Wednesday, September 30, 2009

About That

Conor Friedersdorf, speculating on which Republicans could win the 2012 race, offers this headscratcher:
My somewhat uninformed guesses: David Petraeus and Colin Powell (who’d have all kinds of difficulty winning the primary). These accomplished generals share one related trait: deep credibility as men who are serious about national security, enabling them to run as sane, experienced stewards, rather than bellicose idiots so desperate to seem toughest on terrorism that they spend the primaries calling for “doubling Gitmo” and competing to see who would torture in more contrived ticking time bomb situations.

They’re also both post-partisan figures of the kind that Americans seem to like, haven’t got long voting records to be picked apart, and can nevertheless credibly claim more executive experience than President Obama.

I have to say, I can't imagine executive experience being a real clincher when you're running against an incumbent President.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tea Party-ese

Buzzfeed translates.

(Sorry for the scant updates over the last several days. I've been too busy to write much lately, but things around here will pick up again next week.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Obama's Healthcare Speech

I think Frank Rich put it pretty well this morning: short of a "suicide pact," Congressional Democrats weren't going to let healthcare reform fail, so the idea that this was a "make or break" speech for the President is little more than an example of the breathless, hysterical "win the morning" mentality embodied in the 24-hour news cycle.

I think the speech, though, accomplished some important goals: it almost certainly united Congressional Democrats and asserted Presidential leadership at a time when Barack Obama's practice of deferring to Congress seemed to be harming his agenda. It made an effective case for reforming the healthcare system, it candidly addressed some of the B.S. being spread around by shameless liars like Sarah Palin (I'm glad he used the word "lies"), and it successfully positioned the President where he should be: above the fray, guiding the discourse but not mired in it.

It was not, as Sen. Lindsey Graham bafflingly claimed (or maybe not so bafflingly, since he was just giving red meat to the FOX News crowd), a combative and uncompromising speech: the President provided a defense of the public option but explicitly said he wouldn't insist on it; he expressed willingness and even eagerness to hear other ideas; he pointed to John McCain and praised him for a policy idea; he spoke convincingly of self-reliance, freedom, and the healthy American skepticism towards government - while emphasizing that determing how much government is appropriate is something that good, patriotic Americans can disagree on. Consider this passage near the end:
That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise. [...]

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
If anything, he was too polite to Republicans, since he has been met with almost nothing but dishonesty, demagoguery, and bad faith throughout this entire debate. (The passing reference in the above passage to "facts and reason" being "thrown overboard" was far more charitable than I would have been, but that's why I blog and he governs.) Most House and Senate Republicans have behaved disgustingly; they deserve derision and to be shut out of the process. Yes, yes - I know that's not how politics works. I don't need a lecture on the mechanics of the Senate, or on the intricacies of major legislative efforts. But at some point, people have to be held responsible for their actions. Lucky for them that the President is remarkably civil towards his antagonists - but unlucky for them that his mind is on the long haul, and he's undermining them every day.

A great example of this was the way he movingly spoke of Ted Kennedy, using the moment as an opportunity to speak about Kennedy's life goal of healthcare reform and his bipartisan bona fides. Obama didn't name a single Democrat when he talked about Kennedy's friends, but he named three Republicans in the room - Sens. Hatch, McCain, and Grassley. That's classy as well as effective.

Ultimately, the speech probably changed very little about the final form of the bills pending in Congress - although it now appears that the public option is dead, which is a depressing development due in no small part to inconsistent messaging and weak support from the White House. Obama should not have raised expectations and made such a strong case for the public option if he was willing to let it die less than a week later.

But on a more positive note, the speech took the focus away from Congress and gave the impression of "ownership" of whatever happens back to the President. That's good, since he's considerably more popular than Congressional leaders, and this process should be an evaluation of his leadership skills. I think the President gave a great speech, and I think he'll end up with a good bill. When it comes to a problem as huge as healthcare, a process as maddeningly difficult as legislation, and the incredible dishonesty and acrimony dominating American politics, that's nothing less than brilliant.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Congressional Heckler

By now everyone has heard (or heard about) Rep. Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" during the President's speech, so I don't need to tell the story - but read between the lines of this sentence from the NYT's account. This is cold:

"Mr. Wilson also phoned the White House and reached Mr. Emanuel, who accepted an apology on behalf of the president."

He "reached" Rahm Emanuel - which means he's not important enough to have a direct line. And President Obama was not going to hear his apology, so Rahm accepted it instead.

My schedule is pretty hectic over the next day or so, but as soon as I can put together some refined thoughts on the speech, I'll post them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fear and Knowledge

Over at Empirical International, Matt has a couple of excellent posts answering ten "challenges" to evolutionary biology posed by Jonathan Wells, a prominent intelligent-design advocate. The challenges are part of an old chain email that tries to convince high-school students to confront their unsuspecting biology teachers with ammunition against the supposed fraud of evolution. Ever the gentleman, Matt writes, "Wells holds PhDs in Molecular and Cell Biology from Berkeley and Religious Studies from Yale, so he's obviously no slouch and I do not believe he is deliberately trying to deceive people." Well, speak for yourself, Matt. I've been blogging for over a year now, so my ability to assume good faith was lost long ago.

Kidding aside, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Dr. Wells is honestly questioning widely-accepted science (instead of cynically selling out to hacks and pseudoscientific organizations like the Discovery Institute, where he is a fellow). Matt already addressed the numerous scientific errors Wells makes in his criticisms, a task for which he is manifestly more qualified than I am, so we'll put aside those concerns for the time being. For my part, I'd like to explore why seemingly-intelligent people cling so desperately to junk science like intelligent design in defiance of all logic and scientific consensus. I think the phenomenon raises some interesting issues.

There's no small amount of fuss about a supposed showdown between science and religion in our age, and among highly-educated people, I imagine the consensus is that science is "winning." Until 9/11, there was a rough agreement that religious faith was waning, at least in the developed world, and it's not hard to imagine why some people - and I'd place Wells and his ilk among them - feel threatened. There's something very scary about the prospect of one's world seemingly fading away, an unsettling feeling that your cherished, familiar traditions are being replaced by an indifferent empiricism whose evangelists are openly hostile to your heritage. Or at least that's how they see it. For others of us, the picture is considerably less bleak: the advancement of human knowledge is exciting and potentially world-changing, and regardless of our religious beliefs, it should be considered a good thing.

Fundamentally, that's why ID advocates are off-base. Religion - or at least Christianity - is not about making empirical claims. It's not about explaining, in any scientifically meaningful sense, how the universe came to be, and when it addresses its subject matter appropriately, its claims are beyond the realm of scientific testing. The temptation to scientifically explain the world using God is misguided and counterproductive.

It didn't start with intelligent design, though. We can look back at least as far as 1613, when the Flemish Jesuit Leonardus Lessius published De Providentia Numinis, an argument about God and Christianity which proceeded by venturing into explanations of the physical universe. It was, to say the least, a troubling sign of things to come. As the philosopher Michael Buckley writes:
De providentia numinis occupies a position from which the Church will seldom depart in its apologetic response to the gradual rise of atheism in the Western world. Lessius’ problematic methodology separates the question of god from the cognitive claims of Christology in the classic distinction between revelation and reason. The centrality of Christ is relegated to revelation – Christ does not evoke faith in the Father; his intelligibility is consequent upon faith. What Lessius presents is not the person and message of Jesus, but those cosmological and historical experiences which are open to any human being.
When you think about it, this is a pretty remarkable shift, one which basically amounts to a tacit admission that personal experience of the sublime is intellectually insufficient as grounds for belief. Born of this sentiment is the fundamentalist tendency to look for "answers in Genesis," which will always be a fool's errand. Religion should not appeal to science for coherence, not only because it doesn't need to, but also because science doesn't need religion. Science is perfectly coherent without religion.

But that's not the only reason why the ID-style approach is misguided - or why ID advocates are scared. There is another significant concern behind their way of thinking, one that has to do with the way people imagine nature. The Christian idea of a world created ex nihilo is not a world that precludes contingency, but it is a world where the contingent embodies (in some way) a divine idea or image, if not divine intent. It is a world in which, as Louis Dupré writes, "nature retains an intrinsically normative character," a "further stage in the process of revelation." For Christian thinkers of centuries past, nature was filled with meaning, if not intentional structure. Again, as Dupré puts it, "the epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively, given." Most Christians, I imagine, are intent to continue viewing nature in this way, but the rise of evolutionary theory exploded forever the idea of a manifestly-ordered creation. Right?

People like Dr. Wells are afraid of the question - so they continue to insist, against all evidence, that evolution cannot possibly account for the world we see. They are, of course, wrong. Their work perniciously undermines real science to support pseudoscience. And on theological grounds, their efforts are completely unnecessary: contingency, however we imagine it to work in the universe, does not make the world devoid of meaning or beauty. God does not exist as some sort of heavenly puppetmaster, and it was always theologically childish to imagine God that way. However we may conceive of creation and of the nature that developed after the origins of the universe, we can at least admit the possibility of a pervasive divine grace, free from the temporal limitations of humanity, able to see what was, is, and will be; imbuing the world with meaning even as it unfolds in ways that are unpredictable to us. Vain attempts to fit science and the world into our preconceived notions of providence are doomed to fail. But the honest and unbiased pursuit of knowledge - whether scientific or spiritual - has the potential to unlock not just information, but understanding.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Breaking News!

Can anyone explain the purpose of the vague, uninformative, self-contradictory, and bizarre non-story the NYT is featuring this morning? The article, "Obama Faces a Critical Moment for His Presidency," contains the breaking story reform is important? Being president is tough? Add in the reporter's (philosopher's?) string of rhetorical questions, and you've got a real head-scractcher:
He faces a crisis of expectations tough to manage. Can he form a health care compromise that satisfies both his liberal base and fiscal conservatives in his own party, much less the other one? Can he stanch the slide in support for the war in Afghanistan even as he considers sending more troops? Can he soothe discontent with an economy that appears to have bottomed out but remains moribund? Can he change the tenor of debate in a capital that seems as polarized as ever?
Um, I don't know. That's why I read the newspaper. But that's far from the worst part of this piece. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the hallmark of poor journalism: a simplistic narrative!
Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to run into trouble after the bunting and balloons have vanished, but his slipping support has fueled a narrative about a young and relatively inexperienced president who overinterpreted his mandate and overreached in his policies. His job approval rating has fallen to 56 percent from 62 percent since February in polls taken by The New York Times and CBS News. Other surveys register an even sharper drop.
Wait: having a 56% approval rating = unpopularity? And who thought that having a 62% approval rating after a month in office was sustainable? It's like the pundits who pretend to be shocked that healthcare reform used to have astronomically high public support, and now its support has fallen. Well, duh: when there's no plan to oppose, the abstract idea of "reforming" something sounds pretty good!

The second issue here is the narrative being "fueled" by "slipping support" (again, 56%?) If anything, the narrative is being fueled by lazy and opportunistic reporters who aren't interested in writing a nuanced story about why governing, even for someone as powerful as the President, is so difficult - and who know that "WUNDERKIND OBAMA SLIPPING FAST" is a much more exciting headline. Ooo, look! A hero is stumbling! One could write a story about the intricacies of Congressional politics, the slowness of bureaucracy, or the naturally incremental nature of the American political process - the kinds of helpful, informative pieces that normally appear in the NYT - but for today: narrative! Even weirder, then, that this sentence should immediately follow:
But his overall standing with the public is still healthy [...] If he ultimately gets some form of health care program passed that he can call a victory, this turbulence may ultimately be forgotten.
Translation: everything I just said is crap, and even I know it. If any kind of healthcare bill gets passed (which is basically set in stone at this point), we'll all forget that I wrote this terrible article.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Gitmo Prison Blues

While filling in at the Daily Dish, Chris Bodenner does us all a favor by tearing apart Elise Cooper's weak arguments against moving Guantanamo prisoners to facilities in the United States. Cooper's piece, titled (apparently without irony) "No Terrorists in My Backyard", brags that there was a consensus against housing Gitmo prisoners here among those interviewed: namely, security experts and members of Congress. The problem: they're nearly all Republican politicians. And one of the two security experts is Michael Chertoff, who hardly counts as impartial - when he was head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division in 2003, he sided with John Yoo's memo that exempted the military from federal law during wartime and authorized torture at the prison. He had a hand in making Gitmo the nightmare it was, and unfortunately remains, for the US.

Bodenner does a fine job demonstrating why none of Cooper's arguments make sense, and he notes that the piece "reads like a cobbled-together press release." It does have a bit of a thrown-together feel to it, especially this humdinger from Rep. Tom Rooney:
Congressman Rooney points out that since a lot of money was spent in making Guantanamo Bay a state of the art prison America should keep the detainees there. He does not support the Obama administration’s view that Guantanamo must be closed because of the stigma associated with it.
Where to start with this (besides the obvious question of why we elect such people to Congress)? How much Guantanamo cost to build has nothing to do with whether or not we should keep it open; that question is decided by its helping or hindrance of our national security objectives. So the "stigma" of Guantamano is a very good reason for closing it - but, just for clarity's sake, let's not call it a stigma. That understates its danger. Guantanamo is an incredibly powerful recruiting tool for our enemies, and since we can safely imprison terrorists without handing them a recruiting tool, the security cost of keeping it open far outweighs the benefits. With no coherent argument opposing this move, it's hard to characterize Republican behavior as anything besides posturing.