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Archive for September, 2012

No One is Sweeping Dead Muslims Under the Rug

[ 198 ] September 27, 2012 |

A couple of commenters and links have basically said that in not taking drone killings of Pakistanis seriously enough (for them) in my post yesterday, that I am basically choosing which brown people matter and which don’t. Jim Henley especially does this, and in a particularly egregious way:

But you know, they are not so rich in Somalia and Pakistan, and not especially white, and a lot of them are women and girls. And Barack Obama operates a machinery that kills these people at a ferocious clip. This was wrong during the Bush years and it is wrong now. Loomis gives every indication of wanting to rule these men and women of color, modest means, and oh-so-convenient distance out of the moral calculus.

This is completely absurd. Yes, voting is about, in part, a moral calculus. But to quote djw,

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, and democracy’s pretty clearly an insufficient tool to address it, but that’s no reason not to use the tool, when and where you can.

Indeed. I’m not saying bombing Pakistanis doesn’t matter. I’m saying that basing a vote ONLY on that and its related issues of civil liberties a) completely ignores the very real difference between Obama and Romney on a huge host of issues that affect the poor in this country and b) shows a very real sense of privilege by those making that argument because they are personally far removed from the reality of being a person of color or poor in this country. That’s great that people are highlighting this issue. But many of those who do so also almost always ignore or trivialize internal issues that the poor and people of color face.

It’s not that we should ignore the killing of Yemenis by drones. The problem is that AMERICANS LIKE KILLING BROWN PEOPLE OVERSEAS IF THERE’S NO COST TO THEM. Sorry for the caps but it’s important to get that point across. The problem of drones and civil liberties and human rights is that Americans don’t care about these issues. It’s not about Obama or Romney, not about the Democratic or Republican parties. It’s that there is a bipartisan consensus in this country, supported by a majority of voters in both parties, that using drones to bomb Afghani wedding parties is completely OK.

That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

However, there are very real differences between the two parties and their candidates on a whole host of issues where my vote might matter. Abortion rights. Gay rights. Environmental protection. Labor rights. Access to voting. Etc. It is on these issues that we have to make our choices. The election is still close and every vote matters, both up and down ticket. Presumably, if you think that you need to vote for Gary Johnson in order to protest drone killing, you want others to do so as well. And doing so over an Obama vote both gives a half vote to Romney and suggests that you are fine with voting for a candidate who would eviscerate the social system of this country if, god forbid, he was actually elected. That is pretty reprehensible.

If either major party offered a platform opposed to killing Pakistanis through the air, that would be great. Instead, we face a choice between someone who has continued the terrible policies of his predecessor and someone who is openly campaigning to kill even more brown people. So even on this issue, there is a slight difference.

Given the reality of American life, I can either make myself feel morally clean, vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson and effectively give 0.5 votes to Mitt Romney, a man who would destroy the rights of poor people in this country while make the life of poor people around the world even worse. Or I can swallow my pride, vote for Obama, and work to change the Democratic Party and political life in this country so we can get to a point where we don’t have a bipartisan consensus that killing random Muslims is actually a good thing.


All American Presidential Elections Are Choices Between Evils

[ 153 ] September 27, 2012 |

Obviously, I concur with pretty much everything in djw and Erik’s posts about the inexplicably celebrated Conor Friedersdorf essay in which he congratulates himself for being too good for the compromises of electoral politics.  (With, to be sure, some protesting-too-much about he’s no purist.)  With Fridersdorf, though, his trivialization of the issues other than his selected pet ones is internally consistent; as a libertarian, he presumably doesn’t care about the evisceration of the American welfare and regulatory states that would likely follow a Romney/Ryan win or sees it as a feature.   That any progressive would take this seriously, though, is beyond belief.   So I was dismayed by this Henry Farrell post:

You can make a good case, obviously, that his main opponent, Mitt Romney, would be even worse. But it isn’t at all clear that the consequences of voting for Romney over the longer term, would be any worse than the consequences of voting for the guy who was supposed to be better on these issues, and was not. Indeed, the unwillingness of American left-liberals to criticize the opprobrious foreign policy of a Democratic president (and the consequent lack of real public debate over this policy, since most of the right tacitly agrees with the bad stuff) weighs the balance in favor of voting against Democrats who you know are going to sell out.

Obviously, the fact that he’s simply placing no weight at all on the many issues on which Romney/Ryan would be far worse than a second Obama term, virtually all of the consequences of which would be disproportionately borne by America’s most vulnerable citizens in exchange for no actual benefits — is frankly appalling. Erik made this point and I have discussed it recently at great length, so I won’t reiterate the whole argument. But I will make a couple of additional points.

First, I would note that the heighten-the-contradictions argument being made here is very weak tea indeed. Henry concedes that Romney is no better on the issues under discussion and is probably worse. But, the argument seems to run, at least Romney would generate more opposition from Democrats when he committed similar and worse abuses. I believe this is true. But to carry any weight that would justify the repeal of the ACA, the overruling of Roe v. Wade, the gutting of environmental and civil rights enforcement, massive upper-class tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. it’s not enough that there be more opposition; it must be the case that this opposition be effectual. And it’s overwhelmingly clear that, in fact, this increased opposition would be extremely ineffectual. The liberal opposition to Bush over his stupid wars and egregious civil liberties abuses didn’t create the first powerful pro-civil liberties faction in American history, and it should be pretty obvious that this wouldn’t happen as a result of a Romney administration either.

Second, as a follow-up to djw’s point about the fallacy focusing on “deal-breakers” rather than engaging in a holistic evaluation of the consequences of electoral outcomes, I could understand the argument more if Obama was some kind of outlier on these issues among moderately progressive American presidents. But, to state the obvious, this is very much not true. Even the few presidents with greater records of progressive accomplishment than Obama have much more egregious deal-breakers to their discredit. LBJ, of course, was responsible for far, far more needless deaths than Obama (although it must be conceded that these deaths generally didn’t involve unmanned planes, which is apparently relevant for reasons I’ve never understood.) FDR had not only the horrors of the Japanese internment but the fact that the already insufficient social welfare programs that represent the enduring legacy of the New Deal were structured so that African Americans received grotesquely lesser benefits. Lincoln was a white supremacist, wasn’t an abolitionist, and even if we give him a pass on most Civil War deaths because it was a just cause it’s hard to argue that, say, all of the property destruction in Georgia was strictly necessary. And these are the good presidents. There’s no president that doesn’t have any number of potential “deal-breakers,” and as djw says this is inevitable given that American political culture and constitutionalism have always been saturated with any number of evils and injustices.

So, to be clear, to believe in this kind of logic is to permanently abstain from American electoral politics. All meaningful votes for president are at best a choice for a lesser evil. What abstinence or voting for nothing but vanity candidates is supposed to accomplish I have no idea, but nothing good and much bad would come from it. (Like Henry, I’m assuming that we’re not discussing “how any individual should cast her meaningless vote” but are making an argument about how progressives should vote. If any individual wants not to vote for Obama as a moral statement on the grounds that it won’t actually have any consequences, knock yourself out. I’ll only note that the ineffectuality argument cuts both ways — if your vote doesn’t matter, abstaining doesn’t somehow morally insulate yourself from the consequences of bad American policy either. Refusing to vote for Obama because you’d prefer to wait for Godot isn’t actually any kind of meaningful moral statement, and you can’t escape moral consequences by refusing to vote for anyone who might actually become president.)

Inter-Service Conflict and the System of Systems

[ 8 ] September 26, 2012 |

My latest at the Diplomat discussed efforts to make military services play nice with one another:

I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter. AirSea Battle seeks, above all, to iron out the wrinkles that could prevent tight cooperation between the United States Navy and the United States Air Force.  Years of hard won experience have demonstrated that military organizations don’t necessarily play well together; they have different priorities, different practices, and often different system of communication that generate friction and detract from overall capability.  The history of USN and USAF collaboration in KoreaVietnam, Grenada, and the Gulf is littered with stories of hostility, rivalry, and miscommunication. The Pentagon understands this, and over the years has enacted a plethora of reforms (not least the Goldwater-Nichols Act) to ensure that the Air Force and the Navy can operate effectively together.

As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.



[ 115 ] September 26, 2012 |

In the thread on Connor Friedersdorf thread below, Stephen Frug asks a question:

Do you agree with Friedersdorf’s premise, namely that there are *some* issues which are dealbreakers, moral issues so stark that you couldn’t vote for a person who supported the wrong side whatever their advantages over the other candidate (and, thus, the moral thing to do would be to support a protest candidate)? Or do you think that it is *always* right to support the better of the plausible candidates, however odious their positions on any given question?

And if the former, *what* issues do you think would be too immoral for you? Again, given something like the current choice on other issues. What issues would drive you to a protest vote? Or would none do it?

I can’t recall when or where, but I believe it was hilzoy who gave the best answer I’ve ever heard to this kind of question, which I wholeheartedly endorse. It was, essentially, that she would be indifferent to voting for the least bad viable candidate when things had gotten so bad that she was actively involved in violent rebellion against the government. Significantly, this is a higher threshold than “things are so bad violent revolution is justified in the abstract, but I’m not currently doing it”, but actual active rebellion. This seems exactly right to me. Either you should use the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state, of you should begin engaging in a plot to overthrow it, or find a way to contribute to an ongoing one. If the latter is not to your taste because you have other priorities, or you (probably wisely) deem it unlikely to be unsuccessful and as such not a reasonable risk of life and limb, you have no reason to avoid the first strategy, and you get no credit for moral high ground for avoiding it.

Perhaps because I indulged in such an attitude well into my 20’s, I’m always a bit embarrassed when I see someone much older than my students employ the “voting as moral approval/endorsement” paradigm. But it’s particularly cringeworthy when applied to an issue like, say, excessive state violence in Pakistan. Erik’s recent post got me thinking about my own vote for Nader in 2000 (which, like Erik, I soon regretted). I had decided to vote for Gore weeks earlier; I’d gone to the polls with every intention of voting for Gore. I was near the end of five years of irrational rage about the Welfare Reform act, and since I couldn’t take it out on Clinton again, I took it out on Gore. That was, at the time, my “dealbreaker.” In hindsight, my rage was deeply irrational not because I was wrong about the evils of the policy, necessarily, but because I was irrationally and single-mindedly focused on Clinton. The first alternative, which I barely acknowledged at the time, would have been to focus my rage against Republican legislators, who obviously passed the damn bill. But more importantly, my rage should have been directed to a significant degree against my fellow American citizens, whose political attitudes and values rendered Clinton’s decision to sign that bill a canny political move. Similarly, today we have a political environment in which most Americans are indifferent to or actively in favor of drone wars in Pakistan. That doesn’t make it right, or absolve those who engage in it. But it’s the first fact someone horrified with it should confront. Meaningful, serious opposition by a majority of Americans to such a policy certainly wouldn’t be sufficient to end it, and might not even be necessary, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. When there’s a broad bipartisan consensus on a particular policy, it’s probably a good place to start.

More centrally, though, the Friedersdorf-on-drones/youthful djw-on-welfare reform mentality on the purpose of voting is based on an indefensibly narcissistic account of democracy. The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, and democracy’s pretty clearly an insufficient tool to address it, but that’s no reason not to use the tool, when and where you can.

Leave it to a Loser

[ 23 ] September 26, 2012 |

Because Robbie Fulks is awesome and because Georgia Hard is the best country album of this millennium.

Jeff Goldstein’s “‘mental health problems,’ revealed!”

[ 221 ] September 26, 2012 |

I have nothing to add to this … except to say that I have emails and chat transcripts that prove that Jeff’s not lying. His fellow conservatives went far beyond the emails and chat transcripts he links to in order to diminish and discredit him. I still don’t entirely understand why.

But it’s worth noting, publicly, if only because that’s what movement conservatives have stooped to.

An Essay Only a White Person Could Write

[ 204 ] September 26, 2012 |

Connor Friedersdorf writes the kind of political essay I can’t see anyone but a privileged white person writing. Going as far as to nearly (but not quite he says!) compare President Obama to an apologist for slavery, he can’t stomach voting for Obama because of his policies in Pakistan, drones, etc.

Instead, he says we should vote for Gary Johnson since there’s a candidate who won’t do those things.

In a sense I respect it when people care so much about one issue that they can’t vote for any candidate who disagrees. On the other hand, Friedersdorf doesn’t seem to care one iota about the horrible economic and social policies a Romney administration would enact. He doesn’t seem to care at all about labor, abortion rights, gay rights, environmental policy, etc., etc. It’s all about drones, civil liberties, and such. And Obama has indeed sucked on those issues.

But given that Friedersdorf probably doesn’t have to worry much about his next paycheck or be concerned about having an unwanted fetus in his body, it’s a luxury for him to be a one-issue voter on this particular issue. It’s all too typical of a lot of angry left-wing white men from Glenn Greenwald on down who live privileged enough lives that they can find the one issue where there really aren’t any differences on the two parties and instead suggest alternatives that completely ignore the poor in this country, whether being Paul-curious to not voting to voting for a whacko like Gary Johnson. That doesn’t solve any problems and it goes back to the worthlessness of politics to make a point I talked about last week.

GOP: The Party of “Legitimate Rape”

[ 11 ] September 26, 2012 |

The Republicans might as well fight tooth and nail for Todd Akin’s bid to become a senator from Missouri. It’s not like a sizable percentage of Republican politicians and activists honestly have a problem with Akin’s legitimate rape comments. Their problem with him is that he said them out loud. The GOP war on women continues unabated.

The Political Benefits of Embracing Reproductive Freedom

[ 36 ] September 26, 2012 |

I have a piece up at the Prospect about how, contrary to the conventional wisdom, embracing reproductive freedom has almost certainly been a net win for Democrats in national elections.

Should We Long For The Good Old Days Of The Alien And Sedition Acts?

[ 201 ] September 26, 2012 |

With the major exception of campaign finance, I’m inclined to think that the near-libertarian consensus that’s grown around the First Amendment is a good thing. But it is an international outlier, and there is a potentially intelligent argument out there exploring the advantages of other ways of thinking about free speech, even if I would be highly unlikely to find it persuasive. But, atypically, Eric Posner’s First Amendment critique is not that — it’s somewhere between “#Slatepitch” and “outright trolling.” I hardly know where to begin. Well:

But there is another possible response. This is that Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order. Our own history suggests that they might have a point.

Despite its 18th-century constitutional provenance, the First Amendment did not play a significant role in U.S. law until the second half of the 20th century. The First Amendment did not protect anarchists, socialists, Communists, pacifists, and various other dissenters when the U.S. government cracked down on them, as it regularly did during times of war and stress.

It is true that the modern understanding of the First Amendment did not become entrenched in American constitutionalism until the 1960s. But that’s neither here not there unless Posner can point to the advantages of the previous regime, which he rather conspicuously fails to do in a remotely convincing fashion. Personally, I don’t long for the days in which you could be thrown in horrible jails and fined the modern equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for criticizing a public official, or in which a prominent labor leader could receive a ten-year prison sentence for making an anti-war speech. I don’t pine for the era in which schoolchildren could be coerced into giving a Nazi-style salute to the flag and subject to expulsion and/or physical assault if they didn’t comply. The dissenters who mocked the idea that the repression of powerless dissenters was all that stood between us and an American Stalin during the Red Scare were obviously right. The pre-Warren Court conception of free speech that Posner cites admiringly is in fact an excellent argument in favor of the contemporary understanding.

Even more depressingly, Posner gives us the same willful misunderstandings one would expect from College Republicans holding an Affirmative Action Bake Sale but are odd coming from a professor at an elite law school:

Meanwhile, some liberals began to have second thoughts. They supported enactment of hate-crime laws that raised criminal penalties for people who commit crimes against minorities because of racist or other invidious motives. They agreed that hate speech directed at women in the workplace could be the basis of sexual harassment claims against employers as well.

This is just transparently wrong. Whether one agrees with them or not, hate crimes laws don’t suppress speech per se, and taking invidious motives into account when assessing relative culpability is utterly banal. (Does Posner think that laws that make distinctions between first degree murder and manslaughter conflict with the modern understanding of the First Amendment because they take intent into account, sometimes using speech acts as evidence?) Sexual harassment laws, similarly, are not suppression of speech any more than laws banning conspiracies to extort are. Even Douglas and Black would quickly concede that when speech is brigaded with conduct it not longer automatically receives First Amendment protection.

Anyway, what are the advantages of the era in which the First Amendment was an empty shell supposed to be? Well, he never gets around to telling us, but he does have a nice non-sequitur in which he explains that actual rights should trump phoney-baloney rights:

Americans have not always been so paralyzed by constitutional symbolism. During the Cold War, the U.S. foreign policy establishment urged civil rights reform in order to counter Soviet propagandists’ gleeful reports that Americans fire-hosed black protesters and state police arrested African diplomats who violated Jim Crow laws. Rather than tell the rest of the world to respect states’ rights—an ideal as sacred in its day as free speech is now—the national government assured foreigners that it sought to correct a serious but deeply entrenched problem.


  • “States’ rights” were never “sacred.” Jim Crow politicians didn’t care about state autonomy; they cared about segregation.    Gilded Age judges who tried to enforce ridiculously narrow readings of the commerce clause also invented doctrines that constrained the ability of the states to regulate the economy, because they cared about laissez-faire capitalism, not about states’ “rights.”   From the Louisiana Purchase to the Fugitive Slave Act southern “strict constructionists” always managed to find room in their hearts for constitutionally dubious expansions of federal power so long as they entrenched the slave power.   Etc. Etc. Etc.   Of course the federal government didn’t believe that “rights” nobody actually cares about should trump fundamental human rights when this created international embarrassment for the United States.   What this has to do with the First Amendment I have no idea.
  • I can understand why Posner would prefer not to bring this up, but if we’re going to use civil rights as a rhetorical cudgel here, it seems relevant to note that the systematic repression of freedom of speech and freedom of association were crucial to the maintenance of both the slave power and the apartheid police states that emerged after Reconstruction.   Odd how this doesn’t make it into Posner’s narrative about the good old days when we weren’t bound by the “symbolism” of providing robust protection for free speech rights.

There might be a case worth hearing for why the anti-Muslim video should cause us to reflect on our current understanding of the First Amendment.   Posner’s sure isn’t that.

Our Future Leaders

[ 124 ] September 25, 2012 |

It certainly seems to me that a huge percentage of our leaders, whether in business, politics, university presidents, or whatnot are former fraternity members. Theoretically sorority members too, but who are we kidding. Glass ceiling! Anyway, the next generation of leaders from the University of Tennessee really inspire confidence in the future…

As medical personnel treated a University of Tennessee student for severe alcohol poisoning from a bizarre consumption method, UT police walked into a drunken scene at a campus fraternity, records show.

Officers early Saturday found several young men at the Pi Kappa Alpha house, 1820 Fraternity Park Drive, passed out in their rooms “and bags from wine boxes, some empty and some partially empty, strewn across the halls and rooms.”

Authorities think Alexander P. Broughton, 20, of Memphis, who had a blood-alcohol level thought to be “well over” 0.40 percent, ingested the alcohol by a method known as “butt chugging,” in which wine was inserted directly by a tube into his rectum for quick and potent absorption.


“Upon extensive questioning it is believed that members of the fraternity were using rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the blood stream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver,” DeBusk stated in a news release Monday.

I don’t know why I even bother commenting on this. But first, if you are going to insert a tube up your ass and dump alcohol into it in order to get as drunk as humanely possible with great rapidity, why would you even bother with wine? Why wouldn’t you buy a bottle of the cheapest vodka on the market?

Second, the image of a bunch of frat guys shoving rubber tubes up each others asses and then dumping alcohol in the tubes does what I thought was in fact impossible–lower my opinion of the greek system.

On the other hand, you have to admit that we have some fine candidates to be solons in the Tennessee state legislature.

….Also, while we lack concrete evidence that Glenn Reynolds bought the wine for this UT Young Republican night of pranks, it would be irresponsible not to note that we also can’t rule it out.

Layers of Conspiracies

[ 51 ] September 25, 2012 |

Just a brief set of additional points on the poll skewing theory, which I understand to be that a wide array of polling organizations (excluding Rasmussen and periodically Gallup) are highly susceptible to Democratic lobbying, and have modified their procedures in order to make it appear more likely that Obama is well ahead of Romney. Queries:

  1. Why are such a wide array of organizations susceptible to Democratic pressure, but not to Republican? What renders Rasmussen immune to such pressure?
  2. Given that polling organizations have determined, because of this pressure, to report findings that they must know are false, why don’t they do a better job of covering their tracks? Why report the accurate cross-tabs at all?
  3. Given that polling organizations have determined, because of this pressure, to report findings that they must know are false, why are they bothering to conduct polling at all? Why not just go the Research 2000 route and make it all up?
  4. If the results on November 6 closely resemble the expectations of the polls, will the GOPsters currently devouring this theory a) recognize that they were being had, or b) adopt the belief that the conspiracy was successful, and that campaign of misinformation discouraged some significant percentage of Republican voters?

I think I know the answer to the fourth question.

The discussion in the comment thread here is interesting for the comparison with Democratic attitudes in 2004. Democrats certainly expressed skepticism about Bush’s lead, for two reasons. First, there was a widespread (but not apparently well-founded) belief that undecideds tend to break for the challenger, and that if Kerry was within twoish points of Bush he stood an excellent chance of winning the election. Second, people were beginning to develop an appreciation of the cell phone effect, which was believed to favor Kerry due to the demographics of cell phone ownership in 2004. Apparently, there’s more empirical support for the latter than for the former, although it didn’t turn out to be a major factor in 2004. [Update: Thers offers an artifact of the skewing obsession from 2004].

What differentiates the Democratic beliefs in 2004 from their Republican counterparts in 2012 is the reliance on conspiracy theory; Democrats were surely over-optimistic in 2004, but (and I’m sure there were exceptions), didn’t tend to believe that the polls were being intentionally skewed in order to discourage participation. Democratic conspiracy theories in 2004 were of a different flavor, involving suspicion that the administration would create some sort of national security justification for delaying or ignoring the election, and in general received little mainstream attention. The Republican theory is considerably more elaborate, involving a widespread effort at intentional deception undertaken not only by the Democratic Party, but also a host of independent polling firms.

If Mickey Kaus were still alive, and had he ever been able to apply his critical faculties to the GOP, he might have referred to the incubation of such theories as “cocooning.” But I suppose we’ll never know…

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