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This is the Worst Possible Development, at the Worst Possible Time

[ 0 ] January 15, 2008 |

With the economy drifting towards recession and the Wire beginning to suck, true disaster looms. Noah Shachtman:

When our robotic overlords finally do take over, there’s a decent chance they’ll do it with monkey brains.

A few years back, Duke neuroscientists, funded by the Pentagon, figured out how to have monkeys control robotic arms with their little simian minds. Now, if that wasn’t unnerving enough, the same Duke crew has discovered a way for one of the monkeys to make “a 200-pound, 5-foot humanoid robot walk on a treadmill using only her brain activity,” the New York Times reports. How far away are we from the ultimate sci-fi dystopia: Terminator and Planet of the Apes — at the same time!

Alright, it’s time. I’ll be skipping my afternoon class to buy immense amounts of bottled water, canned goods, firearms, and ammunition. I recommend that all LGM readers do the same. If you see anyone you suspect of being a Duke neuroscientist, shoot first and ask questions later; we don’t need any Quislings in the new order. And does anyone know what kind of gun I need to take down a monkey cyborg?

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It Really Doesn’t Even Sound Like Burke

[ 0 ] January 15, 2008 |

Charli Carpenter at Duck:

My quote, attributed to Edmund Burke, read “the only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for good people to do nothing.” It is commonly quoted by human rights scholars and activists to caution against the bystander effect.

Porter’s essay, replete with exhaustive sources from multiple websites, is a genealogy of the use of this supposed Burkeism, but Porter concludes form his analysis that Burke never actually wrote anything like this.

I’m kind of surprised it took this long. The persistence of evil line doesn’t strike me as Burkean at all; it’s true enough that he supported certain kinds of activism (American Revolution, efforts to strangle the French Revolution), but there’s also such a large and clear strand in his thought that suggests that evil is caused by good people trying to do something, without a well-thought out conception of what that something should be.

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Faldui vs. Pollsters

[ 53 ] January 15, 2008 |

Susan Faludi, she of Backlash and Stiffed, is mad at the pollsters for their failure to understand American women. And she’s not going to take it any more.

In an LA Times column today, Faludi tries to set them (and us) straight. She hones in on the New Hampshire primary and tells us that the talking heads, who said that racism or tears were to blame (or thank) for Clinton’s victory, and tells us why they’re wrong. It’s not compassion, she claims, but mere competence that led NH women to turn out for Clinton.

Faludi analogizes Clinton to the middle-aged power suited woman standing in line at a pharmacy, caring for her ailing and aging mother. She says:

As it happens, I’m not alone in wishing for a nation run by someone whose desire for our well-being is passionate but whose actions on our behalf also exude bedrock competence, someone who lacks any flash whatsoever except the flash that keeps a person assiduously doing the hardest things in life. In New Hampshire and all across the country, many female voters seem to be thinking along the same lines.

The media, punditry and pollsters have been viewing this historic female candidacy, and the candidate herself, through the Madonna-Medea prism they’ve applied since at least the Victorian era to women who venture into American public life. In so doing, they have ignored a whole other model of womanhood that is central to female experience. If they are determined to think of Hillary Clinton in stereotypical female terms, at least they should get the stereotype right.

In other words, by viewing Clinton through the mommy prism as opposed to the caregiver prism, the media fails to see what many women — especially middle-aged women — like about her.

So here’s my issue: I think Faludi’s central point — that women have a role as caregivers for family members other than children (in addition to caring for children), and that that role too often goes unnoticed — is a good one. Women are the primary caregivers in the country not only for the kids, but also for parents, siblings, etc. It takes a toll on women emotionally, financially, and in terms of career trajectory. Sure, the Family and Medical Leave Act addressed this…but it was only a start, and it has amounted to very little for many thousands of women. Faludi’s also right that talking heads fail to understand the complexity of women’s lives in creating their archetypes.

But for me, it boils down to this: why buy into the fact that we’ve got to shove Clinton — or any other politician for that matter — into a stereotype to begin with? Why not argue against that impulse from the start. Faludi, I think, does more damage than good in her attempt to recast Clinton. She should have done away with typecasting altogether.

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Arms Control and Strategic Stability

[ 3 ] January 15, 2008 |

To follow up a bit on what I wrote at TAPPED, there’s some utility in thinking about this point:

David [Mutimer], on the other hand, gave a thought provoking but untitled talk which I will somewhat cheekily dub Why the Left Should Dislike Arms Control. His point (in part) is that the nature of arms control agreements is both shaped by the strategic environment and helps to shape it. He argues that US-Russian bilateral agreements, in particular, can be self-serving in that they help to perpetuate the nuclear primacy of those two nations.

This is kind of interesting, and I think that the point is even more stark when we’re looking at the Washington naval treaties instead of the bilateral arms control of the Cold War. The Washington Naval Treaty, its successors, and its associated treaties amounted in one sense to an agreement between the major powers to let each other feed on the decaying corpse of China (and maintain empires in the rest of Asia) in peace. And although the treaties actually did involve some substantial disarmament and arms production limitation (they forced the scrapping of large numbers of dreadnoughts, and precluded the construction of many new ones) they didn’t do anything to fundamentally change the character of relations between the major powers.

That said, the major retrospective critiques of the treaties seem to be from the right (this is true of both the Cold War treaties and the interwar treaties), centering on the argument that unconstrained American arms production could have either won or headed off future conflict. Part of the issue is a “politics art of the possible” concern; I’m skeptical that it would have been possible to convince state leaders in either period that disarmament was an achievable goal, and thus the agreements themselves were preferable to unconstrained competition. I also think, however, that arms control serves two other purposes that are central to the “liberal” left: saving money, and reducing the chance of war. The data on the latter is a bit unclear, but its persuasive enough to make me think that unconstrained arms competition increases the chance of war, which is a bad thing. The former is also important, because while the liberal left should be reasonably comfortable with taxation to support state expenditure, spending less, rather than more, money on weapons should all things equal be a good thing.

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Wire Season 5

[ 0 ] January 15, 2008 |


I’m a little worried that the final season of The Wire is going to be like Sopranos Season 6A (aside from the awful-by-any-standard dream sequence): vastly better than pretty much anything else on TV, but distinctly inferior to the standard previously established by the show. In particular, despite Clark Johnson’s very welcome presence I’m worried about the Baltimore Sun plotline whatever one agrees with the axes Simon has to grind, the resulting villains just don’t shape up to be that interesting, in the way that even the show’s most inept and venal characters usually are. As Matt says, “[e]verything in the Sun plot is being marked out like a runway. Do you think the Unscrupulous Journalist and the Douchebag Editor are going to conspire to cause the Fall of American Journalism? I think they just might!” I also agree with Kay that the opening sequence of Bubbles at the N.A. meeting was a poorly written and acted variation on an especially tired theme; it’s frustrating for precious last minutes of the show to be wasted in this way.

Still, there was a lot of great stuff in both episodes; hopefully the lesser storylines will get better.

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Incredibly Strange Comics

[ 0 ] January 14, 2008 |

So I was doing an image search for George Wallace — inaugurated as Alabama governor 45 years ago today — and I came across this campaign comic book.

The whole thing is worth a look. Check out the other “Comics with Problems”, including my favorite, Captain Alcohol (a Canadian temperance narrative aimed at the Inuit).

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Hilzoy’s Case Against Clinton

[ 37 ] January 14, 2008 |

Hilzoy makes the case against Clinton. I substantially agree, both on policies and politics, but I’m not certain about this:

In this context, I think that nominating Hillary Clinton would be a disastrous mistake. Of all the people whom we are at all likely to nominate, she is the one whom people would be most inclined to believe the worst of. Some of those people — the ones who thought the Clintons had Vince Foster killed and hung crack pipes on their Christmas trees — are presumably unreachable by Democrats. But others — the ones who don’t pay close attention to these things, and came away from the 1990s with a vague sense that the Clintons were just plain sleazy — are people we can reach.

If we nominate Hillary Clinton, then I assume that the Republicans will go after her, and that they will not restrict themselves to attacking her policies and her record. When they do, then all those people who are already inclined to think the worst of Hillary Clinton will, for that reason, be prepared to find those attacks believable. Stories about her sleaziness, her underhandedness, her cold and calculating nature, etc., will be a lot less likely to strike them as implausible, overreaching, mean-spirited, malicious, or vile. And that means that the chances that people will see standard Republican attacks for what they are are dramatically reduced.

Here’s the thing; while we can always say that “it could be worse” I’m not convinced that, in the case of Hillary Clinton, the attacks actually can get worse than those that have already been leveled against her. The Republicans have literally (and I mean literally to read “literally” rather than figuratively) accused her of every crime that it is possible for one person to commit, and she still polls well against the strongest Republican candidates.

There are two potential pro-Clinton narratives to draw from this argument:

  1. Further attacks against Clinton will yield diminishing returns for the Republicans. As she has already been accused of everything (and, as she’s the most identifiable politician in America, I’m unconvinced that any potential voters haven’t been exposed to such attacks) more attacks are unlikely to convince anyone not yet convinced that Clinton is bad, and may in fact produce a backlash; once you’ve said that someone is a drug dealing murdering man-hating lesbian, attacking her health care policy is rather pointless.
  2. Obama has not yet been subjected to this level of attack, and is not likely to be immune to it; whether true or not, the Republican noise machine will cook up some vile line of attack that it likely to see some success, suggesting that Obama’s better poll performance won’t stand the scrutiny of a general election.

This is why I remain reluctant to concede that Clinton is less electable than Obama. In the first place, I think that electability is a very difficult trait to assess, and in the second I can see some specific reasons why current polling of the two prominent Democrats may wrongly assess the situation. That said, Scott and Hilzoy are right to point out that Hillary’s reputation is farther left than her policies, which is a bad thing, and that Hillary may mobilize a huge component of the Republican electorate.

All that said, the vote against the war is important to me, and I expect to vote Obama. But I can’t say that a Clinton victory will disappoint me.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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Buffy Villains

[ 7 ] January 14, 2008 |

I am amused.

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Legalize it?

[ 0 ] January 14, 2008 |

Via Matt, Radley Balko and Kerry Howley discuss some data that supports my inclination to decriminalize and regulate prostitution. Because sex workers engaged in illegal activity can’t go to the police, they face the Hobson’s Choice of violent assault from their customers or violent assault from pimps. And, worse, police with the arbitrary power to arrest prostitutes at their discretion take advantage of this by raping prostitutes with disturbing frequency. And because illegal prostitution isn’t regulated, 80% of the johns don’t use condoms. All of these problems, as Balko says, seems pretty directly tied to criminalization.

On the other hand, decriminalization isn’t a panacea. Brad Plumer points out that legalization led to increased trafficking, doesn’t stop many sex workers from feeling coerced and unsafe, and brothels proved difficult to regulate. This doesn’t fully convince me because these problem seem like they could be at least partially addressed by more careful regulatory regimes whereas the problems of criminalization seem inevitable. But as an alternative, Brad suggests the Swedish model of criminalizing the buying but not the selling of sex, which would at least eliminate many of the perverse incentives of criminalization. The Swedish model also “provided ample social service funds for helping any prostitute who wanted to get out of the business to do so, as well as funds for educating the public.” This system has its own serious flaws, although it would seem better than the American status quo. The depressing lesson here seems to be that given existing gender inequities we’re choosing among least bad policy options.

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Back to School

[ 0 ] January 14, 2008 |

Ever since I was a little kid, I have dreaded the first day of a new semester. There’s some joy to it: the new school supplies, the anticipation of actually liking my classes. But there’s also anxiety and the disappointment of a vacation’s end.

So, today is the big back to school day. Only this time, it’s my last one. Ever. After way too many of them. And you know what? It feels exactly like all the others.

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Bombing Auschwitz

[ 0 ] January 14, 2008 |

The Decider doesn’t understand why the US and its allies in World War II couldn’t have bombed Auschwitz and, he assumes, saved thousands of lives.

Here, Bush is invoking a debate that goes back about 30 years and continues to inspire ferocious argument among historians. Without getting too deep into the thickets, the “pro-bombing” argument rests on claims first articulated by historian David Wyman in an article for Commentary in 1978. There, he asserted that (a) the Allies knew what was happening at Auschwitz; (b) that attacks on Auschwitz would have been technically feasible; and (c) that such attacks would have saved lives. (The worst of these arguments, raised by pop historians like Michael Beschloss, suggest that these attacks did not happen because FDR was an anti-Semite who couldn’t be bothered to care about European Jews. Someone should check Liberal Fascism to see if that particular smear lives anew.)

Skeptics acknowledge that (a) is true enough — by 1943-44, there was no reasonable question about what was happening in these camps — but point out that the bombing campaigns during the war were incredibly imprecise, and that even a massive assault on Auschwitz would have been unlikely to destroy the gas chambers; even assuming for the sake of argument that it had actually worked, the bombing of Auschwitz most certainly would not have spared most of the camp’s victims from being gunned down and dumped in trenches. Nor would it have done anything to halt the proceedings as Treblinka, Belzec, or Sobibor — unless, of course, the allies had chosen to prolong their war against the German military by sending fleets of aircraft to rubble the camps. The military historians I’ve read on this issue generally agree that Wyman’s argument and its various descendants are poorly grounded, at least as far as questions logistics and strategy go.

I can’t for a moment imagine that Bush has any inkling about the actual terms of this debate. Rather — as his idiotic pronouncements about the Yalta conference indicated three years ago — the man appears genuinely convinced that his raisins are larger than FDR’s and, moreover, that pre-emptive action always produces the best possible outcome. Had Bush been president, we’re asked to believe, the Iron Curtain would not have descended across Eastern Europe, and the name “Auschwitz” would, like “Normandy,” call to mind the moral purity and spirit of sacrifice that defined the American war effort. It’s a laughable premise, but it’s pretty much par for the course. He may be an inarticulate dunce, but he surely ranks as one of the great egomaniacs to hold the presidency. That much is obvious whenever he tries to speak about history.

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[ 0 ] January 14, 2008 |

Mithras has dug up more examples of Pat Oliphant misogynist war on Hillary Clinton. I think I need a shower. And I don’t think he’d be able to keep his job if he dealt in similar stereotypes with respect to Obama.

…maybe that last sentence was too optimistic.

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