Thursday, December 30, 2004

Not one game
So the Yankees have pried Randy Johnson away from the Diamondbacks. I have lost all respect for Mr. Johnson. If he really wanted to play for a winner, he would have okayed a trade to a number of different contenders. It seems that what he really wants is an extension from Steinbrenner's infinitity-and-beyond checkbook. I hope he blows out his knee in spring training and never throws another pitch. And let me repeat me pledge: If the Yankees sign Carlos Beltran, I will not watch or listen to a single baseball game this season. No Phillies, no fantasy baseball, nothing. And this time I'm not coming back until baseball has a salary cap.

This has nothing to do with the logistics of the deal per se -- the Diamondbacks did pretty well for themselves, netting a solid young pitcher and a top catching prospect for a 41-year-old pitcher with a history of back and knee problems. It's about the fact that half of the other 31 teams serve as farm systems for the Yankees, who have absolutely no limit on what they can spend. It's ruining the game of baseball, and I will not contribute another dollar to the sport until it stops.

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Monday, December 27, 2004

Meanwhile in South Asia
22,000 brown people die in Tsunami. More tragically, several dozen white people seem to have perished as well. Via Pandagon.

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Friday, December 24, 2004

Why does George Bush hate freedom?
The American government is conspiring with the authoritarian rulers of Egypt to suppress the latest Arab Human Development Report (AHDR). The document, assembled with great effort and courage by Arab scholars and other experts, apparently criticizes the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the continued Israeli domination of Palestinian lands, and the dictatorial practices of the Egyptian government. I think you can probably imagine the confluence of nefarious interests here without me having to spell it out for you. You may recall that the second AHDR was misused by fighting conservative keyboarders and liberal hawks like Tom Friedman to justify the invasion of Iraq. But now that the new report contains some things that the U.S. doesn't like, our wise rulers have decided to simply throw it in the trash. Onward, freedom!

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Can the mess be cleaned up?
Tom Friedman, who is so very irritating so much of the time, actually gives it to us straight for a few paragraphs (before reverting to demonizing "the Europeans"):

What is terrifying is that the noble sacrifice of our soldiers, while never in vain, may not be enough. We may actually lose in Iraq. The vitally important may turn out to be the effectively impossible.

Amen. And let's not whitewash it -- our soldiers have been doing an absurd amount of noble sacrificing lately. I suspect that at some point they may run fresh out of nobility and sacrifices. Friedman gets all persnickety because it's a "tiny minority" inflicting all this chaos, but that doesn't make the dead people any less dead. Fallujah did not crush the insurgency. It is not entirely clear at this point whether the insurgency can actually be crushed. If men and materiel are flooding into Iraq from Syria and Iran, as some allege, that only worsens our dilemma, because the United States simply does not currently have the capacity to start two new wars in the Middle East.

The elections next month are going to be a crucial turning point for Iraq, and I must confess to being pessimistic. Iraq possesses almost nothing that scholars believe is necessary for a successful transition to democracy. It has no prior experience with democratic institutions, it is riven with smoldering ethnic and religious rivalries, and it is surrounded, with the exception of Turkey, by non-democratic regimes. Most problematic is the lack of agreement about borders and identity within the country itself. The Kurdish portions of the country, quite justifiably, are extremely skeptical about their future in a united Iraq, the Sunni minority is using violence to protect what remains of their privileges, and the Shi'a majority seeks to centralize power in such a way that will provoke further conflict.

Thirty years ago, the social scientist Dankwart Rustow laid out a very influential theory of democratization. The very first condition was "national unity." He wrote:

The model starts with a single background condition -- national unity...It simply means that a vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be must have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to....In order that rulers and policies may freely change, the boundaries must endure, the composition of the citizenry must be continuous.

Now, Rustow goes on to suggest that serious conflict is also a precondition for democracy, but this is not the kind of conflict he had in mind -- he was talking about struggles between entrenched interest groups (i.e. social classes), and not between armed and resentful ethnic groups in a multi-national state. Throw in the grinding poverty and unemployment of contemporary Iraq, and you have, in my opinion, a recipe for failed democratization and a civil war.

If this is the most likely outcome, what is the U.S. to do? On the one hand, since we are responsible for "breaking" Iraq, we bear some measure of responsibility for its immediate future. But at the same time, we have to be able to recognize the possibility that our presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good, and that the best scenario may be to make a quick exit after the elections, whatever the outcome -- peace with honor, if you will. It makes sense, especially when you consider that the platform of the coalition likely to sweep the elections calls for the swift exit of the United States from Iraq.

At the very least, all the carnage should put to rest neocon fantasies of littering Iraq with permanent U.S. military bases for purposes of "power projection." The only projection going on in Iraq is the right's illusion of easy victory onto the reality of horrific failure.

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

Was the election stolen?
I've read so many posts in the last two months about how the election was stolen that I can barely remember the details of any of them. Everythingsruined has a nice post up today with a petition asking for a recount, which seems like a reasonable idea.

I have an idea. Why doesn't one of the heavies (Gallup, American Research Group, etc.) do a simple little poll with two questions: did you vote, and who did you vote for? Ask 10 or 20,000 people to eliminate any questions about sampling error and that sort of thing. If it comes out 51-48 Kerry, then we may in fact have a bit of a problem on our hands here. If it comes out roughly 51-48 Bush, then probably the concerns are overblown. I have no idea if this election was stolen. Most allegations (like the one where Democratic counties in the Florida panhandle voted heavily for Bush) seem to have a legitimate explanation, as far as I can tell. So let's get some real data in on this one. Or has it already been done?

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Local man decides not to write Christmas cards
There's a reason the Onion is so funny. It's because newspapers continue to print stories that belong there.

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Back soon
Apologies for the dearth of posts here this week. I've been buried under an avalanche of term papers about Abe Lincoln. I'll be returning to regular posting duties very soon.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Slate's Michael Crowley offers what I think is a definitive smack-down of all the hemming and hawing about the U.N. Oil-For-Food scandal. I was intrigued by the hilarious Fred Barnes quote he unearthed, so I tracked it down for context. Here's Barnes, a proud member of the 27th Fortified Keyboarders Brigade, on Fox News:

On the other hand, what has changed is a scandal, this Oil for Food scandal that was I think money wise, probably the biggest scandal in human history, has now become one of the biggest political scandals. International political scandals in an awful long time, where the French officials and other officials are being bribed with Oil for Food money by Saddam Hussein, so they would work and get the sanctions lifted. And certainly the French, the Russians and the Chinese and others were moving in that direction very, very forcefully. It's a gigantic scandal.

A "gigantic" scandal. The "biggest scandal in human history." Excuse me while I climb back into my chair. Remember Enron, Fred? They're being sued for $25 billion. Considering that the Enron fiasco contributed directly to a stock market decline that cost trillions of dollars in wealth, I'd say oil-for-food has a long way to go before it even sniffs Enron's dirty underwear.

But as Crowley notes, oil-for-food really wasn't so bad at all. Most of the billions in illicit oil went toIraq's neighbors, largely to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Not only did the U.S. know about this the whole time, but it was quietly tolerated because Jordan and Turkey are two of the strongest U.S. allies in the region. Another $7 billion or so was bilked from overcharges, kickbacks, and other financial trickery, as well as some outright bribery of oil executives and allegedly a handful of government ministers in places like France. Since the program was in operation for seven years, we're talking about a total of $3 billion a year. If you exclude regional oil sales, it's $7 billion in seven years, which is hardly the stuff of earth-shattering scandal. That hardly qualifies as an accounting error at Halliburton.

The reason the hyperbole annoys me is not because the scandal wasn't wrong -- it certainly was. I say out the people and companies who deserve to be outed for doing business with such an odious regime in violation of UN sanctions. Root out the corrupt officials at the UN who are responsible for the wrongdoing. As Crowley notes, Annan launched an ongoing investigation and seems determined to pursue it.

But of course, no one on the right is really worried about fighting capitalist corruption -- they're desperate for yet another reason to justify their catastrophic war in Iraq, and they also take unrestrained delight in trashing the UN, a convenient and perpetual lightning rod for conservative rage. If the oil-for-food program was broken, they reason, then the sanctions regime was destined to come tumbling down, and then -- look out! -- Saddam would have "reconstituted" his weapons programs in a matter of no time. A little cash exchanges grubby hands in Baghdad, and before you know it, kablooey, mushroom clouds over New York, the end of Western civilization. And the scandal must "discredit" the UN, the font of all evil, the villain in every millenarian fantasy about the End of Days. I can just hear the Dick Cheney snarling to Scooby that "We would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for those darned UN bureaucrats!"

Look, it's perfectly simple. Anything the UN undertakes is only as good as the member nations who take part in it. That goes for peacekeeping, resolution-enforcing, disease-eradicating, refugee-saving, and all the other things that the UN quietly does without the approval of His Royal Majesty Victor Davis Hanson and his Vice Regent William Kristol. It just so happened to benefit everyone involved in the program to allow Saddam to funnel some oil to his dirt-poor neighbors, and to look the other way while oil executives lined their pockets. The program managed to significantly lower the disease and death toll from the sanctions, while still keeping revenues low enough to cripple the Iraqi military. In other words, it was working. It was just humming right along until the United States decided it needed to overthrow the Iraqi government.

And you've got to love all the Milton Friedman conservatives who usually get all misty-eyed about the invisible hand of the market, who dismiss the Enron scandal as a harmless little aberration, and who now express shock, shock! that the oil industry might generate some corruption. If graft is the price of doing business in America, it must be the price of doing business elsewhere, even at the United Nations. Love it or leave it.

As far as I'm concerned, oil-for-food pales in comparison to the ongoing war-for-absolutely-no-good-goddamned-reason scandal.

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Yankees lock up 2005 AL Pennant
The Yankees are on the verge of pulling off a trade for Randy Johnson, only the most dominant left-handed pitcher in the last 20 years, and perhaps the most fearsome pitcher ever. Here's my question -- why do teams continue to trade their best players to the Yankees? They almost never get anything out of it. It's like small business owners offering their property to Wal-Mart in exchange for a job at the cash register. If the Yankees sign Carlos Beltran, I swear to God I'm not watching a single baseball game this year. And I'm not kidding.

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Bush to Axis of Evil: Stop Being Evil!
Our illustrious president has warned Iraq's neighbors to stop the flow of weapons and cash into Iraq.

Because we all know how easy it is to control borders.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Speaks for itself
Nearly 900 American children have lost a parent because of the Iraq War.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Your friends and neighbors are insane racist mass murderers
I followed a link from a conservative blog to a site called Progressive Conservative. I found perhaps the most sickening entry I've ever seen on a blog, and that's saying something. Someone called Markkind had this to say about his vote for George W. Bush:

During this past election cycle when befuddled friends and family asked me why on Earth was an educated social worker like myself voting for George W. Bush I usually answered, "Because I think he'll kill more Arabs than Kerry." Now if you're still reading this, I'll explain why I would say such a thing and how some of my thinking has changed since I first uttered that phrase. Prior to the Iraqi war, I was of the belief that the Arab/Persian/Muslim world could not be reasoned with under any circumstances and it was only a matter of time before the Arabs ET. Al. had the bomb, which they would then give to any number of terrorist organizations. I felt that the governments of Arab ET. Al. nations were not serious in their commitment to the "War on Terror" and would continue to play the terrorist organizations against the Western World until the true nature of Wahhabism revealed itself in the form of a nuclear attack on US soil. Looking at the two candidates at the time, I felt that the Bush administration would be the safest bet to take the fight to the Arab ET. Al. doorstep rather than a potential Kerry administration. I was of the belief that there could never be a reform movement in the Muslim world and the only language the
terrorists, the Mullahs and the Arab leaders understood was "shock and awe". In short, I thought Bush would kill more Arabs than Kerry would.

Here you have the culmination of all the sub-literate drivel that slithers into the mainstream media about a clash of civilizations, about how Arabs "only understand force," about the War on Terror, and you see the sort of effect it has on ordinary people who clearly don't know even the first tiny little thing about the Middle East. It seems to have turned them into bloodthirsty and militant racists who give their vote to one person rather than another because he believes his chosen candidate will "kill more Arabs" than the other guy. Now, it seems this blossoming young Curtis LeMay is having second thoughts about "blowing up" "the Persians."

Every time you're thinking about disengaging from politics, every time you wonder if maybe George W. Bush can't possibly ruin this country in four more short years, think about this fellow, and remember that you share a country with him.

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Not so fast, Bud
It's nice to see the righteous stamping out naked greed every once in a while, especially since things usually seem to work the other way around. D.C. city councilwoman Linda Cropp insisted that the Expos/Nationals new owner pay half the cost of the new stadium, which is estimated at over $500 million. Taking the perfectly sensible, and popular, view that the disgustingly rich owners of baseball teams should foot at least part of the bill for their lucrative playpens, she convinced the other council members to go along with her. Now the whole Expos-to-D.C. deal is in jeopardy.

I say no problem. I don't think there's any contradiction in being a huge baseball fan and believing that taxpayers -- who already pay absurd sums of money to pass through stadium turnstiles -- should not pay a red cent for stadium construction. For one thing, the damn things have gotten laughably expensive -- Camden Yards was built for one-fourth of the cost of the Nationals new stadium, and that was barely more than 10 years ago. For another, it's just obscene and twisted to throw money at baseball players and owners when infrastructure is rotting, schools are underfunded, and so many other urban problems remain unsolved. I'm sure there's some negligible economic impact from new stadiums, but it hardly justifies the cost. Yes, it's nice to have a sports team around to distract us from the other problems in the city, but I just can't muster any convincing moral or communal calculus to support taxpayer-funded stadiums.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Shocker of the day
Our missile defense system doesn't work! The most interesting passage from BBC's story:

In earlier tests, target missiles have been successfully intercepted in five out of eight attempts. Wednesday's trial had been put off four times because of bad weather at launch sites and, on Sunday, because a radio transmitter failed.
Now, I'm no defense contractor, but wouldn't you want to test the system in bad weather? Because I would think that the North Koreans would be able to fire their missiles in the rain.

This trial makes the system 5 for 9 -- as long as the people conducting the test know precisely where the missile was launched from and precisely what its trajectory is. Under real-world conditions, the system would be almost completely useless. And even if it did knock down 4 out of 8 missiles, that really isn't going to cut it. .550 is a heroic batting average in baseball, but a missile defense system really has to be flawless or nearly flawless for it to have any effect whatsoever. Juneau would be leveled by one nuclear warhead just as easily as by three, and would-be agressors will not be deterred by a defense system with a 50% success rate -- they'll just build more missiles to overwhelm the system.

But who cares? We're only dropping $100 billion on the thing anyway. These days that's just a few months worth of supplemental appropriations for the quaqmire noble quest to bring democracy to Iraq.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Republicans are trying to strangle Philadelphia
Because of its partisan gerrymander under Tom Ridge in 2000, the GOP still controls the Pennsylvania legislature and its congressional delegation, despite having a Democratic governor and voting Democratic in the last four presidential elections. It was massive and unprecedented turnout in Philadelphia that gave Pennsylvania to Kerry this time around. So naturally, the Republicans are turning right around and punching the city in the ear. The same politicians who subsidize the highway system to tune of $30 billion a year (not to mention the $60 billion spent yearly on state and local roads) refuse to close a $63 million gap in the public transit system of the fifth-largest city in the United States. Public transit pays for itself in productivity and reduced pollution, just like the highway system pays for itself, but somehow only the transit system is supposed to actually make money, as if it's some kind of Fortune 500 company. Without SEPTA, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania would be ruined, and the quality of life for everyone in the region would be negatively impacted. Go right now and sign the petition to save SEPTA.

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The Times and Iraq
Something I've noticed since the administration launched this debacle in Iraq is that the The New York Times seems reluctant to report on anything except Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and to a much lesser extent, Iran and Syria. And when they do write anything about countries other than Iraq, it is usually driven by whatever hardline blather is coming out of Rumsfeld's mouth at the moment. There seems to be almost no independent reporting about other trends and currents in the region -- reporting inspired by something the reporters sees on the ground rather than the latest press release from the state department.

Today on the Web site, for instance, there are nine articles about Iraq, two about Israel-Palestine, one about Iran, and one about Colin Powell's trip to the reform-minded Arab Forum in Morocco. I understand the need for disproportionate Iraq coverage since hundreds of thousands of Americans are tied down there, but this is embarrassing. The most important newspaper in the country needs to do more than this.

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The indispensable Digby
On Beinart and cowering in fear of our own principles. Must-read.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

Who's in your coalition?
There's been a lot of hand-wringing in Democratic circles lately about Michael Moore and various other leftists that certain thinkers in the party find unsavory because of past comments they've made that may have been tinged with varying degrees of anti-Americanism. For the most part, I think Moore himself is a straw man, because he has no official position in the party, controls no serious fund-raising organization connected with the party, and has no working relationship with any current prominent figures in the party. People seem upset that Moore was allowed to sit in the same box as Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention in July. But he's become such a boogeyman that he was one of the object's of Peter Beinart's call for a Stalinist purge in the Democratic party, and also became the object of much heated discussion at a recent DLC roundtable dedicated to figuring out why we lost the election (and blaming it on the party's left wing).

But the Republicans have their own skeletons in the closet -- and out of the closet too. The photograph above depicts chief Republican strategist and close Bush political advisor Karl Rove at the May 8, 2004 graduation ceremonies at far-right Liberty University. The bloated little man in the right hand corner is Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Christian leader with a huge following, oodles of cash, and a whole rolodex full of connections with prominent Republicans. He also attended the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, though the organizers managed (it seems) not to have him photographed in Gerald Ford's box or anything.

For those with short-term memories, immediately after 9/11, Falwell and Pat Robertson had a conversation about the terrorist attacks on their popular television program The 700 Club. Here is what the good Reverend had to say with his pal Pat Robertson:

Falwell: What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserveā€¦.The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.
Robertson: I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.
Falwell: Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang 'God bless America' and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God.
Talk about hating America! According to one of the key figures in the Republican coalition, we got "probably what deserve" on 9/11. I doubt even Noam Chomsky would be willing to go that far. But because a fringe figure like Michael Moore made some endlessly-recycled disparaging comment about Americans a few years ago, the Democrats need to have a full-scale intra-party civil war. Meanwhile, prominent conservative religious figures who helped engineer both Bush's 2000 primary triumph and his 2004 re-election can continuously make the most outrageous statements you can possibly imagine, and the Republicans can escape any responsibility for controlling these elements of their party. There's no Republican Peter Beinart sniveling about how the Republicans need to expel the "America-haters" in their party -- mostly because "America hating" is generally defined as "criticizing your country's foreign policy" as opposed to you know, actually hating other Americans, including gays, feminists "pagans," the ACLU, and other people that need to be "hanged." It's perfectly acceptable to share stages with such people.

But I guess winning really does mean never having to say you're sorry, while losing means you have to flagellate yourselves over one pudgy Hollywood filmmaker who criticizes American policy.

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

I hope Kevin Drum doesn't stand for this
Just as I suspected, the Beinart article in TNR has now become conservative shorthand for "liberals aren't serious about terrorism." All Kevin Drum did was ask his readers if they thought "Islamic totalistarianism" is as great a world-historical struggle as communism, and Goldberg takes that as an opportunity to suggest that Drum doesn't think it's a serious threat. And so I have to ask -- is Goldberg stupid, or is he just dishonest? Let me reiterate -- liberals think terrorism is an extremely serious threat. The fact that they don't list it as their primary concern at a political convention is not evidence that they think it's unimportant. Furthermore, the main idea of Beinart's article was that any liberal who doesn't enlist himself or herself in the struggle against Islamic totalitarianism as he defined it is not worthy of membership in the liberal umbrella.

The negative response to his article was based on three main ideas -- first, that terrorism, while a deadly threat that must be dealt with, is not quite on par with the struggle against Soviet communism, second that a civil war in the Democratic party would be costly and futile, and third, that Moveon is not the commie hothouse that Beinart makes it out to be. This is a far cry from liberals coming out and saying that terrorism (which most liberal intellectuals can successfully separate as a phenomenon from "Islamic totalitarianism" [ed.'s note: I realize that most international terrorists are Muslim extremists], unlike conservatives who like to confuse distinct phenomena) isn't a serious threat. It's a completely different argument.

But of course, we'll now be hearing, for the next four years, that "even Democrats like Peter Beinart" recognize how unserious the Democrats are about national security. And it will mostly be from idiot frat boys like Jonah Goldberg.

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Opium wars
I see that the topic of Afghanistan turning into a "narco-state" has finally begun to garner some press. There's no question that drug cultivation is a major threat to Afghan democracy, since it inevitably transfers wealth, power, and weapons to a series of unelected drug pushers and international narco-terrorists. However, would it kill the press to ask, just once, where most of the drugs are going, and what might be done on the demand side of the equation? Reform of America's drug laws could go a long way toward easing these problems, since an obscene share of the world's drug production disappears up American noses and into American vains every single day. Look, you can harass dirt-poor Afghan farmers all day long, but the second your little helicopter disappears over the horizon he's going to replant the damn poppies because it pays, no matter how many times you wipe out his fields. It's a little something we like to call the market.

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Beinart and the "softs"
I finally got around to reading Peter Beinart's much-discussed article in The New Republic, which recommends a purge of the anti-war left from the big tent. While he makes some good points, I remain largely unconvinced by his analysis. I don't think Beinart really understands what motivates the trepidation some liberals feel about some aspects of the war on terror

Beinart says that just as the Democrats purged themselves of anti-anti-communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, today's party needs to recognize the damage that its pacifist wing is doing at the electoral box office. He also argues that the fight against terrorism is a world-historical struggle comparable to the battle against Soviet communism. Beinart writes:

But, despite these differences [between al-Qaeda and the Soviets], Islamist totalitarianism -- like Soviet totalitarianism before it -- threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

I have three main issues with this analysis. The first is partly semantic. "Islamist" totalitarianism isn't the main issue here. For one thing, the term "Islamist" is typically used to describe any political movement which is motivated by the principles of Islam, and those movements are not necessarily totalitarian, even if they are illiberal in many respects. There are many shades of authoritarianism in between Jeffersonian democracy and Taliban-style Islamic theocracy. As Noah Feldman argues in After Jihad, the United States needs to recognize that Islamist democrats are, in many places, our natural allies against fossilized dictatorships and authoritarian thugs, particularly in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

The second problem with this formulation is that it's terrorism, specifically nuclear terrorism, rather than totalitarianism per se, which threatens the United States. Al-Qaeda-style totalitarianism is actually not a particularly powerful political force in the Middle East, if we consider power to be related to capacity for triumph in democratic elections. Only two states -- Iran and Saudi Arabia -- are controlled by regimes that can be classified as totalitarian and Islamic (and even in Iran there is much more openness and dissent than there was in a place like Stalin's USSR), and their total population is miniscule in strategic terms. The only regional power that seems seriously threatened by Islamic totalitarianism as a political (as opposed to a strategic terrorist) threat is Pakistan, and even there the possibility of a real takeover is probably quite exaggerated. As a world-historical struggle, this fight is puny next to the struggle against communism, which at its high point dominated the two largest countries in the world, and had serious influence in a third (India), not to mention countless satellite states in the West.

My second big problem with Beinart's analysis is that mid-century liberals set out as their goal not defeating but rather containing communism. I don't think there are many liberals who dispute the idea that the United States should be working against the emergence of Iranian-style theocracy in the Muslim world. The trouble with using anti-totalitarianism as a tool for liberal electoral realignment is that totalitarianism is in pretty tough shape to begin with. It's garden-variety authoritarianism that's the problem in most Middle Eastern states, and there's no clear way out for policymakers. Part of the reason is that the foreign policy establishment can't decide whether it's better to support the King Abdullah's of the world or to allow moderate Islamists to come to power through the ballot box. But there's no doubt that if we stand around longing for the Middle Eastern Congress Party to bring liberal democracy to the region, we'll have a very long and unproductive wait on our hands indeed.

The third problem is that I think reasonable people can disagree about how grave the threat of Islamic terrorism truly is. While Beinart states that only 4% of Democratic delegates cited national security issues as their biggest concern (compared to 15% of Republicans), this doesn't necessarily demonstrate that liberals aren't "serious" or "decent" about the issue. All it expresses is the perfectly reasonable belief that the United States has equally, if not more important issues to deal with simultaneously. While I don't doubt Beinart's assertion that Al-Qaeda has put some thought into nuking New York City, this has absolutely no relationship to how likely such an event actually is. Democratic calmness about terrorism might just reflect confidence in the ability of our military forces and intelligence services to prevent the next 9/11, or worse, a nuclear or biological attack on U.S. soil. It doesn't mean that most Democrats believe terrorism is just a wedge issue cooked up by Karl Rove (although it has been treated that way, ironically, by Republicans).

I for one, believe that Bush and the Republicans threaten American liberalism every bit as much as Al-Qaeda. This does not mean, let me be clear, that I think Bush is worse than Bin Laden, or even in the same moral ballpark. But aside from the remote threat of nuclear terrorism, which is, I believe, being adequately and directly addressed by our leadership (if not by Bush himself, who wanted to cut funding for the loose Russian nukes program), the looming threat of illiberal, right-wing anti-labor, anti-science, and anti-enlightenment policies is every bit as important as the latest video from Al-Qaeda. The Bush agenda represents a direct repudiation of the mid-century liberal capitalist compromise which made America the first majority middle-class country in the history of the world -- and which, might I add, gave America the financial and moral wherewithal to do battle with the Soviets in the first place.

Finally, I think Beinart is playing right into conservative hands with his clarion call for factional warfare. The Democratic Party needs a lot of things right now, but one of them is not for one wing of the party to turn on and demonize the other. We don't need it any more than the Republicans need to cannibalize the flat-earth, creationist wing of their party. Big tents are big tents, after all, for a reason -- without them, both parties would splinter into competing electoral coalitions, giving their opponents victories in race after race. That's not to say that I think the next Democratic presidential candidate ought to be sharing stages with Michael Moore, but at the same time, Beinart needs to recognize that jettisoning everyone who enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11 (which grossed $130 million in the U.S.), is only going to eviscerate what's left of the Democratic coalition, as well as playing into our opponents' hands as a weak party full of anti-American pacifists. The relationship of the party to Michael Moore should be the same as that of the Republicans with the Falwell-Robertson crowd -- quiet toleration.

But Beinart is right that the liberals need a serious foreign policy vision, that harnesses the positive transformative power of American liberty and marries it to the liberal concern for the environment and human rights. For one thing the Democrats need to co-opt and get serious about Bush's "freedom" discourse. As someone who believes that the gradual spread of liberal democratic institutions is the only real hope for humanity, this would certainly appeal to me. Many of Bush's most rhetorically inspiring moments have come when he talks about the need to increase the scope of human liberty, and about the moral imperative of freedom. But Beinart is wrong that the way to unite Democrats or liberals is to push this fight against "Islamic totalitarianism"; the answer should be to use the galvanizing and righteous rhetoric of human rights and development. However, you're always going to run into cynicism on the left because the U.S. has to make strategic compromises with dictators (as it is currently doing in Uzbekistan and elsewhere) in order to protect its long-run interests. Still Beinart is right that the Democrats should be harsh with those who think that the entire issue of terrorism has been invented out of whole cloth by the Republicans for partisan advantage or imperialist expansion.

Terrorism is indeed a threat, and the United States should be standing against the spread of totalitarian Islamic governments. But the Democrats need to work on improving their message and their credibility, rather than committing themselves to some bloody inter-party reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with TNR's foreign policy inclinations.

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Today's Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper Prize: "Federal officials are concerned that terrorists could try to down aircraft by blinding pilots with laser beams during landing approaches." -- Curt Anderson, AP.

Is there no end to the terror? Apparently, the evil geniuses who have decided to destroy our democratic civilization and replace it with an Islamic caliphate have allied themselves with criminal laser-ologists to bring down civilian planes. Will the terrorists stop at nothing in their quest to vanquish freedom?

Hello, press corps? Do you believe absolutely every paranoid fucking thing fed to you by Homeland Security? Do you really think that some al-Qaeda operative is perched in the hills of Salt Lake City directing a supernaturally accurate laser beam into the cockpit of a local Delta flight? Or is it perhaps somewhat more likely that a simpler explanation is the best?

Occam's Razor, people.

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This is your sport on drugs
Everyone is atwitter about the news that Barry Bonds has been implicated in baseball's steroid scandal, as well as the Yankees' Jason Giambi. I don't know quite why, but I find it impossible to get exercised about this sordid little drama. Anyone with a photo archive from 2003 to 2004 should have known that Giambi had stopped juicing after years on the sauce, because he looked like a plastic balloon that had been popped. Now his career is basically over and the Yankees are justifiably stuck with his crippling contract.

As for Bonds, I suppose I should get all sanctimonious and condemn him and whine about how I can never trust the sport again, but the truth is that baseball has survived bigger galoots than Barry Bonds, even if he does break Hank Aaron's home run record. I never thought there was any other rational explanation for Bonds' career trajectory, which was Hall of Fame-worthy until 2000, when he went on an inhuman tear, posting numbers that would be hard to believe if you were putting them up on the Playstation. Bonds has surely discredited himself, in the eyes of the fans and the history books, and it's all his fault, because he was a wonderful player even without the little green pills. Now he's a wonderful player with a huge asterisk.

I wouldn't be surprised if this scandal implicated 20-30 other current stars. If so, good riddance, but no amount of cheating can stop me from yearning for the day when pitchers and catchers report in February.

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I knew the dollar's plunge would be good for exports
U.S. to step up sale of wild horsemeat.

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To paraphrase The Onion
Dead and dying Fallujans would have loved their freedom.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Powell lays the smack-down on the Russkies
Well, at least he's going down swinging. Today in Bulgaria he criticized the Red Menace for not withdrawing troops from various unimportant countries near Russia. He said:

Russia's commitments to withdraw military forces from Moldova, and to agree with Georgia on the duration of the Russian military presence there, remain unfulfilled.

After which, the Secretary of State removed his shoe and banged the podium with it.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

I agree with the National Review!
In an amazing and mathematically improbably convergence, I must admit that I am in total and unconditional agreement with something written in the foremost conservative publication in America. The editors, in rightly praising the magnificent, non-violent revolution in Ukraine, actually acknowledge that the Bush administration has tilted too far toward Putin's anti-democratic Russia:

All of this is an alarm bell about Putin's intentions. But there is a limit to our direct influence over Russia. If both the Clinton and Bush administrations have tilted too far toward the Kremlin, it is also the case that Russia's true democrats have so far shown few marketable political skills (although one hopes the last few weeks will provide them an invigorating jolt). The administration should be firm with Putin, but not aggressive. Its conduct during the Ukraine crisis is a kind of model. It was absolutely clear about its principles and its policy, but was careful not to deliberately humiliate Putin. Yuschenko's prudence is worth noting here. He has gone out of his way to say that he wants good relations with the West and with Russia.

Beyond that, what has happened in Ukraine really is inspiring. The spectacle of free citizens massing peacefully in the streets, and refusing to bow until justice has been served, highlights the very best principles of democracy and collective action.

All the same, they had better figure out who poisoned Yuschenko and with what. He looks like he's been bitten by a zombie. Seriously -- those before-and-after pictures are disturbing.

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Academic neo-fascists
The Left Coaster is all over this story about the Cal State undergrad who created a firestorm with accusations against her left-wing English prof., namely that he tried to indoctrinate the students and then gave her a bad grade for not enjoying or understanding Fahrenheit 911. You can read the student's account here, and you can check out the prof.'s approved book list here. I'll return to this particular case later, which I think is more complex than either Horowitz or the Left Coaster argues.

I've had my own experience with "academic brownshirts." As the teaching assistant for an International Relations of the Middle East class, I wrangled all semester with a student from Campus Watch, the pet project of Dan Pipes, which once published a list of professors deemed anti-American or anti-Israeli, and which now publishes a "survey of institutions," which features pithy denunciations of professors for supporting the Oslo process and other such heresies. This student, during introductions on the first day of class, announced that he was taking the class "to see how the Middle East is taught." That should give you a fairly good idea of his attitude toward the course, which was taught by a well-known political scientist, someone who approved of the Oslo process and believed in the two-state solution to the conflict -- hardly radical views.

The student tried to dominate our weekly discussion sections, objecting to any course material, including the painstakingly even-handed text on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Mark Tessler, that contained any criticism of Israel whatsoever. He maintained an obsessive focus on Israel's righteousness, and the wickedness and perfidy of the Arabs, even though less than a third of the class was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He objected to the term "Palestinian" (because of course Yasir Arafat invented them), argued that Palestine was devoid of Arabs before Zionism, that every single war fought by Israel, including the illegal Suez War of 1956, was perfectly justified as a defense against Arab aggression, and that Jordan is really Palestine. If you're familiar with the conflict, you know the drill, and you can probably recite these arguments by heart. Without generally taking sides, I played the devil's advocate and tried to present other arguments than those he was making. I did the exact same thing when I felt students were being particularly unfair to Israel. I also didn't stop him from saying a single thing, even when I thought he was making racist remarks about Arabs ("the only thing they understand is force," and so forth). A university is a place of free inquiry and debate, and he was well within his rights. I also made it perfectly clear to everyone that I support Israel's right to a secure and normal existence without threat of intimidation or violence from its neighbors. This put me squarely in the American mainstream.

He was an insufferable nuisance, not because of the views he was presenting, but because of the loud, arrogant, and unreasonable posture he adopted throughout the semester. This included interrupting and sniping at the professor repeatedly during lectures. He clearly relished the role of playing the conservative victim of liberal academia, and he had a chip on his shoulder about Israel and the Arabs the size of Montana. He was up front about his affiliation with Campus Watch, and had clearly taken the course to document the professor's heresies and generally to piss everyone off.

At the end of the semester, he switched his term paper topic at the last minute without my approval, and turned in a paper that more or less cribbed Daniel Pipes' position on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It used almost no academic sources whatsoever, and I gave it a B+, because it was well-written, and at least made a coherent argument. I docked him a bit for writing about something I didn't think would be productive, research-wise (he essentially ended up speculating about the different avenues for resolving the conflict), for not consulting very many academic sources, for not using any of the I.R. theories to which we had been introduced over the course of the semester, and for not making a remotely original argument. I actually thought at the time that I was being quite generous.

The next thing I know, he's in my office accusing me of grading him based on his political beliefs, which I can assure you, I bend way over backwards to avoid. I've given out countless A's to students arguing in favor of the Iraq War or defending unfettered free trade, or trashing the U.N. Anyway, I agreed to look back over the essay if he gave me a written appeal, which was my policy at the time. He did so, and I remained unconvinced, but I bumped him up to an A-, mostly because at this stage in my career I didn't feel like ending up on Campus Watch or undergoing a campaign of intimidation by the organization's crack email squad. I also didn't much feel like getting hauled before a dean or the department chair to defend the difference between a B+ and an A-. So I caved. He got his A- for the course, and I got him out of my hair forever. And keep in mind - this student had openly told me that he hadn't done a number of the readings because they "weren't his thing." He was the kind of person who had decided he already knew everything worth knowing.

People like this claim that all they ask for is "balance," but what they can't countenance is people in positions of academic authority who disagree with them or who refuse to toe the conservative line. They particularly dislike people who take government funding and then have the temerity to criticize government policy. I suppose this professor's syllabus might have leaned slightly to the left, but it included Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm, as well as the aforementioned and even-handed text by Mark Tessler, who spends 800 pages being exceedingly fair to both sides, and a number of hawkish Foreign Affairs articles, including one by a member of the Likud party. Did the professor ever take a position during lecture? Certainly. Was that position ever hostile to the settler wing of Israeli politics? Certainly. This hardly constitutes indoctrination. Besides, a political science class is not supposed to consist solely of the professor standing in front of the class and presenting "he said-she said" arguments about the issue in question. That would be insufferably dull.

What Campus Watch wants is for professors of Middle East politics to assign discredited propaganda like From Time Immemorial along with the Tessler. They want junior professors who dare to assign Rashid Khalidi to their students fired, and they seek to intimidate and "expose" tenured professors. They also wish to train a cadre of young ideologues with closed and narrow minds, students who can't stand being challenged and who build a cult of victimhood and persecution, to the point where any liberal professor making any liberal argument in front of a class is being "biased." They also seek to strip professors of autonomy in grading, and to protect the right of students to say any silly thing they like in exams and papers. Finally, they seek a kind of "affirmative action" for conservatives, which would legally mandate "ideological balance" in hiring or some other such nonsense. The ultimate end is to transform the university from a place of freewheeling debate and inquiry into a place where students are blandly presented with both "sides" of any controversial issue.

Now, I don't deny that there are lots of liberals in humanities and social science departments in the United States, or that some of them conduct their classes in less than agreeable ways. But as Juan Cole points out in this satisfying rant, there aren't any lefties in economics departments or business schools either, and no one raises much of a stink about "indoctrination" there. There's a huge element of self-selection going on here, and I think that cases of conservative students or faculty being actively discriminated against are few and far between. They may not be the most popular figures, socially speaking, in their departments, but no one has a right to be loved by one's colleagues. I, for one, get along well with the conservative students in my department, and I regularly listen attentively to fawning lectures about American hegemony and the benefits of unrestricted neoliberalism.

About this Snider fellow, the booklist seems pretty innocuous to me. It leans left, but if you're a conservative who just can't stomach reading something with which you disagree, there are certainly options for you (including a selection from Barry Goldwater). That said, he could have avoided a lot of trouble by including some trash from Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity or simply doing away with the Michael Moore component of the class. But the student could also have dropped the class after seeing and disliking the syllabus. Did Snider conduct the class in an ideological manner? It certainly sounds like he did. Should he receive death threats from proto-fascists in the young Republican movement? I hardly think so, but that's what happened, and it's the natural end-point of the whole "expose the liberal academics" movement.

They don't want balance -- they want control and they want professors marching in ideological lockstep with the foreign policy establishment. Ironic, isn't it?

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Friday, December 03, 2004

This doesn't make me feel any better
Bush's Ohio margin shrinks to 119,00.

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This is so tendentious it makes me want to cry
Iraq War apologist and colonial booster-extraordinaire Max Boot, writes in today's L.A. Times:

Even in a best-case scenario, however, the bombings and beheadings won't end the day after the vote. It can take a decade or more to defeat an insurgency (Colombia has been fighting Marxist guerrillas since 1966), and even a small number of determined fighters can wreak mayhem. In the 1970s, fewer than 100 members of the Baader-Meinhof gang terrorized West Germany, a country that is considerably more populous and more stable than Iraq, which is estimated to have at least 10,000 insurgents.
Ha-ha. The Iraqi insurgency has already killed far more people and wreaked incalculably more havoc than the Baader-Meinhof Gang could have imagined in its most fevered dreams. There are thousands of insurgents still at large, and they have plenty of ammunition, explosives, support, and bloodlust. To compare them to the lunatic fringe terrorist groups of 1970s-era West Germany is really to stretch the limits of useful comparison beyond the breaking point. This is not, of course, meant to minimize the turmoil unleashed in West Germany by their own terrorist movement, but merely to emphasize how far Boot is willing to go to explain away the horrific disaster in Iraq, a disaster for which he and his intellectual fellow-travelers are at least partially responsible.

Boot is right about one thing -- the carnage won't end after an election. It will end sometime after our troops leave the country. How many more Americans will die between now and then?

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Sense and Censorship
After all the phoney outrage about the T.O.-Desperate Housewives stunt on ABC a few weeks ago, and the increased FCC prudishness under the rule of Michael Powell, you can expect to hear more about censorship in the months and years to come. When Republicans have nothing better to do, they usually can gin up some support by joining their fundamentalist wing with the sanctimonious Tipper Gore-Joe Lieberman axis of the Democrats to do battle for "decency" and the children. When you hear this sort of thing, it's time to put your Sex in the City DVD's under lock and key and to pay a last visit to your local smuthouse, if you're into that sort of thing.

This tedious crusade almost always takes the form of kvetching about the dangerous effects of foul language and nudity -- whether on rap albums or on NYPD Blue. So long as it's confined to a slap on the wrist for the occasional trangression by the major networks, this doesn't really keep me up at night. Of course, what amuses me about people who lose their cookies when they see Nicole Sheridan's backside is just how much violence and killing they will tolerate at the same time. Last night, for instance, I watched a 60-minute episode of CSI that included a very graphic and sustained sequence in which a Vegas prostitute was viciously bludgeoned with a towel rack by her boyfriend, after which she hemorrhaged to death, spraying blood all over the walls and her drugged-out, unconscious customer. Somehow, though, I don't remember hearing the clarion call to BAN CSI or anything like that.

But rumors are now flying that the FCC is going to come after cable TV, in an attempt to regulate its content just as it controls the programming on broadcast television. This would be a shame for several reasons. First, some of the most innovative and exciting television is now made for cable, whether on HBO, Comedy Central, or Showtime. The thought of Michael Powell emptying his sordid red pen all over a Sopranos script is just too much to bear. The fact that it would make people like Jerry Falwell happy doesn't help either. But a larger issue is at stake here, and it's free speech. I tend to be a free speech absolutist, but if the powers that be think we shouldn't see graphic sex or hear the word "fuck" on broadcast television, I can live with that. Cable is another matter, though, because to receive it you have to make a very conscious decision to fork over $70 a month to your local cable extortionist. As part of that Faustian bargain, you should forfeit your right to not be offended by the indecent material that's being piped into your home. If you're worried that your children might catch a glimpse into what the scary, scary world is actually like, you could always turn off the television or use the v-chip.

If the FCC really does come after cable TV, that's just one more reason to get rid of the entire agency. Liberals could, for a change, be out in front of one of those eliminate-a-government-agency epidemics that seems to break out every few years. As far as I can tell, the only useful thing the FCC does is to regulate frequencies for cellular telephone providers and broadcasters and I'm sure that function could be fobbed off on some other unsuspecting agency somewhere in the leviathan. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 effectively eviscerated the FCC's ability to prevent monopolies from forming in the radio business. Either way, the FCC should be stripped off its absurd power to "fine" broadcasters or to otherwise make a joke out of the First Amendment.

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