31 December 2004


Okay, I'm late, but check out these Chrismukkah cards.

In comments, my mother expresses disapproval of the cards' irreverence. Point taken, but I read the cards as a wink toward secular holiday kitch. A look at another page on the Chrismukkah website underlines this intent.

Chrismukkah is about "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," Barry Manilow singing "Jingle Bell Rock," Bing crooning "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," Eggnog Lattes at Starbucks, sleigh rides, chocolate chanukah gelt, spinning the dreidel, twinkling lights and flickering candles, exchanging gifts with family and friends, and seasonal favorites like matzoh ball pizza, cranberry blintzes, curried latkes, kosher fruitcake and Manishewitz hot mulled wine.

What the #$*!, indeed

So I finally caught What the (Bleep) Do We Know!?, the film about the mystical implications of modern science that's sweeping the nation.

What a #$*!ing load of $#*!.

Not only does it misrepresent modern physics, not only does it offer a hokey half-baked version of mysticism, not only does it jumble together real science and pseudoscience, not only is it rhetorically sloppy and irresponsible — it’s also bad filmmaking.

Set aside the fact that they’ve chopped up many of the talking heads’ comments into quotes so short that they cannot say anything subtle, and you suspect they’ve been excerpted out of context — the comments are assembled into such a chaotic mess that it’s hard to follow what argument the film is even trying to present.

Set aside the silliness of blobby computer animated anthroporphized cells as a way of conveying the idea that the mind and body are linked by hormone action at the cellular level — this stuff is supposed to be cute, funny, and witty, when it’s in fact mawkish and boring.

Set aside that half of the talking heads are obviously crazy — they even look crazy. Which cannot have been the intention. I hope.

Set aside that the fable of Marlee Matalin as a depressed, delusional, drug-addicted photographer who stumbles through a few messages about enlightenment is just plain dumb — it’s also boring.

Maybe I missed the point, since I finally couldn’t take it any more and and left about fifteen minutes before the picture ended. I doubt that it pulled itself together in the last few minutes.

Afterward, I took a look at the list of commentators in the movie from the official website. Apparently their identities are revealed at the end of the film; during the picture they just talk. Which, if you think about it, is a cheap and irresponsible trick. When someone is telling me how quantum mechanics works, in order to evaluate what they’re saying, I should know whether they are a physicist from Columbia University or a woman who trance channels a 35,000 year old warrior mystic from Atlantis. After a few minutes with Google, I’m a little wiser about who we have.

JZ Knight gets a lot of screen time, and she trance channels the aforementioned ancient Atlantean, Ramtha. I didn’t make that up.

David Albert is the physicist from Columbia University. He talks in little snippets about quantum mechanics in the film. Here’s what he has to say about the movie:

I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film … Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.

John Hagelin also talks quite a bit. It turns out that he is a leader in the Natural Law Party, which is a front for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which is so loopy that even Pat Buchanan's fans are spooked by his attempted involvement in the Reform Party.

Jeffrey Satinover, a doctor who also talks quite a bit, turns out to be involved in “curing” homosexuals, and according to an essay on his website believes

What it comes down to is that liberalism causes brain damage. Liberals are not just unwilling to engage in rational thought, they are, after just so long, incapable of it.

Michael Ledwith resigned his position as a monsignor in the Catholic Church, either because he started ranting about Jesus’ twin brother or because he was caught sexually abusing children, it’s hard to know which.

… and at that point I start to lose interest. Though it was nice to see the delightfully loopy Fred Alan Wolf, whose writing I’ve stumbled across before and who says the closest thing to interesting stuff in the movie.

But if that’s not enough kvetching for you, Salon has an exposé on how the whole thing is an advertisement for Ramtha, and Not Even Wrong has another vigorous critique with some interesting stuff in the comment thread, The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a review of the film on their entertaining page on Ramtha, and even cartoonists are making fun.

30 December 2004

Magickal technique

Often my readers say to me, “Jonathan, your aura of Hermetic mystery leads me to wonder what occult secrets you might reveal on your blog.” My efforts in that area have been pretty paltry, I admit. To better aid my readers' quest for eldrich power, I offer you the No Fish Spell, which I myself have only recently learned.

Yesterday I tested it, and it was successful in bringing me a taxi, so I feel that I can offer my endorsement.

Warning: this is a Secret Mystery of the Discordian school, primarily because most of the Discordians who know it have been too lazy to pass it on. It originated in the most Sacred Streets of Chinatown, somewhere very near Grant and Clay, during the sacred search for china flats for the lovely Sara, when the mostly vegetarian seekers were disturbed by apparitions of hanging chickens and putrid fish on all sides. Substituting your True Desire for the original china flats, you chant:
China flats!
China flats!
China flats!
No fish!*

Repeat as necessary, or until people look at you funny.

* The lovely frmantis, who is far better a magickian than I, did warn me that the gods can't hear negatives, and may in fact hear this spell as “china flats, china flats, china flats, fish!” and give you fish as well as your heart's desire. If you like fish, this is likely not a true hardship.

Remember to use this power only for Good.

29 December 2004

Just people

Check out this set of haunting photographs:

Mirrors: Photographs from the Arkansas State Prison 1915-1937

One more Xmas thing

China Miéville offers us a little cautionary tale in the web pages of Socialist Review.
Don't get me wrong. I haven't got shares in YuleCo, and I can't afford a one-day end-user licence, so I couldn't have a legal party. I'd briefly considered buying from one of the budget competitors like XmasTym, or a spinoff from a non-specialist like Coca-Crissmas, but the idea of doing it on the cheap was just depressing. I wouldn't have been able to use much of the traditional stuff, and if you can't have all of it, why have any? (XmasTym had the rights to Egg Nog. But Egg Nog's disgusting.) Those other firms keep trying to create their own alternatives to proprietary classics like reindeer and snowmen, but they never take off. I'll never forget Annie's underwhelmed response to the JingleMas Holiday Gecko.

No, like most people, I was going to have a little MidWinter Event, just Annie and me. So long as I was careful to steer clear of licenced products we'd be fine.


28 December 2004

Death as metaphor

Susan Sontag
1933 - 2004
American public intellectual

I feel hesitant, unqualified to comment on her, even though I'm a fan of her work in a small way — I started reading her latest book just last week, and I've linked and quoted her here on this blog.

But I've always felt that there was something inaccessible about her, because I'm from the wrong time. You read some essay published in 1974 referring to her and there's this whole subtext about what she meant to someone in 1974 — something that I can never really know. I come from an era where there's nothing surprising about a serious intellectual writing a serious essay of Notes on "Camp".

Most recently she's famous for her comments on the “War on Terror” — shortly after 9/11 in The New Yorker, then again later. She took a lot of fire for failing to stick to the simple script of "terrorists are bad and we're going to go beat 'em up." But she has never been in the simple business. She was typically quoted out of context, but the way she writes, anything less than the whole text is quoting out of context — she writes clearly and lucidly, but with an embrace of complexity that makes her impossible to summarize.

There's not enough of that going around these days. Nor has there ever been. We are diminished by the loss of her.

Update: Christopher Hitchens does a good obit for her at Slate, as does Gary Indiana at the Village Voice, and Patrick Giles at the National Catholic Reporter.

27 December 2004

Keep Austin weird

Further evidence that Austin, Texas, is just as nutty as San Francisco.

I would not make this up

From the DefenseTech.com article "Armed Drones Rolling to Iraq"
As soon as March or April, eighteen Talon robots armed with automatic weapons are scheduled to report for duty in Iraq, as part of the Army's Stryker Brigade.
You gotta go look at the pictures. As if "Stryker Brigade" weren't B-movie enough. Via Wild Bill.

26 December 2004


Yes, it's crossover humor time, this time with Kit Marlowe!
For long and weary hours, I bored myself
Counting the old, tired webs of spiders
In my narrow office. Just then I heard
A ringing sound from the bell out front,
And in my dismal garrett I beheld
A wench who made a good first impression
To my eyes. Her face, I thought could launch
A thousand or so ships, her eyes burn down
A hell of a lot of topless towers.
I took in her form and her tear-streaked face
She beseechingly asked, "Mister Marlowe?
I'm in trouble. They told me you could help."

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedy of The Big Slumber, act I

Via Making Light.

25 December 2004

Merry Christmas

John 1:1

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
καὶ ὁ λόγος πρὸς τὸν θεόν
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

En arche en ho logos
kai ho logos en pros ton theon
kai theos en ho logos

In the beginning the word existed,
the word was to God,
and God was the word

24 December 2004

100 words for today

A little something from Neil Gaiman, if you haven't seen it before.

Nicholas was older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.

The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.

Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves' invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen in time.

He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.




So true.

23 December 2004

Information design

One among ten things the Chinese do far better than we do
In Tianjin, a city of 13 million people, traffic lights display red or green signals in a rectangle that rhythmically shrinks down as the time remaining evaporates. In Beijing, some traffic lights offer a countdown clock for both green and red signals.

During a red light, you know whether you have time to check that map; on a green light, you know whether to start braking a block away --- or to stomp on the accelerator, as though you were a Toronto or Montreal driver. (That's probably why Montreal has a few lights with countdown seconds for pedestrians.)


22 December 2004


In case you haven't heard, there's a new Batman Begins trailer out. You may recall that I'm pretty excited about this picture.


Big Media Matt has some really clear thinking about the politics of personal risk.
In general, it's an excellent thing when people take risks. As Mads writes, the really valuable thing about becoming fairly well-off in America is less that it lets you buy a bunch of stuff than that it cushions you against risks. This lets you take risks, and with risks there tend to come rewards. This is true in a variety of areas from investing (where stocks give you higher payouts in the long run than alternatives, provided you can withstand the short-term turbulence), to career choices, and much, much more. This is something that, I think, the right broadly construed usually does a good job of understanding. One of the main sources of American dynamism is the willingness of people to shoulder risk.

Something that the right doesn't understand well at all is the difference people designing policy that let people take more risks and policies that simply make life riskier.

I recall reading a while ago that someone had written a book that was a comparative biography of the dozen biggest silicon moguls --- guys like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison --- and all but one had been a trust fund kid. His observation was that it's a whole lot easier to boldly bet your future on starting a company, rather than going to work for one, when in the event of a failure you will still be able to pay the rent.

21 December 2004


In The PvP Christmas Special, we learn the truth about Santa Claus.

Little kids, don't follow that link. It's a secret for grown-ups only.

20 December 2004


A meditation for today.

Yes, George W. Bush is Time magazine's Man of the Year. (Not necessarily an endorsement, I know, but still.) And yes, this reflects a frightening time for the Republic. Yes, I've been spending a lot of time walking the halls of hospitals lately, with much more to come. Yes, it is my profession is to dance with brilliant people who are being made to waste their efforts, in hope that I can be crafty enough to find some pirouttes and turns that will bring them at least a few steps forward. Yes, sometimes human nature turns out to be even worse than I thought. Yes, I'm not as young as I once was. Yes, there is more work to do than I can hope to do.

But the Sun returns. Sing it back, if you wish. Or don't --- for even if you don't sing, the Sun returns. Every year. Every morning. The Sun returns.

Hang on. You'll see.

18 December 2004


I thought that my crowned tooth and eyeglasses qualified me as a little bit of a cyborg. But then MKB pointed me at this guy.

Bad schools and urban life

Big Media Matt makes a dark little observation with troubling consequences.
Bad urban public school performance and the attendant absence of middle class families seems integral to the rennaissance in city living for the childless that we've seen in recent years. Urban life pretty much fell apart in the 70s and 80s in the face of a vicious circle of middle class departures (the misleadingly named "white flight" though middle class African-Americans families have left, too, as you'll see in certain suburbs of Washington and Baltimore), rising crime, and failing schools. In the 1990s, the crime situation abated significantly, which made cities a desirable place for middle class single people to live again. But if the school problem were solved, we wouldn't be able to afford it.
I'm troubled by his argument, but I don't know if I buy it. I think that the advantages of urban living for middle class singles are such that we will actually endure higher costs than in the 'burbs to live in the city, as demonstrated by places like my hometown. This is the kind of question that public policy research is supposed to answer systematically.

16 December 2004


Yes, he's gone mad. But he's still entertaining. Check out Christopher Hitchens interviewed by Jon Stewart.

Think again

Big Media Matt points us at the Think Again feature in Foreign Policy discussing Middle East democracy. The canards debunked are:
The Middle East Is the Last Holdout Against the Global Democratic Trend

Democracy in the Middle East Is Impossible Until the Arab-Israeli Conflict Is Resolved

The United States Wants Democracy in the Middle East

The War in Iraq Advanced the Cause of Democracy in the Middle East

Islamists Are the Main Obstacle to Arab Democracy

Arab Countries Have a Historic Propensity Toward Authoritarianism

Promoting Women’s Rights Is Crucial for Democratic Change

Arab Democrats Are the Key to Reform

Middle East Democracy Is the Cure for Islamist Terrorism

Nothing too surprising in the comments on each of these points, mind you, but it provides a nice, clear overview, if you find this sort of thing interesting.

15 December 2004

Sushi pillows


That's pillows that look like sushi, rather than made of sushi or for letting your sushi rest comfortably.

Via Collectivus


DeLong makes a trenchant observation.
Let me try to state this clearly and concisely: the U.S. has a *massive* national security interest in encouraging the industrialization of China as fast as possible. A poor China is an unstable China, and unstable countries ruled by oligarchies often turn to aggressive expansion as a way of using nationalism to slow the crumbling of their rule. A world sixty years from now in which Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. did what it could to speed Chinese economic growth is a much safer world for my great-grandchildren than a world in which Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. did all it could to keep China poor.
It seems that being a patriot and being a cosmopolite are very compatible in a shrinking world. Especially when China is involved.

14 December 2004

Bagel buddhism

My mother reminded me recently about these silly aphorisms of "Zen Judaism". Though not all of them are Buddhist ...
The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take sides. The Tao is not Jewish.
One in particular reminded me of someone in particular.
Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with posture like that.
You know who you are.

Remember health care?

Several months ago, DeLong blogged about the war over Clinton's health care plan, and pointed me to this quote from a PBS story, making the point that Republicans opposed the plan not on the merits but simply because they wanted to deny Democrats the victory.
December 2, 1993 --- Leading conservative operative William Kristol privately circulates a strategy document to Republicans in Congress. Kristol writes that congressional Republicans should work to "kill" --- not amend --- the Clinton plan because it presents a real danger to the Republican future: Its passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party. Nearly a full year before Republicans will unite behind the "Contract With America," Kristol has provided the rationale and the steel for them to achieve their aims of winning control of Congress and becoming America's majority party. Killing health care will serve both ends. The timing of the memo dovetails with a growing private consensus among Republicans that all-out opposition to the Clinton plan is in their best political interest. Until the memo surfaces, most opponents prefer behind-the-scenes warfare largely shielded from public view. The boldness of Kristol's strategy signals a new turn in the battle. Not only is it politically acceptable to criticize the Clinton plan on policy grounds, it is also politically advantageous. By the end of 1993, blocking reform poses little risk as the public becomes increasingly fearful of what it has heard about the Clinton plan.
More recently, Digby quotes at length from the PBS story's timeline. Instructive reading for the patient and politically obsessed.

13 December 2004


Meme-du-jour for lefty wonks is Peter Beinart's “An Argument for a New Liberalism: A fighting faith” published in The New Republic last week. Beinart argues that that Democrats have suffered reversals because they haven't come out as vigorous enough opponents of Islamist totalitarianism, having forgotten the lesson of Cold War anti-communism. It's long, chewy, and thought-provoking.

There's some grains of truth lurking in there. He points out that the left has been so panicked over the Bush administration's catatrophic conduct of the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" that we haven't managed to articulate a positive vision of a liberal response to the challenges of contemporary political Islamist movements, political totalitarianism, terrorism, and the various combinations of these three. Which is true as far as it goes.

But he doesn't show any awareness that though they are conflated in the minds of most Americans, political Islamism, totalitarianism, and terrorism are three distinct phenomena with distinct identities, even if they are often interrelated. Orcinus has a very good discussion of this point and its consequences.

Likewise, Beinart uses “communism” and “totalitarianism” interchangably in talking about the Cold War era. This is corrosive to the meanings of both important words. In the course of his recounting of the Cold War, he brushes aside awfully lightly how our simpleminded anti-communism was often counterproductive, put us in bed with countless right-wing totalitarian regimes, and brought us to the brink of a global thermonuclear holocaust. I'm not saying that opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, as a principle, was fundamentally wrong, mind you. I favour opposition to all forms of totalitarianism. But I am saying that our anti-communism was often boneheaded and dangerous.

George Will says that Democrats should take Beinart's advice, which is pretty much a sure sign that we shouldn't. And Digby has some choice words about how Beinart's use of the expressions “hard” and “soft” Democrat falls right into the psychosexual BS of rhetoric from the Republican Mighty Wurlitzer. (I've posted about the psychosexual dimension myself, and Digby's been working this theme again and again and again in recent weeks.)

For readers curious about the article but not brave enough to face the interrogation of the subscription robot at The New Republic, I have the text of the essay for you here.

An Argument for a New Liberalism: A fighting faith

Peter Beinart

The New Republic 2 December 2004

On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington's Willard Hotel to save American liberalism. A few months earlier, in articles in The New Republic and elsewhere, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop had warned that "the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction." Liberals, they argued, “consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West.” Unless that changed, “In the spasm of terror which will seize this country ... it is the right — the very extreme right — which is most likely to gain victory.”

During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, “[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere,” America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology “hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great.”

At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S Truman's March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.

But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA's help, Truman crushed Wallace's third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: “Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped ... by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.”

Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not "been fundamentally reshaped" by the experience. On the right, a "historical re-education" has indeed occurred — replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might. But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s — a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda — even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

When liberals talk about America's new era, the discussion is largely negative — against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America's worsening reputation in the world. In sharp contrast to the first years of the cold war, post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions — most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn — that do not put the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world. As a result, the Democratic Party boasts a fairly hawkish foreign policy establishment and a cadre of politicians and strategists eager to look tough. But, below this small elite sits a Wallacite grassroots that views America's new struggle as a distraction, if not a mirage. Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.

The Kerry Compromise

The press loves a surprise. And so, in the days immediately after November 2, journalists trumpeted the revelation that "moral values" had cost John Kerry the election. Upon deeper investigation, however, the reasons for Kerry's loss don't look that surprising at all. In fact, they are largely the same reasons congressional Democrats lost in 2002.

Pundits have seized on exit polls showing that the electorate's single greatest concern was moral values, cited by 22 percent of voters. But, as my colleague Andrew Sullivan has pointed out (“Uncivil Union,” November 22), a similar share of the electorate cited moral values in the ’90s. The real change this year was on foreign policy. In 2000, only 12 percent of voters cited "world affairs" as their paramount issue; this year, 34 percent mentioned either Iraq or terrorism. (Combined, the two foreign policy categories dwarf moral values.) Voters who cited terrorism backed Bush even more strongly than those who cited moral values. And it was largely this new cohort — the same one that handed the GOP its Senate majority in 2002 — that accounts for Bush's improvement over 2000. As Paul Freedman recently calculated in Slate, if you control for Bush's share of the vote four years ago, “a 10-point increase in the percentage of voters [in a given state] citing terrorism as the most important problem translates into a 3-point Bush gain. A 10-point increase in morality voters, on the other hand, has no effect.”

On national security, Kerry's nomination was a compromise between a party elite desperate to neutralize the terrorism issue and a liberal base unwilling to redefine itself for the post-September 11 world. In the early days of his candidacy, Kerry seemed destined to run as a hawk. In June 2002, he attacked Bush from the right for not committing American ground troops in the mountains of Tora Bora. Like the other leading candidates in the race, he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. This not only pleased Kerry's consultants, who hoped to inoculate him against charges that he was soft on terrorism, but it satisfied his foreign policy advisers as well.

The Democratic foreign policy establishment that counseled the leading presidential candidates during the primaries — and coalesced behind Kerry after he won the nomination — was the product of a decade-long evolution. Bill Clinton had come into office with little passion for foreign policy, except as it affected the U.S. economy. But, over time, his administration grew more concerned with international affairs and more hawkish. In August 1995, Clinton finally sent NATO warplanes into action in Bosnia. And, four years later, the United States, again working through NATO, launched a humanitarian war in Kosovo, preventing another ethnic cleansing and setting the stage for a democratic revolution in Belgrade. It was an air war, to be sure, and it put few American lives at risk. But it was a war nonetheless, initiated without U.N. backing by a Democratic president in response to internal events in a sovereign country.

For top Kerry foreign policy advisers, such as Richard Holbrooke and Joseph Biden, Bosnia and Kosovo seemed like models for a new post-Vietnam liberalism that embraced U.S. power. And September 11 validated the transformation. Democratic foreign policy wonks not only supported the war in Afghanistan, they generally felt it didn't go far enough — urging a larger NATO force capable of securing the entire country. And, while disturbed by the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, they agreed that Saddam Hussein was a threat and, more generally, supported aggressive efforts to democratize the Muslim world. As National Journal's Paul Starobin noted in a September 2004 profile, “Kerry and his foreign-policy advisers are not doves. They are liberal war hawks who would be unafraid to use American power to promote their values.” At the Democratic convention, Biden said that the “overwhelming obligation of the next president is clear” — to exercise “the full measure of our power” to defeat Islamist totalitarianism.

Had history taken a different course, this new brand of liberalism might have expanded beyond a narrow foreign policy elite. The war in Afghanistan, while unlike Kosovo a war of self-defense, once again brought the Western democracies together against a deeply illiberal foe. Had that war, rather than the war in Iraq, become the defining event of the post-September 11 era, the “re-education” about U.S. power, and about the new totalitarian threat from the Muslim world that had transformed Kerry's advisers, might have trickled down to the party's liberal base, transforming it as well.

Instead, Bush's war on terrorism became a partisan affair — defined in the liberal mind not by images of American soldiers walking Afghan girls to school, but by John Ashcroft's mass detentions and Cheney's false claims about Iraqi WMD. The left's post-September 11 enthusiasm for an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda — epitomized by students at liberal campuses signing up for jobs with the CIA — was overwhelmed by horror at the bungled Iraq war. So, when the Democratic presidential candidates began courting their party's activists in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2003, they found a liberal grassroots that viewed the war on terrorism in negative terms and judged the candidates less on their enthusiasm for defeating Al Qaeda than on their enthusiasm for defeating Bush. The three candidates who made winning the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their campaigns — Joseph Lieberman, Bob Graham, and Wesley Clark — each failed to capture the imagination of liberal activists eager for a positive agenda only in the domestic sphere. Three of the early front-runners — Kerry, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt — each sank as Howard Dean pilloried them for supporting Ashcroft's Patriot Act and the Iraq war.

Three months before the Iowa caucuses, facing mass liberal defections to Dean, Kerry voted against Bush's $87 billion supplemental request for Iraq. With that vote, the Kerry compromise was born. To Kerry's foreign policy advisers, some of whom supported the supplemental funding, he remained a vehicle for an aggressive war on terrorism. And that may well have been Kerry's own intention. But, to the liberal voters who would choose the party's nominee, he became a more electable Dean. Kerry's opposition to the $87 billion didn't only change his image on the war in Iraq; it changed his image on the war on terrorism itself. His justification for opposing the $87 billion was essentially isolationist: “We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in our own communities.” And, by exploiting public antipathy toward foreign aid and nation-building, the natural building blocks of any liberal anti-totalitarian effort in the Muslim world, Kerry signaled that liberalism's moral energies should be unleashed primarily at home.

Kerry's vote against the $87 billion helped him lure back the liberal activists he needed to win Iowa, and Iowa catapulted him toward the nomination. But the vote came back to haunt him in two ways. Most obviously, it helped the Bush campaign paint him as unprincipled. But, more subtly, it made it harder for Kerry to ask Americans to sacrifice in a global campaign for freedom. Biden could suggest “a new program of national service” and other measures to "spread the cost and hardship of the war on terror beyond our soldiers and their families." But, whenever Kerry flirted with asking Americans to do more to meet America's new threat, he found himself limited by his prior emphasis on doing less. At times, he said his primary focus in Iraq would be bringing American troops home. He called for expanding the military but pledged that none of the new troops would go to Iraq, the new center of the terror war, where he had said American forces were undermanned. Kerry's criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy were trenchant, but the only alternative principle he clearly articulated was multilateralism, which often sounded like a veiled way of asking Americans to do less. And, because he never urged a national mobilization for safety and freedom, his discussion of terrorism lacked Bush's grandeur. That wasn't an accident. Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terrorism, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee.

The Softs

Kerry was a flawed candidate, but he was not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem was the party's liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947. The challenge for Democrats today is not to find a different kind of presidential candidate. It is to transform the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge. That means abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn.

In 1950, the journal The New Leader divided American liberals into “hards” and “softs.” The hards, epitomized by the ADA, believed anti-communism was the fundamental litmus test for a decent left. Non-communism was not enough; opposition to the totalitarian threat was the prerequisite for membership in American liberalism because communism was the defining moral challenge of the age.

The softs, by contrast, were not necessarily communists themselves. But they refused to make anti-communism their guiding principle. For them, the threat to liberal values came entirely from the right — from militarists, from red-baiters, and from the forces of economic reaction. To attack the communists, reliable allies in the fight for civil rights and economic justice, was a distraction from the struggle for progress.

Moore is the most prominent soft in the United States today. Most Democrats agree with him about the Iraq war, about Ashcroft, and about Bush. What they do not recognize, or do not acknowledge, is that Moore does not oppose Bush's policies because he thinks they fail to effectively address the terrorist threat; he does not believe there is a terrorist threat. For Moore, terrorism is an opiate whipped up by corporate bosses. In Dude, Where's My Country?, he says it plainly: “There is no terrorist threat.” And he wonders, “Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?”

Moore views totalitarian Islam the way Wallace viewed communism: As a phantom, a ruse employed by the only enemies that matter, those on the right. Saudi extremists may have brought down the Twin Towers, but the real menace is the Carlyle Group. Today, most liberals naïvely consider Moore a useful ally, a bomb-thrower against a right-wing that deserves to be torched. What they do not understand is that his real casualties are on the decent left. When Moore opposes the war against the Taliban, he casts doubt upon the sincerity of liberals who say they opposed the Iraq war because they wanted to win in Afghanistan first. When Moore says terrorism should be no greater a national concern than car accidents or pneumonia, he makes it harder for liberals to claim that their belief in civil liberties does not imply a diminished vigilance against Al Qaeda.

Moore is a non-totalitarian, but, like Wallace, he is not an anti-totalitarian. And, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Tom Daschle flocked to the Washington premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11, and when Moore sat in Jimmy Carter's box at the Democratic convention, many Americans wondered whether the Democratic Party was anti-totalitarian either.

If Moore is America's leading individual soft, liberalism's premier soft organization is MoveOn. MoveOn was formed to oppose Clinton's impeachment, but, after September 11, it turned to opposing the war in Afghanistan. A MoveOn-sponsored petition warned, “If we retaliate by bombing Kabul and kill people oppressed by the Taliban, we become like the terrorists we oppose.”

By January 2002, MoveOn was collaborating with 9-11peace.org, a website founded by Eli Pariser, who would later become MoveOn's most visible spokesman. One early 9-11peace.org bulletin urged supporters to “[c]all world leaders and ask them to call off the bombing,” and to “[f]ly the UN Flag as a symbol of global unity and support for international law.” Others questioned the wisdom of increased funding for the CIA and the deployment of American troops to assist in anti-terrorist efforts in the Philippines. In October 2002, after 9-11peace.org was incorporated into MoveOn, an organization bulletin suggested that the United States should have “utilize[d] international law and judicial procedures, including due process” against bin Laden and that “it's possible that a tribunal could even have garnered cooperation from the Taliban.”

In the past several years, MoveOn has emerged, in the words of Salon's Michelle Goldberg, as “the most important political advocacy group in Democratic circles.” It boasts more than 1.5 million members and raised a remarkable $40 million for the 2004 election. Many MoveOn supporters probably disagree with the organization's opposition to the Afghan war, if they are even aware of it, and simply see the group as an effective means to combat Bush. But one of the lessons of the early cold war is scrupulousness about whom liberals let speak in their name. And, while MoveOn's frequent bulletins are far more thoughtful than Moore's rants, they convey the same basic hostility to U.S. power.

In the early days after September 11, MoveOn suggested that foreign aid might prove a better way to defeat terrorism than military action. But, in recent years, it seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all. Instead, MoveOn's discussion of the subject seems dominated by two, entirely negative, ideas. First, the war on terrorism crushes civil liberties. On July 18, 2002, in a bulletin titled “Can Democracy Survive an Endless ‘War’?,” MoveOn charged that the Patriot Act had “nullified large portions of the Bill of Rights.” Having grossly inflated the Act's effect, the bulletin then contrasted it with the — implicitly far smaller — danger from Al Qaeda, asking: “Is the threat to the United States' existence great enough to justify the evisceration of our most treasured principles?”

Secondly, the war on terrorism diverts attention from liberalism's positive agenda, which is overwhelmingly domestic. The MoveOn bulletin consists largely of links to articles in other publications, and, while the organization says it “does not necessarily endorse the views espoused on the pages that we link to,” the articles generally fit the party line. On October 2, 2002, MoveOn linked to what it called an “excellent article,” whose author complained that "it seems all anyone in Washington can think or talk about is terrorism, rebuilding Afghanistan and un-building Iraq." Another article in the same bulletin notes that “a large proportion of [federal] money is earmarked for security concerns related to the ‘war on terrorism,’ leaving less money available for basic public services.”

Like the softs of the early cold war, MoveOn sees threats to liberalism only on the right. And thus, it makes common cause with the most deeply illiberal elements on the international left. In its campaign against the Iraq war, MoveOn urged its supporters to participate in protests co-sponsored by International ANSWER, a front for the World Workers Party, which has defended Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il. When George Packer, in The New York Times Magazine, asked Pariser about sharing the stage with apologists for dictators, he replied, “I'm personally against defending Slobodan Milosevic and calling North Korea a socialist heaven, but it's just not relevant right now.”

Pariser's words could serve as the slogan for today's softs, who do not see the fight against dictatorship and jihad as relevant to their brand of liberalism. When The New York Times asked delegates to this summer's Democratic and Republican conventions which issues were most important, only 2 percent of Democrats mentioned terrorism, compared with 15 percent of Republicans. One percent of Democrats mentioned defense, compared with 15 percent of Republicans. And 1 percent of Democrats mentioned homeland security, compared with 8 percent of Republicans. The irony is that Kerry — influenced by his relatively hawkish advisers — actually supported boosting homeland security funding and increasing the size of the military. But he got little public credit for those proposals, perhaps because most Americans still see the GOP as the party more concerned with security, at home and abroad. And, judging from the delegates at the two conventions, that perception is exactly right.

The Vital Center

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would not have shared MoveOn's fear of an “endless war” on terrorism. In The Vital Center, he wrote, “Free society and totalitarianism today struggle for the minds and hearts of men.... If we believe in free society hard enough to keep on fighting for it, we are pledged to a permanent crisis which will test the moral, political and very possibly the military strength of each side. A ‘permanent’ crisis? Well, a generation or two anyway, permanent in one's own lifetime.”

Schlesinger, in other words, saw the struggle against the totalitarianism of his time not as a distraction from liberalism's real concerns, or as alien to liberalism's core values, but as the arena in which those values found their deepest expression. That meant several things. First, if liberalism was to credibly oppose totalitarianism, it could not be reflexively hostile to military force. Schlesinger denounced what he called “doughfaces,” liberals with “a weakness for impotence ... a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences.” Nothing better captures Moore, who denounced the Taliban for its hideous violations of human rights but opposed military action against it — preferring pie-in-the-sky suggestions about nonviolent regime change.

For Schlesinger (who, ironically, has moved toward a softer liberalism later in life), in fact, it was conservatives, with their obsessive hostility to higher taxes, who could not be trusted to fund America's cold war struggle. “An important segment of business opinion,” he wrote, “still hesitates to undertake a foreign policy of the magnitude necessary to prop up a free world against totalitarianism lest it add a few dollars to the tax rate.” After Dwight Eisenhower became president, the ADA took up this line, arguing in October 1953 that the “overriding issue before the American people today is whether the national defense is to be determined by the demands of the world situation or sacrificed to the worship of tax reductions and a balanced budget.” Such critiques laid the groundwork for John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign — a campaign, as Richard Walton notes in Cold War and Counterrevolution, “dominated by a hard-line, get-tough attack on communism.” Once in office, Kennedy dramatically increased military spending.

Such a critique might seem unavailable to liberals today, given that Bush, having abandoned the Republican Party's traditional concern with balanced budgets, seems content to cut taxes and strengthen the U.S. military at the same time. But subtly, the Republican Party's dual imperatives have already begun to collide — with a stronger defense consistently losing out. Bush has not increased the size of the U.S. military since September 11 — despite repeated calls from hawks in his own party — in part because, given his massive tax cuts, he simply cannot afford to. An anti-totalitarian liberalism would attack those tax cuts not merely as unfair and fiscally reckless, but, above all, as long-term threats to America's ability to wage war against fanatical Islam. Today, however, there is no liberal constituency for such an argument in a Democratic Party in which only 2 percent of delegates called “terrorism” their paramount issue and another 1 percent mentioned “defense.”

But Schlesinger and the ADA didn't only attack the right as weak on national defense; they charged that conservatives were not committed to defeating communism in the battle for hearts and minds. It was the ADA's ally, Truman, who had developed the Marshall Plan to safeguard European democracies through massive U.S. foreign aid. And, when Truman proposed extending the principle to the Third World, calling in his 1949 inaugural address for "a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas," it was congressional Republicans who resisted the effort.

Support for a U.S.-led campaign to defeat Third World communism through economic development and social justice remained central to anti-totalitarian liberalism throughout the 1950s. Addressing an ADA meeting in 1952, Democratic Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut called for an “army” of young Americans to travel to the Third World as “missionaries of democracy.” In 1955, the ADA called for doubling U.S. aid to the Third World, to blunt “the main thrust of communist expansion” and to “help those countries provide the reality of freedom and make an actual start toward economic betterment.” When Kennedy took office, he proposed the Alliance for Progress, a $20 billion Marshall Plan for Latin America. And, answering McMahon's call, he launched the Peace Corps, an opportunity for young Americans to participate “in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”

The critique the ADA leveled in the ’50s could be leveled by liberals again today. For all the Bush administration's talk about promoting freedom in the Muslim world, its efforts have been crippled by the Republican Party's deep-seated opposition to foreign aid and nation-building, illustrated most disastrously in Iraq. The resources that the United States has committed to democratization and development in the Middle East are trivial, prompting Naiem Sherbiny of Egypt's reformist Ibn Khaldun Center to tell The Washington Post late last year that the Bush administration was “pussyfooting at the margin with small stuff.”

Many Democratic foreign policy thinkers favor a far more ambitious U.S. effort. Biden, for instance, has called for the United States to “dramatically expand our investment in global education.” But, while an updated Marshall Plan and an expanded Peace Corps for the Muslim world are more naturally liberal than conservative ideas, they have not resonated among post-September 11 liberal activists. A new Peace Corps requires faith in America's ability to improve the world, something that Moore — who has said the United States “is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe” — clearly lacks. And a new Marshall Plan clearly contradicts the zero-sum view of foreign aid that undergirded Kerry's vote against the $87 billion. In their alienation over Iraq, many liberal activists seem to see the very idea of democracy-promotion as alien. When the Times asked Democratic delegates whether the “United States should try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can, or should the United States stay out of other countries' affairs,” more than three times as many Democrats answered “stay out,” even though the question said nothing about military force.

What the ADA understood, and today's softs do not, is that, while in a narrow sense the struggle against totalitarianism may divert resources from domestic causes, it also provides a powerful rationale for a more just society at home. During the early cold war, liberals repeatedly argued that the denial of African American civil rights undermined America's anti-communist efforts in the Third World. This linkage between freedom at home and freedom abroad was particularly important in the debate over civil liberties. One of the hallmarks of ADA liberals was their refusal to imply — as groups like MoveOn sometimes do today — that civil liberties violations represent a greater threat to liberal values than America's totalitarian foes. And, whenever possible, they argued that violations of individual freedom were wrong, at least in part, because they hindered the anti-communist effort. Sadly, few liberal indictments of, for instance, the Ashcroft detentions are couched in similar terms today.

Toward an Anti-Totalitarian Liberalism

For liberals to make such arguments effectively, they must first take back their movement from the softs. We will know such an effort has begun when dissension breaks out within America's key liberal institutions. In the late ’40s, the conflict played out in Minnesota's left-leaning Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, which Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy wrested away from Wallace supporters. It created friction within the NAACP. And it divided the ACLU, which split apart in 1951, with anti-communists controlling the organization and non-communists leaving to form the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.

But, most important, the conflict played out in the labor movement. In 1946, the CIO, which had long included communist-dominated affiliates, began to move against them. Over fierce communist opposition, the CIO endorsed the Marshall Plan, Truman's reelection bid, and the formation of NATO. And, in 1949, the Organization's executive board expelled eleven unions. As Mary Sperling McAuliffe notes in her book Crisis on the Left: Cold War Politics and American Liberals, 1947-1954, while some of the expelled affiliates were openly communist, others were expelled merely for refusing to declare themselves anti-communist, a sharp contrast from the Popular Front mentality that governed MoveOn's opposition to the Iraq war.

Softs attacked the CIO's action as McCarthyite, but it eliminated any doubt about the American labor movement's commitment to the anti-communist cause. And that commitment became a key part of cold war foreign policy. Already in 1944, the CIO's more conservative rival, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had created the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC), which worked to build an anti-totalitarian labor movement around the world. Between 1947 and 1948, the FTUC helped create an alternative to the communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor in France. It helped socialist trade unionists distribute anti-communist literature in Germany's Soviet-controlled zone. And it helped anti-communists take control of the Confederation of Labor in Greece. By the early ’60s, the newly merged AFL-CIO was assisting anti-communists in the Third World as well, with the American Institute for Free Labor Development training 30,000 Latin American trade unionists in courses “with a particular emphasis on the theme of democracy versus totalitarianism.” And the AFL-CIO was spending a remarkable 20 percent of its budget on foreign programs. In 1969, Ronald Radosh could remark in his book, American Labor and United States Foreign Policy , on the “total absorption of American labor leaders in the ideology of Cold War liberalism.”

That absorption mattered. It created a constituency, deep in the grassroots of the Democratic Party, for the marriage between social justice at home and aggressive anti-communism abroad. Today, however, the U.S. labor movement is largely disconnected from the war against totalitarian Islam, even though independent, liberal-minded unions are an important part of the battle against dictatorship and fanaticism in the Muslim world.

The fight against the Soviet Union was an easier fit, of course, since the unions had seen communism up close. And today's AFL-CIO is not about to purge member unions that ignore national security. But, if elements within American labor threw themselves into the movement for reform in the Muslim world, they would create a base of support for Democrats who put winning the war on terrorism at the center of their campaigns. The same is true for feminist groups, for whom the rights of Muslim women are a natural concern. If these organizations judged candidates on their commitment to promoting liberalism in the Muslim world, and not merely on their commitment to international family planning, they too would subtly shift the Democratic Party's national security image. Challenging the “doughface” feminists who opposed the Afghan war and those labor unionists with a knee-jerk suspicion of U.S. power might produce bitter internal conflict. And doing so is harder today because liberals don't have a sympathetic White House to enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies. But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will.

Obviously, Al Qaeda and the Soviet Union are not the same. The USSR was a totalitarian superpower; Al Qaeda merely espouses a totalitarian ideology, which has had mercifully little access to the instruments of state power. Communism was more culturally familiar, which provided greater opportunities for domestic subversion but also meant that the United States could more easily mount an ideological response. The peoples of the contemporary Muslim world are far more cynical than the peoples of cold war Eastern Europe about U.S. intentions, though they still yearn for the freedoms the United States embodies.

But, despite these differences, 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.

Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq, which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul. And thus, liberalism will rise or fall on whether it can become, again, what Schlesinger called “a fighting faith.”

Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn. As it did for the men and women who convened at the Willard Hotel.

Peter Beinart is the editor of The New Republic.

This article reprinted in full without permission for the purposes of discussion and review, as permitted by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976


The best poem I've read all week, via Mark A. R. Kleiman.

Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote ---
western Daedalus or Icarus,
Prometheus or Tantalus unchained,
tortured less by the bird
than his own desire ---
has been edited
from his cartoon hell
of dry river beds,
boulders, and anvils,
treacherous hand-grenades
and fickle physical laws,
into a worse purgatory,
(not spared the mid-air
that he has run too far,
the shock that the Sisyphean stone
is rolling back to him)
where he must fall,
pursued by half a cliff,
but never crash,
be crushed and crawl away,
impossibly alive and hungry
to try again,
by some who'd rather children read
of the slaughter of the Trojan War,
of Pyrrhus's words to Priam,
of Odysseus's hall spattered
with blood and the twitching
feet of his sluttish servants
hanged like doves in the garden.

That's right. We have to get our kids off this junk pop culture, and back to reading wholesome classics like The Odyssey, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

12 December 2004


Apostropher on civil discourse in today's divisive political climate.
Well, I'm just having me a grand old time reading all the tut-tutting from the right about how liberals look down on their fellow Americans and how our enduring nastiness and intolerance of conservatives is what keeps us from winning elections and so on and so forth. I supposed they might have a point, so I went back to check the right wing's record of bipartisan we're-all-in-this-togetherness, as reflected by some of their better selling books that were published during the long, polite campaign.
Go check out the list.

Architect X!

Architect X, defender of truth, justice, and good interaction design

You know I try to resist blog memes, but who can resist a superhero identity? Pharyngula started it, but I found out through Majikthise, who has been collecting bloggers' superhero identities.

Personally, I like Majikthise's own super identity, as well as The Flamer and Mad Eye Julie, but it's spreading like wildfire so check out Majikthise's collection for yourself.

You can make your own using HeroMachine, one of the most seductive procrastination tools on the web.

11 December 2004

Questions from Calpundit

Kevin Drum has a few questions for conservatives.
Considering how Iraq has gone so far, do you still think that American military power is a good way to promote tolerance and democracy in the Middle East? Has your position on this changed in any way over the past two years?
If that one amused you, he has eight more.

Unsolicited product endorsement

From Los Angeles Craigslist, I offer you Hey, Mr White SUV! By the time you read this it will be way too late
I quickly stepped backwards onto the sidewalk but not quickly enough to avoid your hitting my ...


No, wait; this gets even better

And oh, it does.

10 December 2004

Social security

Michael Bérubé asks a vexing question.
It's funny about Social Security, isn't it? The only non-means-tested, universally-implemented social-welfare program in the country, and it's paid for by the most regressive tax on the books --- remember, not a single penny over the $87,900 income level is taxed --- and conservatives still hate it. Yes, it's a quasi-socialist program, but it's quasi-socialism American-style: paid for by working stiffs in the middle-income bracket and almost completely unsupported by wealthy wage-earners and the even wealthier folks whose income derives mainly from investments.)
Paul Krugman, in the course of debunking the argument for privatization, answers it.
They come to bury Social Security, not to save it. They aren't sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they're disturbed by the system's historic success.

For Social Security is a government program that works, a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people's lives better and more secure. And that's why the right wants to destroy it.

Not that I'm cynical.


MKB says that he has found a news article with the best headline ever.
Pirate divers face jail for looting Nazi ghost liner
Who am I to disagree?

09 December 2004

Vampires + pirates

Roger Ebert didn't like Blade III: Trinity, but he is charmed and surprised that Parker Posey turns up in it.
Parker Posey is an actress I have always had affection for, and now it is mixed with increased admiration, for the way she soldiers through an impossible role that requires her to be the first vampire with an iPod. That's an excuse to get the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi and RZA into the movie, I guess, although I hope she downloaded it from the iTunes Store and isn't a pirate on top of being a vampire.
Thank goodness he doesn't imply that vampires and pirates are enemies. I'm broken up enough about the ninja thing already.

Support our troops!

You can buy this thing. The ad copy reads
The Marine who killed the wounded insurgent in Fallujah deserves our praise and admiration. In a split second decision, he acted valiantly.
In case you've been living under a rock, this refers to an incident a few weeks ago.
A US Marine shot and killed a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, according to dramatic pool television pictures broadcast today
Sites reported that a different Marine unit had come under fire from the mosque on Friday. Those Marines stormed the building, killing 10 men and wounding five, Sites said. The Marines said the fighters in the mosque had been armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles. The Marines had treated the wounded, he reported, left them behind and continued on Friday with their drive to retake the city
The same five men were still in the mosque on Saturday, Sites said.

On the video, as the camera moved into the mosque during the Saturday incident, a Marine can be heard shouting obscenities in the background, yelling that one of the men was only pretending to be dead.

The video then showed a Marine raising his rifle toward a prisoner lying on the floor of the mosque.

The video shown by NBC and provided to the network pool was blacked out at that point and did not show the bullet hitting the man. But a rifle shot could be heard.

The blacked out portion of the video tape, provided later to other members of the network pool, showed the bullet striking the man
[Journalist Kevin] Sites’ account said the wounded men, who he said were prisoners and who were hurt in the previous day’s attack, had been shot again by the Marines on the Saturday visit.

The videotape showed two of the wounded men propped against the wall and Sites said they were bleeding to death. According to his report, a third wounded man appeared already dead, while a fourth was severely wounded but breathing. The fifth was covered by a blanket, but did not appear to have been shot again after the Marines returned. It was the fourth man who was shown being shot.
I respect that the Marine in question was a scared kid in a dangerous situation. You could argue that this isn't a misjudgement for which he should be punished. But "acted valiantly" just is not an expression to use here. As Zenyap at Under the Same Sun reminds us it's unbecoming to wear a t-shirt celebrating American war crimes.
Imagine a wounded, unarmed marine being left to die in a church in, say, rural Montana by, say, the occupying army. A day later another group of occupier soldiers come back, notice one of the wounded marines is still not dead, and shoots him, point blank, on camera. Then, all they talk about is how the shooter had the right to defend himself from the unarmed, wounded, dying man on the ground ...
In this situation, how can we hope to accomplish anything other than more hatred for the US?

Update: Digby comments further on the shirt.

08 December 2004

Democrats and Libertarians

Belle Waring observes that a lot of lefty civil libertarian Democrats are much better allies to Libertarians than the contemporary Republican party.
I support 2nd amendment rights, think drugs should be legalized, support means testing of social security, and think running permanent trillion-dollar deficits is a bad idea. What's more, I favor the elimination of all agricultural and industrial subsidies! And free trade! And abortion rights! I think people should be allowed to form unions, and also not form unions. I don't think it's good that the teacher's unions should forever stymie potential reforms in the US educational system, but I also think NCLB is an invasive federal program wedded to testing for its own sake, which imposes costs on the states and doesn't supply federal money to pay for them. I think market-based solutions to environmental problems, such as pollution credits, can be great, in the context of stern enforcement of existing environmental protections. I don't think the feds should subsidize grazing, logging, or mining on government-owned lands. I favor innovative traffic-mitigation schemes involving variable road pricing! Ooh, ooh, and I think prostitution and gambling should be legal! And I love gay marriage! Come here, gay marriage, I'm going to give you a big wet kiss. And the firm separation of church and state!
Hey, that's me, too! Come on, Libertarians, let's party!

Sed quis custodiet?

Clearly when Alan Moore cast a spell to bring him money, he didn't specify that if the money came from Hollywood good directors be attached to the projects.

The Hughes Brothers' From Hell was a tolerably good film, as a film, but one wondered why it bothered to conceive of itself as an adaptation of Moore's comic. The comic was a moody, discursive rumination on Victorian culture and economics, Masonic magick, and the challenges of trying to understand Jack the Ripper across the gulf of time and unsolved mystery. The scholarly endnotes threatened to run longer than the comic itself. The film was a nicely shot thriller focused on contemporary iconography of Victoriana --- gaslamps! fog! cobblestones! top hats! corsets! Yes, the movie scores points for letting Johnny Depp's Inspector Abberline smoke opium, but then loses them again by changing the book to make him into a psychic with visions that drive the plot. And while you might forgive a movie for giving us a Mary Kelly who's not quite as realistic as Moore's ragged, weary drab, sleeping in ropehouses and living on beer and stale bread, making Heather Graham the cleanest, best-groomed prostitute in history was absurd ... and then turning Moore's conceit that she and Abberline crossed paths a few times into and entire romance subplot was unforgivably stupid, even looking at the film on its own terms.

And The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn't even a good example of a stupid Hollywood blockbuster. It was just lousy. (Okay, when a thug discovers that Dorian Gray has mutant healing superpowers like Wolverine --- which I submit is a lame conceit that disrespects my man Oscar Wilde --- and asks him what are you? I'll grant that I chuckled when Gray responds, I'm complex --- but that was the only charming moment in the whole dreary thing.) That it borrowed a few fragmentary shards from Moore's witty, loving pastiche of Victorian literature only made the pain that much worse.

So now we learn that the film adaptation of The Watchmen will finally get made. The director of The Bourne Supremacy is at the helm. Sure, The Bourne Supremacy was nice enough, but to tackle Watchmen you need a super-genius. Recall that Terry Gilliam tried for years to do it, then finally gave up because he thought it was too ambitious. When the man who made Brazil decides that a film project is too ambitious to actually execute, you know you have some fundamental problems.

That said, let's play the casting game, shall we?

Rorschach has to be William H. Macy, who looks the part, can act up a storm, and would steal every scene he was in, as he should

Nite Owl could be a few different actors, but I quite like Alec Baldwin --- you get "famous hero aging gracelessly" for free

Ozymandias shoulda been Redford, but he's too old for it now, so I'd be tempted to cast against physical type and use Jeff Goldblum, the only actor I can think of who immediately conveys the idea of a character who thinks too much --- and I'd love to hear him read the line, "you know, that was another thing I wasn't sure would work."

Doctor Manhattan would be a good Johnny Depp role, since he needs to be both otherworldly and emotionally vulnerable

The Comedian could be Willem Dafoe: sure, he isn't a big beefy guy like he is in the comic, but he would immediately sell that the character is a creep dressed up as a hero, yet still be a bit sympathetic

Laurie Juspeczyk, the daughter of the Silk Spectre, unfortunately isn't much of a role, so any number of dishy actresses could do it, though it occurs to me ...

Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre, could be Lauren Bacall, which suggests ...

Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, really ought to be a Paul Newman cameo, so long as we're wishing

06 December 2004

I'll need those desert goggles after all

I didn't go this year, and I was starting to think that I probably wouldn't again next year. But it seems I must make the trek to the playa for Burning Man, for I have received news as mind-boggling as Burning Man itself.

It begins with Chicken John (impressario of San Francisco weirdness and proprietor of the notorious Odeon Bar) and Jim Mason (hardworking artist). Frustrated with the state of art at Burning Man — and attributing this to the process by which the Burning Man organization sponsors and organizes art, they composed the We Have A Dream Petition.

We are the artists. We feel that this event which we made great has gotten away from us and we would like it back. We want the art to be spectacular again and we are willing to step forward to do the work to make it so. But for this to happen, we think the "art curation" should be put in the hands of rotating “Guest Curators” and funding decisions should be made through “Direct Vote” by the community of participants.

We petitioners require action on these very reasonable proposals or we commit to STOP CONTRIBUTING our art to Burning Man. Repeated discussions over many years have failed to result in meaningful change, so now we are resorting to more extreme measures. TOGETHER we can change things.

The petition garnered about a thousand signatures. Famed Burning Man founder Larry Harvey was impressed by the energy behind the petition, but publicly expressed his skepticism — at length — about the pragmatics of the petitioners' agenda, detailing the problems he perceived in their petition.

I see no evidence that the authors of this manifesto have imagined any of these problems. This is because they are accustomed to receiving grants from Burning Man, not giving them. I apologize for dwelling at such length upon these details, but even the writers of the manifesto seem to sense some details are important. I suspect that this is why they have done me the honor of appointing me to the Art Council that is proposed in their plan. This council would deal with “the details of funding decisions and general art logistics.” Other unspecified artists, I am informed, are to be appointed to this council (by whom, I'm not entirely sure). Since the group that has drafted this plan hasn't yet talked to me, I'm left to assume that the basic principle of radical democracy would require that these offices be filled through popular election. Which brings me to a broader and more fundamental point. I don't know how many people notice this, but as we pile vote upon vote and plebiscite upon plebiscite we are wading very deep into the world of election politics.

Chicken John, undaunted, wrote a bold response.

I feel so strongly about this that I would like to propose a small bet, Mr. Harvey. When Gentleman see no other way to settle a difference, a wager is what is in order.

I bet you that the people of the petition can make a system of MASSIVELY COLLABORATIVE RADICAL DEMOCRACY, with guest curators and voting and all that, and in the process inspire a volume and quality of creative work that you will envy and wish you were responsible for yourself. In fact, I find these ideas so strong, so self-evidently true, so INVINCIBLE TO STUPIDITY, that no one alive could mess up an experiment based on these ideas. The ideas are THAT strong.

I am so confident in these ideas, that I Chicken John (idiot) challenge you, Larry Harvey (leader of humanity) to a contest of curatorial methods. A bet of art facilitation and inspiration if you will.


I bet you that these ideas will work and the 1000+ petitioners will be successful in their designs. And when they are, I only ask that you CONSIDER changing the current Burning Man art system to better reflect the ideas and methods they used to achieve their success.

If I am wrong and the petitioners are unsuccessful, I hereby commit to sit in a dunk booth at next years Burning Man Decompression Party and let everyone soak my ass, all day long. And yes, I will sit there all day long- throw, after throw, after throw. Wearing a sarong.

Larry Harvey, I bet you my COMPLETE and UTTER HUMILIATION against your mild consideration; that is how confident I am that these ideas will work.

And Larry Harvey ... took the bet.

Dear Chicken, Jim and the other participants of the BORG2,

On behalf of BORG1, I, Larry Harvey, accept your bet. What is more is truly more. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Let a thousand schools contend!

To enter more fully into the sporting spirit of this contest, please let me rehearse the terms of the wager. You pledge to create a “massively collaborative” art installation achieved through "radically democratic means" in an allotted district of Black Rock City, and you will accomplish this feat entirely with your own funding. The art that you produce will then be matched against our own poor efforts at supporting and creating art. Should your woo woo trump our hoo ha on the playa, I pledge to reconsider my opposition to your radically democratic curatorial methods. Should our hoo ha make your woo woo look ho hum, you commit to sit all day in a dunking booth at next year's Decompression. Let Chaos Provide!

As to those things Chaos probably won't provide, I'll mention fire safety, camp placement, burn scar protection, clean up and any number of other small details, including the requirements of the BLM. BORG 1 and 2 will parlay to resolve these issues. In order to assure a level playing field, both parties must agree to honor all the rules of Black Rock City (Chaos also won't provide immunity from local, State, and Federal criminal laws ...

I predict a dazzling, gorgeous, epic failure. But I have to know how it all comes out. So I'm giving Jim and Chicken John a few shekels today, and scheduling my Burning Man vacation time at the office tomorrow.


I'm going to step into paranoia-land for a moment. The democratic legitimacy of our government is getting to be seriously compromised.

Now first things first: I'm not saying that Kerry “really” won the 2004 election. I don't have clear evidence of that. To the best of my knowledge, Bush won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.

The problem is, how good is the best of my knowledge?

There's good reason to think that the Florida results were fishy. There's scary evidence that electronic voting machines are as compromised as we have cause to fear. There was more chicanery in Florida. There's the mystery of why election results no longer match exit polls, a problem which some people take pretty seriously. And so on, on and on.

There's an epistemological crisis at work here. How can we know, as individual citizens, that the reported election results are correct?

Now step back to 2000. Bush was legitimately sworn in as President: an orderly, legal, and legitimate political process brought him there. But in terms of democracy, which means the will of the demos — the citizenry — our process failed us. Gore won the popular vote. He would have won a statewide recount in Florida using the “clear intent of the voter” standard, due to clear overvotes. We all know that, by the intended will of the voters, he would have won the initial count of the Florida vote were it not for a fluke of bad ballot design. In the process of sorting this stuff out, Bush took the Presidency by way of an outrageously nonsensical Supreme Court decision.

There's an ontological crisis there. Who is the “real” winner of the 2000 election?

Understand, I accept the results of both elections. Obviously, both elections were close, and given the flaws in the mechanics of the electoral process it's hard to confidently identify a clear winner within that margin. I don't see much to be gained from challenging the results at this point. With the current system in place and the genuinely split electorate, that way lies madness. How could any result from a challenge produce a winner who holds any better legitimacy in the eyes of the American people?

But on a deeper level, long-term, we cannot be making these evaluations with the caveat “given the flaws in the mechanics of the electoral process.” That breeds paranoia and distrust of the legitimacy of the electoral process as a whole. We need reform to eliminate the problems of both elections, and we're not getting it. The lack of reform, the lack of discussion, the lack of investigation — these are more corrosive than the electoral irregularities themselves.

If no one trustworthy is doing the detective-work, then citizens become susceptable not only to reasonable doubts, but also to bogus questions about the legitimacy of our elections. Which then makes bogus arguments proliferate, because they're easy to make. Which can create an environment in which a significant portion of the population simply rejects the legitimacy of our elections. We're already starting to see a lot of doubt, and a little bit of outright rejection of electoral results, out here on the left.

If that spreads, then there are two scary results. First, the legitimacy of the sitting government comes into question, because that legitimacy rests on the legitimacy of the elections that define it. Second, the legitimacy of popular election as a mechanism of democracy becomes questionable. If we cannot trust that elections work, then how do we define democracy? Do we believe in democracy at all at that point?