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"We’re Not Selling Jeans": George Allen and the Perils of Althousism

[ 0 ] September 26, 2006 |

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“Terrorism policy, terrorism schmolicy–who does his socks?”

Michael Lewis’ much-discussed book Moneyball has, I think, often been misunderstood. It’s most often discussed as being about statistical analysis, or disdaining speed for power, or some specific conception of how baseball should be played. I think this is somewhat misleading: the book is really about the power of images and superficial received wisdom, and how the gap between images and real accomplishments creates opportunities for arbitrage. (Beane didn’t emphasize the drafting of college players out of an a priori belief; he did it because there was good evidence that other teams overrated high school players. Now that the pendulum has swung, he’s drafted more high school players.) Beane, as Lewis explains, was particularly well-positioned to see through the fallacies of received wisdom because he himself was a handsome, picture-perfect athlete who looked like a model major league player–and hence was drafted in the first round–but couldn’t actually play major league baseball. This is why, when a scout criticized a player’s body, he said that “we’re not selling jeans here.” Physical attributes are only relevant to the extent that they produce results. Tony Gywnn and John Kruk were terrific players; Deion Sanders was a terrible player, and Michael Jordan couldn’t hit AA pitching. That’s Beane’s crucial insight, and it’s applicable to far more serious pursuits.

And so it goes with George Allen, whose collapse is an object lesson in the dangers of an Althousian focus on irrelevant superficial characteristics over substance. Consider this acutely embarrassing in retrospect piece by Rich Lowry. His touting of Allen for ’08 contains very little about any substantive merits, and a great deal about his height, cowboy simulacra, and mastery of football metaphors. And the problem with this, of course, is that the cowboy image concealed a lightweight, largely inept racist who is in a dogfight to keep what should be a safe Republican seat (let alone a serious presidential candidate.) Yes, pesonality heuristics matter to voters (although one would hope that intellectuals would transcend rather than reinforce them), but they’re inherently unstable, and voters can be smarter than they’re often presumed to be.

But even worse is when empty suits selected to embody images rather than because of their ability is that they might actually win. If the Bush administration–which has been almost as disastrous from a principled conservative perspective as from a progressive one–teaches us anything, it’s that competence actually, you know, matters. To me, the definitive story of the Bush administration is the contempt that Bush had for Larry Lindsey–one of his few competent advisers–because he was fat (and apparently didn’t tuck in his shirts properly, the horrors!) And fundamentally Bush’s heckuva job cronyism all reflects the same problem; having no qualifications whatsoever for important positions is OK as long as you’re a Republican hack who wears a suit well. More than anything else, Bushism is defined by projecting the image of competence instead of possessing actual competence.

The point of my recent post, then, was not to hammer on Althouse (or Broder or Klein) per se–whatever chance she had of ever being taken seriously again outside a narrow cadre of glibertarian nitwits vanished permanently in a puff of invisible decolletage last week anyway. It’s that ignoring substance for trivial details actually matters. That’s way I have no use for Maureen Dowd even now that she’s directed her vacuous personality analysis at the man she helped put in the White House, and why I have less than no use for searches for “athenticity.” Having a consuming obsession with fat and trivial fashion details is harmless-if-irritating (and fun to make fun of) when you’re writing about reality TV. But when political power meets vapid ineptitude it results in the waste of trillions of dollars. And people getting tortured. And killed in futile wars. In our political leaders, triviality is far from a trivial matter.

[Image from MaxSpeak.]

Keep Telling Yourself That And Maybe You’ll…No, Actually, You’ll Never Even Convince Yourself

[ 0 ] September 26, 2006 |

Shorter Dan Riehl: This picture of the professor and his wife proves that he must have been–just like several other people–lying about the racism of a guy who admired the Confederacy growing up in California because…well, goodbye!

Really sad to see Allen’s lickspittles today; they can’t even be bothered to phone it in at this point. At least Jon Henke is getting a paycheck out of it.

[Via TBogg.]

A Partial Defense of Senior

[ 0 ] September 25, 2006 |

One thing worth noting about the Eric Boehlert piece that’s being widely discussed is that it focuses on the Blumenthal book. At least based on the Salon columns I read, I would agree that this part of the Senior review was problematic. I have to say, though, having read most of the Lapham columns (I let my subscription lapse after 2004, although it seems to have gotten better again this year) Senior’s analysis strikes me as fundamentally correct. No matter how heavily he wears his erudition, his analysis of contemporary politics is shallow, trite even when it’s accurate, lacking in detail and repetitive. (These traits are particularly striking when you read his recycling of ludicrous “Gush/Bore” conventional wisdom during his Nader lionization phase.) Another excellent example is to look at the content of his infamously, er, prescient column about the 2004 GOP convention. It’s not just that he made it up, it’s that he can’t even make up plausible lies:

The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal–government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden’s prayer–and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

As any remotely sophisticated follower of American politics is well aware, Republican conventions circa 2004 don’t involve people stepping up to the podium and talking like Milton Friedman. Republican conventions, when it comes to domestic policy, are all about erecting a Potemkin facade of moderation, not preaching hardline anti-statist economics. Assessing that would be far more interesting than Lapham pompously writing as if it were 1964.

Senior’s review can be legitimately faulted for trying to paint Blumenthal with the same brush; she makes some distinctions, but it’s sloppy to talk about these two quite different writers as if they were similar just both of them are strong opponents of Bush. But as for her critique of Lapham, I think it’s pretty much right.

And Don’t Forget the Alleged "Litigation Crisis"

[ 0 ] September 25, 2006 |

Amanda on the silly lawsuits filed by “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” in order to burden clincs that actually provide useful medical services to women:

From R. Mildred (whose take on this whole thing is very funny), the new strategy of the anti-choicers is to file nuisance lawsuits against abortion providers by claiming that abortion providers are pretending to be “crisis pregnancy centers” and using deceit to coerce women into abortions. It’s projection on a whole new level. While women’s clinics exist to empower women to control their own reproductive lives and make their own choices, CPCs are fundamentally coercive organizations. First of all, they are run by groups that agitate for a ban on abortion and generally on contraception as well. But they’re coercive as they exist now, because their entire existence is dependent on the non-existence of a ban on abortions—in other words, CPCs are there to find as many legal means as they can to prevent women from making informed choices while it is still legal to do so.

Think about it—once abortion is banned, do you think there’s a chance CPCs will continue to exist? They won’t be necessary anymore, because their main “service” is to present a high pressure sales pitch, complete with deceit and misinformation, to prevent women from getting abortions. Full stop. They have upped their “services” to handing out a box of diapers and a teddy bear to women who ask in an attempt to stave off criticism from pro-choicers about how they don’t actually have any real services, but there’s no college tuition inside that teddy bear, much less 18 years worth of food, housing, healthcare and child care funding. But what is fundamentally coercive about CPCs is the way they present themselves as medical service organizations, offering inexpensive “services” by volunteers that appear medical-ish, and then using this illusion to feed women more misinformation. (For further information, I recommend this PDF of a report by Rep. Waxman’s office on CPCs, where they found that 87% of the CPCs they investigated that are receiving federal funds provided coercive misinformation, much of which implied to women that if they got abortions they would go crazy and/or die of cancer.)

See also Lindsay.

Limited to Nothing

[ 0 ] September 25, 2006 |

I mentioned it briefly in an earlier Posner post, but as an addendum to Matt’s point it’s worth spelling it out clearly. Apologists for Bush’s program of abitrary executive power that includes the power to torture assure us that this power will be limited to terrorists. I don’t think that’s much of a defense. But more to the point, once you’ve effectively stripped any judicial oversight from the process, the arbitrary power is not limited to “terrorists” at all. It may be applied to terrorists, but it may also be applied to people the executive simply declares to be terrorists but aren’t, like Maher Arar. With meaningful judicial oversight stripped, the executive’s power is simply not bound to actual cases of national security, and to the extent that arguments (like Posner’s) rely on assertions that this arbitrary power can be neatly cabined they should be rejected, at least assuming that this amendment won’t pass. Unless someone can explain how torturing innocent people for months serves either American values or American interests.

When Madison Fails

[ 0 ] September 25, 2006 |

Michiko Kakutani reviews Richard Posner’s new book. I’ve already discussed some of the problems have with his arguments as he’s sketched them out in interviews, and I’ll probably read and review it for a talk I’m giving next year on the Constitution and executive power, but a couple quick points based on material quoted by Kakutani directly. First:

[t]he importance of demonstrating resolve at the outset of a grim struggle explains and to a degree justifies the excesses of repression that so often accompany our entry into war, including the war against Al Qaeda.

The worthlessness of “demonstrating resolve” as a justification for military action is Rob’s department. But I will add that the use of the concept demonstrates once again that Posner’s claims to be engaging in hard-headed cost-benefit analysis while other constitutional scholars fiddle with moral philosophy are often a sham. When vague concepts bear the weight of so much question-begging and unsupported assertion, he’s just doing normative theory without the courage of its convictions. But even worse is when his arguments rest on empirical assumptions that are plainly wrong:

Judge Posner also insists that there is little reason for the judicial branch of government to act as a check on presidential overreaching when national security measures are agreed upon by Congress and the White House, because the legislative and executive branches “are rivalrous even when nominally controlled by the same political party.” The Republican Congress, he asserts in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, “has not been a rubber stamp for the national security initiatives of the Bush administration.”

The idea of branches maximizing, or at least vigorously protecting, their power is an attractive one which is sometimes accurate. But, of course–as Posner seems to concede elsewhere–separation-of-powers systems often create strong incentives to delegate and defer power rather than fighting to maintain it. And, worse, foreign policy is the most obvious manifestation of legislative deference to the executive. Congress has steadily allowed more and more power to accumulate in the executive, and periods of “rivalrous” backlash in recent decades have been brief and ineffectual. As Kakutani says, to posit a virgorous Congressional check in the current context is nearly farcical. Given these types of claims, it’s hard to find Posner’s analysis very trustworthy.

The Dean Of Trivia

[ 0 ] September 24, 2006 |

Greg, Josh, and Atrios beat up on Dean Broder’s ludicrous new celebration of an “independence” that, as the complete cave-in on the torture bill indicates, doesn’t actually exist irrespective of the moral import of the issue. Rather than pile on in this case, Somerby allows us to recall this Broder classic from 2000:

Here was Broder, discussing the candidate who wasn’t “lawless and reckless”—the candidate who wasn’t the consummate dope, the candidate who did have lots of knowledge:

BRODER (8/20/00): In tone and substance, Vice President Al Gore’s acceptance speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention was like nothing I have heard in 40 years of covering both parties’ quadrennial gatherings.

Usually these acceptance speeches are attempts to take you to the mountaintop and show you the future. Gore’s was more a request to step inside a seminar room, listen closely and take notes.

As he continued, Broder openly mocked Gore’s attention to matters of substance. “One more paragraph and he would have been onto the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” the clowning pundit complained. “He mentioned only three aspects of what was, in fact, a significant record in the House and Senate. But, my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president.” (Imagine that!) Then came one of the most remarkable paragraphs in recent press corps history:

BRODER: I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim’s constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off.

A candidate for President showing knowledge about policy details? Explaining what he might do if he were elected? How gauche! As with Joe Klein, Broder is someone who just doesn’t care about politics in any meaningful sense at all. He might as well be writing a gossip column for a high-school newspaper; to him, it’s all empty symbolism and tautological personality evaluations.

Luckily, should the Dean ever retire, or Klein go back to musing about Woody Guthrie, the blogosphere has its own replacement ready to go:

Clinton leans way forward into Wallace’s space. He even jabs him in the knee a few times with his finger. Meanwhile, he seems unaware of his own ungainly body. He’s gotten quite fat, and his suits — which he keeps buttoned — don’t fit him properly anymore. He’s sitting with his feet apart and planted on the floor, and the pantlegs get hiked way up so that a wide band of white leg shows above each sock.

Ohmigod! And like did you see how Caitlin walked around with a mascara smudge on her face for like 2 hours today? And hasn’t she gained two pounds? And she calls herself a feminist but was walking around in a slutty Ann Taylor sweater! I’m like so sure that Sean is going to dump her and start dating Nicole instead! (If only such svelte, feminist and moral men like Henry Hyde had gotten their way and gotten Clinton impeached, the country might have been spared such a ghastly fashion faux pas.)

There’s no difference between Althouse’s coverage of politics and her legendarily interminable rambling about America’s Next Top Model, except that the latter is more substantive and coherent because she actually cares about it. She’d fit in with the complacent, reactionary, superficiality-obsessed Beltway pundit class just fine.

…a commenter, like Althouse herself, defends her body-language analysis as being meaningful. I would remind everyone that last week’s extensive analysis of The Breasts That Destroyed Feminism yielded such insights as 1)a group picture in which the short people were in front and the tall people in the back could only be explained by a systematic effort to give Clinton a good look at Jessica’s rack, and 2)the simplest explanation for why NARAL’s house blogger had been invited to a meetup by Hillary Clinton’s blog liaison is so that she could be set up with Bill. In other words, the analysis is about as reliable as using astrology; it’s nothing more than a way of making up deranged conspiracy theories about Bill Clinton while indulging her mean-spirited sneering about other people’s bodies. Similarly, her profound insights into Clinton’s socks today allows her to imply that what Clinton is saying isn’t true, without actually, you know, engaging in any substantive critique of what he was arguing. Either what Clinton is saying is correct or it’s not. Discussing his suit is just a way of questioning the veracity of his statements without having the slightest idea what the hell you’re talking about.

And speaking of mean-spirited superficiality, does this man look “fat” to you?

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Wow, if this “means something” Denny Hastert must be worse than Hitler. And is Althouse thin enough to be trustworthy? Isn’t the idiocy of this line of non-thinking obvious to everyone by now?

Liberal Democracies: More Effective Than Police States

[ 0 ] September 23, 2006 |

Vladimir Bukovsky:

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to “improve intelligence-gathering capability” by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some “cruel, inhumane or degrading” (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.


Even talking about the possibility of using CID treatment sends wrong signals and encourages base instincts in those who should be consistently delivered from temptation by their superiors. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the “treatment” under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous. Long gone are the days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about the “Chekist’s handshake” so widely practiced under Stalin — a firm squeeze of the victim’s palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?

Now it appears that sleep deprivation is “only” CID and used on Guantanamo Bay captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin’s “show trials” of the 1930s. The henchmen called it “conveyer,” when a prisoner was interrogated nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.


Bush, Cheney, and those around them remind me of Nietzsche’s line about staring too long into the abyss. They’ve become transfixed, hypnotized almost, by the evils they believe themselves to be fighting. Obsessed to the point where they’ve clearly developed an admiration for the brutal methods, ruthless dishonesty, and utter secrecy with which the enemies of liberalism conduct themselves.

But these things they’re so eager — determined, really — to cast aside aren’t frivolous luxury to be abandoned in times of peril. They’re the very essence of what makes our system of government work. They’re what makes it worth preserving, as a matter of ethics, but also as a matter of practice vital to the preservation of our way of life. Liberal democracy isn’t a fluke occurrence that just so happens to have survived despite its drawbacks. It’s actually a superior method of organizing a state. The idea that the country is being run by people who don’t understand that is sad and frightening. The idea that the very same people claim to be embarked upon a grand mission to spread our system of government around the world is like a horrible tawdry joke, but doubly frightening in its own way.

Indeed. All I can add is to mention once again that the neo-cons at the tail end of the Cold War didn’t think that the Soviet Union was a crumbling wreck of a country with an unsustainable political economy; they thought it was on the verge of burying the decadent U.S., and that the CIA was underestimating its power. To Bush, Cheney and their enablers, the language of liberal democracy masks a deep contempt for its basic institutions, and their desire for giving the executive the arbitrary authority to authorize torture is a definitive case-in-point.

…see also Hilzoy on the question of legal remedies.

Torturers: Get Out Of Jail Free!

[ 0 ] September 23, 2006 |


Blogs Can Be Effectual? I’m As Surprised As You Are.

[ 0 ] September 23, 2006 |

Via Jim Henley via Mona, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the life of Corey Maye has been saved, largely by the efforts of Radley Balko:

Cory Maye will not sleep on death row tonight. Nor, for that matter, any night for the foreseeable future.

At the conclusion of the hearing today, Judge Michael Eubanks ruled on two of the defense team’s battery of arguments. Both rulings from the bench tonight dealt with Rhonda Cooper’s competence. Judge Eubanks found that Ms. Cooper was competent for the trial, but incompetent for the sentencing.

I have my quarrels with that ruling, obviously. But in the short run, it means that Cory will at the very least get a new sentencing trial. And until and if that happens, he will no longer be on death row — and for the moment is no longer condemned to die.

It’s not over, but it’s still a remarkable victory. Kudos to Balko for his indefatigable efforts (Angelica too.) And also for his attempts to bring attention to the issue of the no-knock searches which in this case ruined the life of Maye and destroyed the life of a police officer, although in that case the story has an unhappier ending.

I Believe This Would Be Unfogged’s Department

[ 0 ] September 23, 2006 |

When self-appointed Hottest Catch Evah Jacqueline Massey Etc. Etc. and Legendary Intarweb Arsehole Jason Fortuny decide to get together to talk about nothing in particular for YouTube, all I can say is that while Fortuny is–amazingly–even creepier than one would expect, these people are too dull for it to even be an interesting trainwreck. Well, that, and while I’m the last person in the world who should be explaining how to create an attractive public persona if you’ve publicly described yourself as the hottest thing since Texas Air a video of you eating Pho probably isn’t a great idea. (A philosophical question: is eating Pho the worst first date idea ever because it’s as hard to avoid looking disgusting while eating it as it is tasty, or the best first date idea ever because if you can maintain your attraction after seeing someone eat Pho you’re destined for True Love?)

Why Access to EC Matters

[ 0 ] September 22, 2006 |

The issue of pharmacists, doctors and hospitals interposing their moralistic views between patients and their medical needs is brought into sharp relief in this horribly depressing but must-read post. BB stopped using hormonal contraception for health reasons, and after the condom her partner was using broke, she had an immediate sense of relief as illusory as Ann Althouse’s feminism. What follows is a chilling effects of attempting to navigate a Kafkaesque irrational obstacle course populated by self-righteous wankers:

“Well see,” he begins, his voice dropping a little, “the problem is that you have to meet the doctor’s criteria before he’ll dispense it to you.”

“Criteria?” I question.

“Well,” the nurse sounds decidedly nervous as though what he really wanted to do was hang up the phone completely, “Yes, his criteria. I mean…ummm…well, are you ok? Is there any, ummm….trauma?” he asks me.

My face changes expression and I hurry to explain, “No, no” I said, “No. I haven’t been raped. This was consensual sex.”

“Oh…” he trails off.

I wait expectantly.

“Well, ummm….*clears throat*…So you haven’t been raped?” he asks again.

“No. I have not been raped. The condom broke”. I state, becoming very frustrated at this point and wondering what the hell is going on.

“Ok, well ummm….Are you married?” he mumbles the words so low I can barely hear them.

Suddenly I get this image of the poor nurse standing at the hospital reading from a cue card that was given to him by a doctor.

“No.” I state plainly. “I am not married. I’ve been in a relationship for several years and I have three children, I don’t want a fourth.” I respond tersely.

“Oh, I see.” He says and then he hurries on, “Well, see. *I* understand. I want you to know that I understand what you’re saying. But see, the problem is that we have 4 doctors here right now but only one of them ever writes EC prescriptions. But see, the thing is that he’ll interview you and see if you meet his criteria. Now, I called the pharmacy but I also talked to him and well….*clears throat*….you can come down and try to get it. You know, if you meet his criteria he’ll give you a prescription, I mean, there’s really no harm in trying.” the nurse trails off, his voice falters as I realize what I’m being told.

Another example of why 1)it was absolutely essential to make Plan B availible over-the-counter, and 2)in most cases the compromises of centrists anxious to throw away the reproductive rights of poor women in rural areas should be rejected.

Via Feministing. See also Lindsay.

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