tried to help the woman knew that he was putting his job at risk, and perhaps risking a much more serious consequence, when he chose to help the woman. But people who have fame, power, money and celebrity are typically surrounded by sycophants and enablers. Even in the case of a Gadhafi, there were people who could have stepped in and said, "That's over the top." Some of the statements made by Gadhafi or, for another dictator who seemed to be deep in denial up to the end, Nicolae Ceausescu, indicate that his sycophants kept him in a bubble, "protecting him" from a truth that he would have seen had he simply been willing to open his eyes. They did nothing because it profited them to do nothing. In the case of a Jackson or Sandusky, you don't have to fear imprisonment, torture or death - the worst that could have happened from taking appropriate action would have been a possible career setback. It's only if your profession is "hanger on," or "enabler in chief" that "outing" the boss (or even confronting him in private) becomes a significant problem, because the next pathetic celebrity will know that you can't be trusted to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself, let alone to be complicit.

Whatever you think of Michael Jackson, he's an example of somebody who would have benefited on numerous occasions from a purging of the enablers in his life. "No, Michael, no matter how innocent, after the accusations made against you and your criminal prosecution, you can't have sleepovers with children. Even without the scandal, it's obvious that you have attachment and relationship issues you need to address, and this isn't healthy." "No, Michael, there is nothing more a cosmetic surgeon can do for you that differs from manipulation, and no ethical surgeon would operate given your body dysmorphic disorder, so if you insist on more surgery you're going to be overpaying a hack to mutilate your face." "No, Michael, even if you're in pain and can't sleep, it's not healthy to become dependent on propofol - if you need a surgical anesthetic to go to sleep, let's start addressing the actual physical, psychological and chemical dependency issues that underlie the problem." By all appearances, Jackson kept himself in a bubble similar to Gadhafi's. At some level he had to know he was surrounded by yes men, sycophants and enablers, but if you see the pathetic man who was so easily manipulated by Martin Bashir in his infamous interview, you have to deal with the astonishing reality that Jackson genuinely believed himself to be in some form of Neverland and that the interview would help the world recognize his normalcy.

Similarly, once Sandusky was shielded from criminal investigation on the times he was reportedly caught in the act, it seems that he pretty much took for granted that the protection would continue. His friends and colleagues who knew of the reports chose, "My friend, some kid... My colleague, a scandal for the football program..." and seemed to find it easy to make the wrong choice. Wrong, that is, from a human perspective. Right from the perspective of "What will keep me better positioned for my career, for making money, for keeping power and authority." And for an awful lot of people,1 that's all that counts.

Update: Although I don't want to focus unduly on Paterno and Sandusky, their story does share some lessons about human nature that help explain how rich, powerful and famous individuals and institutions can obtain and maintain support that seems blind to the facts. At LOG, there's considerable discussion of that aspect of human nature. Tod Kelly has posted a thoughtful essay about tribalism, and why people often engage in denial and defense of the indefensible, and the remarkable ability possessed by human beings to cling to opinions that fly completely in the face of known, obvious facts. He's correct, that the tribal aspects of human nature and our unwillingness to listen to people outside of our tribe is "part of the problem" when scandals such as those involving "Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Joe Paterno, Rick Perry, or... Steve Garvey" break.

Mark Thompson reminds us that we don't have to be defined by our worst acts (or omissions), even if our poor choices end up tarnishing or overshadowing our achievements. I'll argue a bit with this point:
A week ago, this man’s remarkable loyalty to his institution was deemed one of his most admirable traits; today, that loyalty has quite rightly cost him his job and his legacy and, most importantly, has been shown to have had unthinkable consequences for innocent children. That is precisely what should scare us the most if things like this are ever to become less frequent.
Paterno was willing to risk a scandal when he passed along the report of Sandusky's alleged conduct. He did not cover up that act out of loyalty to his institution. But when his institution chose to cover it up, he was loyal to the cover-up, and turned a blind eye to compelling evidence that Sandusky's misconduct continued. The longer things were covered up, and the more that was covered up, the worse the consequences of the truth coming out - and hence the greater the need to perpetuate the cover-up. In retrospect, doing the right thing - making sure that there was a full police investigation of Sandusky - would have been the best thing for Paterno, his (nominal) supervisors and the football program. But instead they gambled on the possibility that the truth would not come out.

E.D. Kain collects and shares some wisdom about the outrage at Paterno, and shares some thoughts about the genesis of tribalism.
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1. You can read that phrase in one of two ways; both are apt.