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Archive for July, 2009

Contrarianism I Can Get Behind

[ 0 ] July 3, 2009 |

Now, if we can only get someone to take on parades:

Meanwhile, the professional fireworks display is an exercise in pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.

And boring. Don’t forget boring. If you’re at a decent July 4th party, whatever you were doing is more fun than the fireworks.


And, Yet, Yar’s Revenge Languishes

[ 0 ] July 3, 2009 |

I’m guessing that this will not end watchably.

Etzioni: Whither the Decent Left?

[ 0 ] July 3, 2009 |

Amitai Etzioni:

North Korean ships are carrying missiles and materials from which chemical and nuclear weapons can be made — to other tyrannies, such as the oppressive regimes in Myanmar and in Yemen. The United States leads a group of more than ninety nations that are committed to stopping such traffic, but North Korea has stated that such interventions would lead to war. One hears extremely little from progressives about what the United States should do next…

Yet, we hear next to no sounds of approval from the progressive camp; one is hard put to find editorials from the left stating that this time we’ve got it right. Are progressives holding that all problems can be treated with merely goodwill, foreign aid, and talk? Or are they willing to fess up and acknowledge that when all other means have been exhausted, and there is clear and present danger–the time to act is now, and to act may entail putting at least one foot down?

A few points:

  1. No one knows what North Korean ships are carrying. It is true that, in the past, North Korea has engaged in the proliferation of missile and nuclear technology. There are good reasons to suspect that it will do so in the future. The exact nature of the cargo carried by the Kang Nam, however, is wholly unknown. Indeed, North Korea has a history of setting public relations traps for the unsuspecting.
  2. Someone did, in several outlets associated with “progressive” foreign policy, publish discussions of the sanctions against North Korea. Other progressives have also written about North Korea. I have no idea whether Jeffrey Lewis and the guys at ArmsControlWonk consider themselves progressive or not, but he’s given some of the most detailed discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program to appear anywhere, and his prescriptions are broadly in line with a variety of “progressive” foreign policies. The Center for American Progress has also weighed in on North Korea.
  3. The Iraq War was a stupid conflict conducted in a stupid manner, and it consequently produced a tremendous amount of domestic opposition. Much, but not all, of this opposition came from what can be understood as “progressives”. The unity of opposition to the Iraq War, however, obscured a series of very real differences within the coalition. Progressives differ on the exact manner and timing of withdrawal from Iraq, on the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan, on the most reasonable approach to Iran, on the future structure of the US armed forces, on the nature and desirability of US hegemony, on the character of US relations with Africa and Latin America, on the utility of nuclear weapons, on the importance of “free trade,” and on the relevance of international institutions and international law. While each progressive has his or her own understanding of the relationship between progressive principles and foreign policy, it’s simply not the case that a singular “progressive foreign policy” can be teased out. Rather, there are many different potential foreign policies that can fall under the label “progressive,” just as there are some that can safely be excluded from that umbrella. Anyone who tries to tell you that “progressives think X” on foreign policy is engaging in a rhetorical trick; those progressives who disagree with the policy are by definition excluded from the debate.
  4. Given this multiplicity of potential progressive foreign policies, conflict and disagreement between progressives (to say nothing of the anti-Iraq War coalition as a whole) is inevitable. The “decent lefting” that Etzioni is engaging in is probably the least productive manner in which to conduct this conversation. The point is to pre-emptively denounce rather than seek any debate, and given the uncertainty associated with North Korea the bluster is particularly misplaced. Indeed, Etzioni can’t even identify any progressives who disagree with him; rather, he’s incensed by their purported silence, and implies that they must hold some odd set of radical anti-American/anti-imperialist views. It’s true enough that there are still some on the left who will denounce a writer as a “neocon” if he advocates supporting a left-wing Latin American President against a military coup d’etat, but these people are few in number, have no meaningful political power, and have little access to mainstream media outlets. It’s also true that the “Where were the WMDs!?” line may eventual gain the same stature as the Munich Analogy, an argument constantly deployed in an effort to understand disparate and dissimilar situations. I’m willing to give it a bit more time, however. In any case, Etzioni leaves the impression not simply that those who disagree with him are wrong, but that those who agree with him at insufficient volume are feckless. I am forcibly reminded of the situation following the South Ossetia War, where progressives who were insufficiently enthusiastic about brave little Georgia, and who were interested in such trivial questions as “who started the war?” were denounced as the indecent left. The same, of course, applies to the run up to the Iraq War, when an entire family of arguments was deemed inappropriate for serious discussion.

All that said, I agree with Etzioni; PSI is a good idea, a tighter set of sanctions against North Korea is sensible and legitimate, and progressive foreign policy goals are well served by such an approach. The arguments go down better, however, without the chip on the shoulder.

Meanwhile, Nixon sucks a dry martini

[ 0 ] July 2, 2009 |

It’s nice to see so many wingnuts lifting Helen Thomas — the recipient of so much of their loathing over the years — and bearing her aloft on their shoulders after she claimed that the Obama administration is more obsessed with media control than Richard Nixon.

Beyond the fact that she seemed most exercised over the Nico Pitney non-story, the merits of Thomas’ argument are of course laughably thin. Call me, for example, when the Obama White House employs people to forge press releases on stolen GOP letterhead, or when it orders wiretaps placed on prominent reporters who disclose the details of illegal invasions, or when it tries to institute prior-restraint over the press as a whole, or when White House aides openly discuss poisoning a nettlesome journalist.

But the manufactured outrage from conservative bloggers is especially ludicrous, given the previous administration’s own preference for simulated spontaneity, arguably the worst example of which was the infamous scripted press conference just prior to the Iraq War. More to the point, if these folks hadn’t spent years cheering Bush’s press psy-ops, advocating the imprisonment (or worse) of journalists who belatedly reported on the administration’s criminal fuckups, wailing tediously when imprisoned photographers were released after years of being held without charges, or regularly accusing press organizations like the AP of functioning as terrorist front groups, I’d be more inclined to take them seriously when they complain about a health care town hall whose choreography was typical of the genre.

I Admit It

[ 0 ] July 2, 2009 |

No matter how many clever and complex rationalizations I hear to justify the extensive coverage, I still don’t understand why I should care at all about Mark Sanford’s sex life, and I still don’t understand how stuff like his private emails to someone who shouldn’t be called his “mistress” can be considered political news. (And, yes, yes, I understand the meta-tautology that whether or not it should matter it does so it was irresponsible for, say, John Edwards to conceal an affair while running for president. But it still doesn’t answer the crucial first question.)

The Obvious About Alito

[ 0 ] July 2, 2009 |

Adam Liptak has done an excellent job as the Times’ Supreme Court reporter, and while address some other aspects of his term-end roundup in a subsequent post I was especially gratified to see him note what few mainstream commentators are willing to about reasonable, moderate, thinking-man’s conservative Sam Alito:

The two newest justices, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both appointed by President George W. Bush, agreed 92 percent of time, the highest rate for any pair of justices. But Justice Alito often wrote concurring opinions to underscore or try to extend conservative rulings, especially in criminal cases. He may well now be the court’s most conservative member.

“Alito is staking out some room to the right of the chief justice,” said Pamela Harris, the executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, “and you would have thought there is no such room.”


If there were surprises, they came from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

“For all the talk about Scalia and Thomas being the most conservative justices on the court, they are the justices most likely in play,” said Jeffrey L. Fisher, a law professor at Stanford who has argued several important criminal cases before the court.

Obviously, as Liptak notes elsewhere, defining justices on an ideological spectrum can be tricky. The way I’d put it is that Alito is easily the most meaningfully reactionary justice on the current Court, and hence since James McReynolds. Thomas might be even more willing to stake out radical positions in solo dissents and concurrences, but given their lack of influence this doesn’t matter a lot. On the other hand, in some civil liberties and business cases Thomas and Scalia are in some cases willing to cast decisive votes in with the Court’s more liberal justices. Not in a million years would Alito cast the swing vote to uphold a confrontation clause claim, let alone write or join an opinion caustically noting the many logical flaws in the dissent’s argument in favor for ignoring the straightforward command of the Sixth Amendment if it might cause the state to spend money. It’s true that Scalia and Thomas’s commitment to civil libertarian positions is highly sporadic, but better “sporadic” than “non-existent if their vote means anything.”

And all of this was perfectly obvious at the time of Alito’s nomination. Claims that Alito was some kind of moderate were ludicrous at the time and have proven to be erroneous.

Oh, And His Attempts At Humor Make Jar-Jar Binks Look Like A Great Idea Well-Executed

[ 0 ] July 2, 2009 |


Goodbye, Shooter

[ 0 ] July 2, 2009 |


Democracy is a Process

[ 0 ] July 1, 2009 |

It is a feature of modern American life that those who screech loudest for FREEDOM!!1!!1 have the greatest contempt for the practice of democracy.

In spite of their longstanding neoconservative and general baby-killing tendencies, Loomis and Trend are keeping abreast of the situation in Honduras. See also MSS and, of course, Randy Paul.

Disparate Treatment and Equal Protection

[ 0 ] July 1, 2009 |

Scalia’s concurrence in Ricci elaborated an alleged conflict between equal protection and the disparate treatment of the Civil Rights Act. I won’t call this a false conflict, exactly — as with many legal and constitutional values, there is potential tension in marginal cases. But I think Ginsburg’s response gets it right:

Neither Congress’ enactments nor this Court’s Title VII precedents (including the now-discredited decision in Wards Cove) offer even a hint of “conflict” between an employer’s obligations under the statute’s disparate-treatment and disparate-impact provisions. Cf. ante, at 20. Standing on an equal footing, these twin pillars of Title VII advance the same objectives: ending workplace discrimination and promoting genuinely equal opportunity.

Yet the Court today sets at odds the statute’s core directives.

I’ll leave a discussion about how the Court’s conservatives have used different standards of evidence to prove discriminatory intent for another post. But, in general, not only is paying attention to disparate impact consistent with enforcing civil rights and the equal protection of the law, it’s necessary. To use the old analogy, it’s silly to pretend (as the ahistorical formalism practiced by the Court’s conservatives* demands) that a woman kept in chains and fed bread and water and a woman given a professional training regimen are in an equal position because they both start at the same line. The effects of history don’t vanish when the law changes. Legacy admissions in formerly racist colleges, for example, perpetuate white supremacy whether they are intentionally discriminatory or not, because they provide a benefit to some whites that are not available to black people. This isn’t to suggest that dealing with a history of discrimination is easy, of course, but there’s a reason why virtually nobody who supported civil rights contemporaneously thinks that John Roberts’ empty homilies are an adequate response.

*Of course, this applies only to assessing discrimination against African-Americans. When you’re asserting discrimination against an Italian-American firefighter, any lurid, implausible, race-bating conspiracy theory is plenty good enough.

How Not to Organize a Country

[ 0 ] July 1, 2009 |

One of the many things I find utterly fascinating about my adopted land is its unwritten constitution. Writing on the strength of an unwritten constitution, a book review in the recent Economist states it well enough:

The constitution was not a set of fundamental and broadly unalterable rules but simply “what happened”. The fact that government’s workings could easily and unobtrusively be changed was accounted a virtue: Britain escaped the ancestor worship that fixed canons like America’s imposed. Its elusive constitution seemed to ensure both stability and freedom. It was envied abroad and taken for granted at home.

Its strength of flexibility and malleability is at once its primary weakness: while it does an admirable job of adapting in most respects, on occasion the lack of clear and precise principles beyond the sovereignty of Parliament (and technically the Monarch) can lead to a ludicrously botched state of affairs. The piece in The Economist is rather quiet on the weaknesses inherent to the British constitution save for an observation attributed to the Queen herself: “The British Constitution has always been puzzling and always will be.” It is perhaps at its most puzzling when it comes to devolution of some powers to some regions.

I won’t get into the history much, but England sort of ended up dominating this island I live on, and tried to dominate the island to the west as well (while they mostly failed in that project ultimately, there are some residual manifestations). Possibly as a result, some people who live in the non-English bits of these islands view the English with some reservation bording on disdain. Indeed, it strikes me as provincial that supporters of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland aren’t merely unconcerned if England win or lose, they actively root, support, plot, and facilitate England’s demise. Now I’ll admit to generally not supporting UCLA, USC, or, god forbid, the Oregon freaking Ducks in their daily endeavours, yet when these teams reach the Rose Bowl at the expense of the University of Washington (a fairly safe bet these days unfortunately) I instinctively root for the Pac-10 against the heathens from the Midwest. Not so on these islands.

The constituent nations, even, yes, Cornwall, have also over the years appealed for a degree of, if not absolute, political autonomy. In a measured implementation, this I can appreciate and support (i.e. short of outright independence). However, in the tradition of the unwritten constitution lacking any set of guiding principles beyond what the Government of the day deems politically astute, the Labour implementation of devolution to Scotland and Wales was predictably botched.

The first attempt at devolution to Scotland and Wales was held in 1979. Both failed in referenda, convincingly in Wales and technically in Scotland. The version of devolution we have with us passed overwhelmingly in Scotland, barely in Wales, in 1997, possibly one of the few referenda that Labour have promised in their various election manifestos that they have carried through on. The resulting Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are close to powerless when contrasted with an American state, or even city in many cases. Scotland can vary the basic tax rate by up to three pence on the pound, which at least affords that body some democratic leeway (but, critically, not business tax, nor does the Scottish Parliament have any say over what remains of North Sea oil). Wales has neither the oil nor the taxation power. However, both Scotland and Wales do have a large say over how certain aspects of the budget allocated to them from Westminster, and it is here where some of the most striking anomalies arise.

The key fault with the current implementation of devolution is its asymmetry vis-a-vis the central government. Scotland has more power than Wales, they both have more and less than Northern Ireland, and everybody has more than any region in England. Tam Dalyell pointed out this anomaly back in 1977 with the so-called “West Lothian Question“. I assume that anybody who has read this far knows what it is, but in a nutshell, Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on issues that affect England (and English voters), while English MPs are not eligible to vote on issues devolved to the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament.

The West Lothian Question is best illustrated, at least in my current setting in my office in the Politics & International Relations department at an English university, by variance in university fees. Universities in the UK are funded, and ultimately administered (albeit very loosely) by the state. The Higher Education Act of 2004 basically tripled the tuition fee that students are responsible for paying, but not in Scotland, where higher education is a devolved power. It barely passed, by only five votes if I recall correctly. While there were obviously a large number of Labour rebels voting against the Blair Government, the overwhelming Labour majority in Scotland was critical in getting the Act passed. Remove these Scottish MPs from the equation, it fails. I often wonder how such an arrangement is consistent with basic democratic norms (and you can bet that I invite my students to consider this as they pay their fees).

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, has been getting a fairly easy ride through his term of office, due in large part to Scotland historically receiving a higher than average per capita spending from Westminster, now in effect a grant given to the Scottish Parliament to spend (on those policy areas not reserved to Westminster). No Scottish Government, Labour or SNP, have had to take advantage of the basic taxation rate. This may change, which is a good thing.

This is not meant to be a rant against the British “Constitution” per se, and as Walter Bagehot wrote in his brilliant Victorian treatise The English Constitution, the American system is also far from perfect. Indeed, this paragraph made me chuckle this morning:

A hostile legislature and a hostile executive were so tied together, that the legislature tried, and tried in vain, to rid itself of the executive by accusing it of illegal practices. The legislature was so afraid of the President’s legal power, that it unfairly accused him of acting beyond the law. And the blame thus cast on the American Constitution is so much praise to be given to the American political character. Few nations, perhaps scarcely any nation, could have borne such a trial so easily and so perfectly. This was perhaps the most striking instance of disunion between the President and the Congress that has ever yet occurred, and which probably will ever occur.

Bagehot was writing about the impeachment of one Mr. Johnson. I also do not mean to suggest that there aren’t similar anomolies in the U.S. (see the District of Columbia for a hilarious example) or that Scotland, Wales, or even Cornwall deserve some degree of autonomy.

All I ask is that it be done right, and this clearly isn’t.

Not to pick nits, but it’s not really an island, either, is it?

[ 0 ] July 1, 2009 |

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I didn’t know Rhode Island’s full name, so while I would support efforts by states to make their names longer and goofier, I guess don’t especially care if the Ocean State decides to change it based on flimsy historical interpretations of the term “plantation.” The broad argument made by the bill’s sponsors and advocates are reasonable enough; apparently, it’s possible to get an education in Rhode Island and not learn much about the significant role it played in the colonial slave trade. I doubt that altering the state’s official letterhead will do much to correct the problem, but Rhode Islanders — unlike the supporters of the Honduran coup — don’t seem to be especially threatened by the notion of a public referendum, so more power to them.

It would certainly be nice if the debate in Rhode Island were to spur similar reflections in certain other states — say, those of the defeated Confederacy — where the public landscape is littered with memorials to actual slaveholders and their political and military defenders, all of which would serve a more useful purpose if they were hauled away by crackheads meth addicts and sold as scrap metal. I suppose I shouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

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