Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Sunday, December 01, 2013
I wanted to try to visualize how our national political discourse should work, and discus how it does work instead. Here's a simplified version: he wrote:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.Jefferson argued that public education in America would help international competition, but also that it was vital to democracy:
...Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.It bears mentioning that Jefferson was quite critical of the quality of the newspapers in his time, and felt one might be better informed if one didn't read them. (Some things don't change.) Nevertheless, his goal was a "well-informed" electorate, and he felt a free press and public education were important mechanisms for achieving this. Jefferson's views on these issues epitomize Enlightenment thinking, as does the notion that "all men are created equal." (Although let's not forget women or other historically disenfranchised groups.) Enlightenment ideals stand in sharp contrast to the ideology of certain conservatives, neocons, neo-feudalists, a large section of the ruling class, and their attending suck-ups and wannabes. This crowd is not too keen on the whole "democracy" thing, and focuses more on acquiring and keeping power. Its members feel it's okay to lie to the populace – ostensibly for the benefit of the citizenry – but in an amazing coincidence, those lies always benefit themselves. Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neoconservatism," was somewhat candid about this selective honesty to the public:
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences." Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."It's one thing to follow the writer's old maxim to "know your audience," and quite another to "lie to obtain and hold power." Kristol, like many of his fellow travelers and descendants, was an advocate of the supposedly "noble lie." All this bears mentioning because it would be wrong to assume that every political player actually believes in democracy, representative government, the social contract, basic civic responsibility, informing the public and voting rights. Far right activist Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the Heritage Foundation, stated in 1980:
Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome – good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.Although of course decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, conservatism itself has always had an anti-democratic strain. It's not a coincidence that voter suppression efforts for the past few decades have been almost exclusively conservative and/or Republican – and this past election cycle was no exception. However, the mainstream media struggles to call this out. It's naïve to believe that all political players are acting in good faith, or that citing "principles" automatically ennobles actions or renders them beyond criticism. Some ideologies and their principles are noxious (slavery, white supremacy, female subjugation, theocracy, voter suppression, "I always get to win," etc.). Denouncing taxation as forced labor, theft or slavery is childish, and complaining that you object to your taxes helping the poor "on principle" doesn't make you any less of an asshole… just a less honest one. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." As for democracy, the various versions of it have their flaws. Winston Churchill (who certainly had his own flaws) reputedly said, "The strongest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter," but he definitely said:
Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.A More Complex Model Here's a more complex graphic that better depicts the many disparate groups in our national political discourse: here for a better view. No lines for this one, because it would get too messy, but you can draw your own for specific groups. Yeah, I made this quite a while ago.) This isn't drawn to scale, of course. For instance, third parties are smaller in terms of their actual influence, and corporations are much larger. (That's kinda a joke, but not really.) Corporations aren't always allied, either, but when it comes to politics, they tend to have one voice, which unfailingly promotes a pro-corporate viewpoint. (Several charts making the rounds show how corporate consolidation has increased over the years in the media and elsewhere.) In case there's any confusion, I'll briefly explain these different groups: Democratic Leaders: The chart doesn't show smaller factions, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but that one doesn't get a great deal of press, anyway. This icon represents the political leadership of the Democratic Party. Republican Leaders: Likewise, smaller factions aren't shown (especially since members of "the Tea Party" are just rebranded conservatives). This icon represents the political leadership of the Republican Party. Third Parties: More than one "third party" exists, and they don't agree on every issue, but obviously they all dislike America's two-party system. I picked Nader for this one because he's relatively well-known as a third-party candidate, but picture another figure (Jill Stein, Gary Johnson) if you prefer or find Nader too polarizing. Corporations: It would be difficult to overestimate how much influence corporations exert on the entire political process, including the national political discourse. The "mainstream media" is for the most part corporate media, and it's rare that it will allow a viewpoint that isn't corporate-friendly. Conservative Think Tanks: The pictured Koch brothers fund an enormous amount of conservative "thought" and media (sometimes called "the Kochtopus"). Their numerous outlets can give a false sense of multiple factions that are in consensus that the rich are taxed too much and so on, when in fact it's one message delivered by multiple mouths. Left-leaning and "centrist" think tanks do exist, but as SourceWatch notes, "there are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money." Exceptions exist, but for the most part, conservative think tank "scholars" are pedigreed hacks masquerading as wonks. Most nominally libertarian organizations can be placed here or with the conservative voting groups, the Libertarian Party notwithstanding. Although the Cato Institute and Reason, both Koch-funded, will stray off the conservative reservation on some issues (e.g. legalizing pot), they reliably support plutocracy or plutocrat-friendly policies, environmental deregulation, and a gutting of the Commons, just like the Kochs. Academics and Experts: This group would be much better to feature in the news than most think tank "scholars," in that they're less likely to have a predetermined political agenda and more likely to tell the truth. However, some academics and experts aren't very good at explaining their field to laypeople, and some aren't good at facing off with hacks (who aren't there for an honest discussion). Corporate Media: There's more than one corporate media outlet, and they're not always in complete agreement (hence the two icons, although many more could be added to represent the "mainstream media"). Still, they tend to share a basic worldview, often unconsciously, that defers to power, from corporate interests to elite Beltway consensus (the "Very Serious People"). Fox News: Although Fox News is also a corporate media outlet, it's significantly different in that propaganda is a key driver in addition to profit, and the network has shown eagerness in not letting the truth get in the way of a conservative political attack. (For more on this, see basically everything every posted at Media Matters.) Right-Wing Talk: The hosts and guests on right-wing talk radio overlap considerably with those on Fox News, but there's enough separation it deserves its own category. (The radio-only crowd tends to be even crazier.) PBS/NPR: Public broadcasting has its faults, but its news coverage is generally better than that of for-profit corporate outlets. It has a little more independence. (Its non-political stories are generally excellent; for anything touching on politics, they sometimes tread too carefully or even bend over backwards not to call out conservatives – unfortunately, conservatives frequently threaten to defund them.) Independent Liberal Media: Truly liberal media outlets don't have the deep pockets behind them that other outlets do. Still, they do exist, even if they can be harder to find. True Swing Voters: The notion of the "independent" voter is largely a myth, but there is a small group that will actually switch between the two major parties (or go third party) between major elections. (This mainly applies to national elections, not local ones.) Likely Republican Voters: This group has a preference for the Republican Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise. Likely Democratic Voters: This group has a preference for the Democratic Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise. Diehard Conservative Cheerleaders: This group puts political party and the movement before most other considerations. General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. This is the group that still approved of George W. Bush as president no matter what, or stuck by Nixon to the bitter end (or, even if they never badmouthed him publicly, 'only liked him after Watergate'). Yellow Dog Democrats: This group puts political party before most other considerations. (As the joke goes, if the party nominated a yellow dog for office, these people would vote for it.) General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. Perhaps it's lack of opportunity, but I don't think this group has been as bad as their conservative counterparts. The closest equivalent would party loyalists who have defended actual (versus alleged) corruption by Democratic politicians or will not hear any criticism of the Clintons or Obama. Conservative Activists: This group is typified by right-wing bloggers and activists (for instance, pro-life/anti-choice demonstrators). They believe they are the true conservatives and the rightful adjudicators of ideological purity. They tend to be more conservative than the politicians they eventually support (they almost all voted for Romney, but often supported other candidates in the primaries). Still, the activist-politician gap is smaller for them than for their liberal counterparts, since a sizable number of genuinely right-wing public officials do exist. Liberal Activists: Members of this group tend to identify themselves as "liberals" or "progressives" rather than (or at least before) "Democrats." They typically think that the Democratic Party isn't liberal enough, and will criticize its politicians (although they may still judge them better than the Republicans on given issues or overall). For example, they probably agree with most positions of the Congressional Progressive Caucus or other individual politicians on the liberal end (e.g. Bernie Sanders), but are more critical of Democratic leaders and "centrist" to conservative factions such as the Democratic Leadership Council or Third Way. (It is true that the American Democratic Party as a whole is not very liberal compared to its international counterparts.) Astroturf Groups: These groups pretend to be grassroots activists, but are actually heavily corporate-funded. Pictured is Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader and rich lobbyist, who went on to be the chairman of FreedomWorks (he's since resigned), a supposed "Tea Party" group backed by rich conservative donors. (And sure, Dick Armey, establishment millionaire, clearly spoke for the little guy as he claimed.) Third Party Independents: This group is frustrated with the existing two-party system but also eschews internal reform in favor of supporting a third party instead . (There's more than one "third party," making the term technically inaccurate, but it's a common shorthand.) I wouldn't put establishment "centrist" groups such as "No Labels" in this category – they're closer to Astroturf Groups or perhaps the "Likely" groups. Artists: Not every artist is politically insightful, but some are extremely astute. As we've discussed here before, the Arts can sometimes capture the true nature of politics (particularly its mindsets and pathologies) better than "straight" journalism can. Political Jesters: The fools who can (and often do) speak truth to power. Sure, there are comics that traffic in cheap, shallow political humor, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, while not infallible, often do a better job at covering politics than traditional journalism, because they're not afraid to call bullshit. (In fact, it gives them greater credibility.) Not pictured are the various political groups out there, because simply too many exist. Plus, many roughly align with the various voting/activist groups. For example, the right-wing group Focus on the Family fits in with the Conservative Activists, even though not all conservative activists are theocrats or even social conservatives. Meanwhile, the ACLU is nonpartisan, but right-wingers hate it and civil liberties so much (except when it comes to their own) that it gets pegged as "liberal." The same basic dynamics hold true for Planned Parenthood, if more contentiously because abortion (and unfortunately, even birth control) remain so politicized. Planned Parenthood follows both the law and standard medical practices, so it could be argued it's more "conservative" than the strident activists of Focus on the Family, but of course most conservatives would never see it that way, and such a stance does not describe actual conservatism (versus the fantasy version). As we've explored before, despite their hype, most self-described conservatives aren't fighting to maintain the status quo; they're fighting for what they view as the natural order with themselves on top. They often speak of these efforts as a "restoration," even though their preferred hierarchy is long gone (and was horrible, and remains widely rejected) or never existed in the first place. It bears mentioning that not all reasons for being in a given group or listening to specific outlets are created equal. Nor is someone's self-labeling necessarily accurate. Voters often like to describe themselves as "independent" when they really mean "sensible." (Late in an election cycle, it's extremely rare for any "undecided" voters to be well-informed but truly ambivalent; at that point, almost everyone claiming to be "undecided" is a liar, attention-seeker, or ignoramus.) This chart could likely be improved, but I hope it's somewhat useful for discussing the mechanisms of political discourse (and how those affect the quality of discussion). The Types of Guests (and Where the Process Breaks Down) When it comes to political shows in the corporate media, the quality of the guests is often lacking. The various reasons for booking a guest are not all mutually exclusive, but the breakdown goes something like this: Merit/Expertise: Guests possessing actual merit, expertise and insight on the subject matter should be the most valuable and the most common, but sadly, they don't dominate the airwaves. As mentioned above, academics and experts don't always know how to adapt their speaking style to the demands of a political show, and some wonks can be flustered by hacks. Additionally, the producer of the show booking guests has to have some sort of mechanism in place for evaluating actual merit. Ideally, someone on the producing team would have some small expertise to help judge potential guests or be able to obtain a recommendation from a trustworthy source. Some sharp potential guests may not be on the producers' radar (certain bloggers). Reputation/Credentials: Instead of actual expertise, producers will often book guests based on reputation, which isn't quite the same thing, but the two aren't mutually exclusive. Paul Krugman, for example, certainly has the credentials to speak on economic matters, but he's also legitimately smart and insightful. Sadly, this category is where think tank hacks dubbed "scholars" often come in (as covered above, think tank wonks do exist, but certain institutions are dominated by hacks). This category is also the measure by which genuinely perceptive writers without a Beltway pedigree and worldview, such as Digby, are excluded. Power: It's reasonable to book guests possessing the power to influence or outright control a vote or policy, even if their views have little to no merit. For instance, James Inhofe's notion that "global warming is a hoax" is batshit crazy, but he was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and fights for climate change denial wherever he can in Congress. The same dynamics held true when the Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage or have engaged in similar recklessness. Ideally, journalists will question those with power about the merit of their positions, but in the more corporate outlets, such pressure typically only goes so far. Cosmetic Balance/Appeasement (Whining): This category demands the most discussion. Guests are booked because they represent a different point of view, even if that viewpoint has little to no merit. This makes more sense on the basic "power" level, inviting a representative of each major political party to discuss a policy or upcoming vote. It's much less defensible when there's a sizable "reality gap," and, say, an actual climate scientist is asked to debate an oil company shill, or a biologist is asked to debate a creationist on evolution, or any situation where an honest wonk is asked to debate a dissembling hack or sincere loon. This approach provides the image of balance while ignoring content and merit. Effectively, it entails that policy doesn't matter, because the show's producers essentially abdicate any fact-checking or vetting of merit, leaving this up to the viewer in the name of being fair while habitually denying the viewer crucial context for making an informed judgment. This approach is also employed to appease the conservative Wurlitzer, flogging its latest manufactured shitstorm, not that such appeasement typically works. (Liberals don't really have anything comparable.) The late Molly Ivins, back in 1987, had a great take on these dynamics (emphasis mine):
The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty. This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject.Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view." The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality: Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.In "The Heritage Foundation Has Always Been Full of Hacks," Jason Stahl presents similar dynamics as the result of aggressive conservative lobbying in the 70s and 80s:
...The highest value in debating policy would no longer be “best solutions” but merely having a balanced marketplace where the ideas of liberals and conservatives would be heard simply because they “balanced” one another. Such a way of debating policy, which we are still living under today, means that a policy’s identity as a conservative one that balances a liberal one is the only thing required for it to be heard. Such a discourse does not rule out the idea that liberal and/or conservative policies could be founded on analytical rigor, but also does not require it.This approach creates an anti-empirical, anti-qualitative, anti-content, anti-thoughtful, anti-social-contract, anti-policy framework for discussion. It's not good for the country, but it is a much cheaper product to churn out, especially in the bulk required for the 24-hour news cycle. It also provides the veneer of objectivity while generally discouraging deeper analysis. Good journalists still exist, of course, but their bosses high up the ladder are another matter. Corporate media heads view news primarily as a commodity to be sold versus as a public service. Member of the Club: This category often overlaps with Cosmetic Balance and Reputation, but when it's present, it's the dominating factor. Certain pundits and gasbags rarely say anything original and insightful, and at best shill the conventional Beltway wisdom (usually wrong) or their party's talking points. No matter how insipid or appalling their remarks, they never seem to be banned from the club; at best, they're banned for a short time. Reliable hack, grifter and verbal bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich is the poster child for this category, and proof the chattering class doesn't actually care about "civility." (See driftglass on the Gingrich rules for much more.) Headline Generation: This category can overlap with the others, especially Member of the Club, but doesn't necessarily. For example, in her heyday, Ann Coulter wasn't really a "member of the club" by Beltway standards, although she was a regular on Fox News and other right-wing outlets. Still, she was booked by major corporate outlets because she was ridiculous, inflammatory and "controversial." She didn't further the national discourse one iota, but she did generate headlines, and that made money. Newt Gingrich, who is a "member of the club," can be similarly counted on to say outrageous things in a calm tone to generate headlines. The general public and corporate media heads often aren't seeking the same things in news coverage, and it would be wise to remember that. A More Complex Outlook In general, our national political discourse is shallow and discourages nuance. It also avoids assigning accountability if only one party is indicted. None of the following statements are unusual or difficult for reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-informed adults, but they're rare to find on the Sunday shows (especially the conclusions): I could be wrong. Wonks on my side could be wrong. Wonks on the other side have some decent ideas. The wonks on the other side are wrong on certain issues, but they're still decent people. Dialogue with smart people who give a damn is a good way of coming up with better solutions. Nevertheless, one side's ideas are qualitatively better. Or: There are hacks and scumbags in the political party I prefer. Corruption is not limited to one party. Nevertheless, one side is considerably less corrupt (at least on certain key issues). Or: There are ill-informed citizens who believe things that simply aren't true. There are crazy people with genuinely dangerous ideas. There are zealots with genuinely reckless ideologies. There are people who seek power, whatever the cost to the country. There are truly evil people in politics. Many stupid, evil or crazy people don't view themselves as such. Many dangerous, reckless or evil people are legitimized by the Beltway establishment or the corporate media. Sadly, an American citizen will often be better informed if he or she avoids watching political talk shows, with their conventional, false wisdom and addiction to saying "both sides do it" and its variants. To quote a previous post:
There's a saying that democracy is a form of government where the country gets what the majority deserves. That would be more accurate if our national political discourse were more honest, more accurate, more civic-minded and more in-depth. (Previous posts on these themes: "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit," "Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux," "Civil Both-Sides Partisans," "Common Ground and Equal Blame," "False Equivalencies," "The Bullshit Matrix" and "The Social Contract.")…saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens: 1. Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties. 2. There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree. Naturally, the same crowd also holds that: 3. Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it's very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters. Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation... will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views: A. Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It's impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better! B. It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie. C. Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit. D. Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence. All of this also entails: E. Policy doesn't matter. This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, "sensible" centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor's New Clothes, the ol' ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
It's too late for this year, but the site Labor 411 has a useful list of union-made Thanksgiving food products. I imagine they'll have one up for Christmas, too. Relatedly, the smartphone app buycott allows users to scan products and look up who owns the company. It was designed with consumers who want to avoid buying Koch brothers and Monsanto products in mind, but it can customized by users of any political persuasion. I haven't tried it yet myself, but it's a neat idea that was proposed by Darcy Burner at Netroots Nation 2012. As with mandates on food labels and providing nutritional information, helping customers make informed decisions is a good idea.
Monday, November 25, 2013
With the holidays fast approaching, this is a good time for those with the means to donate to their local food banks, or for those in need to get assistance. In my area, the Los Angeles food banks make a little go a long way. (A few years back, I started making an annual donation about this time of year.) The Feeding America site has a useful national food bank locator. Meanwhile, the site Scary Mommy has a good post titled "Those People" about making unkind assumptions about the people benefitting from food drives. (The site is also organizing a Thanksgiving food drive for members of their community.) Best wishes to all those in need.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy; Blood and destruction shall be so in use And dreadful objects so familiar That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war; All pity choked with custom of fell deeds: And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial. – Mark Antony in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 3.1, 264–277.Tragically, it's easier to start a war than to end one. And it's easier, in national "debates" on war, for the wiser voices to be drowned out by the foolish, the vain, the frightened, the posturing, the political ambitious, and the greedy. Earlier this year marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But with the exception of James Fallows and few other journalists and outlets, there wasn't much reflection, certainly not when it came to lessons learned. As many a blogger has noted over the years, those who were right on Iraq have rarely been lauded and have even been punished professionally, while those were wrong have suffered few consequences, and in some cases have even been rewarded. Sober voices are not heeded, but any dog or cur howling for war can earn a buck – and worse yet, can be held in seemingly perpetual esteem. These dynamics must be addressed if wars of choice and convenience are ever to be stopped. Armistice Day, 11/11 (or Remembrance Day or Veterans Day), is about honoring both living veterans and the dead, but surely also for reflecting on the grave costs of war and striving to prevent unnecessary conflicts. It's not for ennobling transparently bad or self-serving decisions. It honors service; it does not absolve political sins. James Fallows wrote a series of excellent articles reflecting on the Iraq War, notably "As We Near the 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War." (His 2006 book, Blind Into Baghdad, compiles several prescient prewar articles and later pieces on the Iraq War.) As Fallows notes, accountability for being wrong has been scant. Meanwhile, the supposedly wise men who urged war with Iraq have given similar advice on Syria. In "Invading Iraq: What We Were Told at the Time," Fallows revisits the absurdly low prewar estimates (such as 1.7 billion) from the Bush administration and its supporters on the costs of invading Iraq. (It's hard to believe grotesquely bad faith or self-delusion wasn't involved.)
In the end, what did it really cost? Matthew Duss and Peter Juul of CAP have a summary. Among the elements: the direct cost of the war was about $800 billion, compared with the "shocking" estimate by Lawrence Lindsay of $100 billion to $200 billion. The cost of veterans' care and disabilities would be another $400 billion to $700 billion. And Iraqi reconstruction, which [Andrew] Natsios and [Paul] Wolfowitz had said would be essentially self-financing? This is how it compared not simply with Natsios's "one-point-seven billion dollars" but also, in inflation-adjusted dollars, with outlays for the Marshall Plan and other recovery efforts after World War II.Those costs don't include the massive lost opportunities for other budget expenditures or the price the Iraq War incurred on American prestige and the resulting harm to international dealings. (Back in 2008, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes predicted the Iraq War could eventually cost three trillion dollars; Bilmes now thinks the ultimate figure will be closer to four trillion.) War always inflicts a cost, and it's dishonest to downplay that. As early as 2005, a slight majority of Americans thought invading Iraq was a mistake and that withdrawal was the right course of action. By 2007, that was a solid majority (despite some variation in the precise questions asked). Yet somehow, withdrawal was rarely seriously discussed on the national level, and the voices in favor of it still tended to be marginalized. It was less uncommon for a war supporter to give lip service to the idea of withdrawal, but at some unspecified future date, under unspecified future conditions. It was a rhetorical stalling device, not a serious policy option. In theory, Congress declares war and reflects the will of the people, but the democratic principle doesn't appear to work when it comes to ending wars. The ruling class and their courtiers are habitually much more pro-war than the country as a whole. It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly). To be clear, I'm not targeting everyone who supported the Iraq War, especially members of the general public who understandably (but unwisely) trusted that those in power would not grossly misrepresent such a serious matter as war in selling it. But I'm greatly concerned that important and obvious lessons continue to be ignored. Meanwhile, a fair accounting of the more fervent and belligerent war supporters must necessarily be less forgiving. This list will be far from exhaustive, but it's worth revisiting the quality of the arguments and people supporting war. Let's start with then-President George W. Bush himself. Back in 2008, Bush described fighting in a war (in Afghanistan) as romantic:In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel [in Afghanistan] about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops... “I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.” “It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.Steve Benen remarked at the time:It’s likely that Bush thinks these kinds of remarks are good for troop morale. If the commander in chief wishes he could fight on the front lines personally, they must be part of a worthwhile mission. But seeing these remarks, more than once, simply reminds me that when Bush had a chance to serve, he chose not to do his duty.Back in 2004, Bush was full of even more macho bluster, according to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez' book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story:"'Kick ass!' [Bush] said, echoing Colin Powell's tough talk. 'If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal. "There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!'"As Tom Engelhardt commented:Keep in mind that the bloodlusty rhetoric of this "pep talk" wasn't meant to rev up Marines heading into battle. These were the President's well-embunkered top advisors in a strategy session on the eve of major military offensives in Iraq. Evidently, however, the President was intent on imitating George C. Scott playing General George Patton – or perhaps even inadvertently channeling one of the evil villains of his onscreen childhood.(Also see Jon Schwarz' piece, "George W. Bush's Ass-Based Foreign Policy.") It would be nice to believe that America's leaders would not be so childish and immature as to treat something as solemn as war as a game, but sadly, reality has proven otherwise. Nor has Bush ever been alone in his deficiencies; unfortunately, he has plenty of company, even if the failings come in different flavors. Anonymous Liberal rounded up some choice passages from conservative Bill Kristol, who's never met a war he didn't like, and rarely misses a chance to be smug. From March 17th, 2003:We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.From April 1st, 2003, on NPR's Fresh Air:There's been a certain amount of, frankly, Terry, a kind of pop sociology in America that somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni, and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular.It's worth listening to the audio of this one (it comes around 9:15 in); Al Franken used to play it all the time on his radio program. It's not just that Kristol was spectacularly, disastrously wrong, it's that he was (and remains) so smug and dismissive. Let's move on to rich and supposedly liberal columnist Tom Friedman. In 2011, Belén Fernández documented Friedman's attempt to deny Friedman's long support for the Iraq War and his many contradictory statements:In April 2003 Friedman said that Arab journalists who talked about the US ‘occupation’ of Iraq were guilty of ‘Saddamism’. In August 2003 Friedman wrote: ‘This is an occupation.’ In 2007 he surmised that Iraqis ‘hate each other more than they love their own kids’. In 2009 he hoped that they’d learned from America’s ‘million acts of kindness’ and ‘profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together’. In 2005 Friedman argued: ‘We have to have a proper election in Iraq so we can have a proper civil war there.’ Earlier this year, he wrote: ‘For all of the murderous efforts by al-Qaida to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.’ Never mind that in 2006 he said: ‘It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.’This comes via Atrios, who's written much more on Friedman, and helped bring attention to Friedman's childish, idiotic declaration of manhood-by-proxy, "Suck. On. This."
Next up, we have Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, two establishment political analysts who pushed for war initially, continued to push for it (plus escalation) later, yet misrepresented their early support when it became unfashionable. Somehow, they and many more of their ilk have never truly been called to account, nor have they been quietly dropped from the pundit circuit. They're still considered respectable, even when they peddle the same crap as always. As John Cole remarked back in 2009:I have nothing but bad feelings about the addition of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Watching Michael O’Hanlon on the evening news was like a punch to the gut – we’ve been down this road before. At what point are O’Hanlon and Pollack every going to be discredited enough that their expert advice is no longer solicited? Why are they even on TV anymore? How long before they have an op-ed in the NY Times pushing for more troops, more money, more of their favorite wars?It's not as if they ever change their positions. In August 2013, Pollack was shamelessly pushing for a re-invasion of Iraq as a good idea – one that the U.S. was too scared to implement:In an alternative universe, the United States might re-intervene in Iraq, redeploying tens of thousands of soldiers to restore everyone’s sense of safety and allowing the political process to heal again. In this universe, the United States is never going to intervene in Iraq again, nor will the Maliki government ever request that we do so.I suspect Pollack isn't merely an idiot or soulless, he's trying to rehabilitate his past positions. (I don't know why he bothers except for pride, since being repeatedly, disastrously wrong hasn't hurt his job prospects much.) Pollack would likely claim any eventual "success" in Iraq, no matter how far down the road or tenuous, as retroactive vindication of his horrendous judgment. A passage I wrote about his buddy Michael O'Hanlon in a 2008 piece, "Day of Shame," applies to Pollack as well (emphasis added):Let me spell it out, using O'Hanlon as an example. Had he been wise, he never would have held the views he did in the first place. Had he any intellectual integrity, he would have acknowledged his colossal error long ago. Had he any empathy, he would have had many sleepless nights, thinking of all those people dead, displaced or otherwise made miserable by his policies and positions. Had he any shame, he'd have left the public stage long ago, or at least shut up about how he's being picked on for getting such a clear moral issue as a war of choice so monumentally wrong (more on this in a later post). Sometimes it takes an awfully expensive education to make a man such a fucking moron. But I guarantee most Iraqi civilians, even before the invasion, wouldn't make O'Hanlon's mistake, not with the memory of the devastating Iran-Iraq war so fresh. I'm pretty sure more than a few junior high school students who have never experienced war directly wouldn't make the same mistake, either. The problem with O'Hanlon is, he'll keep on going, because he feels his reputation is at stake, which depends on him having been right, not on actually being right. It's nothing more than vanity, but more people could die as a result.Lastly, there's Richard Cohen, a supposedly liberal columnist for The Washington Post. (He's more accurately an establishment pundit, given his atrocious record.) In 2003, when Colin Powell presented the Bush administration's shoddy case for war at the United Nations, Cohen responded to reputation and the mood of his social crowd, not substance. This lead to his infamous, braying, smug pronouncement:This is where Colin Powell brought us all yesterday. The evidence he presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.When Cohen looked back in 2006 on the invasion on Iraq, not only was he largely unchastened, he actually wrote that "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic." . . . In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. . . . Every time I read that line – despite having read it more times than I can count – it stops me cold. His statement captures an immature, fearful spite, a soullessness, a selfishness that is just transfixing. A few points for honesty, I guess, but the full monstrousness of Cohen's statement didn't seem to occur to him then and hasn't since. By the standards of his morally syphilitic circle, he has done nothing terribly wrong, being blithe about unnecessary death and destruction passes for sophistication, and no deeper reflection – let alone atonement – is required. (If you'd like to add some female warmongers, Megan McArdle and Ann Coulter round out the pack.) Some of these people have offered half-assed apologies, but for the most part, they've just sought to further justify themselves, and have insisted that they were right for the wrong reasons while those who opposed the war were right for the wrong reasons. Both contentions are utter bullshit, infuriatingly counterfactual, and self-serving. They ignore that a general opposition to war – having a high threshold for it – is not an accidentally moral viewpoint, but the position of basic sanity. For the sake of argument, let's suppose that all these people have some redeeming quality elsewhere in their lives. Regardless, when it comes to their pronouncements on the Iraq War and armed conflict in general, they have demonstrated terrible, deadly judgment. Whether that judgement was fueled by foolishness, vanity, fear, posturing, political ambition, or greed, it's resulted in completely preventable suffering and the unnecessary loss of human life. Surely Kenneth Pollack does not think of himself as a horrible human being, nor do any of the others (so are they all, honourable men and women), but in this field, they are indeed horrible human beings. Hilzoy's polite, restrained admonition to Richard Cohen after his monstrous "therapeutic" remark in 2006 applies to the entire unrepentant warmonger set:Richard Cohen: resign. Resign right now. You may, for all I know, have a talent for laying pipe or landscaping that might yet allow you to make a contribution to the world. Admittedly, no amount of carefully laid pipe or expertly transplanted salvias could come close to compensating for your part in enabling this administration and its ill-considered wars, but frankly, you're in no position to be picky. Moreover, I would think that someone who had assumed a public position as a Wise Person Worth Listening To without, apparently, any sense of the responsibilities that that entails might benefit from the attempt to make tiny, concrete, unpublicized improvements to the world, of the sort monks strove for when they tried to perform the most mundane and inglorious daily tasks in such a way that they could be offered up to God without shame. Laying pipe very carefully and very well would do, as would trying very hard to keep the root balls of shrubs intact during transplantation. Even if you don't have any such talent, taking up a new career flipping burgers at McDonalds would at least minimize the damage you can inflict on the world, while allowing you ample time to reflect on those personal failings that allowed you to think of war as therapy, and to try to think of some small and unknown contribution that you might yet make to the world. But don't take my word for it. Go visit the families of soldiers who have fallen in the interests of what you considered "therapeutic", or the families of any of the of thousands of people who have been kidnapped off the streets of Iraq for no reason, tortured with electric drills, and then found dead behind some abandoned building or floating in the Tigris. Ask them whether they think that the war in Iraq has been "therapeutic". Then ask yourself whether you shouldn't just turn in your license to practice national psychotherapy, and go off and lay pipe instead.Needless to say, Richard Cohen has not resigned in the seven years since he offered his "deep" thought, and has gone on to write many other appalling columns. (Once in rare while he'll pen a decent or genuinely good one. Perhaps his latest dreadful columns on race will finally force his retirement.) And here's the thing. The national discourse will never be lacking in Richard Cohens and Megan McArdles eager to sacrifice other people's lives because they feel scared. It will never be lacking Tom Friedmans hungry to have others fight in a war to prove their own toughness. It will never lack Ann Coulters filled with rage and driven to prove their dominance, or George Bushes and Bill Kristols enthusiastic to taunt their political foes and live out macho fantasies. It will never lack highly pedigreed but foolish pundits such as Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, who try to sell (to themselves and others) blithe imperialism as sober-minded realism. That leaves it to the rest of us to oppose these fuckers and build mechanisms so they can't start more unnecessary wars, not so easily. And that will be the work of sustained effort over many years. If there's any hope, it's that people who don't peddle bullshit for a living are capable of acknowledging reality, reflecting, feeling regret, and changing their minds. Some Iraq mea culpas have been sincere, mature, and even soul-searching. The one I respect and admire most comes from John Cole in 2008 (and since rerun):Lot of Iraq War retrospectives going on this week as we enter the tenth anniversary of the start of hostilities. I’ve just been laying low, for obvious reasons, and figure I will just repost what I wrote for the 5 year anniversary, because it will always be relevant:To date, none of the dogs or curs of war featured above have shown even a quarter of John Cole's humility, regret, and reflection. If there's hope and wisdom to be found, it's in trusting those with a sense of humanity over the inhumane posturing as wise. (This was intended for 11/11, but posting was delayed by an Internet connection outage.)I see that Andrew Sullivan was asked to list what he got wrong about Iraq for the five year anniversary of the invasion, and since I was as big a war booster as anyone, I thought I would list what I got wrong: Everything. And I don’t say that to provide people with an easy way to beat up on me, but I do sort of have to face facts. I was wrong about everything. I was wrong about the Doctrine of Pre-emptive warfare. I was wrong about Iraq possessing WMD. I was wrong about Scott Ritter and the inspections. I was wrong about the UN involvement in weapons inspections. I was wrong about the containment sanctions. I was wrong about the broader impact of the war on the Middle East. I was wrong about this making us more safe. I was wrong about the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq. I was wrong when I stated this administration had a clear plan for the aftermath. I was wrong about securing the ammunition dumps. I was wrong about the ease of bringing democracy to the Middle East. I was wrong about dissolving the Iraqi army. I was wrong about the looting being unimportant. I was wrong that Bush/Cheney were competent. I was wrong that we would be greeted as liberators. I was wrong to make fun of the anti-war protestors. I was wrong not to trust the dirty smelly hippies. I mean, I could go down the list and continue on, but you get the point. I was wrong about EVERY. GOD. DAMNED. THING. It is amazing I could tie my shoes in 2001–2004. If you took all the wrongness I generated, put it together and compacted it and processed it, there would be enough concentrated stupid to fuel three hundred years of Weekly Standard journals. I am not sure how I snapped out of it, but I think Abu Ghraib and the negative impact of the insurgency did sober me up a bit. War should always be an absolute last resort, not just another option. I will never make the same mistakes again. . . .My gut instinct from now on regarding the use of force will be to say no. NO. You can tell me I’m just as doctrinaire as when I was a wingnut, just on the other side, but I don’t care. I’ll need to see CNN copy of Chinese troops on the coast of California before I ever support another war.
Monday, November 11, 2013
The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.You said it, brother. Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day. This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. Four years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is: "Élan in The Guns of August" "Demonizing of the Enemy" "The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen" ***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels" "The Little Mother" ***"War and the Denial of Loss" The most significant other entries in the series are: "How to Hear a True War Story" (2007) "Day of Shame" (2008) "The Poetry of War" (2008) "Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon). (2008) "They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011) I'll update this post below the photo with links to other folks' pieces for 11/11 as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me. Thanks. (Note: My internet service is currently on the fritz, but I hope to have it fixed later this week, in which case I'll post a new piece in this series.)
Thursday, October 17, 2013
the idea for 'the perfect life' video is pretty simple... wayne and i in mariachi costumes walking around l.a. picking up a very random and disparate bunch of disenfranchised oddballs and leading them via trolley to a giant party on a roof overlooking l.a. while the sun sets.– moby
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Banned Books Week, but head over to the official site for a bevy of links and lists. (Every year they use several banners, and I'd rank the one above as one of my all-time favorites.) If you wrote a post celebrating the occasion, feel free to link it in the comments. (My archive in this category is here.)
Thursday, September 19, 2013
As is traditional for Talk Like a Pirate Day, I'll be using a English-to-Pirate translator on a scurvy dog bent on pillaging Americans. This year, it's hardcore Randian uber-douche Harry Binswanger at Forbes for his sneering, taunting piece "Give Back? Yes, It's Time For The 99% To Give Back To The 1%." It's glibertarian/conservative linkbait, so I'll link some of the pieces mocking and dissecting it instead: Mock, Paper, Scissors, Lawyers, Guns and Money, No More Mister Nice Blog and Wonkette. Here's some of it rendered into pirate:
It’s time t' gore another collectivist sacred cow. This time it’s t' popular idea that t' successful be obliged t' “give aft t' t' community.” That oft-heard claim assumes that t' wealth o' high-earners be taken away from “t' community. And beneath that lies t' perverted Marxist notion that wealth be accumulated by “exploitin'” people, not by creatin' value–as if Henry Ford was not necessary for Fords t' roll off t' (non-existent) assembly lines and Steve Jobs was not necessary for iPhones and iPads t' sprin' into existence. Let’s begin by strippin' away t' collectivism. “T' community” never gave anyone anythin'. T' “community,” t' “society,” t' “nation” be just a number o' interactin' individuals, not a mestical entity floatin' in a cloud above them. And when some individual person–a parent, a teacher, a customer–”gives” somethin' t' someone else, it be not an act o' charity, but a trade for value received in return. . . . Here’s a modest proposal. Anyone who earns a million doubloons or more should be exempt from all income taxes. Aye, it’s too little. And t' real issue be not financial, but moral. So t' augment t' tax-exemption, in an annual public ceremony, t' year’s top earner should be awarded t' Congressional Medal o' Honor.Yes, he just proposed that anyone who "earns" a million dollars shouldn't be taxed. I'm reminded of a similarly sneering piece by National Review's Stephen Spruiell back in 2009, mocking a young woman who died because she lacked health insurance, and how dare you ask him to pay higher taxes to help prevent such a thing? It's probably obvious, but being an asshole is a feature, not a bug, for these guys. They're showing off for their pals, and will high-five each other for each condescending barb against those other, less-deserving people. They're paid to do it, and they enjoy it to boot. (Oh, and let's not forget the conservative faithful at a Republican primary debate in 2011 applauding the thought of one of the fellow Americans dying.) Upfront piracy would be preferable.