Friday, May 18, 2007

Accentuate the positive

If I ever need me a lawyer, I'm going straight to Peter Lushing, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Mr. Lushing writes a letter to the New York Times [sub. req.] today, in which he shares his thoughts about the domestic surveillance program of such egregious illegality that top Justice Department and F.B.I. officials, including John Ashcroft, spoke of resigning over it:

. . . there's something about the story that critics of the administration seem to be overlooking.

The denouement is that President Bush approved methods of eavesdropping that are legal according to high Justice Department personnel . . . So did the president do good or bad?

I think this is a winner of an argument. I can just see the jury in an embezzlement prosecution falling all over itself to acquit a defendant after a closing argument like this:

Sure, my client was caught embezzling thousands of dollars. But there's something about the story that the prosecutor seems to be overlooking.

The denoument is that when a co-worker threatened to go to the police, my client stopped taking money illicitly and, instead, took out a loan that bank officials agree was legitimate. So did my client do good or bad?

Of course, this may just be the best argument available to the die-hard Bush supporter. But it's not too far removed from the case of the boy who kills his parents and then throws himself upon the mercy of the court as an orphan.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Getting it wrong

Peeved as I so often am by Cathy Young's insistence on ever-so-scrupulously splitting the difference between the mostly right and the egregiously wrong, I welcomed the letter in today's Boston Globe from Mark A. R. Kleiman, a UCLA professor from whose blog she quoted in a recent article on global warming.

. . . Young suggests that overenthusiastic advocates [of taking global warming seriously—ed.] are just as far from the truth as people who, for reasons of interest or ideology, deny that human action is changing the climate in dangerous ways and that something must be done. That carries evenhandedness to an extreme. Broadly speaking, the environmental movement got global warming right, and the anti-environmental coalition of polluters and extreme "free-market" opponents of regulation got it wrong.

So while I'm flattered to be quoted, I must decline Ms. Young's efforts to enlist me as an ally in making her point. The anti-environmentalists insisted on a nonsensical position, and their credibility deserves to suffer for it. . .


Not that anyone's credibility ever seems to suffer these days from things they got grossly wrong (see, for example, the strange case of Bill Kristol), but bravo.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Moral Values, Townhall style publishes the following, from the pen of columnist Walter E. Williams, and Mark Levin at the National Review Online endorses it.

Does the United States have the power to eliminate terrorists and the states that support them? In terms of capacity, as opposed to will, the answer is a clear yes.

Think about it. Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism -- without risking the life of a single soldier.

Terrorist supporters know we have this capacity, but because of worldwide public opinion, which often appears to be on their side, coupled with our weak will, we'll never use it. Today's Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Any attempt to annihilate our Middle East enemies would create all sorts of handwringing about the innocent lives lost, so-called collateral damage.
To summarize:

  1. We have the capacity to annihilate entire Middle Eastern states.

  2. This capacity consists of a whole lot of nuclear missiles,

  3. which we won't use because of our concern for world opinion and our "weak will".

Let's be clear about this. Williams is not just suggesting that we threaten Iran or Syria with nuclear weapons; one doesn't wring hands over the innocent victims of a threat. He is suggesting that we use them to "annihilate" our enemies. He does issue a disclaimer, of sorts:

I'm not suggesting that we rush to use our nuclear capacity to crush states that support terrorism. I'm sure there are other less drastic military options.
But notice that what Williams is disclaiming here is not the use of our nuclear arsenal, but just the rush to use it; perhaps less drastic measures will suffice. This doesn't mitigate his argument that to recoil at the thought using nuclear weapons to "wipe out" entire countries displays a weakness of will unworthy of the Greatest Generation. (Which, by the way, doesn't quite include Williams, despite his eagerness to be associated with what he calls "my generation"—according to Wikipedia Williams was at most nine years old on V-J Day.)

The commenters at Townhall certainly understand what Williams is talking about, and they're all for it:

  • I thought I outlined reasons for eliminating whole bunch of them. . . . If all the people who find comfort in the koran [sic] were gone the greater world world [sic] would miss nothing of value...nothing.

  • Mr. Williams, you are correct. Unfortunatley [sic] our country does not have the stomach for what really needs to be done.

  • Nuclear deterrance [sic] doesn't work if the enemy knows you won't actually use the nuclear weapons. Lets [sic] create a surprise of our own.

Of course Williams is right—sort of—about one thing: A concern for world opinion should prevent us from "annihilating" entire countries. But that's like saying that a concern for world opinion should have prevented Hitler from annihilating Jews. There's a much better and more cogent reason for not slaughtering many thousands or even millions of innocent people.

It. Would. Be. Wrong.

Tell me again how the Democrats are the party of death and the Republicans the party of moral values.

Via Glenn Greenwald

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Warlike God-fearing People

A "senior administration official", according to the Weekly Standard, is responsible for this:

The idea that the jihadists would all be peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people if it weren't for U.S. policies strikes me as not a valid idea. [Democrats] do not have the understanding or the commitment to take on these forces. It's like John Kerry. The law enforcement approach doesn't work.
George Will, who quoted this in a Washington Post column titled "The Triumph of Unrealism", rightly calls this a "farrago of caricature and non sequitur". The implication that any significant fraction of the opposition to the Bush Administration actually seriously entertains this idea is nothing more than a straw man. And, Will points out, the law enforcement approach does work, as the foiling of the recent plot in the U.K. demonstrates.

But this is par for the course; I'm more interested in the idea of turning jihadists into "peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people." I can't speak to their warmth, and surely "peaceful" and "lovable" would be improvements. But "God-fearing"? Isn't part of the problem specifically that the terrorists are "God-fearing people" to a degree most of us can't really fathom? Surely we'd all be better off if Osama bin Laden and his crew were a little less convinced that they are Allah's warriors, carrying out His holy purpose and earning an eternal reward in the hereafter. (I suppose it's not inconceivable, but it's hard to imagine an al Qaeda of agnostics.)

Perhaps the "senior official" merely wanted to contrast "peaceful, warm, lovable God-fearing people" with "warlike, cold, detestable God-fearing people", and in this case I certainly prefer the former. On the other hand, I'd also gratefully accept "peaceful, warm, lovable God-denying people".

Of course there's a longstanding popular identification of religiousness with niceness; you can find scores of newspaper articles where neighbors are quoted describing a crime victim, say, as a "good, upstanding, God-fearing family man". But why hasn't al Qaeda (not to mention the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition) shattered forever the notion that love of God is incompatible with merciless violence against one's fellow man?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cicero speaks

Ut enim sunt . . . qui urbanis rebus bellicas anteponant, sic reperias multos, quibus periculosa et calida consilia quietis et cogitatis spendidiora et maiora videantur.
Those words at the top of this blog are fake Latin (a real translation of "Don't let the bastards grind you down" would be something more like "Improbos te terere ne sinito", but who would recognize that?), but I've actually been seriously studying real Latin of late, perhaps in an attempt to squeeze some use out of the five years I spent studying Latin in Junior and Senior High. I don't remember much of what we did during those years—I remember reading some Vergil but no Caesar, Ovid, Horace or any other of the popular schoolboys' authors, and the Vergil, after five years' study, was still laborious—but apparently I wasn't half the Latin student then that I am now, since after just under a year's brush-up I find myself reading Cicero with fair fluency.

It was while reading Digby that I was reminded of the quote at the top of this post, which I scrambled back to Cicero's De Officiis (On Duties) to find. Digby had written,

. . . what this means is that if somebody wants to wage a cynical, immoral, useless war for no good reason, Democrats simply have to go along with it if they want to be taken seriously. Why that should be, I don't know.
What Cicero write, for those of you not coming off intensive Latin studies, was:

For as there are those . . . who prefer military matters to domestic ones, so you may find many to whom rash and hazardous counsels seem greater and more brilliant than those that are calm and deliberate.
The basic problem is that, to some people, you just aren't serious about a problem unless you're willing to start a bombing campaign or send in the Marines. No matter how right you are about policy, if you're not fighting you're not acting. Cicero's observation tells us that this is a constant of human nature, as true 2000 years ago as it is today. It doubtless goes back all the way to the days of stone knives and bearskins.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Bigot Card

Were there voters in the Connecticut Democratic primary who voted against Joe Lieberman because he's a Jew? Probably a few, here and there; you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence with which some voters approach the ballot box, and bigots hold the franchise too.

Nevertheless, it is objectively insane to suggest, as Rush Limbaugh has, that being Jewish had anything to do with Lieberman's primary loss. Connecticut has sent Joe to Washington three times, and it’s hardly likely that voters there, even were there enough anti-Semites among them to make this kind of a difference, have only now plumbed the secret of his religious identity, which (a) he wears on his sleeve and (b) the national media shouted from the rooftops six years ago, before and during his previous Senate campaign.

(Voting against him because he’s Jewish is to be distinguished from voting against him on account of specific political views that he derives from his particular band of conservative religiosity, viz. the delusion that the United States should have or ever has had a ”dedication … to God and God's purpose”. I’d have gladly voted against Lieberman on the basis of that alone, all other things being equal, just as I’d have voted against a Methodist—George W. Bush, say—espousing the same nonsense, without, I hope, risking being labeled anti-Wesleyan.)

As crazy as Limbaugh’s suggestion may be, though (a good friend has declared it “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”), it doesn’t come straight out of the blue. In fact, it fits right in with a trope dear to conservative pundits, which is to imply that liberals think and act the way they do not because they have any good or creditable reasons for so thinking or acting, but out of some dark, irrational and ultimately disgraceful motive. Anti-Americanism (hatred of America, of the troops, of God—if not yet of Mom and apple pie) is, of course, a favorite; racial, sexual or religious prejudice is a close second.

There’s a fair amount of chutzpah in this, and more than a hint of the Rovian strategy of attacking where the enemy is strongest. After all, it wasn’t the Democratic party chairman who recently had to apologize to blacks for his party’s history of racial divisiveness, nor was it the Republicans who nominated the first female and Jewish candidates on a national ticket, and both nominated and elected the first Catholic. (The KKK Democrats who forty years ago opposed the Civil Rights Act have long since either repented or become Republicans, not that Limbaugh et al. have noticed.)

Nevertheless, when some liberals raised questions about Condoleezza Rice’s fitness to be Secretary of State on the perfectly reasonable ground that she was either incompetent or a liar (cf. her testimony to the 9/11 Commission that “no one could have foreseen” that terrorists might fly airplanes into buildings), Hannity, Coulter and Malkin were only a few who flung the charge that their real problem with Rice was that she was a black woman. Never mind that Rice was replacing a black man who had enjoyed, throughout most of his tenure, enormous popularity and respect across the political spectrum, or that the previous occupant of that post had been a woman serving a Democratic administration, and never mind that some who were calling Rice incompetent were themselves black; what mattered was not the justice or even rationality of the accusation, but rather the fact that it might cut some ice with the inattentive and unthinking (their natural constituency).

Even the comparatively genteel David Brooks has played this game, in this case too leading with the anti-Semitism card. The occasion was a New York Times op-ed piece in praise of then-Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz was, according to Brooks,

the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today -- the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.
In an earlier NYT piece, Brooks had cast his net even wider, to take in not just critics of Wolfowitz (who had certainly earned criticism), but of the whole neoconservative enterprise. Even using the term “neocon” was enough to suggest anti-Semitism, since, according to Brooks,

con is short for “conservative” and neo is short for “Jewish”

to hear these people describe it, PNAC [the Project for the New American Century] is a sort of Yiddish Trilateral Commission
This too made no sense on a rational level. Signatories to the PNAC’s various documents include such well-known non-Jews as Bill Bennett, William F. Buckley, Jr., Steve Forbes, Francis Fukuyama and Gary Bauer (and those are just the B’s and F’s), not to mention Donald Rumsfeld, who from what I can tell is a Presbyterian. The fact that a significant number of prominent neocons are Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with whether their political project is objectionable, or the fact that a large number of moderates and liberals do actually object to it. To think otherwise is nonsense; to claim otherwise is (if not deluded) just a rhetorical dirty trick.

I have to think that Brooks, if perhaps not Limbaugh, knows this to be true. On the other hand, that line about “a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies” gives me pause. I don’t think that way, and I don’t know anyone who does (let alone enough people to come up with even a fraction of “100 zillion” such calumnies). What sort of company do these people keep?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Real Flag Desecration

The House of Representatives has voted in favor of a Constitutional amendment to prevent flag desecration. All 50 state legislatures are on record as favoring such an amendment. And later this month the amendment will come to a vote in the Senate, where it is reportedly within one vote of passage.

I never understood why flag burning was such an issue. After all, the U.S. Code recommends burning as a dignified way of disposing of a flag when it is “no longer a fitting emblem for display”. Clearly it's not the burning itself that's a problem; what's at issue is the reason for the burning. As a means of flag disposal, it expresses respect, while as a means of protest, it expresses the opposite.

The problem with this is that the expression of disrespect falls squarely under the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee, one of the bedrock principles of American democracy. To abridge this principle is to chip away at the very foundation of our liberty. In seeking to protect the symbol, we risk desecrating the reality it symbolizes.

The irony of this is that the flag really seems to be in very little danger. The era of widespread flag-burning, such a mainstay of Vietnam War protests, is behind us. We might as well add the passenger pigeon to the federal endangered species list.

However, it turns out that if flag burning is passé, subtler instances of desecration are still occurring. The website of cites three chilling recent examples:

  1. In April, 2006, protesters in Costa Mesa, CA held the flag upside down, violating Section 8a of the Flag Code.
  2. At Super Bowl XLVIII, Kid Rock wore a flag as clothing, violating Section 8d.
  3. In July, 2003, President George W. Bush autographed a small flag, violating Section 8g: “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”
This, I say, is a real problem. If the President of the United States can blithely desecrate our Flag, not to mention the Constitution it symbolizes, then truly none of us is safe.