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Political Parties and American Empire

[ 5 ] July 25, 2008 |

Daniel Walker Howe, reviewing Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, asks a good question:

The most significant deficit of “Habits of Empire” is that the book pays too little attention to the perennial opposition to American imperialism. However common, imperialism has been consistently controversial throughout American history, and objections have been raised to the imperial impulse from all corners of the American political stage. It would be interesting to know why, for example, the Democratic party, which enthusiastically supported Empire I under Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk, largely opposed Empire II [which included the acquisition of Caribbean and Pacific real estate after the Civil War].

That would be, I think, primarily due to the Democracy’s traditional pretensions to being the party of white yeoman supremacy — claims that were much more plausible as an excuse for continental expansion than as an excuse for, say, colonizing the Philippines or acquiring Cuba. Before the party foundered in the 1850s on the question of extending slavery into the territories, it could always defend the acquisition of new land (Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, etc.) in terms of gunfighter/settler mythology. That is, Western lands could be idealized as vacant — and thus a source for agrarian fantasies — while being temporarily occupied by people who required extermination or expulsion. Through the 1840s, Democratic expansionists insisted that such gains would be (a) consistent with the proper fulfillment of national destiny and, thus, (b) egalitarian in their economic and social consequences.

That illusion was strained, first by the debate over the annexation of Texas and then by the aftermath of the Mexican War, the latter of which proved to many Northern Democrats that the gains of that war amounted to a land grab for the slavocracy. When representatives of the execrable Franklin Pierce sought to acquire Cuba, and when pro-South mercenaries organized an array of filibustering schemes to take land in Central and South America, the cause of overseas expansion was firmly associated with the ominous designs of the Slave Power. No one pretended that Cuba or segments of Nicaragua, for example, would play host free white American farmers; these were to be plantation aristocracies and nothing more. The cultural mythology of the antebellum Democracy, then, had no place in these plans.

After the Civil War, there were a variety of concerns that fed Democratic opposition to the (generally) Republican-led efforts to widen the American imperium. It didn’t help that Republicans retained their commitment to high tariffs, which Democrats tended to oppose, and it didn’t help that the party of “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men” had matured into the instrument of Big Business. Quite simply, Democrats (and a variety of insurgent populists) were skeptical of Republican notions of a global American presence, because they couldn’t imagine Republicans would structure such a system to their benefit.

It also didn’t help that many Republicans were proposing to “civilize” — and potentially absorb as citizens — millions of non-white peoples whom most white Americans were unwilling to acknowledge as their peers. (Then again, even Republican voices could be heard arguing against further “amalgamation,” for the same reasons they tacitly accepted segregation ; The Nation, for instance, argued against Hawaiian annexation because it would only feed racists’ “inextinguishable passion” for blood.) For Southern Democrats especially, the ideology of the “white man’s burden” posed a challenge to the ideology of Jim Crow; they weren’t completely incompatible species of white supremacy, but neither were they easily combined into a bipartisan rationale for imperialism.

Anyhow, Nugent’s book seems worth a read. As does Howe’s, of course….

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An Angry Rant that I Can Get Behind

[ 18 ] July 25, 2008 |

First, check out this angry rant against the United States Air Force.

It’s a rant that I can appreciate for obvious reasons, but the ranter also makes some very solid points; the criteria by which Air Force officers move up the chain of command appear to be different than those of the other services (or at least most branches of other services), and these differences are consequential for development of leadership potential. As such, leadership of the service might well suffer relative to the Army and Navy. I think it’s an empirical question as to whether Air Force leadership is actually worse than Army or Navy leadership, but I’ve read a lot of anecdotes along these lines, and the theory makes intuitive sense.

The argument here is different from my own case against the Air Force, which concentrates instead on problems presented by the Air Force’s structural position within the national security bureaucracy. However, I would say that the case made here is consistent with the argument I’m making; if we conceived of the Air Force as part of a military organization geared towards the realization of combined arms victory, rather than as its own independent entity, then problems associated with the promotion of technical experts (fighter pilots) to leadership positions wouldn’t be as significant. I also have to wonder how much the victory of the fighter faction over the bomber faction has made a difference regarding the quality of Air Force leadership. I tend to think that the bomber faction has a wrongheaded and destructive approach to theorization of strategic warfare, but at least it has a firm grasp on the idea that the use of military force ought to be geared toward political outcome. I’m not sure that’s the case for the fighter faction; air superiority is a operational, not strategic concept, and ground attack a tactical, not strategic mission. The argument made by the poster at Op-For would seem to back this conclusion up.

Anyway, like I said; it’s a rant worth reading.

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You Are The Sucker: Chuck Schumer Edition

[ 0 ] July 24, 2008 |

Some eminently predictable buyer’s remorse:

When President Bush tapped Michael B. Mukasey to lead the scandal-plagued Justice Department nine months ago, Senator Charles E. Schumer could not say enough good things about his fellow New Yorker. Mr. Schumer ran out of time in ticking off Mr. Mukasey’s accomplishments at his Senate hearing, and the senator’s vote of support ensured his confirmation as attorney general.

Yet at a hearing this month, face to face with his pick for attorney general, Mr. Schumer, a Democrat, did not hide his disappointment in what he saw as Mr. Mukasey’s reluctance to move more aggressively in investigating accusations that the Justice Department had brought politically inspired prosecutions against Democratic politicians.

Mr. Schumer was still fuming a short time later as he went to the Senate floor for a vote. “That was terrible,” Mr. Schumer told a colleague privately in assessing Mr. Mukasey’s performance, an official privy to the conversation said.

Why Schumer would find this surprising remains a mystery. But I, for one, don’t trust the Judiciary Committee to protect us against a bad Supreme Court appointment if McCain gets elected, especially since Feinstein is even more of a wet.

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"Our Greatest Vulnerability Is That We’re Complete Morons Willing To Spend Unlimited Amounts of Time Developing Insane Theories About Trivia."

[ 1 ] July 24, 2008 |

Evidently, PUMAs who are also Obama Birth Certificate Truthers are ipso facto among the most pathetic conspiracy theorists in history. But if you’re going to be pathetic you should at least seek the highest levels of unintentional humor, and one has to admit that they’ve reached them:

Jackson, I’m not sure that any info on the COLB is fake, but perhaps the document was set up to appear to be fake, so that we would spend hundreds of hours studying it…

Yes. That must be it.

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Is there a word for projection in ancient Greek?

[ 0 ] July 24, 2008 |

As I’ve noted elsewhere, right-wing media hacks sound more and more like old guys in bars using tired pickup lines, and nobody sounds more torn and frayed than America’s leading bellicose classicist, Victor David Hanson. Hanson & Co. seem to be trapped in their own special pyschedelic version of Groundhog Day: everything apparently circles back to some midnight showing of Barbarella that went horribly wrong, and by this point the cliches flow so naturally that columns like this are probably generated automatically by Hoover Institute software before Hanson’s name is affixed to them.

Something that isn’t noted enough is the extent to which this kind of thing is at bottom based on aesthetic objections. For Victor Davis Hanson, tie-dye and jam bands and long hair and patchouli oil and naughty words are deeply distasteful, and therefore harbingers of the collapse of Western Civilization. Hence we get observations like this:

Another permanent ’60s legacy is the assumption that the ends justify crude means. . . .The crass anti-war group was not just content to object to Gen. David Petraeus testifying before Congress last autumn. In the fashion of 1960s agitprop, it had to go the next step in demonizing at a time of war our top-ranking Iraq ground
commander as a traitor — a “General Betray Us” as the group’s ad in The New York Times blared.

Thus it is that a cheerleader for the Iraq war criticizes the use of intemperate language in the pursuit of desired ends, because it is “crude” and “crass.” Meanwhile destroying a country in order to save it while killing several hundred thousand people in the process is, for Hanson, a far less problematic use of means-end reasoning.

As the opening montage of this new ad illustrates, the McCain campaign is going to try to push a similar line.

Barack Obama, like 75% of America, isn’t old enough to remember the 60s. But for the right-wing noise machine — and indeed for John McCain — it’s perpetually 1968 all over again.

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[ 14 ] July 24, 2008 |

In July 1967, my father was stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he flew Hueys and waited his turn to not be killed in Vietnam. Shortly after the riots in Detroit broke out 41 years ago today, he was instructed to fly up to the Motor City to provide some kind of assistance to the 8000 National Guardsmen mobilized by Gov. George Romney and Lyndon Johnson. I can’t remember if the purpose of the trip was to bring a Huey to Michigan or to fly a Huey back to Kansas; he’s dead now, and I’m pissed that I did not write these details down when I had the luxury of asking him questions.

Regardless, somewhere between Kansas and Detroit, as they were passing over one aimless corn field after another, my father and his companion began arguing about whether they were in fact on the correct course. The debate continued for a spell, until Dad suggested they drop in somewhere and ask directions. So they did. And somewhere in Missouri, Illinois, or Indiana — and I reiterate my point once more about filling in the details before your parents slough the coil — two Army pilots lowered their Huey onto a country road, hopped out, and asked a baffled old man for directions to one of the worst urban disorders in US history. I’m pretty sure my father won the directional argument, but again…

I have an almost totally unrelated post about the Detroit riots up at Edge of the American West, where I’ll be blogging a little bit — mostly on weird history and Muppets — from now until I drive Eric’s and Ari’s hit counter down to the single digits. This is also part of the wider Troll Sharing Project that I’ve initiated, in an effort to bring LGM’s occasional off-topic asshats to needy bloggers everywhere.

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No Jindalicious For Us

[ 46 ] July 23, 2008 |

Of course, I’m immensely disappointed that Bobby Jindal will not be introducing his castrating, exorcising, dinosaur-hating, all around weird-ass psychology to a nation desperate for laughs.

We needed you, Bobby Jindal.

You let us down.

We won’t forget this.

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Starbucks Away

[ 0 ] July 23, 2008 |

It appears that the Starbucks between my Lexington apartment and my office will be closing; this will force me, if I want coffee, to go several dozen feet out of my way to get to the other Starbucks between my Lexington apartment and my office. I’m a bit more surprised that the Wallingford Starbucks (1218 N 45th in Seattle) location will be closing; it seemed pretty well attended, and customers could enjoy regular Dave Matthews sightings.

I am neither a strong proponent for nor a critic of Starbucks; the data on whether Starbucks has driven small coffee shops out of business or created a larger market for fancy coffee seems mixed, and my anecdotal experience leans rather heavily towards the latter. I also wish that people would remember, when considering the quality of Starbucks coffee, that outside of a few cities (and really a few places in a few cities), the form “coffee shop coffee” was a remarkably shitty product before the spread of the chain beyond Seattle.

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On Minimal Deterrence

[ 0 ] July 23, 2008 |

Jeff Lewis has a good article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on minimal vs. robust deterrence. The latter, advocated by folks like Albert Wohlstetter, asserts that nuclear deterrence is a delicate flower that will collapse if not nourished properly by thousands of warheads in multiple launch configurations. The former suggests that states that can be deterred from launching a nuclear attack will be so deterred by even a minimal chance of second strike response. Jeff Lewis is squarely in the former (minimal) category, as am I. The cost of absorbing a nuclear response from even a small nuclear power is so high, even for continent-spanning states, that a nuclear offensive will appear virtually suicidal. France, for example, could easily have destroyed the industrial heart of the Soviet Union if the Soviets (who had presumptive superiority) had launched an attack, even excluding the likely response of the other nuclear powers.

The question continues to have some policy relevance. For example, the irritatingly stupid arguments about how we need the RRW (Reliable Replacement Warhead) program in order to credibilate our deterrent vanish if minimal deterrence is taken seriously. Similarly, if minimal deterrence holds then there’s no need for the United Kingdom to pursue ridiculously expensive replacements for its Vanguard class nuclear ballistic missile submarines; the need to hide from Soviet attack submarines vanished, and no conceivable aggressor will be more deterred by the submarines than by some other, much cheaper delivery system.

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[ 25 ] July 23, 2008 |

A surprising development (to me at least) has been the mass media’s recent rehabilitation of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The same cultural institutions that almost universally excoriated the two American athletes for giving a Black Power salute from the medals stand at the 1968 Olympic games are now praising their heroism. Few things are more mainstream than ESPN award shows, and last night that network gave Smith and Carlos the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for their gesture. Meanwhile back in 1968, Brent Musberger, who today is one of ESPN/ABC’s top announcers, called Smith and Carlos “black-skinned storm troopers.” In 1999 Musberger granted that his comments at the time were “a bit harsh,” but emphasized that he still objected to “using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement” — a view we can be sure is enthusiastically shared by the Chinese government, which will be hosting the Olympics next month. (It never occurs to people like Musberger that the traditional Olympic awards ceremony itself is about as pure a political statement as can be imagined).

Anyway, there’s a good deal of nervousness in Beijing and elsewhere that there may be unpleasantness in the form of (the wrong kind of) political gestures from athletes.

Of course the whole idea of keeping politics out of the Olympics is farcical. NBC, which pays billions to be the network of the Olympics, does so because network executives clearly believe that presenting the games as an of orgy of nationalist triumphalism is profitable (USA! USA!). The Chinese government is spending billions on hosting the Olympics, because it understands that the games are among other things a kind of global legitimation ritual.

Which is precisely what Smith and Carlos recognized 40 years ago.

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Fat Rant

[ 6 ] July 23, 2008 |

If you’ve never seen Joy Nash’s awesome Fat Rant you should do so soon.

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Wait a Second…

…So English should be the “official language” of Germany now too?

Here’s Patrick Ruffini on Obama’s German flyers (for an event IN GERMANY):

This is pretty extraordinary. A candidate for the American Presidency is using flyers printed in German to turn people out for his campaign rally in Berlin on Thursday. This flyer can be found on a bilingual page on advertising the event:

The German flyers bear Obama’s campaign logo and say “Paid for by Obama for America.”

I’m surprised at this lapse in judgment in an otherwise well-oiled and professional Obama campaign.

The stupidity just never ceases.

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