Archive for December, 2009

Why I Don't Mind IF TSA Employees See An Outline of My Penis

December 29, 2009

Over at The Daily Beast, I argue that TSA should be more explicit about the obvious fact that passengers are responsible for their own safety once they’re aboard a commercial flight. Since it’s a related subject, I want to address the controversy about full body scan machines.

…the technology has raised significant concerns among privacy watchdogs because it can show the body’s contours with embarrassing clarity. Those fears have slowed the introduction of the machines.

Jay Stanley, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Program, said the machines essentially perform “virtual strip searches that see through your clothing and reveal the size and shape of your body.”

In a world of ceramic knives and plastic explosives, these machines make a lot more sense than the current system of metal detectors, and I must say that I’m unsympathetic to the argument that they’ll prove to embarrassing for people who bashful about the size or shape of their body parts. Get over it! That some anonymous TSA employee sees an x-ray image of your body for 15 seconds, in a stream of hundreds of other people everyday, will have not the slightest impact on your life, whereas every alternative is either significantly less safe or significantly more burdensome and time consuming.

Admittedly, I’m an outlier here: my hatred for lines is such that I’d gladly walk a gauntlet of TSA employees completely naked were it offered as a speedy alternative to arriving at the airport two hours early and standing in line for 45 awful minutes. But don’t the people who are apparently uncomfortable with this get checkups at the doctor? Didn’t they take showers after gym class? Shouldn’t ‘t be far easier for the modest person to stay dressed while passing through a scanner being viewed by a TSA employee they’ll likely never see again? So long as faux-nudity isn’t irrationally fetishized, I don’t understand what the big deal is here.

No Wonder the Warning Went Unheeded!

December 27, 2009

Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was not unknown to American authorities. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker, recently told officials at the United States Embassy in Nigeria that he was concerned about his son’s increasingly extremist religious views.

The New York Times

To: Transportation Security Administration
From: The United States Embassy in Nigeria
Subject: A Matter of the Utmost Urgency

First, I must solicit your strictest confidence in this communication. I am sure and have confidence in your reliability to receive this sensitive information, and to act promptly on this extraordinary tip. We have just received word from a top official of First Bank Nigeria, who has most graciously informed us about an international scheme involving his son. The faster we respond the more invaluable the information will prove to us…

Would you have read on if you were a TSA official? It seems that Al Qaeda nearly outsmarted us on this one. I imagine something like the following:

CIRCA 1999

Al Qaeda recruiter: We’ve got a willing suicide agent, but there is one problem: his father, a prominent Nigerian banker, vows to tip off American authorities if he does anything suspicious.

Osama Bin Laden: I have an idea. Let’s systematically undermine the credibility of prominent Nigerian bankers! It’ll take some years of e-mail fraud, but about a decade from now no intelligence official on earth will credit a tip from his father or any of his colleagues.

Al Qaeda recruiter: And then we will strike the Great Satan, cauisng such great sorrow that they are no longer able to laugh at the world, and are certainly unable to laugh at us.

It’s always good to prove that supposition wrong.

Does the Legalize It Crowd Desire a Nation of Zombies?

December 26, 2009

Over at Pajamas Media, Mary Grabar assumes that libertarians want the legalization of drugs for principled reasons. That is certainly one motivation for their stance. But Ms. Grabar fails to grapple with the practical case for legalization. I’d sum it up by noting that prohibition costs billions of dollars per year, funds international cartels that murder countless innocents, destabilizes foreign countries, corrupts our border agents and police, undermines our civil liberties, transforms some neighborhoods in our cities into war zones, overburdens our criminal justice system, and doesn’t actually prevent widespread use of drugs!

Do take a moment to read through that list of ills again. Consider how costly prohibition is. Ms. Grabar must make a persuasive case that legalization would be even worse. Her piece does no such thing, and in the process, it includes one of the most laughable anti-legalization arguments I’ve ever seen:

The prohibition against marijuana is one brick in the foundation of our society. On a practical level the use of marijuana also works to knock out other bricks, like the work ethic, emotional engagement, sexual inhibition, and the ability to reason. For example, when one of my college students leads off in defense of the legalization of marijuana, he invariably does so in a disjointed manner, unable to muster the resources of reason and conviction to his argument. (He also does this in his essays.) One caller, “Dave,” to the Doc Washburn program displayed the same apathetic, but friendly, attitude.

While one cannot come to class drunk without drawing attention, he can attend under the influence of marijuana, sitting in the back of the room with a glazed, though not unpleasant, expression.

But that’s exactly what the left wants: a nation of young zombies — indifferent, unengaged, and uncaring. They provide amenable subjects to indoctrination. Alcohol may fuel fights, but marijuana, as its advocates like to point out, makes the user mellow. The toker wants to make love, not war.

By the shoddy logic of the excerpt’s first paragraph, the author herself was high when she wrote her piece. But it’s the third paragraph that I’d like to focus on. Remember that list of costs imposed by the War on Drugs? Despite them, the author actually asserts that “the left” supports legalization because it desires a nation of “indifferent, unengaged, and uncaring” zombies.

The mind reels. I’ve e-mailed Ms. Grabar to ask what led her to that remarkable conclusion. I’ll update this post or start a new one if she replies, happily affording her space to defend that assertion as best she can.

Are Unauthorized Edits a Useful Approach to Debate?

December 23, 2009

When I saw Andrew Breitbart flag this piece at Big Hollywood as exemplary work, I thought about Fisking it to demonstrate why I think the conservative entertainment blog should aim higher. (Click through and give it a quick skim before reading on.)

Upon reflection, however, I decided on a different approach, and I wonder what everyone thinks of my experiment. The notion is that perhaps it would be easier to avoid talking past interlocutors in political debates if instead of criticizing their work as an adversary, you put on the hat of a skeptical editor. Thus I’ve annotated the Big Hollywood piece on Avatar in much the same way I would’ve done if the writer forwarded it to me as a first draft, flagging what I regard as problematic arguments and passages. Quite apart from whether I’ve executed this approach well, do folks think that it has its place in the blogosphere?

The Overreaction to 'Sexting'

December 22, 2009

In my last column for The Daily Beast I wrote about “sexting,” a term I surround with quotation marks because it isn’t sex and it hardly requires text. It’s a topic that’s been covered well by Reason Magazine, and every so often Radley Balko alerts readers of his blog, The Agitator, to new instances of adults over-reacting to the phenomenon.

My column made several arguments (paraphrased below, not quoted):

— In most cases, teens who conceal their sexting from authority figures suffer negligible adverse consequences; they’re hardly the first generation to play “I’ll show you mine.” But tragic stories that begin with “sexting” are all too frequent when principals, police officers, or district attorneys get involved. Specifically, authority figures in at least six states charge teens who send naked pictures of themselves with distributing child pornography!

— These prosecutions make the sex-offender registry less useful for all of us by wasting resources on harmless kids and diminishing what it means to be listed.

— It’s wise to discourage kids from “sexting,” and to punish them if they’re caught breaking that rule, as I’d do if I were a parent. But “sexting” isn’t a sign of a hyper-sexualized generation, or a shocking harbinger of promiscuity, or evidence that a kid needs counseling, or that he or she is bereft of modesty.

Since I regard this as an important subject, I’d like to respond to some criticism of my piece.

Calvin Freiburger writes, “if emailing naked pictures of yourself to others doesn’t indicate promiscuity or a lack of modesty, what does?”

I’d say that promiscuity is indicated by actual sexual contact. Is a 13-year old virgin who hasn’t even experienced his first kiss “promiscuous” if he sends an explicit text of himself to his girlfriend or an object of his puppy love? I think most people would say that he isn’t promiscuous. As for modesty, it depends on the circumstances, doesn’t it? I’ve read about teenage girls who sent topless photos of themselves to boyfriends they trusted. When the photographs spread, the girls were horrified by the prospect of classmates seeing them. Isn’t it clear that these girls aren’t “bereft of modesty”? I think so, and it seems to me that they’re the rule more than the exception.

In the comments section at The Daily Beast, several readers make some variation of the argument, “Oh yeah, well wait until you have kids, and you’re teenager takes topless photos of herself.” I’m confused by this counterargument. I can guarantee you that in parenthood I won’t want my daughter convicted of distributing child pornography and put on a sex offender list. And I am on record saying that I’ll urge my kids against this behavior, and punish them if they break that rule. So what exactly am I supposed to change my mind about?

On Twitter, Ben Domenech writes, “I see Conor Friedersdorf is officially through trying to be taken seriously.” It isn’t clear what particular part of my piece he regards as unserious. I’m genuinely curious, and I’ll certainly air any coherent arguments he has against my words.

Turnabout is Fair Play

December 11, 2009

Here is President Obama in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize:

The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait – a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.

Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention – no matter how justified.

And here is David Frum reacting to that part of the speech:

The word “Iraq” does not appear in the address, yet again and again the president flails out against that war. That is his opinion and his policy. Fine. Elections have consequences, as the saying goes. But Oslo is a horribly inappropriate venue for such criticisms. If he wants to argue with other Americans, let him do it in America, not in the course of accepting an award from some non-Americans for joining with them in their criticism of other Americans.

It’s human nature to prefer compliments to criticism, flattery to dissent. In that respect, Barack Obama is a very human man. But here he has gone too far: He has allowed an international organization to exploit his weakness to drive a wedge between this president and half his country – the half, ironically, whose support he most needs to sustain his ongoing foreign policy.

If it is inappropriate for Barack Obama to argue against the Iraq War in front of an international audience, due to the wedge it supposedly drives between a president and half his country, was it equally objectionable when George W. Bush and officials in his administration spoke to foreign audiences about the righteousness of the Iraq invasion?

For example, he told a London, England audience this in 2003:

The United States and Great Britain have labored hard to help make the United Nations what it is supposed to be — an effective instrument of our collective security. In recent months, we’ve sought and gained three additional resolutions on Iraq — Resolutions 1441, 1483 and 1511 — precisely because the global danger of terror demands a global response. The United Nations has no more compelling advocate than your Prime Minister, who at every turn has championed its ideals and appealed to its authority. He understands, as well, that the credibility of the U.N. depends on a willingness to keep its word and to act when action is required.

America and Great Britain have done, and will do, all in their power to prevent the United Nations from solemnly choosing its own irrelevance and inviting the fate of the League of Nations. It’s not enough to meet the dangers of the world with resolutions; we must meet those dangers with resolve.

Later in the same speech he said this:

We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.

As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

Now we’re pursuing a different course, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.

Would it be fair to object to President Bush’s speech by saying, “The Iraq invasion is his opinion and his policy. Fine. Elections have consequences, as the saying goes. But Britain is a horribly inappropriate venue for such criticisms. If he wants to argue with other Americans, let him do it in America, not in the course of addressing an audience of some non-Americans for joining with him in a military campaign and democracy spreading agenda that other Americans abhor”?

Would it be fair to complain that President Bush kept apologizing for America by repeating in speech after speech the lines about flaws in our Middle East policy stretching back through the generations?

I don’t think so.

President Bush plainly believed that invading Iraq was in America’s best interests — and that the country would benefit insofar as he could convince the rest of the world that his vision had merit, a proposition that included apologizing for past American policies that plainly contradicted that vision.

President Obama believes that the Iraq War wasn’t in America’s interest, that it ought to be ended as soon as responsibly possible, and that the country will benefit insofar as he can convince the rest of the world that his vision has merit, a proposition that includes apologizing for past American policies that plainly contradict his vision.

The Exaggerated Victimhood of Sarah Palin

December 10, 2009

In criticizing various Matthew Continetti articles pegged to his book The Persecution of Sarah Palin, I’ve focused on two objections:

1) The arguments in the pieces themselves are weak.

2) It is imprudent for an intelligent writer who acknowledges that his subject is unprepared for the presidency to fashion a political strategy to help her win that office!

Today I’d like to raise a final objection.

Shortly after Gov. Palin appeared on the national political scene, I wrote a piece warning Americans against the politics of schadenfreude — the strategy of deliberately drawing political support from the perception that you’re being treated unfairly. It is perfectly fair for Mr. Continetti to flag instances when Gov. Palin is being wrongly abused. What vexes me is when he overstates or exaggerates the supposed persecution of Ms. Palin, because I think it feeds the politics of schadenfreude, and an unhealthy trend on the right toward casting ourselves as victims.

So where is the evidence that he overstates his case? I submit this blog post as an egregious instance.

As you read, please refrain for a moment from clicking through to any of the links Mr. Continetti provides:

Sarah Palin’s Washington Post op-ed today, calling on President Obama to boycott the Copenhagen climate summit, has elicited a predictable response from the left. Foreign Policy’s Annie Lowrey blogs: “I wouldn’t recommend reading it.” Joe Klein seems worried that “The Washington Post devotes valuable op-ed space today to Sarah Palin.” Noted climate expert Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic has penned a long “Fisking” of the op-ed, in which he concludes, “It is virtually certain that humans are causing a significant amount of climate (not weather!) change over time.” Gotta love the “virtually” part.

Like Charles Krauthammer, I’m a global-warming agnostic. Like Freeman Dyson, I happen to think that the trade-offs involved in fighting climate change are too burdensome to support at the moment. And the piece to read on the East Anglia scandal is Steven F. Hayward’s cover piece in the new STANDARD.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that Palin continues to be held to a ridiculous standard by the scribblers and bloggers who are outraged that she’s still around and opines from time to time on the issues of the day. This is America, folks. Best-selling authors write op-eds. That’s what they do. Moreover, Palin happens to have an extensive background in energy issues, from her time on the Alaska Oil and Natural Gas Conservation Commission, to her stint as governor of Alaska. Her opinions on the subject of energy are considered.

The reaction to her is not, however. As Palin critic Megan McArdle memorably put it: “I really wish the media wouldn’t act like, well, a bunch of elitist hooligans who are out to get her. I’ve coined a new phrase to cover the situation: Palinoia. It’s when you think people are out to get you, and then they do their best to justify your erroneous belief.”

Okay, having absorbed Mr. Continetti’s characterizations — imagine what you’ll find at those links based on what he said — let’s look one by one at the critics who are supposedly acting like “elitist hooligans” and holding Ms. Palin to “ridiculous standards.”

Example one: Annie Lowery at Foreign Policy. It’s to long to excerpt in full, but see for yourself: it is a straightforward, perfectly respectful blog post that critiques the op-ed in the most standard, straightforward manner imaginable.

Example two: Joe Klein:

The Washington Post devotes valuable op-ed space today to Sarah Palin, who uses it to denounce “politicized science”:

I’ve always believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics.

Okay. But she’s not denouncing the politicized, oil-drenched policies of the Bush Administration. She’s joining the right-wing hysteria chorus, which has launched a new attack on the science of climate change based on some embarrassing and disgraceful emails written by scientists at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit. For a more accurate account of the import of those emails, check out Tom Friedman’s column in the NY Times.

The post goes on, but Ms. Palin isn’t mentioned again. Reading it in full — again, go check for yourself — one cannot help but ask, “Where’s the beef?” How can Mr. Continetti cite that blog post as an instance of Ms. Palin being “held to a ridiculous standard.”

And the final example? This Marc Ambinder post. It is a point by point refutation of Ms. Palin’s op-ed. A “Fisking” as it is called in the blogosphere — because it is a style of rebuttal you see often enough to give it a widely known name.

By the standards of Internet political discourse, all three of these critiques are notable for their civility and substantive counterarguments. Contra Mr. Continetti’s implication, none suggest “outrage” at the mere fact that she is opining. The disagreement is with the substance of her argument. Put another way, Mr. Continetti has shown us examples of three people disagreeing with Sarah Palin about the argument she makes in an op-ed, and he has written a blog post asserting that this is an outrage. This does a disservice to everyone who bought his characterization without clicking through to the linked pieces.

Before closing, let’s return to that last part of Mr. Continetti’s post:

This is America, folks. Best-selling authors write op-eds. That’s what they do. Moreover, Palin happens to have an extensive background in energy issues, from her time on the Alaska Oil and Natural Gas Conservation Commission, to her stint as governor of Alaska. Her opinions on the subject of energy are considered.

What a curiously written paragraph. It manages to elide the fact that “energy issues” encompasses a whole bunch of different stuff. So one can have “an extensive background in energy issues” like building oil pipelines, extracting fossil fuels from the earth, and protecting local water supplies in the process, and know absolutely nothing about other issues, like how to produce battery cells that maximize duration of charge while minimizing waste, or the best way to dispose of nuclear waste, or… climate change!

So does Gov. Palin know enough about climate change to pontificate on it? Mr. Continetti cites as affirmative evidence the fact that she served on the Alaska Oil and Natural Gas Conservation Commission. Why does he cite that body? Its mission is to extract as much petroleum from the ground as possible while protecting the local water supply. Am I unaware of some aspect of its mission that would afford someone involved knowledge about climate issues? Obscure Alaskan agencies aren’t my expertise. I’ll happily post an update if pointed to anything suggesting the contrary. But I’m not seeing it.

In any case, I wish Mr. Continetti and others would stop exaggerating “the persecution of Sarah Palin.” It is difficult to see who benefits from these exercises in supposed victim-hood.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Publishing Industry

December 8, 2009

When I heard that Jonah Goldberg inked a $1 million book deal, I naturally wanted to read the column that apparently inspired it. Having done so, I see that Mr. Goldberg is primed to write a jeremiad against “the tyranny of cliches” such as “better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished,” “unless you’ve walked in a man’s shoes… you have no right to judge,” and “when one person loses his freedom we’re all a little less free.”

I share a distaste for cliches, and I can’t fault Mr. Goldberg for taking a million dollar advance to tilt against them. Unlike most of the nonsense that passes as “a conservative book” these days, it is difficult to see what harm it could cause. It isn’t as if his wrongheaded premise make him complicit in bringing Sarah Palin closer to the presidency!

But the premise of the article is surely wrongheaded, so it’s only natural to wonder if the book is going to share its flaws. How does it go astray? By asserting, as though it requires no proof, that cliches are some sort of deciding factor in America’s debates — so much so that we’re under their tyranny!

Let me give you the example that made me want to write this column in the first place. Because I’m skeptical about slippery-slope arguments, because I’ve argued that America is largely immune to becoming a totalitarian state, and because I don’t particularly care if Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, or Richard Reid ever get a lawyer, a lot of people keep telling me that when one person loses his freedom we’re all a little less free.

You wouldn’t believe how many famous people have offered or repeated this observation. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Eli Wiesel, Captain Jean Luc Picard, as well as countless politicians have said something to the effect of “we are only as free as the least free among us.”

Yes, people are so bowled over by the cliche about only being as free of the least free among us that Gandhi and Martin Luther King had merely to utter it, never fleshing out the sentiment with any sophistication, and as a result the Indians and black Americans respectively were free from injustice, so powerful, even tyrannical, was the faulty reasoning.

The column goes on:

It sounds nice, of course. Unfortunately, it’s also a crock, factually, logically, and morally.

First, facts and logic: Remember how we all agreed at the beginning of this column that there’s undoubtedly an innocent person in prison right now? Well, he’s not free. Are you only as free as him?

There are undoubtedly innocent men in prison?! And we’re not all obsessed with identifying them? In fact, almost none of us are? Why it’s almost as if literally no one in America behaves as if they believe that we’re only as free as the least among us… which is sorta what Mr. Goldberg is arguing, weirdly, because his larger point is supposed to be that cliches — specifically, the “only as free” cliche that inspired his column — are so tyrannically powerful.

It is going to be quite a trick to earn a seven figure advance by extending this argument in a way that doesn’t cause every halfway conscious reader to realize that they can hardly think of a single instance when someone offered a cliche as their main argument, and it won the day. Wait a moment, hasn’t every English teacher I’ve ever studied under in fact commanded that I strike cliches from my writing? And wasn’t the most shameless purveyor of cliches in recent American politics, Sarah Palin, just defeated in her bid for the vice-presidency, despite such marvelous cliches as “America must not waive the white flag of surrender ” and “You can’t blink”?

I’ll leave you with a parting sample of the column that an actual American publishing company is paying a million dollars to get at book length:

The same moral logic powers clichés like “first they came for the Jews” or “we’re only as free as the least free among us.” It is not an appeal to conscience but an appeal to the self-interest of those who fear they might be next.

Indeed, the adage “first they came for the Jews” is often used as part of an argument for the state to never “come” for anybody. I can’t tell you how many fools write me to say that the government cracking down on terrorists is akin to the government cracking down on Jews (or blacks, or gays, etc). In effect, not only does this logic hold that the government is so inept and immoral that it will be forced to “come” for other people once it’s through with the terrorists, it also implies that Jews and terrorists are somehow similar. After all, if cracking down on the Jews first is indistinguishable from cracking down on terrorists, what’s the difference between Jews and terrorists?

Admittedly, this book might actually be worth $1 million dollars if Mr. Goldberg is compelled to persuade the partisan book buying audience that we should in fact judge some books by their cover.