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The Vice-President Loves Surprises

[ 0 ] June 24, 2006 |

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?

Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Peter Howard at Duck calls out the transparent stupidity of this statement:

The White House vigorously defended today a secret program of combing through a vast international data base containing banking transactions involving thousands of Americans. Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials said the program, whose existence was revealed on Thursday night by The New York Times, was both legal and necessary to deter terrorism.

As Peter notes, secret programs cannot, by definition, deter anything. The Vice President should be falling to his knees and thanking the media for revealing this little gem.

[ 0 ] June 23, 2006 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Nelson

What’s the Point?

[ 0 ] June 22, 2006 |

One has to wonder what the point of this editorial is. Carter and Perry assert that the United States ought to attack North Korea in an effort to prevent the launch of the Taepodong II ballistic missile. What this would accomplish is unclear. One does not test a missile unless the likelihood of success is quite high, especially when the test would be as high profile as this launch is likely to be. So, given a limited (and this is what they propose) attack on North Korea, the basic distribution of capabilities would remain the same; North Korea would have missiles that probably (but not definitely) could be armed with nuclear warheads and launched at the United States. That’s it. Since the North Koreans are planning to launch the missile anyway, there would be literally no change in the ability of the DPRNK to launch on the United States.

So, why this editorial? Two reasons, I suspect. One, by advocating a preventative attack (and this would be preventative; no one is suggesting that this missile is being launched at the United States), we Democrats demonstrate to the American electorate that we are just as tough and even more stupid than the Republicans on national security. Tough and stupid, it is thought among some circles, plays well in the heartland. Second, we demonstrate “resolve”. Our allies, none of whom would be expected to support such a strike (Carter and Perry allow this) will nonetheless be impressed. The North Koreans will be so terrified that they’ll do, uh…. something. American “resolve” will have been demonstrated. Then we go home, eat a steak, and sleep with our beautiful wives.

I kind of wonder when the poisonous meme of “resolve” found its way into American foreign policy thinking. Interestingly enough, an obsession with resolve is not characteristic of all foreign policy establishments. Europe, today and in the Cold War, does not seem to suffer from resolve based arguments. As far as I know, no one in political science or any other social science discipline has ever managed to demonstrate that a reputation for “resolve” had an independent effect on the decisions of any purported enemy anywhere. Yet the infection persists…

Via AG.

Lexblogging: Ashland

[ 0 ] June 22, 2006 |

Three weeks ago Davida and I visited Ashland, the Lexington home of Henry Clay. As an historical site the estate was quite interesting, although the original house had been torn down shortly after Clay’s death, and replaced by a near replica. Ashland was furnished entirely with artifacts either from Clay’s life or the lives of his descendents, the last of whom left Ashland in the mid-1950s. Of course, the estate is much smaller today that it was during Clay’s time, but it remains a very lovely park, a nice place to have a picnic or listen to music.

The exhibit is very Kentucky-centric, mildy odd given the portion of his life that Clay spent in Washington. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that Clay had a hand in most every element of the early development of Kentucky. Clay was a drinker of bourbon, and reputedly introduced the mint julep to Washington D.C. Clay also played an important role in the early equine industry; several of the horses in the Preakness Stakes could trace their lineage back to horse that Clay owned, including the winner. The exhibit was also quite forthright regarding Clay’s lack of success in his attempts for the Presidency. He was defeated three times in the general election, and three other times in the primaries.

Clay is an odd figure, one of the second generation giants that no one really talks about anymore. I am told that there was a flurry of interest in Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and other of their colleagues around the end of World War II, but the recent popular fascination with the Founders seems ready to skip clean over this generation and move right on to Lincoln. I don’t think that the reasons for this are all that complicated, as the story of the Second Generation is one of endless flawed compromise and eventual failure. While Lincoln can be understood to redeem the sins of the Founders, Clay and his cohort simply had to deal with them. The Founders left this generation with two enormous problems. The first of these was slavery, a difficulty that the Founders (and Clay) tried to wish away, but one that loomed larger as time passed. The second was a constitutional system utterly insufficient to the task of solving big problems.

Clay himself was a middling supporter of slavery. He was willing neither to engage, like Calhoun, in an ideological defense of the peculiar institution, nor was he willing to do anything productive to end it (other than waiting for it to go away). It was as apparent to Clay as anyone, though, that slavery was an enormous political problem for the United States, even if he found it uninteresting on the merits. Clay was critical in constructing and maintaining the various compromises that held the Union together between 1820 and 1850, and his work on these problems was genuinely masterful. All told, it probably was a good thing that the Civil War was fought in 1860 instead of, say, 1835, as the power of the North was steadily growing, as was the general international disapproval of slavery as an institution. Of course, this did not enter into Clay’s thinking; the last thing he was trying to do was delay long enough to provide the foundation for a Northern victory. Nevertheless, delaying the final resolution of the slavery problem probably had the practical effect of pushing that solution in a progressive direction.

I think that a Clay-like figure can be found in almost any political context. They lack vision, but are masterful political operators. Because they lack any sort of vision for the future, they tend to be mildly, but not overwhelmingly, conservative. Cicero might have been the first Henry Clay. The most recent Clay, if you will, was probably Bob Dole. Edmund Burke was kind of a Clay figure, but people forget that Burke was, by and large, on the progressive side of most political questions of his day. Then again, the parallel might be apt, as Clay was a big supporter of the American System, the Hamilton-esque program to bring infrastructure and capital improvements to what was then the American West. This effort certainly played a role in the expansion of capitalism and of the industrial, commercial North, indirectly undermining the slave-ocracy.


[ 0 ] June 20, 2006 |

This is easily the best thing that Jonah Goldberg has ever written. The highlights:

What was once Kinsley’s contrarian instinct has been dogmatized into official corporate policy. Weisberg has admitted as much in interviews. Freelancers especially seem to have figured out how to get through Slate’s editorial defenses: Pitch a story, any story, that’s counterintuitive, and someone on the receiving end will say “brilliant!”

Let it be said, lest Slate readers are confused on this point: Contrarianness is a great and good thing—when driven by reason and facts. But contrarianness for its own sake is often the very definition of asininity. Mavericks who break from the herd to point out hard truths can be heroes. Mavericks who break out from the herd just to get noticed are pretty annoying. If the emperor has no clothes, by all means say so. If he doesn’t, saying otherwise for the sake of saying so is not only a tiresome shtick, it also reduces your credibility.

Slate’s editorial voice is not Olympian by any means. It’s more like that of an Ivy League kid who can skip class and still get an A on the test.

Right. I still check Slate with reasonable regularity, but the schtick is pretty transparent and pretty old. Saletan, Weisberg, Kaus, and Dickerson all seem to be pretty much the same guy, although Kaus is clearly the ugliest personality. As Goldberg notes, though, what sets Kaus apart isn’t so much his project as his ineptitude in carrying out that project.

Forward Thinking

[ 0 ] June 20, 2006 |

If I were a terrorist, and I thought that an amnesty for former insurgents would probably damage the insurgency and help stabilize the Iraqi state, then something I might do is kidnap a couple of American soldiers and torture them to death in the hope of provoking an emotional response.


A Craptastic Travel Day

[ 0 ] June 20, 2006 |

All was going well until I got to Chicago. O’Hare is a nasty airport; too crowded, too noisy, way too hot, poorly laid out. I did manage to get my flight destination switched from Louisville to Cincy (for reasons too complicated to explain, I was flying back into Louisville, while my car was in Cincy and my apartment in Lexington), although I couldn’t get on the early flight and had to settle for the 6:45. Whatever; better than dropping $80 on a rental car in Louisville.

But then the thunderstorms hit Cleveland, and like a butterfly flapping its wings and creating a tsunami, my day went to hell. Flight delayed to 8:10, then to 9:30. Four hours in O’Hare turns into seven. Then the bastards lose my luggage. Since I have cleverly left my car keys in my checked luggage (note to self: this is a terrible idea) I am stuck in Cincinnati for another day.

I hope my cats don’t starve.

UPDATE: I am still waiting for my luggage, which has been located in Louisville. The baggage handling guy in Louisville (and I’m paraphrasing the nice lady at United Delayed Baggage) apparently has other priorities, and since United doesn’t fly from Louisville to Cincy, they’ll either have to put it on another carrier or send it back to Chicago and thence to Cincy.



[ 0 ] June 18, 2006 |

Armchair Generalist, responding to Tony Snow’s claim that 2500 “is a number”:

No, Tony. It’s not a number. “No. 2500″ had a face, family, and friends. Not that he was one of your friends – asshole.

Yes… but.

There’s no doubt that the death of the 2500th American serviceman in Iraq is a tragedy. However, that particularly death is no more or less tragic than death 1831, death 722, or death 118. I concur that Snow was displaying the flip attitude towards casualties that this administration has become famous for, an attitude that is both infuriating and inexcusable. On the other hand, though, he’s kind of right.

A war supporter made the point to me that numbers like 2500 are for all intents and purposes politically meaningless, and I think that he was right. The debate on either side of the war would not be affected a whit if the number was 1250 or if the number was 5000. Indeed, I’m not convinced that doubling or halving the casualty number would even give a reliable indication as to whether the war was going well. Casualty rates are far more useful for evaluating such claims than absolute casualty numbers.

Nor does the number 2500, or even 5000, represent some kind of upper limit on what the United States ought to be willing to sacrifice in a war. The willingness to accept a cost in blood has to be proportionate to the goals pursued and the benefits expected of a military action. If I had believed that Hussein was two weeks away from a nuke, and that he would immediately have handed that nuke over to Osama Bin Laden, and that he had planned and helped bankroll 9/11, and that he was about to invade Kuwait again, and that his removal would cause democracy to spring all over the Middle East etc., then I daresay 10000 American dead would not have been too high a price to pay for his ouster. Since I’m not an idiot, I didn’t believe any of those things. It’s impossible to come up with a specific number of American servicemen that I would have been willing to sacrifice to eliminate Hussein, but it’s fair to say that 2500 is way too many.

Nevertheless, Tony Snow has a point. The issues that render the Iraq War just or sensible have almost nothing to do with the tragic death of the 2500th American serviceman in Iraq. Invoking that number (and I don’t mean to pick on Jason; lots of bloggers have mentioned it, but his comment had a characteristic blunt elegance) doesn’t really tell us anything new about what’s happening in Iraq. The next number to receive serious attention will be 2987 (one more than died on September 11), but its occurence will be no more relevant to the war, or even to the evaluation of our current progress in the war, than was 2500.

News and Notes

[ 0 ] June 18, 2006 |

First things first, thanks deeply to Steve Gimbel and Dan Nexon for helping out over the past two weeks. If you enjoyed their work, please visit Duck of Minerva and Philosopher’s Playground in the future; good guest blogging deserves a reward, and Lord knows, we’re not paying them.

  • Loomis has been doing some good work lately; read Death and the American West,his piece on the King papers, and his post on teaching evaluations. Alterdestiny also appears to have metastasized in the last few days, so make sure to check it out.
  • Yglesias helpfully summarizes my thinking on the Lamont-Lieberman tilt. Dave, of course, has already commented productively on this question.
  • Bill Petti has an excellent post on just how useless the Osirak analogy is for any kind of proliferation-related defense planning.
  • I’m about halfway through the Patterson School Summer Reading List, a list that all current and incoming Patterson students are supposed to digest. I’ve finished Packer, Saunders, Pollack, the Mearsheimer/Walt, and I’m about halfway through Colossus. In an effort to preserve what little dignity I still have, I’m steadfastly refusing to read The World is Flat… I plan to review all of these for LGM.

Sunday Battleship Blogging:Sevastopol

[ 2 ] June 18, 2006 |

The annihilation of the Baltic Fleet at Tsushima left Russia short of battleships. Although the Tsar was successfully persuaded not to dispatch the Black Sea Fleet to Asia, the two major Russian fleets had historically been distinct units, and transfers between them were rare. The construction of Dreadnought rendered all remaining Russian battleships obsolete anyway, so the Russians were forced to rebuild from scratch. Russia commissioned battleship designs from Italy and France, and finally settled on what amounted to a hybrid, although the new design resembled the Italian Dante Alighieri more than any other ship.

Sevastopol was laid down in 1909, but because of inefficiency and corruption at Russian naval yards, was not completed until November of 1914. She carried 12 12″ guns in four triple turrets, not superfiring. This meant that she had a 12 gun broadside but only a 3 gun end-on fire, a serious design flaw. Sevastopol displaced 24000 tons and could make 23.5 knots. The speed was the only plus element of the design, as Sevastopol had relatively light armor. It should be noted that this was an extremely poor design choice for a ship likely to operate in the Baltic Sea. There is no question that Sevastopol and her sisters were hopelessly outclassed by foreign competition upon completion. The British Iron Duke, the American New York, the Chilean/British Canada, the Austrian Viribus Unitis, the Japanese Kongo, and the German Konig were all completed prior to Sevastopol, and were all notably superior in design and performance. The design also failed aesthetically; Sevastopol and her sisters were probably the ugliest battleships ever built.

Adding to the Russian difficulties were problems of geography. The Russian Baltic Fleet was hemmed in by the far superior German High Seas Fleet, and consequently rarely left port. Sevastopol and her three sisters rusted in Petrograd for most of the war. The unstable political situation in Russia didn’t help, as maintenance and morale suffered. Sevastopol was laid up in late 1918, and not recommissioned until 1923. While in reserve, she was renamed Parizhskaya Kommuna (Paris Commune) in a victory of ideology over nationalism. After an overhaul, Parizhskaya Kommuna was returned to service. Because all of the dreadnoughts of the Black Sea Fleet had been sunk or captured during World War I and the Civil War, and because the Soviet state lacked the fiscal capacity to rebuild the Fleet, it was eventually decided to dispatch Parizhskaya Kommuna to the Crimea. After a refit in early 1929, PK embarked for Sevastopol.

The journey did not go well. The refit included a new bow design that did not perform well in heavy seas. PK nearly sank during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, and had to put into Brest for repairs. The Soviet authorities were embarrassed by the incident, and mandated that the repairs be conducted only by the crew. I suspect it also likely that the crew was mildly embarrassed to be sailing a ship named “Paris Commune” into a French port. PK put back to sea three days later, and almost sank again. Upon her return to Brest, adequate repairs were performed by French workers. PK arrived in Sevastopol in January of 1930.

In the Black Sea, PK was a big fish in a small pond. The only other capital ship in the area was the Turkish Yavuz, and PK probably could have stood her own against the aging German battlecruiser. PK was modernized between 1934 and 1938, and played an active role in World War II, operating against German positions in the Crimea and keeping the tiny Romanian Navy in check. In 1943 the Soviets noticed that Paris Commune was a ridiculous name for a Russian battleship operating in the Black Sea, and changed her name back to Sevastopol. The Germans had air superiority over the Black Sea for a time, and Sevastopol suffered bombing damage during the course of the war. After the war Sevastopol became a training ship, and was finally scrapped in 1957.

Trivia: What was the last veteran battleship of World War I sold for scrap by the Royal Navy, and why was she last?

American Kurtz

[ 0 ] June 17, 2006 |

Read, if you haven’t already, A.O. Scott’s wonderful meditation on The Searchers. I’ve written about the Searchers before, and I’m not the only one; Lance and Wolcott had a back and forth on Wayne and Ford about a year ago that’s worth revisiting. Dr. B also had a great post on Brokeback Mountain that didn’t reference The Searchers specifically, but did manage to bring Brokeback and Ennis Del Mar firmly into the Western genre. More on that in a bit. Given that I’ve spent so much time writing and thinking about The Searchers, it shouldn’t surprise that the film is one of my favorite of all time. I suppose I can at least understand why someone might prefer The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to The Searchers, but claims that, for example, Stagecoach should be regarded as superior just don’t make sense; the words appear to be in the English language, but they’re not arranged in a meaningful way.

Scott touches on what I think are the two most critical moments in The Searchers. The first comes early in the film, when the posse has just assembled and begun to chase Scar and his band:

This impulse points to a terrifying, pathological conception of honor, sexual and racial, and for much of “The Searchers” Ethan’s heroism is inseparable from his mania. To the horror and bafflement of his companions (one of whom is both a preacher and a Texas Ranger, and thus a perfect embodiment of civilized order), Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche, and exults that this posthumous blinding will prevent this enemy from finding his way to paradise. But when you think about it, Ethan’s ability to commit such an atrocity rests on a form of respect, since unlike the others he not only knows something about Comanche beliefs but is also willing to accept their reality.

I’m not sure that “respect” is precisely the right word, but it’s not terribly far off. Edwards has, prior to our introduction to him, become fluent in both the languages and customs of the Comanche. He is fully conversant in their religion, their codes of honor, their forms of communication, and their methods of warfare. How this came to be is never made clear, just as the full nature of Edwards relationship with his brother’s wife is hinted at but never expanded upon. While it’s possible that Edwards always had a deep hatred of Indians, I don’t think that makes much sense. Rather, I think it more likely that Edwards has at some point suffered a change of heart about the Comanche, moving from an attitude of curiosity and perhaps one of wary cooperation to one of unrelenting hatred.

This puts Edwards into a different but related literary genre, that of the white man among the primitive Other. Ford and Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a literary cousin of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, a man whose experience in the Congo leads him, in the end, to scribble “Exterminate all the brutes,” a sentiment that Edwards directly echoes when he tries to destroy a herd of buffalo. Edwards hatred is so deep (and, oddly, so de-racinated) that he would prefer to kill his niece than to allow her to become Comanche. In a sense, Ford goes a step farther than Conrad, because Edwards is both Kurtz AND Marlow; the civilized man dangerously seduced by the Other, and the man who becomes obsessed with rescuing another from that seduction.

Scott also discusses the other iconic moment in The Searchers; the final scene in which the entire family, including the niece who has just been rescued from Scar, enters the house, leaving Edwards outside. Edwards briefly approaches the door, but then seems to understand that he is simply not meant to ever return to such a place. He has been compromised, and, like Kurtz, he cannot return to civilization:

In the last shot of “The Searchers,” the camera, from deep inside the cozy recesses of a frontier homestead, peers out though an open doorway into the bright sunshine. The contrast between the dim interior and the daylight outside creates a second frame within the wide expanse of the screen. Inside that smaller space, the desert glare highlights the shape and darkens the features of the man who lingers just beyond the threshold. Everyone else has come inside: the other surviving characters, who have endured grief, violence, the loss of kin and the agony of waiting, and also, implicitly, the audience, which has anxiously anticipated this homecoming. But the hero, whose ruthlessness and obstinacy have made it possible, is excluded, and our last glimpse of him emphasizes his solitude, his separateness, his alienation — from his friends and family, and also from us.

Scott, echoing Dr. B, then points out how this same mood structures our understanding of Ennis Del Mar at the end of Brokeback Mountain; as Dr. B puts it:

It exposes the essentially tragic nature of the Western (which has always been there): the domestic space that the cowboy creates and protects is something he can never really belong to, because the very qualities that make him a creator/protector unfit him for domesticity. Short version: Western American masculinity defines masculine as that which excludes the feminine. Inasmuch as Brokeback is about gay men–who, obviously, exclude femininity in ways that straight men never can, but who are also defined, by those same straight guys, as essentially feminine–it absolutely captures the paradoxical nature of the Western.

Scott suggests that Brokeback is a Western only by virtue of geography, but I think that Dr. B has a much better handle on it; Ennis Del Mar and Ethan Edwards (although she doesn’t specifically mention Edwards) are the same hero, and although Del Mar is obviously compromised in a much less (to us) destructive way than Edwards, the manner in which they interpret their relation to civilization is essentially the same.

Fort Collins II

[ 0 ] June 16, 2006 |

DJW and I are in Fort Collins, again grading AP exams. Little has changed since last year, although I understand that next year we’ll be moving to Daytona, which promises to be rather new.

Some thoughts:

  • There’s something mildly amusing about how all the AP readers become fans of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, or whatever other team happens to be playing in the World Cup between 10am and 10:20am each morning. I very much doubt that many of us even watch soccer regularly.
  • Trivia Night at “Woody’s”, the local pizza bar, is run in a hopelessly inept fashion. The Quiz Mistress asserted that George Harrison was the only Beatle never to appear in a Simpson’s episode, a claim flatly contradicted by his appearance in the Barbershop Quartet episode , and by John Lennon’s death nine years prior to the first episode of the Simpsons…
  • It’s been fracking hot in Fort Collins. I had hoped (with some good reason) that vacation would be a relief from Kentucky heat, but this has proved not to be the case. Yesterday was okay, and today is supposed to be reasonable.
  • The AP exam-taking high school students of today know a lot more about causation, correlation, and the constitution of the Russian state than I did when I was 17. I’m almost beginning to think that Oregon City High School didn’t have the most efficient social science instruction. It’s probably the only school outside of the South where one can spend half of senior year college prep history on the Civil War…

I am also taking the liberty of reposting my report from last year:

DJW and I are currently in Fort Collins, Colorado reading AP exams. What does this entail, you may ask?

AP exams are developed by the College Board and given to thousands of high school seniors at the end of each school year. Successful completion of the exams often means college credit, although the requirements differ by institution. Like any tests, AP exams must be graded. In June, close to 600 high school and college teachers converge on Fort Collins to grade the many thousands of US Government and Comparative Government exams that come in. The cadre is divided roughly evenly between high school and college teachers in order to give a diverse set of viewpoints on the exams, to give each group a stake in the success of the project, and to ensure both sides that the exams will be evaluated fairly and competently.

We grade. And we grade. And we grade. For seven straight days, from 8am to 5pm, we grade. Usually the first day is spent on training, because while we are each supposed to bring a level of expertise to our field, we are absolutely not allowed to grade according to our personal knowledge and tendencies. Rather, there is the rubric. The rubric specifies that certain points are to be given to specific responses.

The rubric is law.
Do not question the rubric.
Do not challenge the rubric.
Do not defame the rubric.
Do not disparage the rubric.
Do not poke the rubric.
Do not taunt the rubric.

The rubric is our holy writ, and is developed before the graders arrive. The above may sound draconian, but it is absolutely necessary to the success of the project. We are grading questions about politics, and knowledgeable people disagree about the effect of the third parties in American politics or the impact of the Algerian War on French domestic politics, for example. Without a defined set of acceptable answers, chaos would ensue, and the Republic would be endangered. Thus, the rubric.

So, we grade. And they feed us. We eat. And we grade. And we eat. We eat breakfast, then grade for two hours. Then they provide us with a tasty snack. We grade for two hourse, then go to lunch. We grade for two hours, then receive another tasty snack. We grade for two hours, then go to dinner. After that, many of us drink beer. It is a simple life.

The best exams, the ones that lighten our day, are those of the students who just don’t care. Some students get to take the exams for free. Many of these haven’t the faintest about the topic at hand. A subset of these spend their 100 minute period writing about their lives. Writing for people you’ll never meet seems to be liberating. I’ve read bitter tirades directed against the entire male gender. I’ve read multiple loss-of-virginity accounts. I’ve read about drug use, crushes, future plans, baseball, football, cats, parents and whatever else you can imagine seventeen year olds caring about. All of these get zero points, but I always read them with great care.

We get paid a decent salary, and as I mentioned the work isn’t terribly difficult. Fort Collins is a nice place to visit, and Colorado State has a good campus. There is a fair amount of free time, and I’ve been able to finish some of my own academic work. Tomorrow, we get to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for a few hours. With luck, I’ll be able to post some photos.

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