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R.I.P. Don Kirshner

[ 14 ] January 18, 2011 |

Don Kirshner, the man responsible for the music behind the Monkees, has died. The Monkees represented everything that was most crass and reprehensible about the pop music scene of the time, and Kirshner, the impresario behind the Brill Building music machine, was the perfect man to exploit all that crassness and reprehensibility for maximum profit. But just as the Hollywood studio system couldn’t avoid creating some great movies, Don Kirshner couldn’t avoid helping create some great pop music.

(After the Monkees rebelled against Kirschner’s dictatorial ways, he went on to create the Archies, who, being cartoon characters,were more willing to indulge his artistic whims).

Those of us of a certain age remember Kirshner best for the Midnight Special, his eponymous Rock Concert, which would, in those pre-American Idol days, occasionally expose a bemused network TV audience to something like a seven-minute four-song full frontal assault from the Ramones:

How white is Matthew Yglesias?

[ 74 ] January 17, 2011 |

Yglesias notes that, for the first time in nearly a half century, an Ohio governor appointed an all-white cabinet.

It should be unnecessary to point out that, in 2011, a governor of a state with around 1.3 million African American residents who appoints a cabinet that looks like this is doing so for a specific political purpose. That purpose is (of course) to illustrate that, like Stephen Colbert, John Kasich doesn’t “see” race. Are all 20 members of his cabinet white? Black? Purple? Green? Kasich couldn’t tell you . . because all he knows is that each and every one of them is the most qualified person he could find for the job. (Indeed one suspects those who think otherwise are themselves the “real racists.”)

I’m tempted to tip my metaphorical cap to the contemporary GOP: in an increasingly non-white nation they’re finding a way to turn being the semi-official party of white America into a successful marketing strategy (the linked CNN poll found that white tea partiers outnumbered black ones by a 40-1 margin).

It’s interesting to note that, even as America has become less white, the cultural definition of whiteness has been slowly liberalized. A couple of generations ago Yglesias — a Jew of Cuban-Spanish descent — would have been considered only most imperfectly white. At that time “white” meant Protestants of northern European extraction. (As I believe Nik Cohn pointed out in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, Italians were what the pop music industry used for “soul” before they invented black people).

Indeed, even the claim that America will be a minority white country by the middle of this century is based on the dubious premise that Hispanics/Latinos aren’t or will not be “white” by that point. In fact census data indicates that nearly two thirds of the nation’s more than fifty million Hispanics/Latinos (a category that includes Yglesias) already consider themselves “white.” Most of the rest classify themselves under the government’s new “Some Other Race” category.

Anyway, the GOP finds itself in something of a demographic bind. On the one hand, as Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland so powerfully documented, for more than 40 years now the anxiety and ressentiment of “white” people in an increasingly non-white America has been a key element in the party’s electoral success. The composition of Gov. Kasich’s cabinet can be seen as a kind of not very subtle tribute to that fact. On the other, over the next few decades a lot of people who currently aren’t very white are going to have to get a lot whiter, if a party that only white people vote for is going to keep winning national elections.

Putting his best foot forward

[ 19 ] January 13, 2011 |


Now that my beloved University of Michigan football program has been hijacked and destroyed by a meglo-maniacal erstwhile purveyor of crappy pizza, I’m looking for my pigskin thrills elsewhere.

Bless you, Wes Welker.

The paranoid style and American politics

[ 142 ] January 8, 2011 |


Gabrielle Giffords.

Update: Sarah Palin and gun fetishism.

We can only imagine what would happen if the shooter turned out to be a young Muslim. Since he appears to be a white guy it’ll be probably be considered in bad taste to use the t word.

Alomar and Blyleven elected to the HOF

[ 69 ] January 5, 2011 |



Alomar was a slam dunk once the idiot “first ballot” convention was dispensed with, and his name was on 90% of the ballots. Blyleven’s election (79.8%) is a bit of a tribute to the power of saber-knowledge.

Others: Larkin 62%, Morris, 53.5%, Lee Smith 45%, Bagwell 41.3%, Raines 37%, Trammell 24.3%.

McGwire was named on 19.8% of the ballots; Palmiero on 11%.


[ 17 ] December 29, 2010 |


For some reason this reminds me of John McKay’s comment immediately after he had coached Tampa Bay to one in a string of 26 straight losses, and he was asked what he thought of his team’s execution. He replied he thought it was a good idea.

Journalists United Against Journalism

[ 15 ] December 28, 2010 |

Glenn Greenwald’s observations about how, in the context of the Wikileaks story, the usual symbiotic relationship between our government and Big Media is moving toward something like organic union reminded me that Hubert Wolfe’s clerihew translates well across the Atlantic:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(Thank God!) the British Journalist
But when one sees what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no occasion to.

Also, Pope:

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

“On the Collar of a Dog”

On a vaguely related note, I recently had occasion to read some accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, and was struck by how men such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim went down with the ship.* Astor was one of the richest men in America, while Guggenheim was a scion of an immensely wealthy and politically connected family. Somehow I find it difficult to believe that, in a similar situation today, Bill Gates and Jeb Bush would be allowed to freeze to death in the waters of the North Atlantic, while hundreds of members of the Lower Orders were taking up precious life boat space.

*While it’s true that first class passengers survived at more than twice the rate of those holding third class tickets, gender and age still much better predictors of who got into the lifeboats, when considering all passengers together. However, higher class status was an extremely powerful predictor of survival within subgroups. For example 90% the first and second class women passengers survived, while only half the women in third class lived. And while a third of first class men survived, nine out of ten of those in second and third class perished. Most strikingly, almost all children in first and second class survived, as compared to just 31% of those in third class. Statistics here.

Good questions, bad answers

[ 28 ] December 21, 2010 |

Michael Lind asks if anyone in America believes in the rule of law?

It’s a good question, but his response to it reveals it’s a much tougher one to answer than he imagines.

First, he excoriates “most of the American left” for defending Wikileaks and Julian Assange:

For Assange’s admirers, the embarrassment that his publication of stolen government and corporate documents produces for government policymakers, bankers or corporate executives whom they dislike more than compensates for the theft of classified or private information on a grand scale. The idea that the law in its majesty is supposed to protect the bad as well as the good apparently is rejected by those who celebrate information vandalism, as long as its victims are the State Department or big banks.

Given Lind’s general theme — that people all across the political spectrum ignore the law when it suits them — this example seems poorly chosen. After all, there are excellent arguments that Wikileaks and Assange haven’t actually broken any American laws. In the current increasingly authoritarian climate it seems people need to be reminded that, in America, merely publishing government and corporate documents, even stolen ones, is not illegal. Furthermore, arguments that Assange is guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage are very problematic as a legal and specifically constitutional matter, since such arguments would, as many people have pointed out, essentially criminalize a lot of traditional investigative journalism.

Lind might respond that while Assange himself hasn’t broken the law, “the left” is celebrating his exploitation of law breaking by his sources. But this merely dodges all the tough legal and political questions, such as under what circumstances the unauthorized transmission of classified government and corporate documents for the purpose of exposing wrongdoing — i.e, whistle-blowing — is or should be legally protected (characterizing such behavior as “stealing” begs this question rather than engaging with it).

Lind goes on to strive for ideological balance in his critique:

An equally casual approach to the rule of law is found on the right, among libertarians and conservatives who defend the offshore tax havens that defraud federal, state and local governments of tens of billions of dollars in tax revenue each way. Not even their defenders dispute the fact that these tax havens exist only to facilitate tax avoidance by hedge funds, banks and corporations. According to the Government Accounting Office in 2008, in 2007 Citigroup had 427 offshore subsidiaries, Morgan Stanley 273, JPMorgan 50, and Goldman Sachs 29. The “dark matter” of the “shadow banking system” created by these complex law avoidance schemes contributed to the global financial crisis and today’s prolonged recession.

Again, what’s lacking here is any argument that the behavior Lind deplores is actually illegal. I’m not a tax law expert but I don’t doubt that what Lind casually calls “fraud” would be characterized by the lawyers and accountants for these banks as “the prudent employment of existing tax laws.” Indeed these people would argue that what they’re doing is not merely legal, but that their firms’ fiduciary obligation to their shareholders affirmatively obligates these firms, as a legal matter, to take advantage of such arrangements. I also don’t doubt there are arguments these avoidance schemes sometimes cross the line into illegality. Whether those arguments are, as a strictly legal matter, good ones I’m not competent to say — but of course neither is Lind.

Ironically Lind is doing something very much like what he accuses others of doing: he doesn’t like it when Wikileaks’ publishes classified documents, or when investment banks avoid taxes, so he simply assumes those policy preferences represent “the law.”

(Lind’s argument from immigration law — “To read much of the liberal blogosphere, it would appear that immigrating to the U.S. by following U.S. laws, and immigrating to the U.S. by breaking those same laws, are equally legitimate” — is a strawman that he doesn’t even bother to illustrate with evidence in the form of A Guy With a Sign Somewhere before he knocks it down.)

Lind’s best argument is that both conservatives and “liberals” such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have abandoned the rule of law in the field of foreign affairs, by pursuing targeted assassinations, preventive war, and the use of torture on terrorist suspects. But even here Lind fails to grapple with the really difficult issue, which is that these are examples of not merely, as Lind frames the matter, individual “scofflaws” who ignore the law, but, far more problematically, instances of the systemic failure of our legal and political institutions. When George W. Bush engaged in “preventive war,” he did so with the full backing of the legislative and judicial branches of the American government. The Obama administration’s policy of pursuing targeted assassinations has to date produced no significant resistance from the legislative and judicial branches. And the failure to prosecute the architects of the Bush administration’s torture regime is just as deeply structural — and therefore just as “legal” — at least if one defines legality as what the American legal and political system actually does.

This last point gets to the heart of the matter. Lind doesn’t just ignore the inconvenient fact that people often disagree about what, at even the most formal level, is and isn’t legal. His argument fails to engage with the more fundamental issue of what “the rule of law” ultimately should or does mean. Does “the rule of law” require that we ignore the most basic tenets of our political and moral views when our political and legal system legalizes deeply immoral conduct? For instance, would Lind condemn judges who, prior to the Civil War, refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws? Does the fact that Congress approved the invasion of Iraq have any bearing at all on whether that invasion was justified? Would it alter the mortality of torturing terrorist suspects if — as was the case under Anglo-American law until, historically speaking, relatively recently — torture was as a formal matter perfectly legal?

Invoking “the rule of law” as an axiomatic principle of political obligation remains easy to the precise extent one doesn’t ask hard questions about what that much-abused phrase does or should mean.

The torture of PFC Bradley Manning

[ 37 ] December 18, 2010 |

It seems clear Manning, who has never been convicted of a crime, is being tortured for the purpose of destroying his ability to resist his captors, so that his subsequent testimony will make it possible to prosecute Julian Assange.

In Soviet Russia, party writes jokes

[ 16 ] December 17, 2010 |


In America, jokes write themselves!

Does the quality of legal argument in Supreme Court opinions matter?

[ 10 ] December 14, 2010 |

I have a piece at the Daily Beast about the ACA decision which suggests some reasons to be skeptical.

I’m particularly interested in the assertion that the professional quality — as measured by the craft values of the legal profession — of the arguments in SCOTUS opinions has or at least in certain circumstances can have a serious effect on the Court’s perceived legitimacy. It’s a commonplace of criticisms of particularly controversial Supreme Court decisions to assume this is the case. Indeed justices make the claim themselves routinely, as for example in the concluding passage of Justice Stevens’ dissent in Bush v. Gore:

It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.

Is there any evidence of such an effect, either in regard to Bush v. Gore or other SCOTUS decisions?

Don’t Cry No Tears Around Me

[ 5 ] December 13, 2010 |

John Boehner was blubbering on 60 Minutes last night about something or the other, which a nice illustration of how it’s OK for macho Republican men to secrete strategic tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gum.

Such displays are by nature far more problematic for Democrats, who are typed as “soft” due to their (largely hypothetical) reluctance to kill foreigners with enthusiasm, or worship at the shrine of television characters who are tough enough to save American lives by torturing people etc.

Needless to say all these rules are even more abstruse for women politicians and pundits, who are under continual suspicion of being either hysterical little girls or ruthless ball-breaking bitches. It’s complicated!