Saturday, February 11, 2006

James Hansen v. Anti-Intellectualism

posted by Will
Institutionalized "science-denial" in this administration is more widespread than earlier reported, says James Hansen. NOAA has the same problems NASA has had. But, certainly, it cannot be more widespread than anyone who has paid any attention during the last 5 years knows it has been all along. This administration would probably simply rather not have any scientists affiliated with the government in any way (other than mercenary dismal scientists used to justify its tax policy). Scientists cause all sorts of problems when their research concludes that your policies are all bad.

First it was the two-bit tin-pot mini-dictator George Deutsch, hilariously unqualified and yet inexplicably granted a fiefdom in NASA. Who's next? Who is it at NOAA? How high up does the anti-intellectualism go? Does anyone really think it stops anywhere? Does it take an advanced degree to see that it goes all the way up to the Phronemophobe-in-Chief?

The Fait Accompli Administration

posted by Will
So, what policy will be "decided upon"? The "analysis" will be "completed" soon, but the "results" are in ahead of time, since everyone knows exactly what the "analysts" are supposed to say. This time, Vice President Cheney is talking about the administration's tax policy.

Cheney: you need a new routine. I do believe I have already heard this joke, and it was most definitely not funny the first time.

Leaks and Hypocrisy

posted by Will
Jonathan Alter is my new favorite journalist. His current story in Newsweek about President Bush making public (leaking), at a politically opportune time, previously classified information about an alleged foiled plot to attack a skyscraper in Los Angeles is excellent. Not only does he have the guts to report on what is a fundamental disconnect between administration actions and the charges the administration makes against the opposition, he is honest enough to raise the much more serious issue at hand: intense hypocrisy in Republican ranks stemming from party loyalty and nothing more. He makes the point that I think could and should be made about almost any controversial aspect of this administration's behavior: if a Democratic president were doing what the Bush administration does on a daily basis, the right's calls for impeachment would be deafening.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Artificial Cartoon Debate

posted by Will
An interesting discussion of sorts, in the form of a series of commentaries, has been taking place on Slate recently. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Christopher Hitchens, Reza Aslan, and Michael Kinsley have each written articles about the Cartoon Controversy.

The odd thing is, that in spite of each article's seemingly unique perspective (how can Hitchens and Aslan agree on this?), they all basically agree with each other about the circumstances and origins of this controversy and about the circumstances that would replace this unpleasant reality in a posited ideal world shaped by each of their noble principles.

All the commentary and "disagreement" about who was "to blame" and what is the "right" or the "shameful" position to hold vis-a-vis this free-speech vs. religious sensitivity debate seems to me to be oddly, artificially polarized. Basically, everyone understands what has happened and why. It isn't that complicated. But everyone, or at least each of these 4 in Slate, seem to ignore a certain part of the big picture in order to give themselves a position to defend. What actually needs to be debated, if it matters now that the damage is done, is what should be done in the face both of this particular series of events and the perpetual danger that similar controversies will erupt now that it has been exposed as a very real possibility, even likelihood.

Framing this as a choice between the freedom of the press or pragmatic religious sensitivity is, I would say, kind of silly. No one worth listening to in Western countries is advocating the restriction of the freedom of the press to comment, even aggressively or offensively, on any issue, religious or otherwise. Just as no one is advocating the position that it would be a really great idea to intentionally infuriate 1.2 billion people who tend to inhabit countries with whom we are engaged in all sorts of delicate disaster-prevention diplomatic dances. But dealing with this issue as a problem does not require "deciding" on the "solution". This controversy represents a conflict of values that cannot be "decided", no matter what you may wish to hear President Bush declare. The public position that anyone takes will not "resolve" the matter, or allow us to say that we've avoided "capitulation".

The simple fact is that we will stick to "our principles". Freedom of speech is not going anywhere. There will be no Executive Orders against cartoonists, the Constitution will remain intact, and even European countries that have less secure freedom of speech laws will continue to allow newspapers to print controversial images. Similarly, people around the Western world will not all start thinking of new ways to infuriate hundreds of millions of other people.

As for "what should have been done", of course the Danish paper should have been allowed to publish the cartoons, but they should have been smart enough to realize it was kind of a dumb thing to do. Also, the autocratic regimes who are using the controversy as an excuse to seize control or burnish their Islamic credentials should have been smart enough to realize the damage that encouraging the protests would do to national images, world opinion, etc.

No absolute principles are actually at stake. For all the posturing about the importance of whatever principles support your view of whether x or y was a "good thing to do" or a "bad thing to do", the only thing that matters, in a global public space where absolute principles and values will always be the subject of intense disagreement, is what the pragmatic thing is to do. Basically, no one is being pragmatic because they are all too busy being Universalists, as if a Universal solution to this "problem" is possible. As if a month or two down the road the conflict between free speech and religio-cultural sensitivity will be "won" or "lost" by one side or the other.

Pluralism, folks! This is what pluralism means. And we, in the West, who do not share the absolutism of the embassy arsonists and the autocratic opportunists should not conclude that the solution is the destruction of the culture that sometimes gives rise to such intolerant and extreme behavior. Pluralism requires that we not decide that whole cultures, parts of which we fundamentally disagree with, are too barbaric to exist. Nations and regimes--perhaps (when there is damn good cause for it), but not whole cultures and religions. Imagining that the freedom of expression we value so deeply is somehow threatened by a few buildings being burned down is hyperdramatic.

We have many interests in the world, including the Muslim world. Economic interests, energy interests, nonproliferation interests, security interests, etc. Fantasizing that the greatest threat in the world is to our right to draw whatever cartoons we want is childish. Reza Aslan is right to say he's angry about the stupidity of publishing something so counterproductive. Michael Kinsley is right to demand that we not get wishy washy about our freedoms (though I would disagree that we are). Christopher Hitchens is right to demand a right to criticize all religions, or even religion in general. And Geoffrey Wheatcroft is right to say that the violent protests are stupidly reinforcing the image put forth in the cartoons of violence and intolerance. They're all right, but at first glance it seems like they can't all be right.

But they are all "right", because they all agree about the abstract principles--freedom of speech is good, violence is bad, keep the barbaric theocratic stuff to a minimum, bigotry is bad, etc. But as far as the pragmatism goes, especially for those who are hyperventilating about the vanishing of freedom of speech in the West, they each seem to ignore that this controversy is not about abstract principles. It is about cartoons, and local causes, and sectarianism, and perceived victimhood, and religion, and freedom, and culture, and yet the controversy is also about the response to the controversy itself.

To Hitchens, Kinsley, and Wheatcroft: I agree with all your principles, but I still haven't heard anything convincing about the value of publishing those cartoons in this environment. It was counterproductive politically and, as such, a stupid thing to do. Saying it was a stupid thing to do is not the same as restricting the right to do it.

To Hitchens alone: What good does it do to say that "negotiations" cannot be begun until the threat of violence is put to rest? Has the threat of potential violence ever been put to rest? This seems like an overblown attempt to hold the entire Muslim world, even all Muslims, accountable for what extremists do. Are you responsible for Pat Buchanan's bigotry? How about Pat Robertson's? As a fellow Westerner, is his call for violence your fault? I claim zero affiliation with his ilk, and I'm sure that more than a billion Muslims worldwide would decry the violent protests.

Even Reza Aslan, who has the most pragmatic approach to decrying the publication and the violent response, says he is offended by the cartoons "because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism; because they are fodder for the clash-of-civilizations mentality that pits East against West. For all of that I blame Jyllands-Posten." So it's all the cartoonists' fault? That doesn't make much sense to me, either. Clearly this was an orchestrated global event. Cartoonists are not that influential, even when they're being openly inflammatory.

It is not just the publication of the cartoons that idestructiveve and deserving of blame. Also, the response by protesters, the flippy-floppy Bush response, reactionary right-wing responses, and overblown debates about the abstract clash between Freedom and Religion are all "to blame". It isn't the initial source of hatred and discord that is ultimately "to blame". That gives cartoonists, frankly, far too much credit for being influential.

The cartoons have given the world a reference point, a proxy for the larger debate over greater and greater European and American involvement in the Muslim world (and vice-versa). There are some good and many really bad reasons for that involvement, but these protests are a partial culmination of a few of the short story arcs that come out of that broader unstable situation. Instead of lamenting our freedoms that have never really been challenged, we ought to be engaged in a much more serious debate about that broader involvement and its underpinning theories. Instead of talking about how barbaric the protesters are, or how insensitive making fun of someone else'religionon is, we should be talking more about the long story arc--and not just on electoral-cycle high points or on the Bush administration's PR terms.

Much like the problem of global warming, this is a debate of much larger scale than any one country or any one political party (or, certainly, any one politician). If we started taking the bigger picture seriously and debated it as carefully as we are overdebating the cartoon controversy, we just might start to make the free expressions we value so much worth something above and beyond their role in meticulously staking out the nodes of ideological conflict (or inciting it unnecessarily). If we understood American foreign policy in as much detail as we understand the burning of the Danish flag and the clever incitements by weak and exploitative autocratic regimes, something having to do with our involvement in the region might improve.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Truth and Fiction

posted by Will

George C. Deutsch: the latest two-bit shady character in an administration that can't seem to find anyone who is actually qualified to hold the positions it wants to use to sabotage the federal government from within. Perhaps being qualified and having the kind of conservative axe to grind that Mr. Deutsch certainly had are mutually exclusive mental states.

From the New York Times: "Mr. Deutsch's resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his resume on file at the agency asserted."

Mr. Deutsch is the very young and apparently spectacularly unqualified individual who kept senior scientists, like Dr. James Hansen, from speaking to the press, and also tried to ensure that the vocabulary used in scientific reports be as vague and anti-science as possible, like calling the Big Bang a "theory" even though everyone who knows anything agrees on the general idea--because perhaps God did it.

From Reuters: "The theory that the universe was created by a 'big bang' is just that -- a theory," Deutsch wrote in an e-mail on October 17, 2005, which was obtained by Reuters. "It is not proven fact; it is opinion. Yes, the scientific community by and large may share this opinion, but that doesn't make it correct ... " What training or credentials did he have to make such claims legitimate or even remotely defensible? Certainly not a degree in any science, and apparently not even a BA in journalism from Texas A&M.

He probably would have liked to issue a press release about how humans used to have dominion over domesticated dinosaurs.

How in the world does the top climate scientist at NASA effectively get locked in his office by a college dropout? It's the context, the administration as a whole, the smoggy anti-science atmosphere set up by the larger Bush Machine. It's either that, or any kid can come work on a campaign for a while, lie on his resume, and then start controlling Bush's federal science policy. I'm not sure which is more believable, or which is worse.

Great work by, by the way. Shows what an actual scientist can achieve with the help of things like fact and inquiry and curiosity and seriousness. Hopefully he'll have a job in NASA or NIH soon enough ... God knows they can use a few qualified individuals these days.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dangerous Redefinitions

posted by Will

As Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the latest New Yorker, the language of President Bush's war has always been, one could say, stuck in a morass of mixed meanings, unintentional double-entendres, and rampant vagaries. But this lack of terminological acuity is not simply another instance of incompetence and a failure to comprehend. It is a major strategic failure.

Hertzberg writes, "One of Al Qaeda’s goals has been to frame the conflict as a holy war between Muslims and infidels. In calling it a war, Bush emphasized its seriousness, but at the cost of granting its criminal perpetrators the dignity of warriors. Calling it a war against Islam, even radical Islam, grants them the other half of their wish."

And yet this debacle makes up only a fraction of the dangerous ground we now occupy. The cartoon controversy and its effects, the conviction and imminent extradition to the US from Britain of the convicted "militant cleric" Abu Hamza, the West's reaction to the elections in Palestine, and the currently shapeless, directionless, and toothless diplomatic acrimony over a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran each present an opportunity for the "war on terror" to be further redefined as a "war on Islam".

The danger is not just that moderates in the "Muslim world" will increasingly see it that way, making the struggle for stability even closer to impossible than it is now. The danger is also very real that Westerners will begin to drop the word "radical" from President Bush's State Of The Union re-re-definition of the war as a "war on radical Islam."

If that comes to pass, and the war is defined on all sides as a holy war, the idea that any progress will come from its resolution, of any kind or for anyone, will be a fantasy that is finally--and tragically--put to rest.

Lest Anyone Forget...

posted by Will

From the Wall Street Journal's Jeanne Cummings: 'A White House spokesman says Mr. Rove doesn't remember talking to Mr. Abramoff about Tyco. A spokesman for Mr. Abramoff declined to comment on whether he lobbied Mr. Rove on the issue. A Tyco spokeswoman says the company doesn't know what Mr. Abramoff did on its behalf. A tax provision Tyco opposed eventually was defeated.'


'"I support your efforts ... to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington," Mr. Bush declared in last week's State of the Union address. The White House has tried to move beyond ethics controversies after the indictment late last year of former vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby in connection with the Central Intelligence Agency leak case. Mr. Rove hasn't yet been cleared in the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald."'

Just in case anyone had been completely distracted by all that's going on in the rest of the world ... nuclear threats, riots, insurgency, assassination attempts, economic crises of various kinds, etc., I thought a reminder would be appropriate: The White House is still in some trouble, mostly because of Karl Rove and his various shady tentacular relationships. Is President Bush still glad he didn't get Stinkweasel's ... er, Boogermonkey's ... I mean, Turdblossom's resignation? The administration is still very much tainted by this scandal, though you wouldn't know it the way it continues to assert its own quasimonarchic supremacy. You know what they say about a wounded Stinkweasel...

Heather Wilson To The Rescue?

posted by Will

And Lo! The sins of the son shall be slightly challenged and politely questioned by a national security aide of the father...

Where Senator Specter has proffered with his "hearings" nothing but a phantom, a shadow, a wraith of a challenge to the President's illegal Executive power grab, can we hope against hope for Representative Wilson to provide substance, weight, perhaps even corporeality to the debate? AG Gonzales has managed to throw a fair amount of sand in everyone's eyes, but the legitimacy of our system of checks and balances will forever demand that the public, the media and elected representatives like Rep. Wilson continue to demand actual answers, oversight, and legitimate debate. Here's hoping she means it and follows through.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How Unwarranted!

posted by Will
Emily Bazelon, as usual, has some brilliant commentary. This time it's about how useless Senator Specter's "hearings" actually turned out to be. I applaud his deciding to even hold them, but what will they accomplish? Right from the get-go, Senator Specter guaranteed the answer would be zilch. He did not request documents such as internal memos about the program's legality and there will be no testimony from anyone else. All he got was more "we swear it's legal", "nothing to see here", "move along", and "trust us!" ... and a full year's supply of inappropriate smirks.

Bazelon reports the most appropriate and ironically hilarious moment of the day: at the opening of the hearing, Specter said that requests to swear in the Attorney General (in order to make him slightly less willing to engage in any evasive "truthiness") were "unwarranted."

Monday, February 06, 2006

CIA Leak Case Won't Go Away

posted by Will
Michael Isikoff reports in Newsweek that Valerie Plame was, indeed, a covert agent, despite what the right-wing Libby-Rove Apologists assert. They've managed to keep the Vice President off the stand until after the midterms, but I'm glad to hear some evidence that the right-wing won't get their main wish. This case will not simply go away.

I've said this before: if this event had taken place during a Democratic administration, all the hypocrites would be demanding that the charges be dropped and that the President be impeached, repeating something--ad nauseam--about "restoring honor and dignity to the White House." Who knows what will come out about this affair next? What did the President know, and when did he know it?

Cutting The Deficit, With Magic!

posted by Will
So, the FY 2007 budget is out, and it will "cut the deficit in half by 2009"--as a percentage of GDP, not in dollars. Don't worry, though, no cuts will be made in wasteful defense spending. The budget, by the way, does not include projected costs of the war in Iraq, which are certain to materialize, but it does include imagined tax revenue from ANWR oil exploration, which seems pretty likely (hopefully) not to materialize.

James Frey's "memoir" is starting to sound like a compendium of hard facts compared to Bush's budget prestidigitations. I haven't even yet discussed how they dodged the cost of the tax cuts being made permanent. Bush might as well have said, "Well, I can always print more money!"

Every budget hawk in the country, Republican or Democrat, should be marching down the street, holding aloft copies of this budget set alight.

Cartoons and Caricatures

posted by Will
John Simpson has an excellent point. He says the fracas over the Danish cartoons and "the Muslim world's" response is over-hyped and damaging. He asks, "How did a series of not particularly well-drawn or funny cartoons, published on 30 September in a Danish newspaper, produce such anger in Europe and the Middle East four months later?" He answers by saying that it is a small but vocal minority of Muslims taking part, their responses mostly fueled by local tensions and political necessities.

It is not the entire Muslim world rising up to demand censorship and revenge. If anything, the West's envisioning of that scenario only makes it more difficult for moderates in Muslim societies to present their rather reasonable case that they would prefer it if their religious figures had not been caricatured. Christians and Jews often demand the same.

By seeing this as a grand struggle between cultures, we make it impossible to see the large area of common understanding and the space for moderate debate that exists. This, in turn, frustrates the moderates in Muslim societies, further convincing them that the West will never see anything but fanaticism when it looks in their direction. This is not the interaction we need, especially at a time when the West has completely internalized the Neoconservative premise that we will conquer Muslim hearts and minds, winning over the Middle-East to the side of democracy and liberty. If moderates in the Muslim world are further convinced we see all 1.2 billion Muslims as "radical islamofascists" just waiting for any provocation to start burning down embassies, what hope can they have that we will make good faith efforts to fulfill our promises, rebuild where we invade, respect their cultures, and not simply go for regime change everywhere there's an anti-American or anti-European demonstration?

It is not the fact of the silly cartoons being published that should be condemned. I have a rather extreme prejudice in favor of the freedom of expression, even offensive and stupid expression. No, the fault lies in the more subtle caricature of a Muslim World in generalized rebellion. The press must be careful not to take every chance to proclaim that another battle in the grand Clash of Civilizations has begun. It is the surest way to prolong the catastrophic lack of trust and understanding that fuels the real guerilla war.

As Simpson rightly says, "the [protesting] groups with their ill-spelt placards are just an unrepresentative, repudiated fringe. In much the same way, we should not think the entire Muslim world is in flames about it. But we must understand that many Muslims around the world feel increasingly beleaguered. Increasing that sense will do nothing to help anyone."

But It IS Legal! *Giggle Giggle*

posted by Will

What does Attorney General Alberto Gonzales think is so funny? He's talking about spying on Americans without authority and the most stark assertion of Executive power in recent memory, and it looks like he can hardly keep himself from giggling.

"The Enemy is listening", he says. So, therefore we shouldn't even discuss whether the program is illegal or ask questions about it? This is the most blatant instance in this administration's long history of arrogance. Their claim is exactly this absurd: that what the Executive is doing is legal because the Executive says it is. (Not to mention the audacity of AG Gonzales telling Senators that they gave the President the authority to do all this, even though none of them, apparently, think they did.) This is the essence of the kind of overreaching that checks and balances were put into the Constitution to prevent. AG Gonzales needs a refresher course in ninth-grade Civics.

Here's to Senators Specter and DeWine for showing some backbone and preventing this from becoming a party-line Kabuki dance. Whatever the eventual solution to the Intelligence problems at hand (assuming the administration allows a proper debate), it is of vital importance that the Constitutional issues be taken very seriously. They are, at least a bit, and at least so far, willing to demand more than the rest of their fellow Republican yes-men on the Judiciary Committee.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Vocabulary of the Union!

posted by Will
Since it's a tired, tedious, meaningless litany anyway (apart from a few highly questionable assertions that stand out), here's a list of a few of the State of the Union's constituent (or glaringly absent) words. Perhaps they will be more interesting and instructive than the inane, thickly-lacquered, and over-buffed whole.

Instances of keywords found (or reasonably expected to be found) in searches of the text of the State of the Union:

(Quick count. Instances include variants--terror, terrorism, terrorists...)

"Afghanistan": 2
"Al Qaida": 3
"Bin Laden": 2
"Britain" (or England, or United Kingdom): 0
"China": 1
"Corrupt": 2 (both referring to other countries)
"Darfur": 0
"Debt": 0
"Deficit": 2
"Earmark": 1
"Economy": 16
"Enron": 0
"Environment": 1
"Evil": 2
"Faith": 4
"Freedom": 17
"Genocide": 1
"Gulf Coast": 1
"Hamas": 1
"India": 1
"Intelligence": 1
"Iraq": 16
"Iran": 6
"Katrina": 0
"Liberty": 4
"Lobby": 0
"Moral": 1
"Oil": 3
"North Korea": 1
"Reform": 9
"Religion": 0
"Russia": 0
"Saudi Arabia": 1
"Security": 10
"Switch Grass": 1
"Sudan": 0
"Syria": 1
"Terror": 20
"United Nations": 0
"Zarqawi": 1