Posts Tagged ‘United States’

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.

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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.

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.

President Obama: Trending Toward Cheneyism

April 7, 2010

Kevin D. Williamson talks sense at The Corner, repudiating President Obama’s imprudent assertion of executive power:

I hate to play the squish, but am I the only one who is just a little bit queasy over the fact that the president of the United States is authorizing the assassination of American citizens? Andy writes that this is “obviously the right call.” I might be persuaded that this is, in fact, the right call. But obviously? No hesitation there? It seems to me that the fact of U.S. citizenship ought to be a bright line on the political map.

Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to the killing of U.S. citizens. It is not impossible to imagine a president who, for instance, sincerely believes that Andy McCarthy is undermining the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute the war on terror on the legal front. A government that can kill its citizens can shut them up, no? I ask this not as a legal question, but as a moral and political question: How is it that a government that can assassinate Citizen Awlaki is unable to censor Citizen McCarthy, or drop him in an oubliette? Practically every journalist of any consequence in Washington has illegally handled a piece of classified information. Can the president have them assassinated in the name of national security? Under the Awlaki standard, why not?

Odious as Awlaki is, this seems to me to be setting an awful and reckless precedent. Consider how “interstate commerce” has been redefined over time to cover that which is neither interstate nor commerce, for the sake of political expediency. It is easy to imagine “national security” being treated the same way, particularly in an open-ended conflict against a loosely defined enemy. And we aren’t assassinating U.S. citizens under the rubric of interstate commerce.

I’ve been raising this point too, and I’ve yet to get a satisfactory answer.

Mr. McCarthy is addressing the same subject today, and for once I agree with a lot of what he has to say:

According to the report, a U.S. official told Reuters that “Awlaki is a proven threat,” and therefore someone who could properly be targeted for killing. But by leftist standards — including those urged by Attorney General Holder when he was in private practice filing briefs in support of American-born “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla — Awlaki is most certainly not a proven threat. He has not been convicted in a court of law.

So here is the Obama Left’s position. If an alien enemy combatant, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mass-murders 3000 Americans and is then captured outside the U.S. in wartime, we need to bring him to the United States and give him a civilian trial with all attendant due process rights. If an alien enemy combatant is sending emails from outside the U.S. to an al Qaeda cell inside the U.S., the commander-in-chief needs a judge’s permission (on a showing of probable cause) to intercept those communications. If an American citizen terrorist outside the United States — say, Awlaki in Yemen — is calling or emailing the United States (or anyplace else), the commander-in-chief needs a judge’s permission to intercept those communications. If we capture an alien enemy combatant conducting war operations against the U.S. overseas, we should give him Miranda warnings, a judicial right to challenge his detention as a war prisoner, and (quite likely) a civilian trial. But, if the commander-in-chief decides to short-circuit the whole menu of civil rights by killing an American citizen, that’s fine — no due process, no interference by a judge, no Miranda, no nothing. He is a proven threat because … the president says so.

Of course, Mr. McCarthy agrees that individuals are proven threats who can be summarily killed merely because the president says so. Indeed, he somehow simultaneously believes that President Obama should have the unchecked power to kill American citizens, that he is a closet radical with jihadist sympathies, and that he is rightly ordering the assassination of an American jihadist. Incoherent as this is, the most troubling thing is that Obama apparently agrees with the part of this warped worldview that is most corrosive to liberty and limited government. When the Cheney wing of the Republican Party is endorsing your actions on national security, it’s a good sign you’re exercising dangerous amounts of unchecked power.

Will liberals go along with this?

Rhetoric the Right Should Repudiate

April 4, 2010

In the course of wondering whether an increasing federal role in health care will change the character of the American people, a perfectly sane thing to worry about, National Review’s Mark Steyn offers some questionable assertions, and links to arguments that are offensive to a degree that you don’t often see.

Here is the initial post that Mr. Steyn wrote.

An excerpt:

Ever since this health care “debate” got going, I’ve worried that American conservatives underestimate the ability of Big Government to transform the character of a people. After all, the Euro-weenies weren’t always Euro-weenies – else how would they have conquered the entire planet?

This is a rather strange considering that when various European countries built colonial empires their governments were far more tyrannical, and their people less free, than is the case today. Does Mr. Steyn believe a right-thinking American would be more at home in monarchical Spain prior to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or Napoleonic France, or the England of King George, or the Germany of Bismarck or Hitler, than the prosperous social democracies that exist today? Mr. Steyn and I share a number of disagreements with the public policies embraced by many European countries, but yearning wistfully for the character that Europeans had at the height of their imperial power is ahistorical nonsense of the kind I’d never have expected from one of Western Civilization’s most prolific columnists before his affiliation with Rush Limbaugh’s radio show began.

In Mr. Steyn’s second post on this subject, he writes:

Even in the 13 colonies, a majority of people were not of an actively “revolutionary” disposition. In the last 40 years, the left didn’t hollow out every important American institution from the grade school to Hollywood because they represented mass opinion, but because they wanted it the most. The question is whether opponents of Obama’s dependency culture are up to their own “long march”.

The strange nostalgia is now aimed at Hollywood and elementary education circa 1970, as though they were whole then and hollow now. Again, I’ll bet Mr. Steyn and I would agree about a lot if we were both to critique the public education system circa 2010, but these sweeping assertions about recent history and the left’s “long march” would be a lot more persuasive were it grounded in specific complaints rather than talk radio style bluster.

This brings us to the post that Mr. Steyn excerpts (he leaves out the most offensive line) and links.

Kathy Shaidle writes (emphasis in original):

…the trouble with the Tea Party movement is that they tend to target their anger at only one source: Big Government.

However, angry Americans really need to face the unfaceable: that most of their fellow citizens are just as corrupt, incompetent and compromised:

Rahe talks about the American Revolution and so on. But the nation’s ethnic makeup is different now, for one thing. Way more residents/invaders/settlers from “manyana” cultures. More illiterates, more people with no sense of history.

Plus there’s the Katrina Culture. Did any of those “Help Us” types waiting on the “gubmit” to rescue them look capable of crossing the Delaware to you? They’d have been more inclined to steal Washington’s boots.

I’m honestly surprised that Mr. Steyn would link this. Even if he were comfortable with its casual bigotry against Hispanics and blacks — and I’d like to think he isn’t, though he shows no sign of objecting — he should be embarrassed by the ahistorical implication that Latin American cultures are too lazy to rebel against their governments, not to mention the hilarious sentence where Ms. Shaidle complains that people today have no sense of history, even as she asserts that there are more illiterates in today’s United States than there were in America circa 1776.

And if you want a perfect distillation of why the right has trouble attracting minority votes, here you have it: imperial Europeans were praiseworthy, Hispanics are “residents/invaders/settlers,” Katrina victims would just as soon steal George Washington’s shoes as help him, and together they’re responsible for the decline of American culture. Are these really the arguments for American decline that Mr. Steyn wants to uncritically pass along to Corner readers?

If anyone think that these are the strongest arguments for the proposition that a large federal role in health care at some point transforms the character of a people, please reconsider. Time permitting, I’ll have another post up making a stronger case for that plausible if uncertain proposition in the next few days.

On American Exceptionalism and Barack Obama

February 28, 2010

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are intelligent writers whose work is normally a credit to National Review, but they’ve gone far astray in their recent essay “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity.” In arguing that President Obama “has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation,” they offer the following evidence:

Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.” (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)

In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it.

But it is misleading to offer that Obama quote as evidence that he rejects American exceptionalism when his unabridged answer is the following (emphasis added):

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

In other words, President Obama doesn’t “all but deny” that America is an exceptional nation in that question and answer session — he does just the opposite, affirming that our core values, governing framework, and democrat practices are all exceptional, so much so that we have an “extraordinary role in leading the world”! Essayists reach for the strongest examples they can find when crafting an argument. In making the argument that the current president rejects American exceptionalism, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru offer as examples a quote that contradicts their thesis, the fact that President Obama declines to defend the Bay of Pigs, a failed invasion of a foreign country that strengthened its tyrannical leader, and the assertion that “on those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wil­sonian tradition — with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design. He seeks to accelerate it.”

On this last point, President Obama’s rhetoric so frequently contradicts their characterization that it is impossible to list every example. One need only look at the speech he gave at his inauguration to see the authors’ point was disproved on Obama’s first day in office. The text includes these passages:

+ America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

+ The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

+ Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

+ In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

In other words, that single speech contains multiple invocations of the Founding fathers, their designs, and bold statements about how the Obama Administration must preside over their continuance — “so it must be.”

Moreover, ever since Barack Obama’s introduction to a national audience at the 2004 DNC, when he invoked The Declaration of Independence and E Pluribus Unum, he has very deliberately and repeatedly placed himself in the context of American history by arguing that his story is possible only in a nation with the Founding beliefs of America. Where did this idea come from that he identifies only with a post-Wilsonian tradition when he is constantly alluding to the promise of the Declaration, and how the realization of its truths transformed his personal history in the most profound way? It is utterly false, and proving as much is as easy as reading any number of his speeches.

Near the conclusion of their piece, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru write:

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

On health care I’d much prefer free market reforms of the sort discussed here. Should the misguided Democratic bill pass into law, however, I shall not mourn the loss of what I cherish about America, seeing as how what I cherish isn’t an amalgam of Medicare, impossibly complicated state regulatory frameworks, a prescription drug benefit, and tax incentives for employer provided health plans. As for the prison at Guantanamo Bay, did I miss the moment when its operation, which commenced earlier this decade, became part of our enduring national character?

All things considered, the essay in question is unpersuasive.

People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say

February 23, 2010

In a welcome return to blogging, Jay Rosen turns his attention to the recent New York Times article on the Tea Party phenomenon, lauding reporter David Barstow’s fine work, but critiquing one paragraph.

The excerpt at issue:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Here is Professor Rosen reacting to that passage:

David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story… Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable?

Professor Rosen adds:

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so — despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

On reading Professor Rosen’s post, I thought immediately about The GOP Speaks, a Web project where I asked Republican leaders at the local level to share their beliefs about current controversies. Before the replies stopped coming back (for reasons I still can’t entirely figure out), I received 27 replies to my questionnaire. In response to my second question — “What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?” — I received replies including the following:

+ “Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty.”

+ “It appears the president is preparing to become dictator.”

+ “The unbridled horse race to Fabian socialism on the one hand, and the fact that there are avowed and unapologetic Communists in the White House being paid by US Taxpayers who are advising the president on domestic policy issues.”

+ “His swift moves towards socialism. He is moving so fast that we may not be able to counter much of what he has done.”

As it happens, I disagree rather profoundly with President Obama’s approach to domestic policy, and on foreign policy I am increasingly dismayed by his assertion of extraordinary, imprudent powers like the ability to assassinate United States citizens without judicial oversight, or his administration’s contention that the federal government doesn’t need a warrant to track the movements of any American so long as it’s done via their cell phone carrier. Put another way, I myself think that on several important issues President Obama is moving us marginally closer to tyranny, as so many recent presidents have done.

Even so, I find it preposterous that anyone believes the United States is on the cusp of impending tyranny itself, or that President Obama is uniquely bad on this metric, or methodically preparing to seize dictatorial power, or that his actions as president are somehow so radical as to be irreversible. Indeed I couldn’t believe that my more animated GOP correspondents believed these things to be true either, even when they seemed to state as much. So I followed up with some of them, pressing them about what exactly they believed, and did additional reporting among other conservative citizens as well, hoping to understand the gap separating the rhetoric they use from whatever their actual beliefs turn out to be.

I found a few things of interest. Foremost is that extreme words like tyranny are almost always useless if the goal is figuring out what on earth someone actually thinks. Five people might tell you that their biggest worry about Barack Obama is his tendencies toward tyranny. Buzz words like this tend to spread. On further questioning, you’ll find one guy means he’s upset that the president might seek a tax hike, while another is literally worried that he’s building secret prisons to house American patriots. The former invocation of tyranny is by far more common, and it doesn’t strike the people who use it as imprecise because they marinate in a political culture of hyper-adversarial cable news, Barnes and Noble bestsellers with hyperbolic titles, and talk radio hosts who cast the political battles between American conservatives and liberals as an epic battle between liberty and tyranny. As the volume of political rhetoric gets turned up, folks eventually lose perspective, and having listened to their very loud stereo for hours, it doesn’t occur to them that on talking to folks outside the room they seem to be shouting. Pin these folks down on their actual beliefs, concerns or objections, however, and often as not they are basically reasonable people whose opinions are no more or less grounded in fact than anyone else.

In the comments to Professor Rosen’s post, Paul Davis writes:

I don’t need a reporter doing Barstow’s job to tell me that the views of the tea party “movement” are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn’t need to write “Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America” – what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world.

I’d go a step father: Mr. Barstow, who wrote an excellent story as is, could’ve improved upon it by telling us not just why Tea Party advocates believe we’re on the road to tyranny, but what exactly they mean when they say tyranny. In some cases, their answers will betray a factual misunderstanding of the world, at which point it’ll be appropriate to respond as Professor Rosen would like. Other times, however, they’ll explain that by impending tyranny they believe, for example, that the combination of America’s growing debt and its imploding financial sector mean that Wall Street elites and creditors in China are going to wield ever increasing control over the material well being of American citizens. In other words, fear of “impending tyranny” is sometimes going to be less easily dismissed than Professor Rosen imagines.

I do think Professor Rosen’s observations about the desire of journalists to be innocent in reporting on controversial subjects is often accurate, and that it frequently causes them to refrain from offering relevant information to readers who’d benefit from it. All I can conclude at present is that extra reporting on what exactly participants in political debates believe mitigates the problem. The higher the level of abstraction, the harder it is to judge whether something is a matter of fact, interpretation, or opinion. Would you rather disprove that Barack Obama aims to be a tyrant or that he’s coming to take your guns?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings

January 20, 2010
BOSTON - JANUARY 17:  U.S President Barack Oba...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.

I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.

Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.

On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.

I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.

Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.

When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.

So it goes.

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.