November 2003 Archives


Friday, November 28, 2003

Politics as Usual? Not when conservatives are on the receiving end of ruthless Republican party pressure to achieve its agenda. In Robert Novak's column yesterday he gives vent to some of the rage conservatives unhappy with the Medicare bill felt after being pummeled by thugs in their own party. Lead paragraphs:

During 14 years in the Michigan Legislature and 11 years in Congress, Rep. Nick Smith had never experienced anything like it. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in the wee hours last Saturday morning, pressed him to vote for the Medicare bill. But Smith refused. Then things got personal.

Smith, self term-limited, is leaving Congress. His lawyer son Brad is one of five Republicans seeking to replace him from a GOP district in Michigan's southern tier. On the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father's vote. When he still declined, fellow Republican House members told him they would make sure Brad Smith never came to Congress. After Nick Smith voted no and the bill passed, Duke Cunningham of California and other Republicans taunted him that his son was dead meat.

The Democrats anger over the Republicans' breaking rules and stopping at nothing to get their way can be dismissed as loser's sour grapes. But things must have got pretty nasty if even conservative columnist and Republican party loyalist Robert Novak is outraged by them. The only good thing that can be said about the way the Republicans conducted themselves during the Medicare vote is that there is such a thing as winning the battle but losing the war. As Novak says in the last line of his column, "Hammering the conservatives to prevent that may have been only a short-term triumph."


Thursday, November 27, 2003

10:00 PM

I was reading through some of Charles Krauthammer’s recent columns, and some things he said about the debate in which Howard Dean was hammered by his opponents for his pickup-trucks-and-confederate-flags comment is worth a comment. Here’s what CK said:

Constrained by the ruling Democratic dogma that everyone, even your rebel-yelling racist redneck, is a victim, Dean absolved these yahoos of responsibility by explaining that responsibility lies with those nasty Republicans who taught them their racism: "I think there are [a] lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their southern race strategy." . . .

All this proved a bit much for John Edwards, whose knowledge of the South is firsthand and not anthropological. Edwards, who grew up white, working class and southern, made the devastatingly correct observation that Dean's problem is not racism but condescension.

A couple of points. The first is that CK’s dismissal of the southern race strategy is glib and misses Dean’s point. And while it should be pointed out that it's CK who calls these white southerners yahoos, not Dean, it’s also true that the Democrats do have their own problems with a self-righteousness condescension that makes it very difficult for many traditional-values Americans to feel at home in the Democratic Party. To have allowed this to happen has been a terrible political blunder by Democrats, and it hasn’t been remedied by Democrat Leadership Council centrism. The DLC is geared more to business-class interests than it is to the "populist" interests of low- and middle-income working people.

Dean is right about the Republican southern strategy regarding race. Here’s a quote from Republican strategist Lee Atwater during Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign:

Populists have always been liberal on economics. So long as the crucial issues were generally confined to economics—as during the New Deal—the liberal candidate would expect to get most of the populist vote. But populists are conservatives on most social issues. . . . When social and cultural issues died down, the populists were left with no compelling reason to vote Republican. Cited in Lind, UFC, p. 138

So the solution for Republicans, as Michael Lind points out, is to change the subject from economics to culture, and thus was invented the Reagan Democrat. So Howard Dean is hardly describing white socially conservative southerners as victims: he’s simply pointing out that the Republican elites have a vested interest in playing the race card in the culture war that Republicans began to wage in the eighties.

Cultural values don’t change overnight. After ’64, it may not have been legal to segregate, but that doesn’t mean that the segregationist mentality has evaporated. That will take a few more generations. But the fact remains that the economic interests of low- and middle-income whites in the south and the rust-belt north are more in line with the interests of low- and middle-income blacks than they are with the white southern oligarchs who have taken over the leadership of the Republican Party. And it is clearly in the oligarchs' interest to make sure that these two groups never recognize their common interest and make common cause on progressive populist issues.

The stupidity and political incompetence of an intellectually muddled Democratic leadership has let the Republicans get away with this, and it continues to do so. For this they justifiably deserve Republican scorn for being so easily outmaneuvered. It's beyond ridiculous that the Democratic Party has become a place inhospitable for socially conservative but economically progressive Americans.

The Republicans' have achieved this through a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. It was employed with similar effectiveness by the British in Northern Ireland, by the Nazis in Germany, and the Serbs in Yugoslavia. It doesn’t matter—religion, race, ethnicity--it’s all about identity politics at its worst. It’s crude and ridiculous, but it works. And for some reason Americans think they are above this kind of thing, and so not enough attention is given to the way it’s been driving the national political process for at least the last decade.

And the Republicans want to keep this strategy underneath the public radar and so find ways to deny it or obscure what they're doing whenever it's brought up. But it’s obvious that southern Republican elites have been playing the race and family values cards in a cynical game of identity politics, pitting one tribe against the other in an effort to keep them from realizing their common interests.

And the Democrats help them out whenever they present themselves as the out-of-touch flakes Republicans want to caricature them as. So Krauthammer is right about that.The Democrats can’t win if the terms of the fight are defined by the culture war. They have simply been outmaneuvered by the Republicans on this front, and they’ve been made to look foolish. The fact that the economy might be much improved by next November shouldn’t matter. The Democrats need to make the case that the culture war is a red herring, and that they represent the real ‘kitchen-table’ interests of low- and middle-income Americans. If the Democrats can re-present themselves unapologetically as the big-tent party of equality and justice for all, they will win back the populist vote.

You can’t expect people to all of a sudden like those they’ve been brought up not to like. That takes time. They can, however, learn to respect them, whether black or white, insofar as they see that it's in their interest to join with the other in a common cause. If nativist Protestant extremists can make common cause with extremist Catholics and Jews, whom they have traditionally hated, so can non-extremist , decent southern white Protestants make common cause with other decent wage-earning Blacks, Catholics and Jews if someone can figure out a way to show them that it’s in their best interest to do so.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003

6:38 PM

The difference between Democrats and Republicans:

Kennedy said in an interview that he had no regrets about trying to get the earlier bill passed. But he acknowledged that Republicans had shown far more discipline than Democrats have ever mustered. Kennedy recalled a conversation he had with then-Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas in the early 1990s about the wall of Republican opposition to President Clinton's health care bill. Gramm, he said, explained that Republicans were determined not to let Clinton and a Democratic Congress prove they were capable of "performing."

Excerpted from E.J. Dionne's column about passage of the Medicare bill today.

3:05 PM

Jefferson Davis's Revenge.

While most of the new nonwhite immigration is concentrated in a few coastal states like California, Texas, and New York, there is an ongoing white exodus from those same states. This raises the disturbing possibility that the old southern Bourbon strategy of uniting affluent, outnumbered whites in the lowland black belt with poor and middling whites in the lily-white southern upcountry in a coalition against lowland black majorities might be emulated, in the twenty-first century, by a national Bourbon strategy. Outnumbered members of the wealthy white overclass in the suburbs of coastal states like California, Texas, and Florida might find allies against local nonwhite majorities in the middle income whites in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states whose political power is grossly exaggerated by the malapportionment of the U.S. Senate. Instead of the nationalization of the South, we may be witnessing the southernization of the nation

Lind, Up from Conservatism, p. 206

8:30 AM

Bush Hating. My point last week about the right-wing campaign to make the Democrats look overly aggressive is the subject of Paul Krugman's column this morning. But I would like to add a few points to what he says. There is an important difference that distinguishes the Republican attitudes toward Clinton in the 90s from Democrat attitudes toward Bush now. The right-wing opposition toward Clinton was directed toward destroying him personally and de-legitimizing the Democratic Party. It had much less to do with differences about policy. The criticism of Bush now has almost everything to do with his reckless policies.

It would be easy enough for Democrats to begin a personal smear campaign against Bush. They have much more to work with from Bush's past than the Republicans had to work with from Clinton's--that's why the wingnuts just started making things up. But anybody with any objectivity recognizes that Clinton was a right-center Neo-liberal. Howard Dean is, too. A Neo-liberal is fiscally conservative and pro-corporate, but socially laisser faire. Clinton was more effective at shrinking government than either Reagan or Bush. He was pro-free trade, he shrank welfare, and was the only one in decades to have produced a balanced budget and a surplus, and he was vilified by the left-liberal wing of the Democratic party for doing so.

If you're a reasonable Republican, this was a Democrat made to order, the kind of person you should be able to work with easily. So why didn't Republicans work more cooperatively with Clinton? Why were they so relentless in their incessant personal attacks on him from Day One? Because the Republican party has been hijacked by ideologically blinded extremists. Theirs in not a politics as usual. And you don't have to be liberal to be disturbed by this. Any sane moderate who is relatively aware of what's been going on for the last decade should be disturbed.

I don't hate George Bush. He's a good 'ol boy like Warren Harding, a personable front man for the bosses calling the shots behind the scenes. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he sincerely believes the lines that are being written for him. But sincerity isn't enough if all it means is believing your own propaganda. He's as gullible as all the other Americans who buy into it.


Monday, November 24, 2003

10:52 PM

It's time to stop being politically correct about "multiculturalism."

The new racial politics of the Republican right has been helped, if only inadvertently, by the disastrous racial politics of left-liberal Democrats. When the left-liberals annihilated the New Deal-vital center national liberals in the Democratic party in the 1960s and 1970s, they also killed the genuine liberal alternative to segregation--race-neutral or color-blind antidiscrimination law. Racial preference, and multiculturalism, the theory that justifies it, have been the central elements of the left-liberal approach to race in the post-apartheid United States. Racial preference, together with busing to achieve "racial balance," has done more to send white voters in the direction of the Republican right than any number of "Willie Horton" commercials could have done. The worst effect of left-liberal racial politics has been a subtle one: by constantly emphasizing that blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans are cohesive groups whose identity must be preserved, left-liberals, without intending to, have given credibility to white racists who argue that "Euro-Americans" constitute a similarly cohesive group whose identity and traditions equally deserve government recognition and support.

Michael Lind, Up from Conservatism, p. 188.

See my post 11/12 post on " white-America." This patronizing preservationist attitude of the left toward lingering premodern cultural identities, whether Asian, Latin, African, Arab, or European, is a regressive, nostalgic indulgence. And it's as bad for different reasons on the multi-culturalist left as it is on the nativist right. To try to preserve Latin or black identity is as sterile as to preserve white identity. The future lies elsewhere. American culture's highest calling lies in its becoming a true fusion culture in which all of these traditions contribute to an rich, integrated, national cultural life within the rights framework developed during the the European Enlightenment. It's time to stop thinking and worrying about race, blood, and ethnicity. We don't need those props anymore to give us a sense of who we are. It's time to leave all that behind and move forward.

7:20 AM

Look on the bright side:

Until now, Iraq's Shiite majority has kept a remarkably low profile. They have been in no hurry whatsoever to push U.S. troops out of their country, and in fact they strongly support our staying. But let's not mislead ourselves. It's not because they love us. They want us to stay because their enemy Saddam remains at large, and because their longtime Sunni oppressors are still armed and dangerous.

In essence, the Shiites have made a calculated decision to stay quiet and let us eliminate their enemies for them. Once we've done that, though -- once the Sunni rebellion has been eradicated and Saddam removed as a threat -- we may very well find ourselves facing a far more dangerous Shiite rebellion.

Jay Bookman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, November 23, 2003

7:40 AM

He's No Knee Jerk. One of the things that has been clear about the way the right wing operates, at least since the days of Newt Gingrich, is its discipline about staying "on message" when that message is orchestrated by the right-wing braintrust. An essential element in its strategy has been the willingness of media organizations and individual pundits and columnists to act as party spokespersons, regardless what claims they might make about their journalistic independence.

Last week I wrote questioning David Brooks' independence. I said that I thought his column attacking Howard Dean for being a fighter was a signal that he, along with Krauthammer, Novak, and others, was simply following instructions to stay "on message." Well his column yesterday on the gay marriage question wins back a measure of my respect. You know that he's going to take some significant heat for it at the Christmas parties he'll be attending, that is, if any but the log-cabin Republicans invite him to one. An excerpt:

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.

It's so refreshing when someone says something that is not so ideologically predictable. It actually creates the possibility for talking about an emotionally charged issue in a sane, thoughtful way.


Saturday, November 22, 2003

Advancing the Narrative. Nobody with any common sense believes the Warren Commission explanations for the Kennedy assassination. Nobody with any common sense believes that the reason we went into Iraq was to liberate Iraqis from Saddam's despotism. There are the official cover stories, and then there's what really happened.

The problem lies in that while the cover stories rarely pass the laugh test, you can never be sure about what is really going on. You can speculate and come up with the most elaborate conspiracy theories, but you never really know. You can do a lot of research, and maybe you can get a bigger collection of dots to connect than the next guy. But about too many subjects, usually the ones that matter most to us, there's always someone with more dots or someone else who has the same dots as you but connects them differently.

And so it always comes down to judgment, and judgment is always biased, and yet you trust some people's judgment more than you do others. Why? Partly because they might have a track record of being right more often than being wrong . But I think there is more to it than that. Good judgment is, for instance, not just a function of intellectual capacity, although being able to think things through rigorously is obviously an asset to good judgment. Good judgment is ultimately connected to the development of wisdom, and wisdom is a moral quality.Wise people are generally well informed, but they don't get lost in a flood of detail. They have a nimble, intuitive way of organizing the dots into meaningful patterns that are refreshing and true. You trust people to the degree that they have developed this moral quality, and you don't trust them to the degree that they haven't.

If we think back about all of the bad judgments we've made during our lives, if we're honest, we'd recognize that there was usually something blinding us from seeing clearly what was right in front of us. Sometimes it was a laziness that prevented us from looking carefully or making the effort to investigate. On other occasions because of some blinding passion or desire for things to be a certain way. When we're in such a state, we dismiss any contrary evidence as insignificant.

Everybody makes mistakes, and we are wiser for them if after making them we learn something about our blindspots. We can also learn by observing the mistakes of others, but sometimes we just have to learn the hard way. One way or the other, though, we have to learn, and this learning in religious language is called "repentance." The word has become encrusted with guilt-driven moralistic meanings--'fessing up to being a bad boy who broke the rules and promising to be a good, obedient boy from now on. But that's not what the word really means.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which comes closer. It has more the meaning of being open to transformation, to seeing things in a different way and to be changed by our new seeing. This cognitive element is very important. If you don't really see the world differently, you haven't genuinely repented, which is to say, your vision hasn't changed. The bllindspots remain in place.

The wisest people are the ones who have undergone to some degree this kind of moral transformation. The stupidest people, no matter how high their IQ, are those who remain willfully blind. And one of the stupidest things any of us can do is take too seriously any particular ideological construct about how the world works. None of us knows, really, how the world works; all we have are provisional constructs that we develop over time to help us to make sense of things. The worst possible combination is to be both stupid in this sense and to be arrogantly willful.

The people who got us into Iraq are very smart, but they are stupid. Many are sincere believing Christians or Jews, but their thinking lacks moral legitimacy to the degree that it remains so willfully blind. Ideological thinking is one of the primary causes of blind thinking because it only works with the dots that fit into the pre-existing ideological pattern, and it's always, as a result, stale and predictable. Ideological thinking is fundamentally lazy thinking and its main concern is to reinforce the cage constructed to make us feel safe. We all need some kind of a construct or worldview; the stupidity lies in thinking that it represents absolute truth.

This is not to say that there is no absolute truth--I don't believe that for a minute. But we don't ever know anything in an absolute sense--all we have is provisional theories. Some people see more clearly than others, but no one sees absolutely--I don't care if you're the world's greatest initiate or boddhisattva. Jesus Christ himself saw with unmatched depth and clarity, but he didn't see everything. He was capable of being surprised. If you can't be surprised, you're not human.

The Democratic Party is full of scoundrels--the ones who come to Washington to do good and stay to do well. But the Republican party is full of people blinded by their moralistic ideology. Moralism is wannabe morality. It's the priggish posture taken by the morally immature to appear morally righteous. The moralistic person deep down knows he is a fraud and aggressively strikes out at anyone who would expose him. For this reason the moralistic frauds of Athens executed Socrates and the ones in Jerusalem crucified Christ.

Come election day, I'll vote for a scoundrel before I'll vote for a moralistic prig. The scoundrel is more vulnerable to repentance; the moralistic prig is blind to his need for it. He thinks everyone else needs it. The self-righteous, moralistic prigs are the ones who do all the major damage. That's the picture painted over and again in the gospels these folks on the rigid right keep insisting is their playbook.

I don't doubt their sincerity. The problem is not with their being sincere but with their being blinded by their own righteousness. Many of the Bolsheviks were quite idealistic and sincere, as are suicide bombers. But you don't want to give these people the keys to the car. They will sooner or later find a way to drive it over a cliff.


Friday, November 21, 2003

As we approach the 40th anniversary of JFK's assassination, there's a lot of nostalgic thinking about what could have been. Among the more common themes is that JFK would never have gotten the US more deeply involved in Vietnam the way LBJ did. Maybe.

It would have been relatively easy for Kennedy or Johnson to stay out of Vietnam in the period before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. After that, all the momentum shifted toward the tremendous commitment to succeed there, whatever the cost. Pulling back became virtually impossible by the logic that such policies follow once they are initiated.

So will the next Democratic president, should one be elected next year, be a Lyndon Johnson or a John Kennedy? We're in a phase in Iraq that is already like the post-Gulf of Tonkin phase in Vietnam. The pressures to continue no matter what the cost are enormous, and any Democratic administration that comes in will have to deal with that pressure.

But I'm getting to the point where I need someone to prove to me that the US has a better chance of actually delivering peace and democracy to Iraqis than we have of Iraq becoming another Soviet Afghanistan or American Vietnam. Until recently I thought that although it was stupid and wrong to invade Iraq, that once we made a mess there we had a responsibility to clean it up, and that to cut an run would be morally irresponsible. But if the situation keeps deteriorating, we have at least to ask ourselves if our staying might simply be making things worse for everyone.

At this point I don't have a clear picture about what I think should happen, but the issue needs to be debated during the campaign in the next year so the rest of us can figure out which course is best. If there's a reasonable chance that our staying will actually contribute to improving conditions for the Iraqis and to bringing peace to the Middle East, we should stay.

But if in the course of the next three or four months it becomes clear that our staying is in fact a stimulus for chaos and violence rather than its anodyne, then the Democrats should frame an alternative policy for Americans to consider and vote on. It will have to be framed as a more effective and prudent way of dealing with the real threat that terrorism poses. It will have to be based on a multi-lateral understanding of how the world ought to work. And it will have to be framed as a more effective way of moving forward than as a retreat.

I think that a plausible and respectable policy of withdrawal is possible to frame; the question lies in whether any of the Democratic candidates will have the strength to resist the pressure to stay the course. It will also require energy and imagination to articulate such a policy to the American people and the world that withdrawal truly would be a way forward. It's more likely, though, that if a Democrat is elected president next year, he will become another Lyndon Johnson.


Monday, November 17, 2003

4:30 PM

Docile Democrats. I want to like David Brooks. I got a kick out of his book BOBOs in Paradise. He has a sense of humor. He appears to be a very decent, moderate, thoughtful, "conservative" spokesman in his appearances with the "liberal" Mark Shields on Friday's Jim Lehrer Newshour. He struck me as something of an odd fit at The Weekly Standard, because he didn't seem ideologically driven enough to be all that comfortable there. Now, with William Safire, he's a conservative op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Better fit, it would seem.

But I have to wonder about him. Is he an independent conservative or just someone playing "nice cop" in the larger right-wing strategy to discredit anyone to the left of Herbert Hoover. In his column on Saturday, he strikes a "can't-we-just-get-along" pose that lays the responsibility for the future of Beltway civility on the shoulders of the Democrats. Brooks suggests that it would be an awful mistake for the Democrats to nominate Howard Dean for the presidency because he's a fighter. His column is in the form of a speech he thinks one of the other Democrat contenders should make. An excerpt:

I am relaunching my campaign around one simple slogan: Stop the War.

I don't mean the war in Iraq. I mean the war at home. I mean the partisan war between Republicans and Democrats that rages every day in Washington and produces behavior that would be unacceptable in any other arena of life. I mean the war that poisons our airwaves, clogs up our best-seller lists and stagnates our politics.

I've lived at the front: it's in Washington, D.C. This is World War I. Each party has its trench works. Each party has its heavy artillery. Anybody who dares wander from the predictable party lines and do something unorthodox gets his head blown off.

Nothing ever changes.

If Dean is our nominee, he may fight the Beltway wars more aggressively than other Democrats, but we will still be a nation at war. I have seen Dean up close. The man hates his opponents. His kind thrives only during times of domestic war.

Either this is ridiculously naive projection or the most blatant kind of cynical posturing. If the latter, maybe he does belong at The Weekly Standard after all. Because one of the basic strategies undertaken by the right for the last decade has been to play intensely aggressive dirty politics as if it's normal, and then explode into a mushroom cloud or moral indignation when the Democrats do something even slightly assertive. Brooks plays the role of the peacemaker, but his column is like the leaflets the U.S. dropped over Iraq in the run-up to the war. In effect he's saying why don't all you Democrats roll over like the collaborationist Evan Bayh. Lay down your guns, and no one gets hurt.

This is part of a calculated strategy on the part of the right to keep the Democrats on the defensive. Keep the Dems worried that every time they take the offensive, they will be made to appear as the aggressors in this trench war. Keep them worried about that, and then they'll never be able to develop any traction.

So is Brooks the sincere, independent-thinking conservative he portrays himself to be, or is something else going on? Columns like the one he wrote on Saturday make it appear that he's part of this orchestrated attempt to blame the Democrats for half-heartedly doing what the Republicans do with passion, discipline, and cynicism.

If you need a reminder of the Republican modus operandi, read Molly Ivins 11/14 article. She wrote it in response to Charles Krauthammer's and Robert Novak's recent recent slams of the Democrats for having degenerated into irrational Bush haters. An excerpt:

For eight long years, this country was a zoo of Clinton-haters. Any idiot with a big mouth and a conspiracy theory could get a hearing on radio talk shows and "Christian" broadcasts and nutty Internet sites. People with transparent motives, people paid by tabloid magazines, people with known mental problems, ancient Clinton enemies with notoriously racist pasts – all were given hearings, credence, and air time. Sliming Clinton was a sure road to fame and fortune on the right, and many an ambitious young rightwing hit man like David Brock, who has since made full confession, took that golden opportunity.

And these folks didn't stop with verbal and printed attacks. From the day Clinton was elected to office, he was the subject of the politics of personal destruction. They went after him with a multimillion-dollar smear campaign funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, the rightwing billionaire. They went after him with lawsuits funded by rightwing legal foundations (Paula Jones), they got special counsels appointed to investigate every nitpicking nothing that ever happened (Filegate, Travelgate), and they never let go of that hardy perennial Whitewater.

After all this time and all those millions of dollars wasted, no one has ever proved that the Clintons did a single thing wrong. Bill Clinton lied about a pathetic, squalid affair that was none of anyone else's business anyway, and for that they impeached the man and dragged this country through more than a year of the most tawdry, ridiculous, unnecessary pain.

The cynical strategy of the Republican braintrust in the nineties was to tie up Clinton and others in his administration in legal and public-perception controversies to keep them on the defensive in order to prevent them from doing their jobs effectively. I don't think that the architects of this politics of personal destruction had any personal hatred of Bill Clinton. For them cultivating a culture of hatred was just good politics.

Any Democrat elected in '92 would have found himself vilified in the same way. Outrageous, incessant sliming works.Generate enough smoke, and sooner or later most people start believing there's a fire. The Clinton administration found itself continuosly running around to put out imaginary fires ignited by Republicans, and then found themselves being blamed for problems they didn't cause. It's a wonder they had any time to govern. And that was the basic Republican goal--to have prevented the Clinton administration from governing.

So when Brooks writes a column about who's really responsible for this trench war, he'll win back my respect. Because otherwise he just seems like another right-wing flak, like Novak and Krauthammer, who is following company orders. And the order of the day is to attack the Democrats for fighting back. The right-wingers don't like their Democrats uppity. They want a nice, docile Democrat who won't cause too much of a fuss.

7:38 AM

No Exit.

We have clasped the tar baby to our bosom," says Joseph L. Galloway, senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers and coauthor of "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," an acclaimed account of a crucial battle in Vietnam. "We cannot afford to cut and run. We cannot declare victory and walk out. Our whole policy in the Middle East is wrapped up in this thing -- so we can't afford to lose but we can't afford to win either.

Today's Salon, Jessica Kowal

Is it possible that the U.S. has no exit strategy in Iraq because originally there was no intention to exit?

Sunday, November 16, 2003

8:58 AM

Albert Gore's MoveOn speech, as suggested earlier, is an interesting juxtaposition to Bush's "freedom" speech about which I commented a few days ago. You have to wonder what content the word "freedom" has for the people directing administration policy. In the Bush speech, it was pretty much defined as freedom from despotism. Well, everybody's for freedom and against despotism. But Gore's speech is an attempt to call our attention to a kind of creeping despotism here in the U.S. that all of us should be more alarmed about. It's a long speech that's worth the time to read, but here are some key paragraphs:

Indeed, the most worrisome new factor, in my view, is the aggressive ideological approach of the current administration, which seems determined to use fear as a political tool to consolidate its power and to escape any accountability for its use.  Just as unilateralism and dominance are the guiding principles of their disastrous approach to international relations, they are also the guiding impulses of the administration’s approach to domestic politics.   They are impatient with any constraints on the exercise of power overseas -- whether from our allies, the UN, or international law. And in the same way, they are impatient with any obstacles to their use of power at home – whether from Congress, the Courts, the press, or the rule of law

 This Administration simply does not seem to agree that the challenge of preserving democratic freedom cannot be met by surrendering core American values.  Incredibly, this Administration has attempted to compromise the most precious rights that America has stood for all over the world for more than 200 years:  due process, equal treatment under the law, the dignity of the individual, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from promiscuous government surveillance.  And in the name of security, this Administration has attempted to relegate the Congress and the Courts to the sidelines and replace our democratic system of checks and balances with an unaccountable Executive. And all the while, it has constantly angled for new ways to exploit the sense of crisis for partisan gain and political dominance.

The Constitution includes no wartime exception, though its Framers knew well the reality of war.  And, as Justice Holmes reminded us shortly after World War I, the Constitution’s principles only have value if we apply them in the difficult times as well as those where it matters less.

The speech includes a long catalog of specfic instances of the kinds of abuse listed in the excerpted paragraphs, and he makes the point that all of this need for increased surveillance is counterproductive, anyway: "Not to put too fine a point on it, but what is needed is better and more timely analysis.  Simply piling up more raw data that is almost entirely irrelevant is not only not going to help.  It may actually hurt the cause.  As one FBI agent said privately of Ashcroft: 'We’re looking for a needle in a haystack here and he (Ashcroft) is just piling on more hay.'”
There's always a tradeoff between security and freedom. No one who is even half awake can deny that the world is a dangerous place and that the terrorist threat is real. And obviously prudent, hard-headed steps have to be taken to minimize that threat. But what we need from our leaders is a policy based on courage, not fear. A people which is fearfull can never be truly free.


.Friday, November 14, 2003

11:06 PM

Gore vs. Bush. Their speeches last week were an interesting juxtaposition. Bush is talking about America's destiny to bring freedom to the world, while Gore talks about how the Bush administration is eroding freedom at home.

Bush's speech is his attempt to make the case that Enlightenment values like freedom and creativity are what all people long for, that every culture has its own way of being free and creative, and that the forces of despotism are not part of the hardwiring of any culture:

And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free.

And a little later:

As we watch and encourage reforms in the region, we are mindful that modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us.

I agree. I think that modernizing is inevitable and that it will definitely be an upgrade for the premodern cultures of the Middle East. But let's not kid ourselves. Modernizing is a wrenching, painful, bloody experience. It was in Europe, and it was in the United States. The American Civil War was essentially a struggle to define American culture as a modern, capitalist democracy--the North--versus forces that wanted to maintain a premodern, feudal agrarian society--the South.

Catholic Europe fought modernization tooth and nail, and Catholicism lost, adapted, and survived. The Southern confederacy fought it tooth and nail, and it eventually modernized, sort of. And Islam is now fighting it tooth and nail, and it, too, will adapt and survive . But this will be no walk in the park. Maybe the bloody religious wars had to be fought in Europe. Maybe the U.S. had to go through the wrenching, identity-shaping war between the states. Maybe bloody struggle is the only way that the forces of progress can assert themselves. But why are we making teh bloody sturggle in Iraq our fight?

Our role should be rather like France's during the American Revolutionary War. It's up to the local "freedom fighters" to take the initiative, and as France did for the Americans back then, it's up to the U.S. now to provide support to the local progressive forces who are willing to fight for a better Iraq or Iran or Syria or whatever. The biggest U.S. miscalculation (the other, thinking it could go alone) in this fiasco in Iraq was its assumption that there were such progressive forces in Iraq that were strong enough to take control. Who? Ahmed Chalabi? Give me a break.

The bottom line is that sooner or later dictators like Saddam fall. He may not have done it on the American schedule, but it would have been inevitable. We see now that he was being effectively contained, and that whatever our fears about him, he posed little threat to the U.S. or Iraq's neighbors. The U.S. rushed things. And while it may well be that the majority of Iraqis long for modernity, peace, and freedom, the regressive forces in their society are still strong, armed, angry, and determined. And they will never accept an American puppet government. So it's fair to question whether what this administration is doing there has postponed peace and freedom for Iraqis rather than expedited it.

But all this is giving the Bush administration credit for being primarily motivated by its desire to promote freedom in Iraq. And that in itself is a questionable premise, regardless of adminstration rhetoric. More on that later.


Thursday, November 13, 2003

9:43 AM

Going in Opposite Directions. Interesting week on the battlefront between the modern and the premodern. On the one side we have Vida Samadzai, Miss Afghanistan, parading in her bikini showing the premodern theocrats back home what it means to be a modern woman. And on the other, we have Alabama's chief justice, Roy C. Moore, showing modern Americans what it means to be a premodern theocrat. It gives you hope, doesn't it?

Voice of Reason:

Millions of Americans would support this president and this war for years to come, no matter what. Millions of others opposed this war and this president from the beginning. But our ability as a nation to sustain this war effort depends on those many millions who belong in neither camp. While never enthusiastic about the war, those Americans accepted their leaders' assurances that it was necessary for national security and that the risks of occupation were manageable.

Now that the war appears to have been neither necessary nor manageable, doubts are sinking in. Public support is dropping, and members of Congress are clearly nervous. They are trapped between their respect for public opinion and their realization that withdrawing from Iraq anytime in the foreseeable future would be a national security disaster.

Inevitably, some will blame that change of heart on a supposedly fickle American people. The blame is mislaid. In a democracy, leaders should never commit to a potentially lengthy war without ensuring that their citizens are prepared to sustain that commitment. If they do, the blame lies with the leaders, not those they failed to lead.

Jay Bookman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Wednesday, November 12, 2003

5:06 PM

It takes on to know one:

The key figures on the intellectual right, from Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham to Irving Kristol, were mostly ex-communists who thought that old-fashioned Burkean traditionalism was too feeble and genteel to withstand the assualt of the cunning and well-organized communist conspiracy. The conservative movement these ex-radicals crafted was therefore one that adopted the characteristic institutions and strategies of communism while purveying an anticommunist (not merely a noncommunist) message. The conservative "movement" took the place of the Communist Party. The Popular Front strategy of allying the commuist vanguard with American liberals was replicated in the "no enemies to the right" policy of allying conservative intellecutals and activists with the religious right and the paramiliitary right. The myth of the struggle of the heroic proletariat against the evil bourgeoisie became the structurally idntical myth of the struggle of "entrepreneurs" or (more broadly) "producerss" or (more broadly still) " middle Americans" against a sinister new class of bureaucrats and intellectuals. Even the historical vision of dialectical materialism was taken over from communism, although the "end of history" was redefined from the worldwide triumph of socialism to the worldwide triumph of "democratic capitalism."

Michael Lind in his 1996 book Up from Conservatism, p. 94.


9:21 AM

More on Identity Politics.I randomly tuned into Scarborough Country last night which was in the middle of a hot debate about "white America." There was Pat Buchanan, who actually sounded pretty reasonable compared with Jared Taylor of American Renaissance. Taylor said his position was analogous to Rabin's about Israel when Rabin said that at least 80% of Israel's population should always be Jewish. Taylor thought that 80% of the American population should always be white. It's a matter of keeping America America.

Buchanan was more moderate. He said that we should completely halt illegal immigration and have a moratorium on legal immigration to give American society a chance to assimilate those who have already come into the country. He fears that the U.S., especially in the states bordering Mexico, is in danger of becoming the Balkans or Canada with its Francophone separatists. He also suggested that this was Mexico's attempt to win back what it had lost back in the 1840s, and that the southwest was reverting to the Third World.

The pro-immigration people in the debate said what might be expected, but what struck me about Buchanan and Taylor was their assumption that American cultural identity was no longer robust enough to transform immigrants into Americans, that the immigrants were going to pull America down rather than America pull the immigrants up. Buchanan kept saying that the country that he grew up in was a good country, implying that the one he's living in now is no longer good. He is clearly fearful that American identity is being lost in this massive invasion by the "Other" who he thinks are more resistant to assimilation than the European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What's interesting about the immigration problem is how it's not really a clear-cut, right/left issue. Plenty of people on the right want open borders because it's an endless source of cheap labor. Plenty of people on the left, concerned about raising the wages of the working poor, want to close the borders. So nothing's likely to change.

But my interest in this subject isn't primarily economic, but cultural. American identity is interesting and unique because it isn't primarily defined by its premodern past. America was born out of a rejection of that past. And while white English Protestants working with ideas from the European Enlightenment created the basic framework that sets the rules for how American society works, the basic content is dynamic and evolving.

I'm not a multi-culturalist, but a cultural fusionist. American identity is not in some essential way linked to the America Pat Buchanan grew up in, nor will it revert to a premodern culture in the way he fears. Once a culture upgrades to modernity, it never reverts to earlier versions, even if there are reactionaries in the culture who would like it to.

The Western Enlightenment framework has established what modernity means, but the Modern Age expired around World War I. We're in between "ages" now, and for want of a better name we call our present transitional era the "postmodern." The American and global postmodern future will be an evolving story that develops primarily within the Western framework, but it will be a story of the emergence within that framework of a global fusion culture.

This does not mean only the Americanizaton of the globe, but also the globalization of America. That's what scares Buchanan and Taylor. As premodern cultures modernize, the already modern cultures are retrieving and assimilating premodern cultural forms. Already we're seeing it in religion and spirituality, in the plastic arts, and in music. It's a hodgepodge now, but in the long run some coherent synthesis is inevitable. The postmodern = modernity + premodernity. That's my working hypothesis anyway. The framework for the future was created by dead, white Europeans--and we are deeply in their debt--but the long-term future is not white and European. And that's ok, so long as things keep moving forward.

An ongoing reflection on what "moving forward" means is the primary purpose of this website. For better or worse, in the short run at least, American culture, such as it is, leads the way.


Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Seventy-two Deja vu? Is Howard Dean George McGovern? Is George Bush Richard Nixon? Is Iraq Vietnam? Is this deja vu all over again? Some people are worried about it. I don't know yet whether Dean's the guy, but I think that whatever similarities there are between now and then, the dissimilarities are greater.

Dean is an anti-war neo-liberal whom conservatives are trying to paint as an anti-war McGovern left-liberal. But McGovern liberals would never be caught making cracks about pickup trucks and confederate flags, and that points to the difference between Dean and the McGovern wing of the Democratic party. There's reason to hope that he will not be someone who will be the captive of the overly politically correct left wing of the Democratic Party; he wants instead to define a center that embraces working class and rural "Reagan" Democrats with the moderates who represent the legitimate concerns of women, gays, environmentalists, labor, and racial/ethnic minorities.

America comprises all of these groups. The Democratic Party at this time is in the best position to be the place where they all find common ground. Whether Dean is the guy who can define a Progressive Center that most reasonable Americans can feel comfortable with, I don't know. But someone has to do it, and so far, at least, he seems to have his priorities right.

The challenge for him is not to be defined either by the extremists on the right or the left, but to articulate a compelling, optimistic, left-center vision of a lower-case 'c' "catholic" American future, that is, one that embraces everybody, but isn't beholden to extremists.

In the next year his having stated his early oppostion to the war will appear less "left" and more "common sense," no matter how the rigid right tries to spin it. The more interesting question is how Dean gets positioned in the ongoing "culture war." If he or any of the other candidates can offer a compelling catholic vision of what it means to be a Democrat that most fair-minded Americans will be able relate to their hopes and concerns, he will be electable. If not, the Republicans win by default because they stand for something, even if it's fundamentally regressive.


Monday, November 10, 2003

Two recent speeches deserve some thoughtful attention. One is by Albert Gore and the other by George Bush. More on this later. I need time to assimilate them.


Saturday, November 8, 2003

We don’t care; we don’t have to. What happens when all three branches of government are owned by one party. See Washington Post article. Here’s the lead:

The Bush White House, irritated by pesky questions from congressional Democrats about how the administration is using taxpayer money, has developed an efficient solution: It will not entertain any more questions from opposition lawmakers.

In it for the long haul? Salon did a piece this week on how the Administration is quietly making efforts to rebuild local draft boards around the country. The Department of Defense site that was promoting this was here at the beginning of the week, but has since been removed. Here are the first paragraphs from the Salon article:

The community draft boards that became notorious for sending reluctant young men off to Vietnam have languished since the early 1970s, their membership ebbing and their purpose all but lost when the draft was ended. But a few weeks ago, on an obscure federal Web site devoted to the war on terrorism, the Bush administration quietly began a public campaign to bring the draft boards back to life.

" Serve Your Community and the Nation," the announcement urges. "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men ... receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service."

Local draft board volunteers, meanwhile, report that at training sessions last summer, they were unexpectedly asked to recommend people to fill some of the estimated 16 percent of board seats that are vacant nationwide.