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Unlikely Obsession?

[ 0 ] November 11, 2009 |

I had the honor on Monday of Blogging Heads with Professor John Mueller, Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center at THE Ohio State University. The topic was Mueller’s latest book, Atomic Obsession, which argues that the historical importance of nuclear weapons has been overstated, and that the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack is wildly implausible:


Armistice Day

[ 0 ] November 11, 2009 |

There are now only three survivors of the Great War; this may be the very last Armistice Day to honor actual veterans of the conflict. It will be, I think, a very strange thing to live in a world with no veterans of the First World War.

Let the circle be unbroken.

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

From a thread about Michael Steele’s “white Republicans are afraid of me” remarks on Sunday:

I’m terrified of Michael Steele the same way Mary Jo Kopechne was terrified of Teddy Kennedy.

This ride is flat scary, and I want off.

In less than 30 words, this commenter compresses the conservative response to white liberals and all blacks into the singular image of a threatened white woman. I would stop and note that the white female martyr in question worked with the man who supposedly terrified her and willingly entered a vehicle with him on that unfortunate evening, but that would be beside the point. It is not the woman herself to whom conservatives appeal when they utter her name, but what happened to her as imagined through their eyes.

Their horror at Kopechne’s death (and their subsequent insistence that in it can be found the root of all ideological evil) reminds me of nothing so much as the origin story of Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (Such obsessions happens when writing a book.) His moment of decision—the moment he became, a la Bérubé, outraged by Chappaquiddick—was when he discovered some fabric that had been purchased by Kitty Genovese shortly before her murder:

What turns Rorschach into the misogynistic psychopath deplored by a witless Anthony Lane but beloved by many a conservative? The seventh and eighth panels tell you all you need to know. They are not presented from Genovese’s perspective: the scene-to-scene transition from panel six to panel seven clearly indicates that they’re Rorschach’s reconstruction of the indifference she witnessed as she bled out before the eyes of friends and neighbors. She is no more a person to him that Kopechne is to those who claim to speak for her and yet, like conservatives, Rorschach claims her death for his own purposes.

I would continue, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking for the dead. Would that others shared my discomfort …

Missing the Point

[ 1 ] November 10, 2009 |

There’s something very depressing about the oral arguments on juvenile sentencing yesterday. It’s not just that, at best, the court seems headed towards a content fre…er, “minimalist” balancing test. In theory, I don’t even have a problem with proportionality review in these cases; it’s true enough that it doesn’t make much sense to say that a 17-year-old could never get l-w-p for 1st degree murder while a 19-year-old could get l-w-p for armed robbery. The problem is that balancing tests are exactly as good as the courts applying them, and given the current composition of both the Florida courts and the federal courts…there’s not a lot of room for optimism. One suspects that, aside from maybe 1 or 2 egregious cases involving adolescents, we’ll get a Kennedy special in which the Court holds open the theoretical possibility that a sentence could be unconstitutional while in practice never finding a non-capital sentence disproportionate.

But it really goes beyond that. There’s something jarring about these cases — which in the Sullivan case involved not only a draconian sentence but procedural defects that should be unacceptable if he was 40 — being addressed at an angle that will have the least impact. That’s not the fault of the lawyers — their job is to shock the consciences of Kennedy and/or Roberts, and for their clients the lower the impact the better their chances. But even if the prisoners here end up with more reasonable sentences, it fundamentally seems like an evasion of the real issues. For the same reason, I can’t imagine why people got so exercised about Roper v. Simmons. I suppose it’s nice that zero rather than maybe one or two 17-year-olds will get executed per decade, and the outcome of the case is defensible (even if Kennedy’s opinion is typically shaky.) But it allows the Court to pat itself on the back for its humanity, while leaving in place a system in which innocent people with buffoonishly inept counsel can get railroaded to the death chamber based on tarot card readings. Window dressing doesn’t make this structure much less ugly.

That Word "Young" I Do Not Think It Means…

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

Granted, I suppose if you evaluate it by Yankees standards:

Maybe the Yankees were the better team this year, but the Phillies, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pedro Feliz, Raoul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, et al, have the best nucleus of young talent in baseball and should be odds-on favorites to win the NL pennant and probably more next year.

Um…well, to start, Feliz isn’t young or good. Rollins will be 31 — old for a shortstop — and wasn’t good at all last year, although there’s a reasonable expectation that he’ll be better. Ibanez will be 38, Werth 31. Utley is one of the best players in baseball, but is nearing the end of his prime. Howard is an outstanding (if slightly overrated) slugger, but was trapped behind Thome and will be 30 next year, and he’s the kind of player who normally doesn’t age well.

So to say the Phils have a young core fails to understand what they do well. They don’t have a very good young core, they have a very good “win now” core that they’ve filled out very well with useful veterans. And the key is that they’re always looking to improve. My snark aside, Feliz was actually a good signing, taking what was a black hole and at least getting some defense out of the spot. But by all accounts Amaro is trying to upgrade the spot to get a two-way player, whereas the Mets have a black hole at first base and by all accounts think that’s plenty good. Which is why the Phils figure to be no worse than co-favorites with the Braves while the Mets may well continue to drift out of contention despite a nucleus that’s of similar quality but younger.

Some of My Best Friends…

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

Ye Gods, Diaz is a tool. However, I still have to agree with Peter Beinart that the failure of New York courts to act in defense of the equality and dignity of the state’s gay and lesbian citizens was the best thing to ever happen to the cause, because with legislative leaders like Diaz how could legislation granting same-sex marriage rights fail to pass?

With Friends Like These . . .

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

The Sun (of all papers) manufactures a controversy about . . . Gordon Brown.

The time line is telling. Brown, blind in one eye and of notoriously illegible handwriting (something I can say that I understand), pens a letter to the mother of a fallen soldier expressing sorrow over her son. The illegible scrawl could be interpreted as clumsy, hasty, and riven with sloppy spelling (including, allegedly, her surname). Jacqui Janes, the mother, with the help of The Sun, decry the obviously anti-military inclinations of the PM.

The story leads the news for a day. The PM phones the mum. The mum has a rant.

And it’s conveniently on tape.

What is lost in this furor is the more important issue: the British services are under-equipped, and it’s entirely possible that more helicopters in the theatre might have increased the probability that her son’s life was saved.

Rather, what we have is a typically shrill manufactured tabloid critique of a Prime Minister that The Sun is already on record as not supporting.

But at least Rupert Murdoch regrets his papers’ anti-Brown stance, a man he considers his friend.

In a Desperate Search for Connections . . .

[ 0 ] November 10, 2009 |

Sesame Street turns 40, the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago.


Politics as punting on fourth and one

[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

One explanation for why people who advocate transparently idiotic policies that result in national disasters (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our current health care system, our drug laws, our prisons, our current financial crisis) generally don’t lose their pundit credentials is that what gets you fired isn’t being wrong: it’s being perceived to be wrong while bucking the conventional wisdom. Indeed being wrong while repeating the conventional wisdom is generally more profitable than being right while resisting it.

That’s why football coaches punt on fourth and one. It’s idiotic and loses lots of games, but what gets them fired is doing something unconventional that doesn’t work 100% of the time. And since nothing works 100% of the time they generally prefer to “manage by the book” as the baseball expression goes.

In American politics today, managing by the book means always being “strong on defense,” which in turn means spending insane sums of money on wars and the weapons to fight them, and “tough on crime,” which means throwing millions of people in prison at immense cost, often for behavior which in a more rational society wouldn’t even be illegal, let alone grounds for incarceration. It also means doing nothing that would upset the economic status quo; hence bankers must receive immense bonuses 15 minutes after their firms were saved from extinction by the timely transfer of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. (This is known as “letting the market reward success.”).

The conventional wisdom is the conventional wisdom because the establishment deems it to be simply the truth, and therefore not subject to question by serious people, such as themselves. This is why failed football coaches and baseball managers keep getting re-hired; this is why Bill Kristol now writes a column for the Washington Post, and Iraq war advocates aren’t immediately laughed out of the room when they give their opinions on what “we” should do next in Afghanistan.

Of course eventually things get too ridiculous, and the Red Sox hire Bill James. I don’t think Obama is Bill James. At best he might be Brian Cashman. Lets hope he doesn’t end up working with a hard salary cap. (What brings this whole post together, which to less discerning eyes might appear to consist of a disjointed ramble of mixed metaphors, is that Christina Romer is David Romer’s wife.)


[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

Lesson of the day: Things are always fine if you’re a white male with a college degree, age 25-44. I suspect that if it had asked how many college degrees I have, the unemployment rate would have gone up…

Thanks, Fred

[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

Fred Hiatt on the immorality of health care reform:

Yet neither should a civilized nation saddle its coming generations with a lower standard of living, a likely effect of U.S. profligacy if unchecked. No civilized nation should leave its government too bankrupt to help the poor.

Huh. Seems to be the kind of thing you’d want to keep in mind while advocating the invasion and indefinite occupation of an endless series of random countries, Fred.

Unreliable Narration

[ 0 ] November 9, 2009 |

Amy Sullivan asserts that the Stupak-Pitts amendment was the result of “political malpractice:”

Despite the fact that anyone who has followed U.S. politics over the last thirty years could have told you that abortion would be a controversial aspect of health reform, no one tried to preemptively address the concerns of pro-life Democrats by sitting down with them early in the process. The White House didn’t reach out to some of the more good-faith players on the pro-life side until early September. And Pelosi didn’t sit down with Stupak until September 29. This despite the fact that 19 Democratic members sent her a letter in June expressing their concerns with abortion coverage in health reform.

I know many in the Democratic caucus tend to see their pro-life colleagues as a pesky but ultimately insignificant faction. But this sort of leadership strategy isn’t just inexcusable, it’s malpractice. It appears that Pelosi thought Stupak et al were bluffing and would come around in the end rather than oppose health reform. That assumption also depended on a scenario in which the Catholic bishops may not have supported health reform but also didn’t vigorously oppose it.

Is there some truth here? Possibly, yes. Certainly, there are many potential criticisms of how Democratic leadership has dealt with health care, although when you actually care about expanding access to health care it’s hard to negotiate with the Stupaks of the world who don’t, but want to use other people’s progressive impulses to attack women. I am, however, very skeptical about this particular narrative, given that it seems intended to salvage Sullivan’s own political position on such issues. As you may remember, Sullivan’s longstanding niche among the “Democrats need to do much more pandering to cultural reactionaries” set has been to argue that there’s a free ride, that Democrats can appeal to an allegedly significant number of cultural conservatives looking for subtle rhetorical shifts rather than substantive concessions. The most obvious lesson of Stupak is that this is nonsense: broadening the Democratic coalition to include more anti-choicers carries real political risks, for the obvious reason that they generally want to use laws to restrict access to abortion rather than having Democratic leaders “acknowledge abortion as a moral issue” or some such.

So I’m not willing to accept at face value Sullivan’s assumption that Stupak was willing to make a deal for legislation that wouldn’t really change the status quo but was offended by the fact that the Democratic leadership was focused on providing health care to more people rather than taking it away from women. As her prior cited article concedes, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and many of their cat’s paws in Congress spent the summer negotiating in bad faith. You have to be optimistic bordering on delusional to think that Stupak would have surrendered his leverage if only the Democratic leadership had given him more access. It seems much more plausible that he and his followers would have kept pulling away the football until we ended up in the same place.

Essentially Sullivan is asking us to believe that Stupak and anti-choice colleagues wanted some friendly acknowledgment from the Democratic leadership, but when they didn’t get it they were willing to settle for major substantive concessions instead. I don’t buy this list of priorities in general, and I’m not persuaded by the analysis in this particular case.