Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Politics of Genocide

Andrew Sullivan is on vacation, but he left his blog in good hands. This is a useful look at the McCain campaign's clumsy and dishonest statement about Obama's visit to Yad Vashem.

It seems to me that Obama is one of the last politicians you'd want to attack when it comes to genocide. In addition to having earned a solid reputation of being a strong advocate for ignored human rights crises, he's got one of the top authorities on genocide and U.S. foreign policy, Samantha Power, among his top advisers. (By the way, Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide and U.S. foreign policy is a must-read.) If you're a political news junkie, you'll recall that Professor Power resigned from the campaign after making some controversial remarks about Senator Clinton. Politics might keep her out of the spotlight for a while, but she's an absolutely brilliant and essential voice among U.S. foreign policy experts, and I doubt she's very far removed from the campaign today - even if her role is slightly less public for the time being.

But I digress. How about that statement?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

When Did We Lose It?

Pondering opposition to Al Gore's climate and energy initiatives, Bob Herbert asks the crucial question:
When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can't-do society? It wasn't at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world's mightiest empire. It wasn't during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn't in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women's movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.
I would argue that we haven't become a can't-do society - at least not in any permanent sense. Gore's goals for transforming our approach to the environment, sustainable energy, and petro-security aren't met with opposition because of low national morale. The problem is political. The scientific consensus behind global warming is fact. The economic benefits of sustainable energy and decreased oil imports are well-documented. The security argument is a familiar and correct one. But partisan politics puts blinders on all of these things, because some people just don't like Al Gore. And they will ignore science, economics, and American security interests to continue fighting political battles against him.

Obama's Team of 300

Where others see chaos, Steve Clemons sees shrewd politics.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Grouchy Old Crank

Charles Krauthammer supplies enough spite for the entire Washington Post Op-Ed page this morning:
Obama is a three-year senator without a single important legislative achievement to his name, a former Illinois state senator who voted "present" nearly 130 times. As president of the Harvard Law Review, as law professor and as legislator, has he ever produced a single notable piece of scholarship? Written a single memorable article? His most memorable work is a biography of his favorite subject: himself.
There are plenty of assertions here to disagree with (especially the claim about legislative achievements), but the overall tone of this piece is so grouchy that I can't imagine anyone taking it seriously as a political argument. Especially with a statement like this:
After all, in the words of his own slogan, "we are the ones we've been waiting for," which, translating the royal "we," means: " I am the one we've been waiting for."
It's a nice trick - invoking the royal "we" to dodge the silver bullet which strikes the heart of the argument. Obama has always said that change must come from the bottom up. He says again and again in his speeches that the movement is not about him, but about the millions of supporters who have joined his campaign. And the phrase "we are the ones we've been waiting for" is a perfect expression of that sentiment. But none of this matters if you're a crabby columnist who intentionally misreads statements in order to advance a theory with gaping logical holes.

I propose an effort to improve Krauthammer's mood. This sort of grumpiness is awfully unbecoming.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Missing the Point About Missing the Point

Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald take aim at Thomas Friedman's column from yesterday, basically calling him foolish for allegedly not understanding why America is widely disliked in the world. They're both misreading what Friedman actually said.

First, Yglesias misstates the thesis of the piece:
Tom Friedman is really pissed off that people around the world take a dim view of the United States even though despite our flaws our government is less repressive than China's and we've had a much more constructive policy toward Zimbabwe than has South Africa. One wonders if he really doesn't understand this, but it's the hegemony, stupid.
Of course Friedman understands that it's the hegemony. That's why he said this:
Maybe Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans don't like a world of too much American power — "Mr. Big" got a little too big for them.
So, given that Friedman points out exactly what Yglesias said he didn't understand, I can't imagine where Yglesias is coming from. Unfortunately, this slip-up is just one of many in Yglesias's post - one that has an uncharacteristically casual relationship with reality and logic.

There's a brief bright spot right after Yglesias's opening salvo, but then the post descends a second time into misreadings and poor reasoning.
America has long sought to play a global leadership role, and under Bush has sought to play this role almost exclusively through methods of coercive domination. Under those circumstances of course America's sins and flaws look exaggerated. We can write self-congratulatory newspaper columns whining about this, or else we can try to put our policies and our position in the geopolitical structure on a more sustainable basis.
Ok, so the first two sentences are correct - and, in fact, are part of Friedman's argument anyway. But Yglesias's conclusion is just wrong. Putting aside the fact that Friedman has written several columns about sustainable, responsible foreign policy for the U.S., the column is neither self-congratulatory nor whiny. In fact, it was insightful. Friedman's point is not that the U.S. is unfairly disliked, it's that a world with too little U.S. power is worse than a world with too much U.S. power, because the leadership vacuum left by U.S. decline could be filled by emerging superpowers whose policies are considerably nastier. Is he chastising the world for being bothered by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? No - he's responding to this finding:
Polls tell us how China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States.
Friedman's response, understandably, is that people who prefer Chinese leadership should be careful what they wish for. It's a reasonable point, and I remain surprised that Yglesias - whose commentary is normally incisive and intelligent - totally missed the point.

I'm less surprised about Glenn Greenwald. Now, Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald are both intelligent, but Greenwald is awfully preachy, so you can expect this sort of thing from time to time (even when he's right, which in this case he is not). Let's get to what he said:
Tom Friedman is befuddled. He cannot understand "the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush" and is specifically upset about the fact that "China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States."
See the tricky thing Glenn did there? He lied about Friedman's thesis by saying that he "doesn't understand" and "is befuddled," even though Friedman has a laundry list of U.S. screw-ups in the first paragraph of his column. Then he made it sound like Friedman is specifically confused about dislike for President Bush, which is less of a lie and more of a deliberate misrepresentation, since it makes Friedman sound like a Bush fan, even though his disapproval of Bush is no secret. Way to go, Glenn! But that's not all:
Friedman generously allows that "[a]n America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down" -- a "thumbs-down": what a playful movie critic says about a boring film. In listing America's small imperfections that have caused this worldwide unpopularity, Friedman forgot to mention America's invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Friedman himself cheered on.
Oops! Turns out that Glenn, by this point, is just making shit up! Let's have another look at the column in question, which supposedly omits Iraq:
We should have done better in Iraq.
See that? That's a direct quote. In fact, it's the fourth sentence in the column, so if you read for more than 8 seconds, you probably saw it. I know I did, which is why I thought, "Hmm! That's not true!" when reading Glenn Greenwald this morning. Could Friedman have elaborated on that point? Well, maybe, but seeing as he's written about 1,549 columns about the failure of the Iraq War - and space is limited to make his point about American vs. Chinese power - I can forgive him. But Glenn can't, because he's still pissed about a single dumb remark Friedman made five years ago. Then Glenn works himself into an even preachier rage because John McCain can be a jerk sometimes:
What other country in the world has leading members of its political class who justify unprovoked attacks on other countries -- who casually justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people -- in such depraved and sadistic terms? And, for that matter, what other country has a leading presidential candidate who sings songs about bombing another country and who continues to joke openly about killing its citizens?
I'd address the rest of Greenwald's screed, but I think you get the idea. Blah blah blah, Tom Friedman is the same as George W. Bush, he's caused the deaths of thousands of people, he's a warmonger, etc. The faulty associations with Bush aside, the whole rant is based upon a totally wrongheaded approach to what Friedman actually said in yesterday's column.

There's a terrible trend in our politics that I was discussing with someone the other day. We have a tendency to canonize people who were right on one or two important issues and to alienate people who were wrong on one or two important issues. How's this for a change: we embrace the idea that sometimes people make bad judgments or say dumb things, but - absent an obvious trend - their overall judgment might not be totally flawed. Someone who was wrong about Iraq could be right about things in the future, and someone who was right about Iraq could be wrong about things in the future. I sense that this sort of attack is the left's retaliation against Friedman for being pro-war in 2003. It would be a big mistake to discount the insight and intelligence of Friedman; he's been a consistent and effective advocate for many liberal policies, and his writing about the Middle East (particularly From Beirut to Jerusalem) is top-notch. It's time to let him out of the dog house, and we can start that process by listening to fewer self-important ranters like Glenn Greenwald.

Great News

From Andrew Sullivan: the HIV travel ban is gone. He's been working hard (and enlisting the support of his many readers) to get rid of this terrible provision, and it looks like the battle is finally over.

This is the best way to deal with the legacy of Jesse Helms: unraveling it piece by piece. The Senate lifted a huge burden for many people today.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Benefit of the Doubt

Jack Shafer, unsurprisingly, is exactly right about the dumb controversy surrounding the illustration on the cover of The New Yorker:
Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's detractors desire. I don't know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself.
This makes me think of a great line from Voltaire. "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it." Let's not forget how ridiculous these people are by playing down to their level. People really can understand nuance and satire.

Navigating the Tubes

In an interview from Sunday's New York Times, John McCain tells what has to be a little lie:

Q: But do you go on line for yourself?

Mr. McCain: They go on for me. I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don't expect to be a great communicator, I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need – including going to my daughter's blog first, before anything else.

There's not a lot to learn. You click on an icon that says "Internet," and voilà! Not much of a surprise, though. Of course, The Onion was on this story months ago:
"All you have to do to turn the website on is put the little blinking line thing in the cyberspace window at the top of the screen, type ',' and press 'return'—although it will also recognize,, and 'THEGOOGLE' typed into a Word document."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bait for the Xenophobes

Sean Hannity is already on this, and I can't imagine the others are far behind. "Obama wants to make our children speak Spanish! This must be stopped!" They'll find a way to make this rather benign observation seem threatening - probably by forcing it into the right-wing storyline that Obama is foreign, elitist, and "embarrassed" by Americans.

Of course, his comment is true; while Americans benefit from speaking the lingua franca, learning another language is a rewarding endeavor. It's a wonderful way to gain appreciation of other cultures, to say nothing of the benefit of being able to communicate with whole new groups of people.

When was the last time President Bush asked anything of Americans? Obama's asking us to embrace nuance in our politics, to learn new languages, and to perform community service. Let the wingnuts attack all they want. This is what leadership looks like.

Why I Love D.C., Part II

A wonderful exhibit currently at the Hirshhorn: The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image. It runs until September 7 and is, of course, free. I particularly enjoyed Christian Jankowski's 2003 film "This I Played Tomorrow," which is scripted from a series of interviews the filmmaker conducted. The interviews play on monitors on the side of the room while you watch the final product, which is brilliantly staged and acted. The interview snippets become an engaging commentary and meditation on the power (or lack thereof) of art, inviting the viewer to ponder the ability of art, particularly cinema, to provide salvation, truth, or transcendence. One character, a mother grieving the recent death of her adult son, tells the other characters about his musical talents and declares, "I can sing too." She begins to sing for the people gathered and reflects on the comfort of heaven and the afterlife. Another character bluntly declares that cinema cannot express truth - only emotions. "I want to express astonishment at human beings," he says.

The other piece that struck me was "Mother+Father," an installation by Candace Breitz that spans two rooms and twelve monitors. Breitz took six mothers and six fathers from popular Hollywood movies, placed them in front of plain black backgrounds, and used portions of their dialogue to create conversations about motherhood and fatherhood. The five mothers discuss femininity, their own mothers, and mother/daughter relationships among themselves. The five fathers discuss masculinity, divorce, and the difficulty of watching their daughters become grown women. The conversations - carefully arranged by the artist - are often absurd, occasionally hilarious, and sometimes very sad. You can watch them at the artist's website, but if you can make it to the Hirshhorn to see the full installation, it's definitely worth your time.

Why I Love D.C.

From SlateV, an interview with a woman who left sunny California to come live in the swamp:

Absence of car theft is a pretty good reason to love the District, I suppose, but Bob Barnett said it best a couple years back in an interview with Washingtonian:
Washington is at the perfect crossroads of law, media, politics, and policy—all things I love. You can't find that crossroads anywhere else.

Unsurprising News Item of the Day

According to the New York Times, fundraisers are having a hard time convincing Obama's supporters to help relieve Sen. Clinton's campaign debt. I can't imagine why...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Apples and Oranges

Over at Bloggingheads, Jamie Kirchick responds to concerns about the right's canonization of Jesse Helms by wondering if the left will do the same to Jimmy Carter when he dies. While it's unlikely that anyone in the mainstream American left will lionize Carter the way the mainstream right has lionized Helms, Kirchick's objection almost totally ignores the most important point: incompetence is not the same thing as bigotry. Democrats might memorialize Carter's legacy by embracing his viewpoints and ignoring his unsuccessful presidency - but embracing Helms means embracing his racism and homophobia, because they were crucial elements of his politics.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Government We Deserve

Back after a busy 4th of July weekend during which former Sen. Jesse Helms died, eliciting some interesting reactions. (And at least one Mel Brooks reference.) The New Republic shared some illuminating stories about Helms that make me wonder how it is that some people become U.S. Senators in the first place. (I'd like everyone to notice that I am avoiding making jokes about North Carolina, as I know some lovely people who hail from the Tarheel state.) Anyway, if you didn't click on the TNR link, here's the sweetest plum:
Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) ran into [African-American Illinois Senator Carol] Mosely-Braun in a Capitol elevator. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, "Watch me make her cry. I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries." He then proceeded to sing the song about "the good life" during slavery to Mosely-Braun.
So, since we live in a country where Jesse Helms can become an Important Senator, maybe we should finally accept that we've failed the Founders miserably and bury the notion that our Senate is a solemn, dignified place. Or something. (Ok, so it's not that bad. I sincerely believe that there are many smart, dedicated people in Washington who are trying to do the right thing, and the Senate, in spite of its many flaws, is still a serious place. Most of the time.) But let's look at an interesting new idea: electing a comedian to the Senate - one who might be less of a joke than the incumbent. Enter Michael Kinsley:
Americans say they want to be represented by "real people" and not by "professional politicians." But with their votes they reward professionalism and drain the reality from politics. Real people haven't spent their lives plotting a political career, and therefore real people may have said things from time to time that an aspiring politician would not. Departures from the official script are called gaffes. This election year, the script has been more important than ever. Despite the Iraq war, despite the sinking economy, despite the price of gasoline, we have frittered away our politics in a round robin of gaffes, mock indignation, demands for apology and more gaffes.
Truth. Frank Rich said pretty much the same thing in his column yesterday. Anyway, more from Kinsley:
This year a professional jokester, Al Franken (D), is challenging a professional politician, incumbent Norm Coleman (R), for a Senate seat in Minnesota. Not every joke Franken wrote or told over a third of a century in the joke business was hilarious, okay? Minnesota voters will have to decide whether their dislike of professional politicians trumps their enjoyment in taking umbrage, or vice versa. Coleman is a man of no interest, a run-of-the-mill professional politician who started out as a standard issue long-haired student rebel leader on Long Island in the 1960s and surfed the zeitgeist until now. Today he is a standard-issue pro-war tax-cut Republican. Franken, by contrast, needs no introduction and from Day One would be one of the most interesting people in the Senate. "Interesting," of course, isn't the most important quality in a senator. "Honest," "smart" and (for my taste) "liberal" are more important. But "interesting" would be nice.
Luckily, Franken also happens to be smart and (as far as I know) honest. People who aren't familiar with his work often claim that he's the left-wing version of Ann Coulter, but there are a few crucial differences:

1. He's not evil.
2. He's not a habitual liar.
3. His books are funny.

I've read "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," which is Franken's (admittedly partisan) critique of conservative media, and it's a very funny book. It also makes lots of good points and is based on accurate research. You don't have to agree with everything Franken says - and I don't always agree with him - but Norm Coleman underestimates him at his own peril. When he announced his candidacy for the Senate several months ago, Franken posted a video to his website describing why he believes in liberal politics. The transcript is here, and I encourage you to read it if you're interested in his motivations for seeking office (it's convincing and well-argued). If you pay attention to what he's saying, the issues he's running on, and the way he's conducted his campaign, you'll notice that - for once - he's not joking.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Don't Sugarcoat It

Richard Cohen, writing in today's Post, has had quite enough of the Christian right:
For too long now, the term "faith-based" has been synonymous with dumb. It's dumb to speak of Islam as if the terrorists are its true representatives (F. Graham). It's dumb to think the Holocaust was God's way of getting the Jews to return to Israel (Hagee) or that Catholics are not true Christians (Hagee, again) or that "Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world" (Parsley).

It's dumb to reject evolution when all of science thinks the opposite, and it's dumb to oppose sex education, as if knowledge was by itself a sin. It was beyond dumb for the Rev. Pat Robertson to predict a natural calamity for Orlando because of Disney World's policy regarding gay men and lesbians. Yet, the endorsement of such clergymen has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times. To pass this kind of muster is very disquieting.

Agreed. It's more than dumb, though; it's hateful, damaging, and un-Christian. But let's consider our response to these demagogues - they may deserve all of the withering criticism that Cohen levels, but to effectively counter them, we'll need a renewed energy in our own core values. That's how we'll change the tone of religious interaction in America - not by simply negating the destructive philosophies of the Christian right, but by building an alternative vision for faith in this country. Cohen doesn't seem to have a lot of faith in this possibility, which is where my one quibble with his column lies:
The liberal clergy in this country is a faded force. Gone are the days when ministers did such things as leading the civil rights movement and marching to end the Vietnam War. Now, the ones with political clout are too often small-minded men who swaddle their bigotry and ignorance in the soothing word "faith."
This isn't totally accurate. There is a lot of encouraging work being done by an emerging group of religious leaders who are called by their faith to work for peace, justice, and human dignity - and who do so without poisoning the process with spiteful venom. We often call this group the "Christian left" simply because they are the religious opposites of the Christian right, but their eagerness to be identified with a party does not approach the opportunistic self-aggrandizement of Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, or many of the leaders of that fading movement.

One of the most visible, Jim Wallis, has done great work to combat poverty and injustice. He did a panel at Georgetown a few months back with E.J. Dionne (who, in addition to being a WaPo columnist, is a Georgetown professor) to discuss the diminishing influence of the religious right and the rise of a new faith-based politics that is more focused on unity than on division and condemnation. Wallis mentioned that, at a recent book signing, he had been approached by a woman who told him that her daughter was graduating from Harvard that spring. Wallis said that he assumed she had mentioned it because she knew he taught at Harvard, so he congratulated the woman and told her that he was very fond of the institution and loved teaching there. At this point, Wallis said, the woman began to tear up. She told Wallis that 22 years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter, she was living on food stamps and preparing to be a single mother. She almost chose to have an abortion because she could not afford to have the baby, but because of the food stamps she was able to get by. "She told me to tell everyone that story," Wallis said. He went on to reflect that the moment showed just how Americans can find common ground and make progress without using religion to attack each other. By protecting social safety nets like food stamps, liberal Americans can unite with conservative Americans who want to reduce the number of abortions in this country - and, he said, we can all agree that producing a Harvard graduate through such a political alliance is in our country's best interest.

This is the tone that the new faith leaders are setting, and it is one that will be good for American politics. This country has an incredible tradition of faith leaders and of freethinkers, of compassionate people - both religious and secular - who have done wonderful things. The faith leaders to watch are the ones who are building bridges and encouraging the kind of cooperation for the common good that Wallis described. And, in a sign of the times, they're not just Christians, either. Consider Eboo Patel, a Muslim American Rhodes Scholar and the founder of a wonderful organization called Interfaith Youth Core. He works from Chicago to build networks among young people of different faiths, engaging them in dialogue and helping them to do service together based on their shared values. This is the kind of faith leadership that we need, and it's becoming more prominent every day.

Americans of faith are sometimes given a bad name by Falwell and his ilk, but there's good reason to be encouraged by the work of people like Jim Wallis and Eboo Patel. They're a reminder that no one should be ashamed of engaging their most cherished beliefs in the civic arena - of course, always with a respect for public neutrality, boundaries, and the richness of the myriad traditions, both religious and secular, that have made America great.

Cal Thomas is Shocked - Shocked!

To find that campaigning is going on in here. In a characteristically stupid column, he expresses his utter disbelief that Senators Obama and Clinton have united, since it was only recently that they were campaigning against each other. Were they lying when they said all those nasty things about each other? Are they lying now? Who knows - they're Democrats, after all, so they could have been lying both times while secretly funneling campaign donations to al-Qaeda!

But don't worry, readers - Cal is on the case:
"This is why so many people are cynical about politicians. You never know if they are telling you what you want to hear, or what they hope you'll swallow in spite of evidence to the contrary [...] For all the talk of unity, it isn't union. One awaits the moment on "Meet the Press" or some other venue when Clinton and Obama are asked if they meant what they said about each other during the primary campaign, or should we believe what they are saying now?

If they were lying then, we can't trust him as president. If they were telling the truth then, we can't afford him as president."

This is a level of analysis that doesn't rise above the "utterly pedestrian" level, but even granting Cal's vague assertion that "so many people are cynical about politicians" (which probably is and has always been true), it would require an incredible amount of naïveté to be made cynical by this. I'm cynical about some politicians, but it's not because I watched a campaign and had my idealism ruined. Most likely it is due to one of three factors: 1) I've been watching their career, 2) I haven't had any coffee yet, or 3) It's been a while since I last watched The West Wing. But this sort of sanctimonious whining - Cal's specialty - is political pandering at its worst. Cal Thomas writes the way he does because he knows who his audience is.

That's what gets to me about this kind of writing. Is Cal Thomas surprised at what's happened throughout the primary process? Of course not. He's been covering politics for a long time. Will he mention similar attacks on John McCain from lots of GOP stars who are now warming to their party's candidate because the race is over? I wouldn't hold my breath. Would he ever assert that Republicans couldn't be trusted because campaign rhetoric didn't match up with general election camaraderie? Ha!

But that's the whole point. He knows that he's peddling junk, but he's hoping that his readers are dumb and won't realize it. He's a snake-oil salesman, selling indignation on opinion pages all around the country while hoping that his readers won't smell the stench of B.S. permeating his columns. And he thinks the politicians are the reason for the cynicism.