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Tortured reasoning

[ 24 ] March 10, 2011 |

Apocalypse Now

Glenn Greenwald points out a striking editorial inconsistency on the part of the New York Times, which has an official editorial policy of refusing to call waterboarding “torture” when it’s carried out by the U.S. government, while describing the same actions as torture when they are performed by other regimes.

The Times’ justification for its treatment of the contemporary American practice of waterboarding is that, since there’s a political controversy in the United States right now about whether waterboarding is torture, it would be a form of inappropriate editorializing to call waterboarding torture in its news pages. (Apparently this controversy doesn’t cross geographical or historical borders, so according to the Times waterboarding is still torture when it’s carried out by Nazi Germany and the People’s Republic of China).

All this raises the awkward issue of whether it’s sound journalism to automatically suspend the willingness to engage in moral judgment, or indeed to employ simple common sense, as long as sufficiently powerful political actors within our society are insisting that we do so. Ignoring for the moment its inconsistent editorial practices in regard to the matter, the Times is taking the position that since that, post-9/11, the Bush administration started claiming that waterboarding wasn’t torture, and since there hasn’t been a definitive ruling on the question by the federal courts since then, the paper is precluded by the canons of “objective” journalism from calling waterboarding torture. In the words of NYT Washington Bureau Editor Douglas Jehl:

I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?

It seems to me that in regard to this issue, the Times’s methods have become unsound. First of all, the notion that there’s an actual legal controversy as to whether waterboarding is torture is spurious. Torture isn’t a legal term of art: the legal meaning of torture is in no significant way different from the ordinary understanding of the term. Completely immobilizing a man and then beginning to drown him, thereby subjecting him to extreme anguish and overwhelming panic, is obviously torture in the ordinary meaning of the term. Indeed I’m fairly certain waterboarding remains torture even in the minds of of John Yoo and Jay Bybee, as long as they’re not being paid to render an opinion that it’s not when it’s being carried out by their employer of the moment. The fact is that until the Bush administration found a few lawyers who were willing to commit some unnatural intellectual acts, it really hadn’t occurred to anyone in the U.S. legal system to question whether waterboarding was torture, since it so obviously is in both legal and lay parlance.

But beyond this, what difference should it make if the Supreme Court ends up harboring five John Yoos and Jay Bybees? Would that somehow stop waterboarding from being torture? This would be true only for people prone to the sort of legalistic authoritarianism that causes them to suspend their own powers of moral and political judgment, as long as a sufficiently powerful person is uttering the words “It is so ordered.” And such people shouldn’t be editing the New York Times.

NY Times: Dangerous, expensive diet fraud has fans and skeptics

[ 66 ] March 8, 2011 |

“Some” (researchers who have tested the proposition) have found that injecting yourself with a hormone derived from the urine of pregnant women while eating a starvation diet of 500 calories a day doesn’t actually cause any weight loss that wouldn’t be caused by a starvation diet alone. “Others” (crooked doctors charging their desperate patients $1000+ a month) claim otherwise:

But unlike other popular diet supplements, hCG, which is derived from the urine of pregnant women, has acquired an aura of respectability because the injections are available only by prescription.

Ms. Brown’s physician, Lionel Bissoon, a well-known society doctor with an office off Central Park West, charges $1,150 for his hCG program, which covers an examination, injection training, a month’s supply of the hormone and syringes, and blood work to monitor for possible trouble.

“From an anecdotal point of view,” Dr. Bissoon said, “physicians all around the country have seen people losing a tremendous amount of weight with this stuff, and you cannot afford to ignore that.”

Indeed! Who is to say what the truth of the matter is? And what is “truth” anyway, in this crazy mixed up postmodern world of ours?

Not to mention the whole “eating 500 calories a day is exactly what anorexics do” thing.

Then there are the nutritional concerns about a diet that some say mimics anorexia. “The average person is going to eat 1,800 to 3,000 calories,” said Kristen Smith, a bariatric surgery dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center.

“I don’t think it promotes healthy long-term eating habits,” she added.

Limiting yourself to 500 calories a day “mimics” anorexia in the same way that injecting heroin every day “mimics” heroin addiction.

Clarence Thomas thinks the law doesn’t apply to him

[ 9 ] March 4, 2011 |

And of course he’s right.

Tellingly, Thomas was the only justice in the Citizens United case who was willing to declare even the law’s financial disclosure requirements unconstitutional.

Thomas’s psychology in this matter (as well as others) is of some interest. It’s an unappetizing combination of immense social privilege masquerading as perpetual victimhood.

The Politics of Nostalgia

[ 105 ] February 28, 2011 |

For obvious reasons, nostalgia is one of the two most important emotions fueling conservative politics. A wise man once observed that the past “was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today” — and this almost universal human sentiment remains ripe for commercial and political manipulation. Still, the strategic use of nostalgia faces a practical problem whenever a society is much wealthier than it was a generation ago. One way of dealing with this awkward fact is to extol the virtues of a simpler time, in contrast to the decadent excesses of the present. This strategy has its limits however (As Jorge Luis Borges notes somewhere, “while it is true that money cannot buy happiness, the advantages of poverty have been greatly exaggerated.”).

Another approach is to make sure that as much as possible of the society’s increased wealth goes to a tiny fraction of its people. From the perspective of the right-wing ideologue, such a maneuver has two equally delightful aspects. First, it rewards society’s most virtuous citizens, that is, those who are already rich. Second, it encourages an inchoate longing for the past — always so useful for conservative political projects of every stripe –among the great bulk of the citizenry, since they will not be misled by the consideration that their own economic station in life has actually improved. Of course this latter strategy requires a deft touch among the powers that be, lest the ever-greedy masses notice that one particularly compelling reason to prefer the past to the present is that the gap between themselves and their social superiors has increased very much to their disadvantage. Read more…

Blackest and whitest names in America

[ 15 ] February 21, 2011 |


Photo: The improbably named Cherokee Parks.

Blackest names: DeShawn and Imani Washington

Whitest names: Jake and Molly Yoder.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

On Wisconsin

[ 244 ] February 17, 2011 |


Talking Points Memo is doing some great reporting on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s odious little stunt, whereby he essentially committed arson and then announced he needed to get rid of collective bargaining rights, in order to pay for more firefighting equipment:

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

“The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed,” Norman adds.

In a Wednesday op-ed, the Capitol Times of Madison picked up on this theme.

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

You can read the fiscal bureaus report here (PDF). It holds that “more than half” of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker’s initiatives:

* $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.

* $48 million for private health savings accounts — a perennial Republican favorite.

* $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.

In essence, public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda. “The provisions in his bill do two things simultaneously,” Norman says. “They remove bargaining rights, and having accomplished that, make changes in the benefit packages.” That’s how Walker’s plan saves money. And when it’s all said and done, these workers will have lost their bargaining rights going forward in perpetuity.

Apparently this fellow drank enough tea in the last few months to get the impression that he would be immune from any political blowback if he paid off his political cronies with money extorted from public workers. I suspect he won’t be the last GOP blowhard to get some reality therapy in the coming months.

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A bit more on drinking

[ 13 ] February 17, 2011 |

Rob’s post inspired me to look up the WHO report on drinking in the USA, and to do some quick calculations. According to this data, American adults (defined as people over 15) consume slightly less than two drinks per day per capita. This is using the standard definition of a drink as 12 ounces of beer, or five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. However, according to the CDC only 52% of American adults are regular drinkers (defined rather modestly as at least 12 drinks per year), while 35% of the adult population never drinks alcohol at all.

Thus half the American adult population is averaging around 3.5 drinks per day. That is a mean rather than a median — the median is probably not far from the one to two drinks per day that appears to correlate with better health than either total abstention or heavy drinking.

As Yglesias notes, much of the health risk associated with drinking in the USA could be mitigated if people didn’t have to drive everywhere.

Especially people with a lifetime OPS of 145.


[ 38 ] February 15, 2011 |

It’s early in the day, but Matt Yglesias has a good one:

Right now we have conservatives simultaneously calling for huge spending cuts and also getting the [lion’s] share of old people’s votes even while the vast majority of non-security spending is on old people. In essence, by first separating the domestic budget into “discretionary” and “entitlement” portions and then dividing the entitlement programs up into “what today’s old people get” versus “what tomorrow’s old people will get” the political class has created a large and vociferously right-wing class of people who are completely immune from the impact of their own calls for fiscal austerity.

Single-wing Politics

[ 111 ] February 12, 2011 |

This Bob Herbert column makes a number of points that seem, to anyone ever-so slightly to the left of, say, Barack Obama, unexceptionable to the point of banality. That’s not a criticism: as Orwell remarked, “sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” Pointing out that the United States has become an unapologetic plutocracy, in which The Money Party buys whatever legislation it favors and orders a well-compensated hit on any initiative it dislikes, is an example of fulfilling that obligation.

Herbert could have added that our foreign policy has also been almost as completely commandeered by elites that largely overlap those inhabited by our financial and corporate overlords. (Relatedly, Glenn Greenwald notes how elite opinion in America manages to condemn the undemocratic character of Egypt’s oligarchical corruption without a trace of ironic self-consciousness).

One important factor that enables all this is the almost complete exclusion of anything that could be realistically called “the left” from what is considered serious or respectable political debate in America. This isn’t true in regard to various culture war battles: When it comes to abortion, or gay marriage, or affirmative action, or the secularization of public life, or any of a number of other issues that are fraught — at least for cultural conservatives — with great symbolic significance, something that could be meaningfully called “the Left” is a recognized and often successful player in public political debate.

But when we leave the battlefields of the culture wars, and turn to economic and foreign policy, the left becomes either completely invisible or a target for derisive jokes about Michael Moore’s waistline, “crazy” feminists, etc. When it comes to blood and money, the debate in contemporary America takes place between the radical anti-government right (the Tea Party and its enablers), the radical authoritarian right (the Bush-Cheney-neo-con wing of the GOP), and the relatively moderate right (the Democratic party establishment, of which Barack Obama is naturally the leading representative). What, after all, could be characterized as genuinely liberal — let alone actually left-wing — about the Obama administration’s economic or foreign policy? The administration’s economic policy is “left” only in a world in which demands to return to the economic arrangements of the Gilded Age are considered part of serious political debate, while calls for a health care system that looks something like that enjoyed by every other developed country are dismissed as typical pie in the sky utopian socialism.

When it comes to foreign policy, the erasure of anything even vaguely resembling a left wing politics is even more complete. The Obama administration’s foreign policy — which after all merely reflects the position of almost all Democratic national political figures — is almost indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration in all important respects. For a politician to seriously question the imperial pretensions that fuel our current orgy of paranoid nationalism instantly marks that person as Not Serious in the eyes of our opinion-making elites.

On the most important issues of our time — questions of basic economic justice, and war and peace — the Overton window has been moved so far right that we have a political discourse which would have been largely unrecognizable a generation ago. The first step toward changing that situation is recognizing it for what it is.

Must . . . not . . . make . . . Althouse . . . joke

[ 53 ] February 11, 2011 |

Wisconsin’s new GOP governor is threatening to call in the National Guard to enforce his unilateral revocation of state employee contract rights.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

[ 32 ] February 11, 2011 |


From Jay McInerney’s review of Kenneth Slawenski’s new Salinger biography:

For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

It’s remarkable how little evidence of such experiences is to be found in Salinger’s published writings (Slawenski suggests Salinger suffered from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as clinical depression). As we continue to be flooded by non-stop paens to “the good (sic) war,” it’s worth considering how on June 6, 1944, there was perhaps a 90% chance that the man who had yet to write The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories was going to perish on some forsaken beach or forest, as anonymously as any of the war’s 60 million other victims.

Comedy gold and/or Apocalypse Now

[ 34 ] February 10, 2011 |

The GOP primary season is shaping up as a reality TV freak show of Springeresque proportions, what with Michele Bachmann about to toss her tinfoil hat in the ring, Donald Trump threatening to make America “respected” again, and Sarah Palin continuing to mull whether to add her crayon-scrawled resume to the hopper. Then there’s Professor Gingrich making noises about bringing his unique style of pro-colonial historical analysis to the struggle to overthrow the Kenyan usurper. Throw in Ron Paul, this week’s version of Mitt Romney, and a healthy dose of groveling before the Tea Party’s demands that the government balance the budget by getting rid of NPR, and the 2012 presidential race promises to be a veritable laugh riot.

Of course one of these guys/gals could well end up getting elected, in which case the joke will be on Planet Earth.

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