Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Patriots Can Commit War Crimes

June 9, 2010

When the American Enterprise Institute hired Marc Thiessen, I argued that the organization suffered a blow to its credibility — it employs so many top-notch thinkers, and they deserve better than to have the reputation of their think tank sullied by its association with a man whose work frequently fails to meet even minimal standards of factual accuracy.

Those complaints stand, but today I want to focus a different flaw revealed in Mr. Thiessen’s latest post at the AEI blog. It is titled Hero or War Criminal, and the sloppy thinking on display is an intellectual embarrassment.

He writes:

The Washington Post reports today on Monday’s memorial ceremony at the CIA, at which a dozen new stars were placed on the wall honoring CIA officers and contractors who have given their lives in defense of our country—including those killed by an al Qaeda suicide bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan.

One of those stars commemorated a CIA officer whose identity was only made public yesterday—Jennifer Lynne Matthews, a mother of three from Northern Virginia who was the chief of the CIA base struck by the terrorists. According to the Post, Matthews “had been one of the CIA’s top experts on al-Qaeda and a veteran targeteer in the agency’s air war against terrorist groups.”

As I point out in the Washington Post today, in the eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations, this makes Matthews not a hero, but a murderer. According to the ACLU, Matthews was engaged in a “program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing” and that “violates international law.” According to the UN special rapporteur, her actions “constitute extrajudicial executions.” In fact, neither is true. Matthews was not a war criminal; she was a patriot who gave her life so that the rest of us can live safe from terror. She deserves better.

As commentary on the Sean Hannity show, this would do well to rile up the least thoughtful members of the audience by appealing to their jingoism instead of there brains. That Mr. Thiessen is offering it up to AEI’s audience ought to be insulting to them. The phrase “war criminal” is loaded with negative connotations and often used pejoratively in political discourse, but that doesn’t change the fact that whether or not someone has committed war crimes is a legal question, not a moral one. A patriot is someone who loves their country. It is perfectly possible to be a patriot, to perform patriotic acts in a war, and to commit a war crime in the course of doing so. A dispassionate analysis renders the point rather obvious, which is why Mr. Thiessen’s readership at AEI should be insulted by the post. Apparently he thinks that by using loaded terms like “war crimes” and “patriot” he can write a post that makes no sense without anyone noticing. Indeed, if you click over, via the link Mr. Thiessen provided, to his Washington Post column, part of his argument is that President Obama is exposing patriots in the CIA to legal jeopardy by conducting assassinations by drone without appropriate legal cover. In other words, they may be guilty of war crimes, even though Mr. Thiessen believes that this would be deeply unfair, and could be remedied if only President Obama would conduct things differently.

Now consider another part of the AEI post. Stipulated is that the tragically deceased CIA patriot, Jennifer Lynne Matthews, was a targeteer in the CIA’s drone war against Al Qaeda. Mr. Thiessen writes:

According to the ACLU, Matthews was engaged in a “program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing” and that “violates international law.” According to the UN special rapporteur, her actions “constitute extrajudicial executions.”

I don’t know whether Ms. Matthews violated international law — let’s say for the sake of argument that she did not, and that she is not a war criminal. Let’s further stipulate that in her duties she only killed Al Qaeda terrorists, never harming so much as a single innocent person. It is nevertheless obvious that a targeteer in a CIA drone war is engaged in “long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing.” What other fate could possibly befall a bureaucrat after her bureaucrat bosses assign her to killing-people-by-drone duty in the bureaucracy responsible for such things, and she follows the orders?

As obvious is that her actions “constitute extrajudicial killings.” She killed people outside the judicial system. That is what CIA assassins do.

Is Mr. Thiessen uncomfortable defending long-premeditated, bureaucratized, extrajudicial killing, and so trying to change the name? Is he savvy to all this and just trying to distract the reader with illogical rhetoric? I cannot say, never having been able to understand what it is that goes on inside the mind of Mr. Thiessen. But I do know that AEI should be above blog posts of this kind appearing under its banner, and that if I were one of their scholars I’d be furious. Unless I were Lynne Cheney, in which case I’d probably love that blog post.

Thoughts on Goldwater, Cont'd

May 24, 2010

Over at The Washington Post, Dave Weigel wades into a disagreement between Matthew Yglesias and I. I’ll briefly recap that exchange before replying — if you’re up to speed on this conversation you can jump down to the sentence I’ve put in bold below.

Matt Yglesias began by pointing out that conservative icon Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.

Odd hero.

In reply, I wrote that conservatives aren’t alone in making icons out of leaders who were on the wrong side of racial issues, mentioning the Founders, and focusing on FDR’s anti-Japanese racism/internment policy, Robert F. Kennedy’s racism against blacks/tapping of Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone, and President Lyndon Johnson’s racism.

My point here isn’t that progressives are wrong to see FDR, President Johnson, and RFK as icons in their ideological movement — it’s that America was an egregiously racist country for a very long time, it’s become radically less racist just in the last several decades, and it’s basically unavoidable to have very racist people as icons of your ideological movement if it began at a time when the vast majority of the country’s leaders were unapologetic racists. Though I rue the fact that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and would’ve voted against him solely because he was wrong on Civil Rights, the fact that he didn’t suffer from the character flaw of racism seems to me a mark in his favor.

Mr. Weigel finds this unpersuasive.

I’ll address his critique in pieces.

He writes:

Even if Goldwater lacked “the character flaw of racism,” he stood with racists to oppose Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, arguing that a defense of de jure discrimination was necessary if such discrimination was constitutional. By lionizing him and crediting him with the creation of the modern, activist-driven Republican Party, conservatives imply that a “strict constructionist” defense of institutional racism is an important part of their history.

Agreed that Mr. Goldwater “stood with racists,” although that alone isn’t devastating — when the ACLU “stands with racists” in the name of protecting the 1st Amendment, for example, it doesn’t prevent us from seeing that organization as an icon of civil libertarians. Motivations matter. Of course, Mr. Weigel and I agree that Mr. Goldwater was wrong to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I strongly contest the assertion that by lionizing Mr. Goldwater, conservatives are automatically implying that a strict constructionist defense of institutional racism, or opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is a celebratory moment in their history.

I’ve known a lot of people who see Barry Goldwater as an icon, and all of them disagree with his position on race circa 1964 — indeed, they are uniformly glad that Goldwater himself eventually repudiated that position. I grew up around Republicans in Orange County, California. It is therefore likely that my impression of what conservatives think about Barry Goldwater differs starkly from someone who grew up in The South. Still, the folks at The Corner all seem to repudiate opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and lionize Barry Goldwater, as does the blogospheric right generally, so while I am sure there are conservatives out there who take the contrary position, it is both possible and widely practiced to think of Barry Goldwater as an icon even while explicitly repudiating his stance on race.

Were Mr. Goldwater lionized as a politician, I’d object — it would be incoherent to say, on one hand, that he was absolutely wrong to participate in a political coalition based largely on opposing the Civil Rights Act, and on the other hand, that he is what conservative politicians should be like today. To use another example, I’d join Mr. Weigel in criticizing conservatives if they lionized Richard Nixon as a political model, citing his Southern Strategy.

But Mr. Goldwater was a failure as a politician, as a builder of coalitions, and as a translator of principle into policy. The right lionizes Ronald Reagan for those things, whereas the enlightened way to lionize Barry Goldwater is as a man of principle who practiced his main virtue to a fault. To borrow a line from Ross Douthat, today’s Goldwater apologists should say, “no ideology survives the collision with real-world politics perfectly intact. General principles have to bend to accommodate the complexities of history, and justice is sometimes better served by compromise than by zealous intellectual consistency” — so while I admire Barry Goldwater for articulating and sticking to first principles, which were generally correct, I also wish like hell he would’ve abandoned zealous consistency in the singular instance of Civil Rights.

Mr. Weigel writes:

There is really no comparison between the stances Goldwater took and the statements from Democrats that Friedersdorf rounds up. Why? Because even if they harbored racist sentiments, these Democrats acted to break down de jure racial discrimination.

This actually isn’t true when it comes to FDR and Japanese Americans — he acted to ratchet up discrimination against them. More generally, it isn’t just that the left looks to FDR as a political hero who cast votes on the right side of history in some instances. They look to him as much for the ideological principles he stood for and articulated, not just in domestic policy, but in foreign policy too. Surely a liberal can make a “fighting faith” sort of argument that invokes FDR as an icon of “tough on national security and fighting totalitarians” liberal principles without implicitly saying that internment is core to that belief system.

Later in his post, Mr. Weigel writes:

Goldwater’s votes were essential components of his 1964 presidential campaign, not something you can say about the decisions and subsequent campaigns from FDR and RFK. And there is no debate among liberals about whether FDR and RFK were wrong — liberals agree that they were. Conservatives and libertarians, however, still debate whether Goldwater was really wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Act, all things considered. Hence, Rand Paul.

That’s a fair point — in my initial post, I wrote that despite being a fan of Mr. Goldwater, I would’ve voted against him, due to his position on Civil Rights. Insofar as conservatives lionize him as a politician, or think that he was correct to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they ought to stop doing so. Again, though, I don’t think it is inherently problematic to see him as one icon of an ideological movement, even if he is an icon whose flaws are evident.

In the remainder of his post, Mr. Weigel writes at length about how Civil Rights era gains weren’t inevitable, they took political courage to pass, and the left suffered politically for championing them. This is obviously right, I agree wholeheartedly, and I don’t think those points are at odds with any argument that I’ve made.

Mr. Weigel, Mr. Yglesias and I all agree that Civil Rights were the most important domestic issue in the 1964 presidential election. That many conservatives don’t agree doesn’t reflect particularly well on the right, but it’s true. And that, I think, is the stronger ground for criticism here.

Joan Didion wrote in the Foreward to Political Fictions, her acclaimed 2001 essay collection:

I was asked with somewhat puzzling frequency about my own politics, what they “were,” or “where they came from,” as if they were eccentric, opaque, somehow unreadable. They are not. They are the logical product of a childhood largely spent among conservative California Republicans (this was before the meaning of “conservative” changed) in a post-war boom economy. the people with whom I grew up were interested in low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government. They believed above all that a limited government had no business tinkering with the private or cultural life of its citizens. In 1964, in accord with these interests and beliefs, I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter.

In my experience, folks who make an informed decision to cite Barry Goldwater as an icon in the history of their ideological movement are doing so for these reasons, and are no more opposed to the Civil Rights Act or the advances of those years than was Joan Didion, who grew up a westerner as naive about the historical context of race in America as so many of us did. [On second thought, “naive” is the wrong word, or at least incomplete. What I want to say is that many Westerners are “insufficiently connected to the issue of race and its complexity.”]

The Icons of Ideological Movements

May 21, 2010
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four term...

Image via Wikipedia

As I noted in my last post, Rand Paul is egregiously wrong in opposing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as has been capably argued all over the blogosphere. In the ensuing discussion, Matthew Yglesias writes:

I always find it shocking that conservatives in 2010 openly say that the political founder of their movement and an icon to be admired is Barry Goldwater, and that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign was an admirable thing that constitutes a key foundation stone of the modern conservative movement. After all, on the most important issue of the early 1960s Goldwater was totally wrong.

He goes on to lay out Barry Goldwater’s egregiously wrongheaded position on the Civil Rights Act, and writes:

Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.

Odd hero.

Well. It seems no more odd to me than thinking of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln as foundational heroes despite the fact that they held abhorrent views on matters of great importance, nor do we need to go back that far to find people lauded as founding heroes of ideological movements despite being wrong about matters of grave importance.

As Bruce Bartlett points out in his book “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past,” leaders that today’s progressives cite as political founders of their movement thought some terribly racist things that had significant policy impacts.

Via Bruce Bartlett, here is Franklin Roosevelt, who later oversaw the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, quoted in 1925:

Anyone who has traveled to the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results. . . . The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to have thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese coming over here and intermarry with the American population. In this question, then, of Japanese exclusion from the United States it is necessary only to advance the true reason–the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples. . . . The Japanese people and the American people are both opposed to intermarriage of the two races–there can be no quarrel there.

Here is Lyndon Johnson:

President Truman’s civil rights program “is a farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill. . .. I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill.

And another Lyndon Johnson quote, this one from 1957:

These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.

Of course, Lyndon Johnson moved in the right direction on this issue later in life, but so did Barry Goldwater, who repudiated his earlier views on civil rights before he died.

It was Robert F. Kennedy who authorized tapping the phones of Martin Luther King.

And here’s Jimmy Carter, hardly a founding father for modern progressives, but a past president in good standing:

I’m not going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. . . . I have nothing against a community that’s made up of people who are Polish or Czechoslovakian or French-Canadian or blacks who are trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.

My point here isn’t that progressives are wrong to see FDR, President Johnson, and RFK as icons in their ideological movement — it’s that America was an egregiously racist country for a very long time, it’s become radically less racist just in the last several decades, and it’s basically unavoidable to have very racist people as icons of your ideological movement if it began at a time when the vast majority of the country’s leaders were unapologetic racists. Though I rue the fact that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and would’ve voted against him solely because he was wrong on Civil Rights, the fact that he didn’t suffer from the character flaw of racism seems to me a mark in his favor.

In any case, he is no more odd a hero than a great many American icons.

(Thanks to Bruce Bartlett for rounding up those quotations.)

'Small Government' Can Solve Problems Too

May 13, 2010

Over at The Atlantic, the excellent Michael Kinsley lands some blows against the Tea Party movement, but offers one argument that is just plain wrong.

He writes:

The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies. This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it’s a huge cliché, probably available more than once in an average day’s newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about “the audaciousness and arrogance of our government,” and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service.

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

Actually, there are obvious small government methods of “keeping jobs here” and “lowering the cost of prescription drugs.”

How do you keep jobs in America without Big Government? You could reform worker’s compensation laws, lower payroll taxes, reduce the regulatory burdens associated with building new factories, eliminate the minimum wage, liberalize immigration laws in a way that reduces the cost of labor — there are reasonable arguments against all of these things, and I wouldn’t recommend doing all of them, but Mr. Kinsley’s account makes it sound as though there is no trade-off between government regulations, their benefits, and their costs.

The same can be said for prescription drugs. The FDA approval process raises costs for consumers even as it protects their safety, as does the necessity of a doctor’s visit to receive a prescription, but it isn’t as though there aren’t alternatives. Drug companies could be given the option to sell their products here so long as they’ve already gained approval to sell a particular drug in the European Union. Pharmacists could be trusted to prescribe certain drugs so that you wouldn’t have to spend money on that doctor’s visit next time you get an ear infection from surfing in polluted water or your eczema flares up. Again, there are trade-offs here, but there are certainly reasonable, moderate reforms that could achieve the ends the man at the Tea Party suggested by reforming and reducing government, rather than relying on “Big Government” efforts.

Why a More Libertarian GOP Is Desirable

May 9, 2010

In “The Party of Sam’s Club,” and later in Grand New Party, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat argue for a GOP that better represents working class voters, and deem a libertarian turn in the GOP to be substantively undesirable and politically unwise. Circa 2005, they advised Republicans to take “the ‘big-government conservatism’ vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.” Their book, released in the summer of 2008, offers an astute, rather thorough repudiation of Bush + Rove, and I marveled at how persuasively it crafted its historical narrative of American politics, and even policy proposals I was predisposed to dislike on small government grounds. Weren’t the authors right that the working class is ill-served by prevailing economic trends — that increasing social and economic stratification will turn increasingly anxious people to the Democratic Party if the GOP doesn’t offer them something more?

But I wondered whether their preferred agenda, however prudent in theory, could ever be implemented by the GOP in a way that would actually serve the working class. As Heather Wilhelm wrote in her review of the book, “there may not be much the government can do to stop the forces behind such a major cultural and societal shift.” Put differently, maybe something could be done, but does anyone trust a Republican led Congress, having won a quasi-redistributionist mandate, to do that thing? Better to pursue certain policy changes they advocated as pragmatic, piecemeal reforms, rather than pushing for the kind of overarching project that quickly sees its mandate exploited by political elites for their own ends.

The issues that Grand New Party grappled with endure. David Frum undertook his own “rethinking the GOP” project due to worries that the economic gains of the last couple decades aren’t reaching a large swath of Americans. Jim Manzi worried in National Affairs that staying competitive in a globalized world requires a dynamic economy with free markets and unequal outcomes, but that the kind of deregulated markets and innovations that America requires are certain to threaten the social cohesion “not only essential to a decent and just society, but also to producing the kind of skilled and responsible citizens that free markets ultimately require.” And Mr. Douthat remains persuaded that libertarianism isn’t desirable or politically viable, just last week reiterating his belief that a large constituency for fiscal conservatism and social liberalism is a “delusion of the elite.”

All this was brought to mind by Mark Lilla’s New York Review of Books essay on the Tea Party movement, a piece that made me want to gather him together with the aforementioned writers for a long conversation over carne asada enchiladas. Mr. Lilla is as convinced as anyone that dissatisfaction with the GOP is largely grounded in economic anxiety, but his read on the political history of the last few decades and the present moment is radically different. The mass desire for libertarianism doesn’t strike him as a delusion of the elite so much as a long accomplished fact.

As early as 1998, he writes, “It struck me… that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s ‘culture of greed,’ and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.”

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.

What happened? People who remember the article sometimes ask me this, and I understand why. George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” seemed attuned to the recent social changes. The President Bush who emerged after September 11 took his party and the country back to the divisive politics of earlier decades, giving us seven years of ideological recrimination. By the time of the last presidential campaign, millions were transfixed not by the wisdom or folly of Barack Obama’s policy agenda, but by absurd rumors about his birth certificate and his “socialism.” Now he has been elected president by a healthy majority and is grappling with a wounded economy and two foreign wars he inherited—and what are we talking about? A makeshift Tea Party movement whose activists rage against “government” and “the media,” while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.

It hasn’t. We know that the country is divided today, because people say it is divided. In politics, thinking makes it so. Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media. But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

I’ve never read an essay that I found so insightful and wrongheaded at the same time. On one hand, I want to invoke Mr. Lilla against Mr. Douthat: aren’t there lots of ways that the United States has grown more fiscally conservative and socially liberal in the last several decades?

The exception is huge. Even most Americans who call themselves fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to support the spending cuts necessary to make the other public policy positions they favor sustainable. Still, over the last few decades the right has persuaded a lot of people that low taxes, deregulated industries, free trade, weaker unions, and a larger class of people investing in houses and the stock market are goods, and this has coincided with greater acceptance for gays, liberalizing attitudes toward drugs, widespread tolerance for divorce, etc. Even if the American working class wants the rich to pay marginally higher taxes, demands a slightly expanded social safety net, and reacts socially against the damage caused by the dissolution of the traditional American family — and I agree that all these things are happening — they could still be meaningfully conservative on a lot of fiscal matters, and meaningfully liberal on a lot of social matters, if libertarian-leaning folks manage to meld a persuasive narrative and innovative policy suggestions. Sure, it’d be an uphill climb in many ways, but is it really that much more implausible than the Grand New Party approach to the country’s future taking hold in the GOP? The libertarian narrative is harder to sell, but far easier to implement without being egregiously corrupted.

Perhaps I am missing something important about the politics. Mr. Douthat and Mr. Salam are far more astute analysts of electoral realities than me, and they’d doubtless offer a strong rebuttal.

But forget about the political landscape for a moment, because what I really want to do is defend libertarians on substance against Mr. Douthat, who believes that a libertarian future for the GOP is undesirable, and especially against Mr. Lilla, who basically pins the country’s travails on “the libertarian mob.”

With Mr. Douthat, I’ll be brief: conceding that a more libertarian Republican Party probably wouldn’t have addressed the growing economic inequality in the United States had it come to power after Bill Clinton’s tenure, and that it is important to confront that problem, wouldn’t we be in a much better spot to do so if we a) hadn’t squandered billions of dollars and a terrible number of innocent lives by foolishly invading Iraq; b) didn’t continue to squander billions of dollars on an unwinnable drug war that exacerbates rather than improves upon the intact families so important to your project; c) would’ve improved on health care markets in small but important cost-reducing ways, rather than passing an enormously expensive prescription drug entitlement?

Those missteps, plus what I regard as an immoral policy of detainee torture, illegal spying on American citizens, and other threats to civil liberties are enough to make me shy away from the Weekly Standard Republicans who’d presumably play a large role in a hypothetical Sam’s Club coalition, especially the ones who are willing to support any domestic policy so long as they get their way in foreign affairs.

And while their probable coalition’s foreign policy views don’t discredit the domestic proposals of Mr. Salam and Mr. Douthat in Grand New Party, many of which I’d gladly support, the GOP mainstream’s destructive hawkishness is another reason I am much more comfortable rooting for a more libertarian leaning right-of-center coalition. (Odds are far higher that our next Republican President will damage the country by succumbing to fringe national security hawks than that he’ll succeed in eliminating the federal reserve, or instituting the gold standard, or whatever it is that most scares temperamentally conservative centrists about libertarians.)

Turning my attention to Mr. Lilla: the most troubling aspects of the Tea Party movement aren’t libertarian at all! (Also, populism and libertarianism aren’t the same thing!)

Mr. Lilla writes:

Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

In my experience, the average Tea Party adherent doesn’t have a blanket distrust of institutions — and far from it. He reveres the American military, imagines that American soldiers can successfully establish a functioning democracy in Iraq, doesn’t object when even a Commander-in-Chief he loathes invokes sweeping powers to fight terrorism, generally trusts the criminal justice system to effect fair outcomes, affords police officers the benefit of the doubt when they arrest Harvard professors or suspected drug dealers or especially suspected terrorists, believes that local government officials in Arizona can enforce federal immigration law without unduly impinging on the civil liberties of legal residents and American citizens, wishes that Christian churches played a more influential role in American life, etc. I don’t mean to imply that Tea Party attendees are uniform in their beliefs — there is more intellectual diversity than is commonly supposed — but what I’ve just described are all commonly held views.

A bit later, Mr. Lilla writes:

Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

Perhaps it is a bit rash to say, “your surveys be damned,” but I find it very difficult to avoid dismissing any narrative wherein the citizens of democratic nations are particularly distrustful, or where our institutions are in greater danger of collapse than in some previous era. For heaven’s sake, the nations of Europe warred with one another in the lifetime of my grandparents, Jim Crow laws disgraced an entire region of the United States in the lifetime of my parents, and the Berlin Wall fell when I was in elementary school. The political institutions of the Western world may not be at the height of their success at representing their respective constituents, but they’re pretty damn close to it relative to the scope of Western history — and that is because of gains like the defeat of fascism, the Civil Rights movement, and the fall of the Soviet Union, all events celebrated by today’s libertarians, and supported at the time by everyone worthy of the name.

Mr. Lilla writes, “As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.” One of the ways this happens, he writes, is that people move:

As the journalist Bill Bishop shows in his eye-opening demographic study The Big Sort, for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes. These are places where elective affinities are supplanting electoral politics. People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them. As Bishop points out, it is significant that at the county level American elections are increasingly being decided by landslides for either Democratic or Republican candidates.

This trend is worth thinking about, and perhaps worth worrying about too, but in a country where since the start we’ve been divided into slave states and free states, farming states and industrial states — and where The Great Migration, segregation, white flight, gated communities, and deliberate extreme gerrymandering happened, it is hard for me to see the division into Red and Blue places as very extreme sorting… or as a consequence of radical individualism, since moving close to people who share your political values isn’t “disinvesting in our political institutions” or “learning to work around them” so much as it is finding communities where investing seems worth while.

Mr. Lilla’s second example of disinvesting in political institutions:

Another way is simply to go it alone. A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country. There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do, though they are hardly going it alone; they rely on a national but voluntary virtual school system connecting them online, where they circulate curricula, materials, and research produced by people working in conventional educational institutions. And they are a powerful political lobby, having redirected their energy from local school systems to Washington and state capitals, where their collective appeal to individualism is irresistible. They are the only successful libertarian party in the United States.

Parents banding together to home school their kids may be disinvesting in public schools, but the fact that they are simultaneously connecting with conventional educational institutions and implementing a successful lobbying campaign at the local and national level show that they are doing the opposite of “disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.” They are working through political institutions as a group!

And the third example?

…as the libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives, along with distrust of elites generally, the damage has mounted. Take health care. Less than half of us say that we have “great confidence” in the medical establishment today, and the proportion of those who have “hardly any” has doubled since the early Seventies.12 There are plenty of things wrong with the way medicine is practiced in the United States, but it does not follow from this that anybody can cure himself. Nonetheless, a growing number of us have become our own doctors and pharmacists, aided by Internet search engines that substitute for refereed medical journals, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.

The trends are not encouraging. Because of irrational fear-mongering on the Web, the percentage of unvaccinated American children, while thankfully still low, has been rising steadily in the twenty-one states that now allow personal exemptions for unspecified “philosophical and personal reasons.” This is significant: the chance of unvaccinated children getting measles, to take just one example, is twenty-two to thirty-five times higher than that of immunized children. Americans currently spend over four billion dollars a year on unregulated herbal medicines, despite total ignorance about their effectiveness, correct dosage, and side effects. And of course, many dangerous medicines banned in the United States can now be purchased online from abroad, not to mention questionable medical procedures for those who can afford the airfare.

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

Mr. Lilla is right to worry about unvaccinated children, though I’d attribute their increase to the success of eradicating the underlying diseases and a simultaneous panic about autism more than “the libertarian spirit” spreading. And aside from vaccinations, it is absurd to suggest that the average Tea Party advocate, or the average American, is averse to expertise and authority in a way that causes them to treat themselves rather than going to the doctor. Whether in Boston, Berkeley, New York City, Midland, Orange County, Portland, The Ocean Reef Club, or Main Street Wasilla, everyone wants quick access to the best doctors — and please, don’t prevent them from visiting the most experienced specialist in the region, the more Ivy League diplomas on his office wall and peer issued awards on his desk the better.

One final paragraph to address:

We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Agreed that the sexual revolution has its benefits and its costs, and that Americans are in no mood for a counterrevolution. But it is folly to ascribe the catastrophic insanity of American drug policy to “the libertarian eruption”! And our financial ruin isn’t due to a dearth of regulation so much as a mountain of very complex financial regulations captured by an industry that understood them better than anyone — and people in that industry paid in ways that allowed them to make many millions of dollars even if their transactions destroyed rather than created value. Government policy exacerbated the madness too. And the architects of that system? It included far more corporatists, liberals and conservatives than libertarians or extreme individualists.

In this post I have focused on areas where I strongly disagree with Mr. Lilla. The balance of his essay contains many astute insights and is well worth reading in full, as is just about anything by Mr. Douthat, Mr. Salam, and Mr. Manzi, all of whom are trying to grapple with the most pressing problems that the United States faces, and suggest specific solutions, usually ones that are more likely to be taken up by the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.

Surveying the decade between George W. Bush’s election and today, it remains my judgment that a more libertarian GOP would’ve left the country far better off than where we actually find ourselves. And perhaps that insight should affect the coalition we pursue going forward. A GOP with more libertarian leanings would avoid unnecessary foreign wars, preserve civil liberties, check Democratic excesses better than any alternative, and have a hell of a time adequately addressing income inequality — but no worse a time than a Grand New Party coalition attempting to bend government to the interests of the working class without the political and corporate classes turning that easier-to-capture agenda to their own ends.

On Racial Profiling

May 7, 2010

After Jonah Goldberg wrote in favor of racial profiling in Arizona, and Roger Clegg disagreed, National Review’s Andy McCarthy, a former prosecutor, jumped into the fray:

…you can’t be an Islamist terrorist without being a Muslim, you can’t be the head of the Gambino Family without being Italian, and you can’t be a Mexican illegal alien without being a Mexican. It would be nonsensical not to take into account, for investigative purposes, the racial, ethnic, or religious characteristics of criminal activity if they are inherent in that criminal activity.

This argument is incredibly flawed. Yes, if you define the objectionable activity as “illegal immigration by Mexicans,” then by definition, only Mexicans are going to be guilty of it, but it would be completely unjustifiable and discriminatory to define the crime that way, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, if the “criminal activity” is illegal immigration, then folks other than Mexicans will be among the lawbreakers — indeed, in addition to the many El Salvadorans and Guatemalans and Hondurans you’ll find the occasional Irish, Koreans, Russians, Egyptians, and others who’ve overstayed visas or snuck into the country.

Similarly, it is certainly true that the Gambino crime family is a legitimate target for police and prosecutors, but I am betting that at some point non-Italians were involved in their criminal activity, and besides, organized crime is a type of criminal activity that encompasses folks with lots of different ethnic backgrounds. Count me among the Americans who want law enforcement to stop illegal immigration from any country, organized crime perpetrated by any ethnicity, and terrorism of any kind, not just the Islamist variety. It just floors me that a former prosecutor would offer up these ethnicities as “inherent” in the relevant criminal activities.

And it gets worse:

When I was a young prosecutor in the eighties, this was a lot less controversial than it has become in our irrationally sensitive times. A lot of crime is ethnic. The Westies were Irish, the tongs were Chinese, the Latin Kings were Hispanics, the YACs were Yugoslavs, Albanians and Croatian, and so on. When we were investigating Colombian cocaine cartels, the fact that someone was Colombian was part of the probable cause (and if he was from Cali, even more so).

He goes on:

No one got pinched solely on the basis of his race or ethnicity. The important thing was conduct, not status. But if I had arrested a guy named Clegg or Goldberg and charged him with being the head of the Gambino Family, the defendant would have made his ethnicity a key part of his defense; it can’t be that an race/ethnicity/religion factor is only relevant if it cuts against guilt.

Interesting bit of reasoning — it would be absurd to arrest a non-Italian for being head of the Gambino crime family, therefore the fact of being Italian would lead a reasonably intelligent person to believe that an accused Italian is the head of the Gambino crime family. Or something. It’s hard to tell exactly what Mr. McCarthy means by saying that ethnicity is “part of” probable cause.

Race Blind Enforcement Is Possible

May 5, 2010

Over at Frum Forum, Howard Foster writes:

If ethnicity is not a factor, then immigration laws cannot be enforced. Again, the Pew Hispanic Center confirms that 76% of the 11.9 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic. Should all Hispanics be suspected of being illegal? Certainly not. But should law enforcement take that into account? How can they not? Suppose an ICE agent pulls over a van filled with 20 Hispanics and learns from the driver that he is on his way to a chicken processing plant, and it is early in the morning. If the driver can produce a valid drivers’ license, the ICE agent should still be allowed to question the other passengers because it is common knowledge that illegal immigrants tend to be Hispanics, tend to be driven in crowded vans, and tend to work in chicken plants. The racially blind approach would draw no suspicion from these factors and simply let the driver of the van proceed despite the fact the passengers are likely illegal immigrants.

We cannot have immigration law enforcement without common sense attention to ethnicity.

If it is known that illegal immigrants tend to work in chicken plants, ICE agents can go to chicken plants and verify that the workers there are in the country legally, without paying any attention to ethnicity at all. That may involve demanding paperwork from some employees that common sense suggests are obviously American citizens. And as Megan McArdle explains, that is as it should be. It simply isn’t true that enforcing immigration laws requires racial profiling.

Some Reflexes Are Better Than Others

May 4, 2010

Over at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, Marc Thiessen is very upsetthat the Obama Administration may have read the suspect in the attempted Times Square car bombing his rights:

Just four months after its disastrous handling of the Christmas Day bomber in Detroit, is the Obama administration repeating its mistakes all over again? One would think that the administration would have learned its lesson and held off on reflexively reading this terrorist his Miranda rights.

The only reason to read Shahzad his Miranda rights would be to preserve what he says as evidence in his criminal trial. But our first priority should not be preserving evidence for his trial—it should be getting intelligence from him.

Isn’t it strange that Mr. Thiessen writes as if it’s impossible to read someone their Miranda rights and subsequently gather intelligence from him? I certainly agree that an interrogation is optimal here, but so is preserving the ability to convict and jail the perpetrator of this plot. Perhaps the suspect was totally willing to talk until he heard the familiar words, “You have the right to remain silent,” but it seems far more likely that the boilerplate phrases wouldn’t in fact be the determining factor in his willingness to cooperate.

Compare the small inconvenience of Mirandizing this man with the alternative — the president asserting that Constitutional rights somehow don’t apply to anyone arrested in connection with attempted terrorism. Does Mr. Thiessen care at all for preserving Constitutional protections? Does he worry at all that illegally disregarding them in relation to a certain class of crime might perhaps lend itself to abuses? I’d be happy if Mr. Thiessen held off on reflexively disregarding the law and the system that we use to apprehend all criminals in the United States every time terrorism is involved.

The Fraud That Conservative Entertainers Can Never Acknowledge

April 22, 2010

In a recent post, Ross Douthat wrote that “conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” Jim Manzi took this as a direct challenge, penning a post at National Review’s group blog, The Corner, that persuasive demonstrates epistemic closure in Mark Levin’s bestseller Liberty and Tyranny.

This upset Kathryn Jean Lopez, who defended Mr. Levin, arguing in part that it is unfair to treat him as a “mere entertainer.” This is odd, since Mr. Manzi actually treats him as a book author whose arguments warrant a substantive reply. But anyway.

The subject I want to grapple with is Mr. Douthat’s characteristically thoughtful response to Ms. Lopez:

Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”

Mr. Douthat’s analysis is smart, as far as it goes, but it ignores the reasons why neither Ms. Lopez nor Mr. Levin can acknowledge (if they even believe it themselves) that Mr. Levin’s radio show or his book are “only entertainment.” Consider the promotional blurb put out by Simon and Schuster, Liberty and Tyranny’s publisher:

Mark R. Levin now delivers the book that characterizes both his devotion to his more than 5 million listeners and his love of our country and the legacy of our Founding Fathers: Liberty and Tyranny is Mark R. Levin’s clarion call to conservative America, a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century.

And later in the same blurb (note the unintentionally accurate first bit):

As provocative, well-reasoned, robust, and informed as his on-air commentary, Levin’s narrative will galvanize readers to begin a new era in conservative thinking and action. Liberty and Tyranny provides a philosophical, historical, and practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision and ensuring the preservation of American society.

This language is in keeping with the way Mr. Levin himself talks about the book, and the way its fans receive it. Thus in order to claim Liberty and Tyranny as mere entertainment, he would have to admit that all the claims about it being a “new manifesto for the conservative movement” and “a practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision” are cynical, fraudulent claims.

As it happens, I know many fans of talk radio personalities. Almost without exception, these people regard the consumption of politically themed radio shows, Fox News, and books by conservative authors not merely as entertainment, but as civic participation. Often times these people’s hearts are in the right place — they are burning with an earnest desire to improve America, to inform themselves about its political debates, and to support folks they regard as public intellectuals representing them in political discourse.

Visit the Facebook page or fan forum of any popular talk radio host and you’ll see overwhelming evidence that this characterization is accurate. It isn’t uncommon for Mark Levin’s fans to explicitly thank him for safeguarding liberty against tyranny, Bill O’Reilly wrote a book titled “Who’s Looking Out for You,” and Rush Limbaugh regularly asserts his importance as a bulwark against Democrats and their agenda.

I am not sure whether these people are aware that they are mere entertainers, or if they really believe that their talk radio shows or red meat books or whatever are “worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right” — and I am sure we’d all be better off if Mr. Douthat prevailed, and they were considered mere entertainers. But imagining that this is even a possibility ignores overwhelming evidence that their very existence as popular entertainers hinges on an ability to persuade listeners that they are “”worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors.”

That is why the constant failures of these men to live up to their billing is so offensive, destructive, and ruinous to conservatives — and it suggests that one line in Mr. Douthat’s post requires a qualification: “There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable,” Mr. Douthat wrote, and I’d add, so long as its producers don’t fraudulently claim it is more than that. There is something wrong with producing politically themed entertainment, and pretending that it has more intellectual rigor than is in fact the case, or that it is an earnestly offered statement of the truth, or that it actually grapples with its subjects.

Liberty and Tyranny perpetrates that fraud in its section on climate change, and I suspect that is why Jim Manzi was so offended by its misleading, willfully ignorant content — he knew that as an expert on the subject he could see the book for what it was, whereas most of its readers would trust the author and his framing of the book in a way that would leave them woefully misinformed.

Marc Thiessen Responds to Jane Mayer

April 14, 2010

In National Review, former Bush Administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen responds to the review of his book written by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Mayer declares categorically that “the Bush administration’s interrogation policies . . . yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”

Here is what Ms. Mayer actually said in her article:

Thiessen’s book, whose subtitle is “How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.

Conclusion: When Mr. Thiessen uses ellipses be sure to check up on what he elides.

Mr. Thiessen continues:

She must not have been listening when Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared: “High value information came from [CIA] interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.”

This neglects to mention the other statement by Admiral Blair that appeared in the same New York Times article:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

She must have forgotten that when she herself interviewed Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, he told her, “Important information was gathered from these detainees. [The CIA program] provided information that was acted upon.”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article:

Dick Cheney has repeatedly claimed that “enhanced” interrogations yield results. Opponents say that torture is counterproductive. Panetta is more agnostic. He told me, “The bottom line would be this: Yes, important information was gathered from these detainees. It provided information that in fact was acted upon. Was this the only way to obtain this information? I think that will always be an open question.” But he is certain that “we did pay a price for using those methods.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

And she must have forgotten her 2007 interview (also quoted in the Panetta article) with John Brennan (now Obama’s homeland-security advisor), in which she asked him if enhanced interrogation techniques “were necessary to keep America safe,” and he replied: “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article with a bit more context:

Brennan has described himself as an internal critic of waterboarding—a position that friends, such as Emile Nakhleh, a former senior officer, confirm. Yet, in an interview with me two years ago, Brennan defended the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and extraordinary renditions, in which the C.I.A. abducted terror suspects around the globe and transported them to other countries to be jailed and interrogated; many of those countries had execrable human-rights records. He also questioned some people’s definition of “torture.” “I think it’s torture when I have to ride in the car with my kids and they have loud rap music on,” he said. Asked if “enhanced” interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, he replied, “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the C.I.A. was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

In other words, Mr. Brennan is advocating for “enhanced interrogation” but using that term in a way that excludes waterboarding as something that should not be done.

To summarize so far, Mr. Thiessen accuses Jane Mayer of asserting that Bush era interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit, even though she doesn’t assert that — rather, she very clearly reports, accurately, that some of Bush’s critics assert that position, never asserting it herself.

Subsequently, he purports to defend his own position about enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, by selectively quoting people who turn out to argue that either enhanced interrogation generally, or waterboarding in particular, shouldn’t be used and do more harm than good. That he neglects to mention their words when they are contrary to his own arguments is telling.

And we’re only three short paragraphs into Mr. Thiessen’s article.

In paragraph four, Mr. Thiessen notes that various Bush Administration officials assert that the Bush era interrogation program was valuable. This is indisputably true, and in no way disproves anything in Ms. Mayer’s review. He then writes, “In her review, Mayer asks us to accept that all of these CIA directors and directors of national intelligence from both Democratic and Republican administrations are wrong, and she is right. Readers can judge for themselves.” In fact, Ms. Meyer isn’t pitting Bush era officials against herself — she is pitting their views against numerous credible sources, including intelligence experts, who she quotes at length to rebut assertions by Bush Administration officials, and who offer a different account of interrogation practices from 2001 to 2008.

There is a lot left in Mr. Thiessen’s piece. I don’t have time to assess its remaining paragraphs right now — wading through all the source material is time consuming work — but depending on whether anyone else writes persuasively about them I may return to the subject of his latest writing.


My question is this, and I’m sure it applies to many of us, and not just Thiessen — does he realize what he’s doing as he does it? Does he realize that eliding “according to many critics” and instead preceding a quote with “declares categorically” is a mis-characterization? Does he think people won’t notice? Or, in his mind, does he really think that Mayer did declare this categorically?

And if Thiessen does understand what he’s doing, isn’t there a point where if you find it necessary to argue so dishonestly for your position that you re-consider that position? Around the fourth time you strip away clarifying context from a quote, doesn’t a little voice inside your brain start to whisper about whether what you’re doing is right?

I wonder about this too.

UPDATE II: A response from Mr. Thiessen and my rebuttal are here.