Thursday, June 30, 2005

I used to really like Christopher Hitchens

Is Christopher Hitchens actually stupid or he is just faking it?

Shortly after September 11th, I became enamored of Hitchens, as he took it as his calling to fight the far left's reflexively anti-American response to the attack itself and the Bush Administration's response. He notably took up this cause through his "Contrarian" column for the Nation, until he quit because, as he memorably put it, "[The Nation] had become an echo chamber for those who were more afraid of John Ashcroft than Osama Bin Laden." An accusation, by the way, with which I agree. And, as that quote shows, when he's good, Hitchens has the ability to cut to a central point concisely, elegantly, and entertainingly. I even cornered the poor guy on an airplane going from D.C. to Boston, blabbering about how much I liked his writing and his public opposition to the Nation's mindlessly anti-war position.

But that was then. The Afghanistan war was a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned, but Iraq really isn't, even though I did (and mostly still do) support it. But given how many things have gone wrong, even strong supporters of the war would have to look at aspects of how it's been carried out and question the Bush Administration's policies. But for some reason, not Hitchens, and it's been disappointing to see someone that smart debase his intellect by acting as though the discussion now is still as simple as it was immediately after September 11th. His on-going theme is that critics of the Iraq war are exactly the same as the Nation's -- nevermind that Iraq war critics (as opposed to war opponents) now include the likes of Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria and Andrew Sullivan.

Hitchens has picked a single theme for all discussions of the post-September 11th war on terror and he's holding onto it like a dog with a bone. No matter what the issue under discussion -- sufficient troop levels, Abu Ghraib -- he's got his theme and he'll force the facts into it. Unfortunately, he's also smart enough to realize that sometimes that just doesn't work -- explain again how the fight against Islamo-fascism is helped by publicly exposed prisoner torture by US interrogators? -- so he focuses with a laser-like intensity on a particular aspect of the issue which will still support his pre-existing theme. Of course, since most issues have some level of complexity -- for example, using torture is bad, but the US is clearly not the equivalent of the Nazis or Saddam Hussein -- this will work.

His latest work of pedantry? An attack on "anti-war" types (his description) who accuse the Republican architects and supporters of the Iraq war of hypocrisy for not sending their sons to Iraq. Hitchens argues that people don't "send" their sons to war; their children are adults who make these decisions for themselves. Well, yeah, but he's off on a tangent while ignoring the central point. While it's obviously true that parents can't force their children to enlist, parents do work hard to influence what choices their children make after high school. Particularly the upper classes, which is where the Republican politicians who create and support the war primarily reside. How many of their kids ended up at college, do you suppose? How many ended up at prestigious colleges? I'll bet most. Unless he's just impossibly stupid, Hitchens knows darn well that these parents would have used as much influence as possible to make sure their kids ended up at college -- which, by definition, also means they were not urging their kids to serve their country by enlisting. But so what? We've got a volunteer military, so who cares? It only matters because Republicans are constantly grandstanding on the issue of the military, making sure they always praise military service as the highest and greatest good, and then using this exaltation of US soldiers to deflect criticism of their actual record on the war. So it's reasonable to see if their private actions support their self promotion as the party that reveres the military, and one way to figure this out is to see whether they've urged their children to join up. And frankly, for most of them, their private actions don't support their public statements. But Hitchens surely realizes that, right? It just doesn't fit his pre-determined message.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Feedback

First, I have to admit: I didn't actually watch the speech. I spent the evening at the local pub's trivia quiz and didn't get home until after 9:00. And we didn't even win (why don't we know where Boutros-Boutros Ghali is from and who the heck is Thomas Cromwell...).

I did read the the transcript, so am commenting on that -- and assuming Bush didn't stray from the script for some of his famous extemporaneous speech-making. Hee hee, just a little humor to break things up.

Anyway, not too surprisingly, the parts I liked best were the sections where he got a little specific about the next steps for establishing security and easing the responsiblilty for security from US to Iraqi troops.

I particularly liked his argument against timelines. I agree with it already, but I thought it was a good example of making an argument concretely and concisely, like you actually want to engage your audience, rather than talk at them with vague but high-flying rhetoric.

Otherwise, it seemed not very inspired, but I am missing out on the actual delivery. However, I'm not sure he was trying to convince the likes of me. On NPR yesterday, someone commented that a summer evening speech might not attract too many viewers, except for the true believers. Which suggests that perhaps Bush was only trying to buck up his base, not convince the wider public. And based on what some right-wing bloggers are saying, the speech may have done the trick. This blog entry from PoliPundit (as linked through Salon's Daou Report) was a good example of the kind of content-free twaddle that gets high marks among many in the Republican base. These folks may well have been thrilled by the speech, and that may mean it's achieved the Administration's goal.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Tonight's speech, continued

What is really needed is an honest assessment by the President of where we are and a thoughtful, nuanced but well-argued case for staying the course. Unfortunately, I have no faith that Bush can do this. This Administration is simply allergic to admitting it's not all knowing and all powerful. And it seems to truly believe that the best way to assuage the public's fears is to pat us all the head and say, tut tut now, don't you worry your little heads about these grown-up matters, we'll take care of everything. Just go back to shopping or whatever it is you little people do. Daddy and Uncle Dick will take care of everything.

I'm tired of being talked down to by this Administation and frustrated at their inability to properly defend their own foreign policy. I don't think you'd see so much anxiety about Iraq if the Administration had been more upfront about what to expect. You know that cliche about how to perform at work: underpromise and overperform? The Administration has continued to overpromise and underperform (based on the expectations set by their promises) on Iraq, so no wonder people are frustrated.

What we really need from the President is strength, but strength supported and tempered by an honest evaluation of where we are and how difficult the path ahead may be. If we get that, though, it'll be a first. I predict more platitudes ("the insurgents hate freedom"), banalities ("I think about Iraq every day"), and unsupported assurances that everything will be all right.

But we'll see...maybe after this rant, I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Tonight's speech

Important speech tonight for Bush, as he tries to ease fears about how things are going in Iraq and convince the public that we need to keep our troops there. Unfortunately, the difficulties in Iraq -- the fact that the insurgency continues apace in spite of the January elections, efforts by newly-trained Iraqi forces to help quell the insurgency, and Dick Cheney's insulting predictions -- is leading some politicians to grandstand on Iraq. Calling to remove US troops at this point is both stupid and cowardly, and I wish Democrats would stop suggesting it. And the Republican "freedom fries" guy, who first mindlessly supported the war because the president said so, and who now mindlessly calls to abandon Iraq before we're done with our responsibilities there. For a better analysis than I can offer of the problems that would likely ensue if we left too soon, see here (hint: think Lebanon).

Wasting Time, Sitting Still

Check out this Flash Mind Reader (tip from Andrew Sullivan). It worked for me three times. Why, why, why?! Anyone smarter than me care to figure it out? I did notice a few interesting features, but won't mention them so as not to influence anyone trying it out.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Good news from today's Supreme Court decision

No Ten Commandments in Courthouses

Single displays of the Ten Commandments have no place on courthouse property. Unlike, say, the frieze of the ten commandments found in the Supreme Court building itself -- along with depictions of Hammurabi and Confucius. That display clearly is meant to depict the history of the law and legal systems. What baffles me is why Christian activists are so hot to put the ten commandments up in courthouses anyway. Perhaps I'll start a campaign to tack up the U.S. constitution in churches across the country...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A little love for Bellhorn, please

No not me, the namesake of this blog. Mark Bellhorn just helped the Red Sox complete a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies, with a homerun, three RBIs and four runs scored today. For a few who question Bellhorn's contribution to the Red Sox, Bill James, baseball stats guru and Boston Red Sox consultant, explains it in today's Boston Globe. And if you don't care about baseball or the Red Sox, why are you still reading this?!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Blogger myth: We Ousted Trent Lott

Boy, you wait a day or two to publish a post and the news cycle has moved so fast, the topic is old news, and by a lot. Well, I'll publish this anyway, because I still feel like it, even if already no one can remember who Dick Durbin is, what he said, and why he apologized for it. During that little debacle -- remember that? it's so two days ago -- many bloggers wrote something to the effect of:

"If Trent Lott was forced to resign as Senate Majority Leader because of his offensive rhapsodizing on pre-desegregation days, why shouldn't Cong. Dick Durbin receive the same kind of treatment?" (See here, here, and here.)

Hey, people in blogland: Please stop promulgating this fantasy that Trent Lott was ousted because Republican senators were shocked, simply shocked by his comments about Strom Thurmond. I know that many bloggers were offended, and sincerely thought he should resign for that reason, but for Republicans in Congress, it was just a convenient excuse to get rid of someone they had been itching to get rid of for a while (and look like civil rights advocates in the process). Why? In spite of Lott's reputation in the general public as one of the most troglodytic senators, he was disliked by other Republicans for being too soft on the Democrats. Republicans wanted to see the Senate work more like the House -- that is, highly partisan, hardball political warfare, with the controlling party trampling the minority party. That's what Bill Frist's mission was, which is why we've seen Frist attempt to behave more like Tom "the Hammer" Delay, and why Republicans are so mad at Frist for not being that good at it. (Never mind that Senate rules simply make it impossible for the Senate to operate like the House...but then, that's why the Republicans wanted to change the rules on filibusters, isn't it?)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Kelo vs. City of New London

It's Supreme Court season, which I think is lots of fun -- fun in a policy-wonkish sort of way, that is. I mean, it's rare for any government action to happen so quickly and have such a dramatic, and clearly understood, effect on American life. Congress has been haggling over its "energy policy" since 2001, and still hasn't passed it, and lord knows when Iraq will ever be a stable, democratic state, but by god, from this day forward, governments can take private property and "redistribute" it to another private party if that private party's use of the property would provide greater economic benefit to the public. As I understand it. Which is to say, not much at all at this point. Still, on the face of it, this idea sounds crazy. Of course, you always have to be careful to react to the LEGAL reasoning, not the POLICY implications, in Supreme Court decisions. So I have no idea yet whether I agree with the majority's reasoning in deciding this case. Still, the decision seems most curious, if you think about what it will mean in practice.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"Romney Exploring Run for President"

In other news, water is wet.

A Modern Renaissance in Somerville

Two Russian artists living in Somerville (that's a Massachusetts suburb outside Boston for those that don't know it) have turned a Masonic Lodge into a spectacular living art museum. The museum is actually their home, and sadly, is not open to visitors, but the pictures of it are gorgeous. They've called it a Museum of Modern Renaissance and say they want to help bring about a modern renaissance to "bring beauty and humanity back to society." This sounds like a good idea, and since the world appears to be passing through a phase of religious extremism, perhaps we will see a new renaissance develop as a reaction against this phase of narrow-minded, fanatical religiosity.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Is there a more over-rated political commentator than Mickey Kaus? Today he offers a jaw-droppingly contorted interpretation of the Bolton nomination fight on the Hill. Here's the set up: An article in yesterday's Washington Post says that the State Department is moving forward with several policies that had suffered during John Bolton's tenure there -- policies that would be favored by Bolton foes, such as a deal to prevent Russian nuclear material from getting into the hands of terrorists. The article suggests that Bolton was the stopper on this and other arms control efforts, some of which were even supported by the president, and his absence is allowing the State Department to make progress. Obvious conclusion: Bolton was not always a force for good at State. But this is not what Kaus, mental contortionist extraordinaire, sees. No, he sees another chance to blast Democrats, this time for being hypocrites because they are focused on opposing Bolton's nomination to the U.N., rather than admitting that his nomination has had a positive effect on arms control policies that many Dems favor. Yes, that's right, according to Kaus, those lousy Democrats should be praising the Bush Administration's policy of solving a problem at the State Department by making him the U.N.'s problem. What brilliance! If only the Democrats were unpartisan enough to admit this!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fox News

On his site, Andrew Sullivan is having a discussion with some readers about Fox News - specifically, an appalling fawning interview that Sean Hannity conducted with Dick Cheney. One reader commented that he/she was not so much surprised that Hannity was blatantly partisan, which is his avowed purpose, but that he didn't even "ask ... the questions to which conservatives would like some answers." Which begs the question: Based on what Fox News is actually like, who says conservatives are interested in having questions answered by their news and information sources?

Ok, but more seriously, I'm well aware of US conservatives' confirmed belief that the mainstream media is unrepentantly liberal, and I think there is some validity to some of these arguments some of the time. For example, I do think that newspaper journalists are more likely to be socially liberal, but middle-of-the-road on economic issues (I'm sure I've seen studies indicating this). And NPR, to which I am ridiculously addicted, features reporters, hosts and analysts that tend the same way, I believe (this is based more on my observation and instinct than any objective studies).

But the thing that amazes me about Fox News is just how flat out BAD it is. If I were a conservative, I'd be embarrassed to have Fox presented as the conservatives' ideal news outlet. I'll pit my local NPR station, WBUR, against Fox, and WBUR will kick Fox's ass any day of the week and twice on Sundays. NPR is far from perfect - for example, the standard announcer style is too WASPY and bland - but at least it tries to delve deeply into issues and ideas, exploring things beyond just the surface. Contrary to what my conservative friends seem to think, if you're a reasonably intelligent, skeptical consumer of NPR news and information shows, you can come away with an independent opinion about world events. Fox is about nothing more than telling people what they already think and what they want to hear. And doing so in the most embarrassingly pandering way.

Andrew and his conservative reader seem shocked, simply shocked at how bad the Hannity interview is, and wonder if it portends a lowering of standards for conservative journalism. But frankly, it's obvious after watching Fox for 2.5 seconds that it's got nothing to do with serious journalism.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Good Red Sox vs Bad Red Sox

Yesterday we saw the Red Sox being good and the Red Sox being very bad. In the realm of their actual jobs -- playing and winning baseball games -- they were an embarrassment, playing some of the worst baseball ever seen since, well, since the previous night's game against St. Louis. (Maybe Edgar Renteria convinced his new teammates to lay down and roll over for Renteria's old teammates, to assuage any bad feelings that the Cardinals might have about their role as the minor speed bump on the 2004 Red Sox's road to glory.)

On the other hand, in their secondary role as media stars (and possibly as role models for kids), they were very good. Their appearance on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was actually a little tame and boring in parts, but it was great to see major sports stars sending the message that being gay is not evil or "anti-family". Johnny Damon, easily the most metrosexual Red Sox player, was actually quoted in a San Fransciso paper saying, "If there's a gay guy in baseball, we have to help him out." It was fun to see Jason Varitek, the straightest of straight guys, good-humoredly (is that a word?) submitting to a back waxing by a couple of swishy gay guys.

Since professional sports are one of the strongest hold outs against "out of the closet" homosexuality, it's pretty cool to see macho World Series champions sending the message that, while they're not gay, of course, that doesn't mean they can't have fun hanging around with guys who are.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Update on freedom fries

A propos of an earlier entry about stupid uses of meaningful words:

Apparently one of the instigators behind the renaming of french fries to freedom fries in the U.S. House cafeteria now says that he wishes it had never happened. His turnaround comes because he now thinks we went to war with no justification, not because calling calling french fries "freedom fries" is asinine, but still.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Is Gitmo a Gulag?

An excellent article in the New Republic comparing the Guantanamo Bay detention center to the Soviet gulags, to determine whether Amnesty International is correct to label Gitmo the "gulag of our time." Not surprisingly, a direct comparison makes it clear how ridiculous it was for Amnesty to use that word. That doesn't mean that the Gitmo center is okay, merely that the gulags were really, really horrible, and set a very high bar for desecration of human rights.

It's a shame Amnesty used such an incendiary term, because it distracts everyone from the substance of the report, gives Administration apologists something else to focus on besides the substance, and truthfully, makes the report somewhat suspect. I think there are legitimate concerns about Gitmo -- particularly the dubious legality of holding people indefinitely without actually accusing them of a crime (which is what the Administration did until the Supreme Court told them to stop it) -- but it does no good to say it's as bad as the gulag when it obviously is not.

Amnesty is indulging in what I'll call, in reference to the New Republic article, the "equivalency fallacy", which is something that drives me crazy. The thinking behind it goes like this:

"Y" is a really bad thing. It is important for me to make others realize how bad "Y" is. "YYY" (usually the holocaust, genocide, gulags) is an unequivocally terrible thing that everyone immediately understands is wrong. Therefore, I will call "Y" this really terrible thing, to make sure everyone understands how bad it is.

Unfortunately, all that usually achieves is that a legitimate concern is made suspect. It also, in my view, undermines language, as suddenly all sorts of things are seen to reach level of holocausts or gulags. So, not only is the equivalency fallacy unhelpful (as Donald Rumsfeld would say), but it serves to trivialize words that should be not be trivialized.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Iraqi insurgency

Andrew Sullivan prints an "oopsie" quote from Dick Cheney aka Nostradamus:

They will do everything they can to disrupt the process up to those elections in January because they know that once you've got a democratically elected government in place that has legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Iraq, they're out of business. That will be the end of the insurgency." - vice president Dick Cheney, October 28, 2004.

One of the more bizarre, and frustrating, characteristics of this administration is this practice of confidently asserting as fact something that is, on the face of it, either unknowable or patently false. Of course, almost all politicians do this to varying degrees, but the Bush Administration is remarkable for having made this one of its main strategies for addressing unpleasant issues with the American public, particularly the Iraq war. And I do think that clearly false "spinning" with regard to something as serious as war is rather different than doing it over, say, tax cuts. It strikes me that there ought to be a higher standard for dealing with the public when the country is at war -- in part because the executive branch is almost exclusively responsible for conducting foreign policy, and so its spin cannot be as easily countered by Congress or opposition parties.

But what's more disturbing than the Administration's dissembling on Iraq is that it seems to be working. Partisan conservatives, except for a minority of independent-minded, conscience-driven ones, just don't care; they're commited to backing the party on the Iraq war no matter what. This forum discussion of the Iraqi and Afghan prisoner torture allegations is truly dispiriting if it represents what the more politically-aware conservative public thinks. And much of the rest of the American public, who are not especially political or partisan, seemingly just can't be bothered with the whole thing. So Dick Cheney claims we'll definitely find WMD, and then we don't. So he claims the insurgency will end following the January elections, and then it doesn't. What's next? We seem to be lacking an effective "negative feedback mechanism" here.

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