February 16, 2006
Places, Everyone. Action!
By DAVID BROOKS
One of the most impressive things about us in Washington, you must admit, is our ability to unfailingly play our assigned roles. History throws unusual circumstances before our gaze, but no matter how strange they may at first appear, we are always able to squeeze them into one of our preapproved boxes so we may utter our usual clichés.
The Battle of Corpus Christi is but the latest example of our capacity to transform fact into stereotype.
On a personal level, the Cheney-Whittington accident was a sad but unremarkable event. Two men go hunting. Both are sloppy, and one friend shoots another. The victim is suffering but gracious. The shooter is anguished in his guilt.
Whittington was sloppy. Cheney was negligent, perhaps criminally..Beyond that, he is Vice President of the United States. Not just any Vice President, but a man who functions with the arrogance of one who believes he's better and smarter than anyone else. If Dick Cheney expects to be placed on a pedestal, then he doesn't have the right to make these kinds of stupid mistakes. Imagine, firing your gun when a member of your party is somewhere close in the brush, invisible to your eyes.
"The image of him falling is something I will never be able to get out of my mind," Dick Cheney told Brit Hume yesterday, adding, "It was ... one of the worst days of my life."
Afterward, he looked back, relived the moment and took responsibility. "It was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else," Cheney said. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."
It took nearly a week for Cheney to say it and eventually only did so on the network of his friends, FoxNews. Even then, Brit Hume wasn't happy with the explanation.
In normal life, people would look at this event and see two decent men caught in a twist of fate. They would feel concern for the victim and sympathy for the man who fired the gun.
People would feel concern for the victim but have mixed feelings for the man who fired the gun because, dammit, he fired the gun. In this case though, it's not so much the event as the aftermath: the waiting, the stone-walling, the shifting of story and responsibility. It was Whittington who was blamed for the incident at first.
But we in Washington are able to rise above the normal human reaction. We have our jobs. We have our roles.
I think Brooks actually believes that both sides are playing with the same deck in the same way, that liberal "spinners" are just as cynical as those on the right; that Democrats are just as angrily partisan for the sake of partisanship as those on the right. People on the right may think it's all a game, but liberals are genuinely appalled at what's happening to America.
So in the days following the Cheney-Whittington accident, liberal pundits had to live up to their responsibility to manufacture a series of unsubstantiated allegations while turning the episode into a Clifford Odets-style tale of plutocrats gone wild. "Was he drunk? I mean, these are ultrarich Republicans, at a weekend, fun-time hunting," the pundit Lawrence O'Donnell wondered on MSNBC.
The same man who mercilessly vilified Howard Dean for an inappropriate war whoop has the gall to suggest that a liberal TV pundit go easy on the Vice President when he comes close to killing someone with a gun.
Meanwhile over at the blogosphere, the keyboard jockeys had a responsibility to sniff up vast conspiracies and get lost in creepy minutiae. "The 50,000 acre Armstrong Ranch is in Kenedy County. So I figure the Armstrongs probably have a lot of pull in county government. So, just a question: how thorough was the investigation of what happened?" the influential blogger Josh Marshall queried darkly. Earlier, he veered off, as he must, into picayune and skin-crawling theorizing about the path the pellets took through Whittington's body:
Dick Cheney lies a lot. Therefore, when it takes almost a day before word gets out that the event occurred, and then the story shifts in every re-telling, people are going to get suspicious. Hey, people got suspicious about Chappaquidick too, with good reason. When a well-known politician can't get his story straight in a possible felony incident, people should take notice. And they will form theories.
"Would the weapon and ammunition Dick Cheney shot have the force to imbed pellets near Whittington's heart at 30 yards? ... These pellets would have to have pierced his clothing, his skin and then lodged inside the body cavity, somewhere near or around his heart. The shot came from the right and the heart is on the left so that might add to the amount of tissue needing to be traversed."
The irony here is that if Vice President Gore had accidently shot someone, a liberal columnist would have dozens of well-known right wing TV and radio commentators to rake over the coals. Brooks has to go for a blogger. Liberal media indeed. But let's imagine that Vice President Gore had been involved in a shooting incident. How would Rush Limbaugh have responded? How about David Brooks?
Meanwhile we in the regular media have our own stereotypes to guide us. We are assigned by the Fates to turn every bad thing into Watergate, to fill the air with dark lamentations about cover-ups and appearances of impropriety and the arrogance of power. We have to follow the money. (So was born the stories of the potentially missing $7 hunting license.)
This is the job of journalists: to examine cover-ups, appearances of impropriety and the arrogance of power, and most definitely, to follow the money. It may be that journalists obsessed overmuch on this incident, but it's a lot easier to talk about a hunting incident than about millions of dollars in missing Halliburton reconstruction money. In any event, is David Brooks seriously arguing for a press that does not look for cover-ups, ignores appearances of impropriety and the arrogance of power, and does not follow the money? Well, David, welcome to the Soviet Union.
We are impelled to elevate horse race over substance and write tales in which the quality of the message management takes precedence over the importance or unimportance of what's being said.
This sentence does not follow the earlier ones. Those last were about the real job of journalists; this is about the debasement of modern journalism. It's tacked on as a variation on "the yes set." The earlier sentence talks about following the money and looking for cover-ups; this is about style over substance.
Then, rushing to the footlights, come the politicians, with their alchemist's ability to turn reality into spin. It would have been natural, and probably smart, for some politician to put politics aside and say simply that Cheney and his friend were to be sympathized with at this moment. But life is a campaign, and they are merely players.
Had Cheney come clean to begin with, journalists would have let him off the hook and politicians would have been unable to capitalize. But he didn't, and they pounced --- first the jounralists, and then the Democratic politicians. Brooks ignores how the comments of Clinton and Pelosi use the incident not by itself but as a symptom of larger issues.
"The refusal of this administration to level with the American people in matters large and small is very disturbing," Hillary Clinton declared. Nancy Pelosi added, "Open government would demand that the vice president come clean on what happened there."
Finally there is the Office of the Vice President, inevitably failing to surpass expectations. The vice president's role, on this as on all days, is to treat the press and the Washington community in general as a plague-ridden horde, from whom it is possible, upon the merest conversation or contact, to catch some soul-destroying disease. So, of course, the vice president was compelled to recreate his role as Voldemort, Keeper of the Secrets.
David Brooks now likens Dick Cheney to Voldemort. Does Brooks read the Harry Potter books? Does he really know what he is implying?
We have, when you put it all together, created a political climate impeccably sterilized of spontaneity and normal human response. We have our roles, dear audience. Ours is not to feel and think. Ours is but to spin or die.
When the Vice President of the United States shoots someone full of buckshot, it's news. Period. ..
February 14, 2006
Valentine's Day Homework
By JOHN TIERNEY
It's Valentine's Day, husbands. Do you have your To Do list? Sure, you've gotten the flowers, but unless you've read Scott Haltzman's new book, you don't know the rest of your duties today — and every other day:
A Valentines Day plug for Haltzman's book, "The Secrets of Happily Married Men." That's about it, except that Tierney uses the idiotic right wing buzz phrase "politically incorrect" at one point.
A little history: I first heard the term "politically correct" used at KPFA over a decade ago by Philip Maldari, the host of the Morning Show and in my eyes at the time the most politically correct person on the entire planet. He used it derisively to describe those Berkeley folks who would criticize any word usage that didn't appeal to their pure leftist ears. It was kind of an in-joke. Somehow the word got out, and the next thing you know, Time and Newsweek were using the term. Then, of course, along came Bill Maher with his "Politically Incorrect" TV show. The whole "politically correct" thing has pretty much run its course. Lately, the only time I've heard it is from right-wingers who argued that saying "Merry Christmas" was politically incorrect, or people like Tierney who say that talking about gender differences is politically incorrect. It's sad how leftists joking about themselves can be turned into a right wing propaganda bonanza.
February 12, 2006
Bring Back the Gang of 14
By DAVID BROOKS
Tag team propagandists at work. A few days ago we saw John Tierney talk about the extremists on both sides of the aisle, now today we see Brooks do the same. Brooks assumes, for the purpose of this column, two separate ideas: the first is that the filibuster and the "nuclear option" are two sides of the same extremist coin; the second is that the battle over Bush's wiretapping program is dangerously partisan. Both are wrong, and Brooks knows it.
It was a golden moment for the fulminators. John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Mike DeWine and 11 other senators had just forged a bipartisan deal to head off a nuclear showdown over judicial filibusters. The howls, especially on the conservative side, were deafening.
"This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans," James Dobson roared. "McCain brokered the deal to betray his Republican colleagues by negotiating a private surrender to the Democrats," Grover Norquist charged."This is a big defeat for Republicans," Paul Weyrich growled. "Shame on them all," the normally sagacious Gary Bauer admonished.
Three right-wing extremists, to be sure, none of whom were ever elected to anything. The concept of the "tyranny of the majority" is one that has had little place in American politics in the past. The Bill of Rights specifically protects the rights of the minority to enjoy free speech, the right of assembly, and a voice in the American dialogue. Senate tradition also gives the minority rights through the filibuster. Even during the height of the Civil Rights movement, there was no move to use procedural tactics to eliminate it. Over the years it is not the filibuster, but the threat of fulibuster, that has tempered partisanship in the Senate, and forced presidents to take care whom they nominate to the courts as well as positions in their administrations. The "nucear option" idea is an extremely radical one because it betrays one of America's greatest sources of strength.
Now eight months have passed, and what were the results of this betrayal, this shame, this surrender? Chief Justice John Roberts. Associate Justice Sam Alito. Many other Bush nominees have been confirmed — without a single filibuster.
That's because the Gang of 14 pretty much eliminated the threat of filibuster from the equation. It is no longer a supermajority of 60 that is required, but the threatened "nuclear option" votes of two Republican Senators. All fourteen are at the mercy of two of their number holding the line. This makes a threat of filibuster less likely. Had the "nuclear option" not been on the table, the Democrats would have successfully mounted a filibuster against Alito because his radical right-wing views put him outside the mainstream. The threat of a filibuster in the past was enough to ensure that Alito-type judges did not get nominated at all. Those days are now behind us..
The Gang of 14 agreement was no defeat. It was a triumph. It preserved the traditions of the Senate. It lowered the ideological temperature. Most of all, it transformed what had been an abstract ideological feud about Senate procedures into a concrete exercise in democracy.
While it nominally preserved the traditions of the Senate, and gave a semblence of voice back to the minoirty, it has permanently changed the rules. The fact is that we won't see any filibusters. If a judicial candidate comes along that is sufficiently unacceptable as to warrant filibuster, that candidate will probably go down to defeat in a straight vote. The "nuclear option" concept is not part of an "abstract ideological feud about Senate procedures." It's a direct threat to American tradition. Brooks knows this.
If that deal hadn't been forged and the nuclear option had been exercised, the Roberts and Alito nominations would have been subsumed in a continuing holy war. Passions would have been aboil, party lines would have been rigid. The individual merits of Roberts and Alito would have been lost amid the bitterness and hatred.
The holy war would have been about the right of radical right-wingers to remake American democracy. Republican moderates, as well as propagandists like David Brooks, have a stake in avoiding such a conflict. This is not to say the deal wasn't a proper one in that it did maintain the trappings of tradition --- but that's really all it maintained. It averted a kind of codification, but the de facto outcome is the same.
But as it was, the hearings were relatively civil. The American people got a chance to see Roberts and Alito unobstructed. They were favorably impressed by their calm demeanors and unimpressed by the partisan assassins.
Brooks is pulling facts out of his ass. The public was favorably impressed by Roberts, but not necessarily by Alito, who came across to many as someone who'd say anything to get confirmed.
The Gang of 14 agreement was one of the political highlights of 2005 precisely because it punctured the ideological posturing and paved the way for a series of pragmatic judgments on a nomination-by-nomination basis.
But now we need the Gang of 14 back again, because another issue has ossified into abstract ideological debate. This is the issue of National Security Agency wiretapping.
Arlen Specter, Chuck Hegel, former Representative Bob Barr: Three of the many Republicans who have come out against illegal NSA wiretapping. The issue of Presidential overreach goes well beyond partisanship. No "Gang of 14" is needed here because a majority of Senators and possibly even a majority of Representatives question the Bush Administration's position. Brooks knows this.
On one side we have conservatives making ambitious assertions about executive authority. On the other, we have liberals making wild allegations about invasions of privacy that have nothing to do with the narrow program the president actually authorized. On the right you have Dick Cheney worrying about the return of Frank Church and on the left you have Howard Dean vaporizing about the return of Dick Nixon.
Howard Dean "vaporizes" but Dick Cheney merely "worries." The point of this paragraph is to yet again demonize Howard Dean as a crazy Democratic Party extremist.
As the global riots last week make abundantly clear, we are facing a generation-long war, and we will not be able to fight effectively if we keep squabbling this way.
The United States has been unable to fight effectively because of Bush Administration policies. Brooks wisely leaves out the alleged attack on Los Angeles because the foiling of the plot had nothing to do with the NSA Wiretap program, which has proven uniquely ineffective in rooting out terrorists and has been, most likely, a way to tap into the private phone coversations and e-mail of American citizens.
This discussion about the power of the presidency is a vital one. It is not "squabbling." At the root, as with the filibuster debate, lies the core values and principles of American democracy. What kind of dictatorial powers should the presidency be given, if any? This issue should not be curtailed in order to create some sort of phony bipartisanship.
That's why we need another Gang of 14 to devise a sustainable bipartisan solution.
Six Republicans need to join with a full roster of Senate Democrats in order to defeat any legislation that supports the Administation's assertions. At this point, that number of Republicans exists. Brooks is fighting a straw man here.
That solution would be based on a series of truths. First, we need aggressive intelligence programs to head off attacks. Second, whatever you think of the legal and constitutional merits, those programs will not survive with the current level of Congressional disquiet. Third, despite what Arlen Specter is proposing, we can't throw the mess to the courts to resolve. Unelected judges should not be put in charge of national security decisions. It is Congress's job to oversee the executive.
Actually, unelected judges are in charge of decisions affecting wiretaps and other law enforcement techniques. That's Spector's point, and Brooks knows it.
The central problem today is that senators have the power to criticize and tear down N.S.A.-style programs, but it won't be their rear ends in a sling if we are attacked. It will be the president's.
We were attacked on September 11, 2001, and President Bush's ass was never put in a sling by the press. At this point, Bush could be found in bed with ten 12 year olds of various genders and Fox News would still present a slate of his defenders. If the U.S. is attacked again, NSA wiretapes or not, Bush's ass will still not be in a sling. This administration has worked very hard to ensure minimal accountablity for any of its decisions, particularly those involving terrorism. Bin Laden is still on the loose.
We need a Gang of 14 to draft legislation that will hold presidents and senators, Republicans and Democrats accountable for national security decisions. We need legislation that causes both parties to think concretely about how to succeed and share blame in case of failure.
Here's how you do it. You exempt searches covered by the Bush program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. You give the intelligence committees oversight responsibilities for those programs. You toughen the penalties for anybody who dares to leak secrets about those programs. You let committee members know that if the United States is attacked, and they opposed programs that could have prevented that attack, then it will be their name in the headlines, their name going down in historical infamy.
The Bush Administration is spending time and resources to find the whistleblower who dared to tell the New York Times about the NSA wiretaps. Brooks, in his backhanded way, supports that effort. If a bipartisan congressional committee authorizes various methods and has oversight, then these kinds of "leaks" are less likely to occur.
That kind of shared responsibility will induce a little seriousness. That will break through the abstract partisan warfare. Democratic senators know their party can't win elections if they continually position themselves as A.C.L.U. doves in security fights. Republican senators know they weren't elected just to serve as serfs and servants to the almighty executive. The question is: Who will lead the next Gang of 14 to broker this deal?
David Brooks has fabricated partisan conflict where none exists, and is positioning his views as those of a moderate trying to find bipartisan solutions. Nothing could be further from the truth..
What Brooks overlooks in his arguments about presidential power is how this Administration's penchant for secrecy and dissembling makes it particularly untrustworthy. The New York Times editorial today: We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers — and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less...Spin-as-usual is one thing. Striking at the civil liberties, due process and balance of powers that are the heart of American democracy is another.
February 11, 2006
And on the Eighth Day, God Went Green
By JOHN TIERNEY
And on the eighth day God said, Let there be a thermostat for the heavens and the earth, and, behold, God saw that it was good. And God said, Let no man adjust it more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1 degree Celsius, until the end of time.
Now that evangelical Christians have joined the battle against global warming, we may as well acknowledge that America has one truly national religion: environmentalism.
The frame: environmentalism is a religion. As a religion, it is faith-based, rather than fact-based.The same guy who'll trot out "values" and "faith-based" on one day to satisfy his religious pals, now turns against moral absolutism and faith on another. In point of fact, environmentalism is not a religion in any sense other than a metaphorical one (more on that below). Among other things, it holds that there are consequences to one's actions, and polluting the environment, destroying forests, and fishing out the oceans means that future generations will live in a far less pleasant planet than we live on now. Many environmentalists go further, of course, noting that man has a responsibility to the planet he lives on, so there's a lot of "spiritual" imagery in the environmental movement, but very little of it is actually religious, in the biblical sense.
Its tenets, already taken for granted in the blue states, were embraced this week by the Christian leaders who formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. They haven't yet rewritten Genesis, but their advertising campaign warns of "millions of deaths" from biblical scourges — floods, droughts, pestilence — unless humans make a "sacred commitment" to stop global warming.
"Global warming" is only a small piece of environmentalism. Notice how Tierney is conflating environmentalism with global warming. From here on out, he substitutes the particular ("global warming") for the general ("environmentalism"). All that applies to the general term applies to the specific term within it, but the reverse is not true.
However, talking about global warming --- or more specifically, climate change --- journalist Chris Mooney in his book, The Republican War on Science, states that in 1995 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote "the balance of evidence suggests there is a discernable human influence on global climate." Mooney adds that "with the release of the IPCC's assessment in 2001, a strong consensus position (among scientists) has emerged: Notwithstanding some role for natural variability, humans are almost certainly heating the planet now through greenhouse gas emissions, and could ramp up global average temperatures by several degrees Celsius by the year 2100." Mooney goes on to quote Science magazine executive editor in chief Donald Kennedy: "Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science." Though that consensus is not shared by think tanks like (see below) CEI and the Heartland Foundation.
It may look odd for evangelicals to be taking up Hollywood's most fashionable cause, but the alliance makes perfect sense. Environmentalism has always fundamentally been a religion — "Calvinism minus God," in the words of Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland. He calls the global warming debate the latest example of environmentalist creationism.
Robert Nelson is a Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The CEI "is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace." The CEI is unabashedly not just a think tank but an advocacy group: "It is not enough to simply identify and articulate solutions to public policy problems; it is also necessary to defend and promote those solutions at all phases of the public policy debate." In other words, Robert Nelson is as much a propagandist as John Tierney.
Be that as it may, it's not surprising that Prof. Nelson called environmentalism a religion. He also says that market economics is best understood as a religion. One review of Nelson's book, "Economics as Religion," writes that "Nelson does not regard 'theology' as a cuss word, and so his detailed study of the theology underlying Samuelsonian and Chicagoan economics is not a put-down. It's a way of seeing the rhetoric of fundamental belief—what has been called vision."
The Puritans and other Calvinists believed that God was revealed not just in Scripture but also in the "Book of Nature." To them, the wilderness was an unchanged record of God's handiwork at "the Creation," offering a glimpse of the world before man's pride and sinfulness alienated him from nature and caused him to be expelled from Eden.
Environmentalists have had similar notions, starting with John Muir, who considered nature "a mirror reflecting the Creator." Al Gore urged the "moral courage" to secure "our place within creation." When Bruce Babbitt was secretary of the interior, he called plants and animals "a direct reflector of divinity," and he warned Americans not to "recklessly destroy the patterns of creation."
Interesting that Tierney is willing to link America's religious history with the environmental movement. This is something Democrats have been trying to do for some time to counteract arguments from theocrats of the Religious Right. Without any proof, I suspect he's cribbing from Prof. Nelson here because this a very non-Tierney kind of perspective..
There is one large problem with this version of creationism. The world we see was not created in a week, and it has looked a lot different in the past.
John Muir's religious beliefs were non-biblical except in the very broadest sense. Gore and Babbitt and others are not speaking of creationism, a charged term relating to a specific Biblical view that says God created the earth as in the Bible. When Babbitt speaks of "recklessly destroying the patterns of creation," he is not talking about Biblical creation, but about Creation, which involves the natural order of creation from beginning to today --- and could mean the Big Bang or the birth of the earth or whatever. It's unlikely most environmentalists believe the world was created in seven days, nor do they deny it has looked different than in the past. Tierney is piling on straw man upon straw man. Prof. Nelson appears to be speaking in broad terms and Tierney is then taking those terms and applying them literally. I get the feeling that while I'd disagree with Prof. Nelson, his argument is a lot more cogent than Tierney's.
The forests that seemed divine to the Puritans and to Muir and Babbitt were not present at the Creation.
No one said they were. The problem with trying to summarize a complex argument --- hell, it took Nelson a whole book --- is that if you skip the middle, the end parts make no sense.
They were merely the latest adaptation to changing climatic conditions and competition with other species, including humans — Indians had been managing the forests by cutting trees and setting fires. There is no such thing as a "natural" forest in America, Nelson writes, unless you reject creationism and define nature as "the Darwinian vision of unremitting struggle for survival."
In addition, one could argue that all actions by man are natural because man is a part of nature. Therefore, the worst kind of factory or even nuclear pollution is "natural." Taking it to the extreme, nuclear winter becomes a natural event. Tierney is giving an argument in favor of worldwide environmental degradation, which may or may not be what Prof. Nelson had in mind. But notice how Tierney switches directly from one side (rationalist, with "creationism" as the curseword) to the other (fundamentalist, with "Darwin" as the curseword).
Darwin's Book of Nature isn't as morally satisfying as Calvin's, at least not for those who enjoy berating Americans for their sinful desires to cut down trees and burn fossil fuels. But it does make for a clearer way to think about global warming. Instead of assuming that humans will be punished for tinkering with God's handiwork, you can consider the best strategy for our species' survival.
Actually, that's what many environmentalists do consider. I've been around a lot of environmentalists, and not one has talked about punishment by God, or anything remotely like that. This is one of the most off-base arguments I've ever heard.
That means rejecting the assumption that we must immediately start atoning for our excesses.
Another assumption, which is that environmentalism is about religious atonement, not cleaning up the planet, or at least maintaining what we have now.
Solutions like the Kyoto treaty amount to expensive hair shirts that appeal to penitents but not necessarily to economists. Even economists who support the Kyoto treaty acknowledge that it will make only a small difference far in the future while imposing serious costs today.
From Chris Mooney: Tom Wigley, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research wrote a paper back in 1998, the point of which was to show that Kyoto would be only "the first step in a long and complex process of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels." There is purpose there. Economic arguments, as Mooney points out, are quite different from scientific ones.
And those costs seem too high to other economists, like the four Nobel laureates and their colleagues who met in Copenhagen in 2004 to study proposals to help the world's poor. The Copenhagen Consensus, as they called it, was that programs to slow global warming are one of the worst investments — far less worthwhile than programs to immediately combat disease and improve drinking water and sanitation.
These are economists, not scientists concerned with the future viability of the planet. Their comments do not negate the scientific expertise behind Kyoto. They, for better or worse, have a different agenda.
Saving lives now makes more sense than spending money to avert biblical punishments that may never come.
Tierney has now gone from vague religious statements by environmentalists to some hypothetical Biblical punishment. The leaps in his logic are breathtaking. Of course, the proposals to help the world's poor most likely themselves run counter to Tierney's laissez faire Social Darwinist philosophy, which he seems to have forgotten about during the course of his argument.
Scientists agree that the planet seems to be warming, but their models are still so crude that they're unsure about how much it will heat up or how much damage will be done. There's a chance the warming could be mild enough to produce net benefits.
That "chance" comes from an article by Thomas Gale Moore of the Heartland Institute. Not surprisingly, Moore is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book, "Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn’t Worry about Global Warming" was published by the Cato Institute. Mooney, a freelance journalist who has written for the Washington Post, Slate, and other publications, notes that the CEI and the Heartland Institute are heavily funded by corporations like ExxonMobil.
For now, the best strategy is to refine the forecasts and look for the cheapest and least painful ways to counteract global warming, including heretical ideas like geo-engineering schemes to cool the planet by blocking sunlight. It's hard today to imagine how that would be done — or how environmentalists would ever allow something so "unnatural."
Luckily those schemes only happen in Hollywood movies, where they invariably go wrong. That's what hubris is all about.
But maybe they could be convinced that we're just resetting God's thermostat back to the eighth day of Creation.
Notice how he's dismissed environmentalists as superstitious idiots based on the fallacious notion that they believe in the Biblical seven day creation myth.
Putting aside illogical columns from know-nothings like John Tierney, what's really scary is that a number of scientists now believe we're past the tipping point when it comes to global warming. That it's too late. Have a great weekend.
February 9, 2006
By DAVID BROOKS
You want us to know how you feel. You in the Arab European League published a cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank so we in the West would understand how offended you were by those Danish cartoons. You at the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri are holding a Holocaust cartoon contest so we'll also know how you feel.
Well, I saw the Hitler-Anne Frank cartoon: the two have just had sex and Hitler says to her, "Write this one in your diary, Anne." But I still don't know how you feel. I still don't feel as if I should burn embassies or behead people or call on God or bin Laden to exterminate my foes. I still don't feel your rage. I don't feel threatened by a sophomoric cartoon, even one as tasteless as that one.
At first I sympathized with your anger at the Danish cartoons because it's impolite to trample on other people's religious symbols. But as the rage spread and the issue grew more cosmic, many of us in the West were reminded of how vast the chasm is between you and us. There was more talk than ever about a clash of civilizations. We don't just have different ideas; we have a different relationship to ideas.
We in the West were born into a world that reflects the legacy of Socrates and the agora. In our world, images, statistics and arguments swarm around from all directions. There are movies and blogs, books and sermons. There's the profound and the vulgar, the high and the low.
In our world we spend our time sifting and measuring, throwing away the dumb and offensive, e-mailing the smart and the incisive. We aim, in Michael Oakeshott's words, to live amid the conversation — "an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all."
We believe in progress and in personal growth. By swimming in this flurry of perspectives, by facing unpleasant facts, we try to come closer and closer to understanding.
But you have a different way. When I say you, I don't mean you Muslims. I don't mean you genuine Islamic scholars and learners. I mean you Islamists. I mean you young men who were well educated in the West, but who have retreated in disgust from the inconclusiveness and chaos of our conversation. You've retreated from the agora into an exaggerated version of Muslim purity.
You frame the contrast between your world and our world more bluntly than we outsiders would ever dare to. In London the protesters held signs reading "Freedom Go to Hell," "Exterminate Those Who Mock Islam," "Be Prepared for the Real Holocaust" and "Europe You Will Pay, Your 9/11 Is on the Way." In Copenhagen, an imam declared, "In the West, freedom of speech is sacred; to us, the prophet is sacred" — as if the two were necessarily opposed.
Our mind-set is progressive and rational. Your mind-set is pre-Enlightenment and mythological. In your worldview, history doesn't move forward through gradual understanding. In your worldview, history is resolved during the apocalyptic conflict between the supernaturally pure jihadist and the supernaturally evil Jew.
You seize on any shred — even a months-old cartoon from an obscure Danish paper — to prove to yourself that the Jew and the crusader are on the offensive, that the apocalyptic confrontation is at hand. You invent primitive stories — like the one about Jews who kill children for their blood — to reinforce your image of Jewish evil. You deny the Holocaust because if the Jews were as powerful as you say, they would never have allowed it to happen.
In my world, people search for truth in their own diverse ways. In your world, the faithful and the infidel battle for survival, and words and ideas and cartoons are nothing more than weapons in that war.
So, of course, what started in Denmark ended up for you with Hitler, the Holocaust and the Jew. But in your overreaction this past week, your defensiveness is showing. Democracy is coming to your region, and democracy brings the conversation. Mainstream leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are embracing democracy and denouncing your riots as "misguided and oppressive.".
You fundamentalists have turned yourselves into a superpower of dysfunction, demanding our attention week after week. But it is hard to intimidate people forever into silence, to bottle up the conversation, to lock the world into an epic war only you want. While I don't share your rage, I do understand your panic.
I don't know what's going on in inner Republican circles, but this seems to be a column against the Christian Right. Brooks specifically uses the word "fundamentalist" in the last paragraph to describe the Islamist cause. He's not a dummy.
But notice I say "seems to be.". Because most of his right-wing readers won't get the inference, Brooks is having his cake and eating it too. It's one thing to read tea leaves concerning inter-Republican politics. But it's another to read tea leaves over an issue that threatens the foundations of American democracy, which is the danger of an American theocracy.
It's possible this represents a shot across the bow, but it's more likely just a tweak in the nose. Yes, it's strong, but it's also very coy. Coming from David Brooks, any criticism of the Christian fundamentalist wing of the Republican party is long overdue, and quite welcome. But in this manner, it's awfully half-hearted.
February 7, 2006
Burn, Baby, Burn
By JOHN TIERNEY
A disclaimer: I am responding to this column as if Tierney is serious in his arguments. It's very possible he's pulling a Jonathan Swift routine, and the whole thing is meant as a joke. The problem is, with these guys, sometimes it's really hard to tell.
Before I unveil my plan for energy independence, let me explain what's wrong with everyone else's.
The problem with Americans is not that we're addicted to oil. As soon as oil becomes more trouble than it's worth, we will sensibly stop putting it in our cars. Until then, our problem is that we're addicted to politicians with plans for energy independence, like the Advanced Energy Initiative introduced by President Bush in his budget yesterday.
Bush's "initiative" is pretty much a hoax, used, as with all other "initiatives" that come out of the blue, to mask the problems of his administration. The silly thing is that any journalist, after five years of the Bush Administration, takes any of these kinds of "initiatives" seriously. This is empty rhetoric. Insofar as politicians' plans for energy independence, those went out the window when Reagan came into office a quarter of a century ago. Even Clinton only paid lip service to the idea. Addendum after reading Molly Ivins' latest column: It turns out that Bush's budget only allots $150 million to biofuels, which is a pittance --- and which is $50 million less than last year's budget. Also, the Administration took great pains the next day to say Bush really didn't mean what he said.
What exactly is so wrong with burning oil? The best argument is that it contributes to global warming. But so does burning coal and other fossil fuels. The fairest and most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be with a carbon tax on all fossil fuels.
Increasing the cost of gasoline in the United States through taxes would do two things: it would force the average consumer to drive less and to purchase more gas-efficient cars. It would also have a negative impact on the cost of most goods and services because the cost of transportation would increase. Tax breaks for hybrids and strict regulations on mileage would have a much more positive effect. But because Tierney is a worshipper of the marketplace, that sort of thinking has no place in his universe.
But the advocates for energy independence want to do more than just regulate emissions. Since Jimmy Carter put on his cardigan sweater and declared saving energy "the moral equivalent of war," politicians determined to wean us from imported oil have been hectoring us with bogus arguments:
What does he mean by bogus arguments? He lists a handful of arguments below, but never shows any reason why they're bogus.
The well is running dry. Government planners have a long history of overestimating the future cost of oil and underestimating the cost of their pet alternatives — which is why we keep burning oil. The government should finance basic research, not pick winners and losers. If there's a better alternative to oil in the near future, don't expect it to be glimpsed by the politicians now doling out subsidies to energy corporations and the corn farmers who vote in the Iowa caucuses.
There is no correlation between estimating the future cost of oil and the fact that the well may be running dry. OPEC will keep pumping oil out until it's gone. Someday it will be gone -- maybe in a hundred years, maybe later if more oil fields are discovered. But it will be gone. There are very good reasons to find alternatives now, particularly given the number of uses for oil that have nothing to do with fuel, such as plastics, medicines, furniture, clothing. Burning up this greatest of all natural resources is a tragedy, and a crime.
The government should finance future research, but it's the Bush Administration who is picking the winners (cronies, future cronies) and losers (consumers, everyone else in the corporate world).
America needs insurance against "oil shocks." Insurance doesn't make sense if the premiums cost more than the disaster. Mandating fuel-economy standards saved gasoline and made Americans a little less vulnerable to a spike in oil prices, but the rules led to smaller cars and an additional 2,000 deaths per year in highway accidents from the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's, according to the National Research Council.
This argument is really lame. "Oil shock" has more to do with moving goods and services around than the cost of gas in your car. As we've learned, people absorb the increased cost of gas by either manipulating their household budgets or driving less.
The other statement is an example of rectal journalism, pulling "facts" out of his ass. In the early 1970s, highway mileage limits dropped nationwide to 50 MPH. This caused a major drop in highway deaths. As mileage rates raised, highway deaths raised as well. The subsequent drop in fatalities is far more likely less the result of an increase in lower mileage SUVS, and more in the institution of mandatory airbags in the 1990s. Airbags, statistics tell us have resulted in a 30% fatality reduction.
Storing oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was supposed to moderate the economic damage of price spikes, but there's little evidence that it's ever made any appreciable difference, according to a Cato Institute study by Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren. They calculate that the reserve has cost taxpayers more per barrel than the oil itself has ever been worth — even in years when the average price of oil was high, as in 1991 or last year.
We must take away the Middle East's "oil weapon." The only real oil weapon is the one that American politicians use to justify energy plans and Middle East adventures. It doesn't matter if our enemies in the Persian Gulf refuse to sell us oil directly. Once they sell it to anyone, it's in the global market and effectively available to us.
Obviously Tierney never reads the words of his colleague Thomas Friedman. Nor does he seem to comprehend that while America can still get its oil from the global marketplace, it means a huge spike in oil costs because there would be a middleman (Russia or China?) involved, and prices would be jacked up substantially.. Not to mention the enormous amount of money that would be drained from American corporate coffers as they divest their oilfields and production facilities. Besides, aren't we in Iraq because of democracy,or because of WMDs, or because of bin Laden or whatever? Is Tierney now arguing that the Iraq War really has to do with oil? This is a welcome admission from a Republican propagandist.
The only way to hurt us would be to refuse to sell to anyone, but Middle Eastern countries are far more dependent on oil than we are: their oil revenues constitute a much bigger percentage of their income than their oil represents as a fraction of our imports.
If Osama bin Laden took over Saudi Arabia, why would he want to risk a popular uprising from citizens suddenly cut off from their accustomed cut of the national income? Selling oil makes sense, as bin Laden himself acknowledged when he said in an interview in 1996, "We are not going to drink it."
One would hope that if bin Laden took over Saudi Arabia, America would swoop in and chop off his head before he had time to say or do anything. But if he did come to power, Bin Laden would also have leverage on any middle man who wanted to sell oil to the United States. This would be a very dangerous proposition.
The United States spent decades propping up the shah of Iran only to see the country fall into the hands of our archenemies, but Iran is still exporting oil — and it is a lot more reliable producer than Iraq, despite all the money and lives we've spent there.
Actually Iran is a more reliable producer because of all the money and lives we've thrown away in Iraq. Reconstruction indeed.
The best guarantee of future oil supplies is the sellers' greed, not our diplomatic and military efforts.
This is an example of faith-based economics that assumes that America's leverage as a buyer is a strong as OPEC's leverage as a seller. It's not. OPEC is pretty much the only oil producer, but there are a lot of buyers out there of which America is just one. Actually, Tierney sounds a little like a Berkeley leftist: get out of the Middle East and let the chips fall where they may.
When something finally comes along that's cheaper and more reliable than oil, no national energy plan will be necessary. Capitalists will be ready to sell it to eager American drivers.
Not if it brings in less profit than oil. At present, hybrid cars can be retrofitted to get close to 200 miles per gallon using a series of batteries in one's trunk.. If one were to develop a small rechargeable battery to replace the unwieldy battery series, and simultaneously invent a solar power reservoir that can sit in your garage to save recharging costs, then you could conceivably have a car which needs a fill-up maybe three times a year with no increase in your electric bill. Ain't gonna happen.
For now, the best strategy is to buy gasoline and stop worrying that it's sinful or dangerous.
This is absolutely the worst strategy. It gives the American government the excuse to interfere in Middle East politics for economic reasons; it gives the OPEC countries leverage in their dealings with the United States, it furthers global warming, and it pins the volatile cost of oil to consumer costs for all goods in this country. The only place it doesn't make a difference is in the idea of oil as a finite resource --- it will continue to be drilled as long as it's there, whether Americans buy it or not.
When you hear politicians calling you an addict and warning that you'll be cut off, try my plan for energy independence. It's modeled on the Daily Affirmation of Stuart Smalley, that recovering addict and devotee of 12-step programs (whose creator on "Saturday Night Live," Al Franken, will probably be horrified).
After you fill up your tank, twist the rear-view mirror so you can gaze at yourself. Repeat these words: "I'm good enough, I'm rich enough, and doggone it, people in the Middle East like my money."
Tierney needs to be reminded that the events of September 11, 2001 did not happen in a vacuum and to assume they did, whether Republican or Democrat, is irresponsible.
Unless he's joking. In which case --- sorry, John, I don't get it. (revised Feb. 7, 11 am)
February 5, 2006
Remaking the Epic of America
By DAVID BROOKS
On this, our holiest day of the year, when Americans gather, overeat and enjoy the outpourings of our greatest advertising agencies, it is fitting to reflect upon the core myth that animates our nation. No, I don't mean the western, which is so 19th century. I mean the sports movie, the epic that defines contemporary America.
These "non-political" columns are the ones to watch for: Brooks is generally developing frames that fit into his concept of American society and politics. I think it's to his credit as a first rate propagandist that it's necessary to often read them several times to understand the subtextual assumptions.
Over the past several years, theaters have been inundated by a series of films that all have the same plot. Whether it is "Hoosiers," "Glory Road," "Coach Carter," "Remember the Titans," "Miracle," "The Replacements" or a hundred others you've barely heard of, the core elements are always the same. A tough, no-nonsense coach, usually with a shadow-filled past, takes over a shambolic, underfunded team. He forces his players to work harder than they ever thought they could. He inspires them to sacrifice for the greater good. Finally, he leads them to glory over richer and more respected rivals.
When a story is repeated this often, and when it continues to attract audiences time after time, it is because it affirms certain values precious to the culture. The values these movies affirm amount to a brick-by-brick destruction of the values that were prevalent 30 years ago.
Here we go.
Thirty years ago, young people were told to question authority. But the heroes of these movies are coaches who are unabashed authority figures. Preferring success to affection, they instill fear and sometimes hatred in their players. They insist on being called "sir" and impose dominating discipline. "This is no democracy," Denzel Washington's character says in "Remember the Titans." "It is a dictatorship. I am the law."
However, these "unabashed authority figures" are at the same time usually at odds with the governmental authority above them. Their methods are often unorthodox, and the turning point before the final game is sometimes a breakdown of their authority as they come to understand the relationship between their arbitrary laws and the actual lives of the players. Brooks is kind of, well, wrong.
But let's give Brooks the benefit of the doubt. Is he arguing that blind obedience to authority is a traditional American trait? A positive American trait? Wasn't the American Revolution all about questioning the authority of Great Britain? Isn't the First Amendment all about the right to question authority?
Thirty years ago, there was a revolt against traditional manliness, but these coaches are stereotypical manly men. Even in the movies where the athletes are women, like "Million Dollar Baby" or "A League of Their Own," the coaches are flinty, uncommunicative men. They may be scarred inside, but they project confidence and command.
Actually, Tom Hanks plays a burned out drunk in "A League of Their Own." Not a whole lot of confidence or command there. But again, what's he arguing against? Schwartzenegger's vision of a "girly man"? In fact, what Brooks is arguing against is a straw man.
Thirty years ago, students were warned of the dangers of conformity, of the crushing banality of the Organization Man. But in this world success comes only when individuals subordinate themselves to the team. "The name on the front" of the USA jersey "is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back," Herb Brooks roars in "Miracle."
Given the traditional American value of the rugged individualist, films in which individuals subordinate themselves to the team might be considered counter-American.
Nearly 30 years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote a book called "The Culture of Narcissism." In these movies the antidote to the culture of narcissism is a civilian Marine Corps.
These coaches' self-assigned task is to take young people reared in what Michael Barone calls Soft America, and toughen them for the adult rigors of Hard America. Rejecting the therapeutic ethic, they blast through the central form of dishonesty that surrounds American young people — which is everybody telling them how great they are.
That is to say, subordinate the entrepreneurial American spirit in favor of a blind conformity. Gee, that sounds...Communist.
The heroes in these movies stand for deference and order over liberation and self-esteem.
Absolutely not true. While these films usually have one egomaniacal student or player who's out of control, there's always another player who learns self-esteem through teamwork. The movies are not about deference and order, they're about liberation and self-esteem by putting one's ego aside. Come to think of it, that's a lot of what the sixties were about.
The Samuel L. Jackson character in "Coach Carter" glowers through the movie because nobody is making tough demands on his students. "I see a system that's designed for you to fail," he tells his players.
So it's his job to give them liberation and self-esteem. Actually, Brooks does have a point here. All these coaches are disciplinarians. None of them mess around with group hugs. To that degree, these are right-wing moves, as he suggests. However, they are all about believing in oneself, and they are all about self-esteem, and they are all about bucking the system. The mushy "New Age" methods and "coddling" ("baseball players don't cry") that supposedly define sixties values, really don't. What "sixties values" define are ways in which positive reinforcement is used instead of physical discipline and punishment in modern child-rearing. What Brooks, and ideologues like him, don't get is that it all depends on the child, and on the adult. Some people respond best to tough love, some respond best to encouragement. It's the smart coach, smart teacher, and smart parent, who can understand the difference.
Here, for those who don't quite understand what George Lakoff is talking about when he defines conservatives as using the "stern parent" metaphor and liberals using the "nurturing parent" metaphor, is a perfect example of his theories. Brooks is using the "tough parent" frame to "prove" his points. I'm using the "nurturing parent" frame to prove mine. Brooks happens to overgeneralize, as we see below, which tends to make his points weaker. But you can argue that these movies exemplify either frame, depending on how you look at it.
In addition, Brooks is using the frame" of "traditional values" to denote what's positive about America, and traditional values is a charged term aimed directly at Republican votes. Thus, not only is he promoting the concept of the "stern parent" as authority figure, he's also reinforcing the entire "values" frame --- a frame that specifically ignores such Republican values as Congressional corruption and cronyism --- Halliburton, despite being charged with billions of dollars in embezzled government funds, has just received yet another no-bid contract to build domestic detention centers. Concentration camps as a traditional American value. You go, girl.
These movies celebrate workaholism and ambition. Audiences probably wouldn't be able to sit comfortably through a movie about a dominating boss who forced his company to raise profit margins by 5 percent. But it's easy to cheer along with the coach obsessed with a championship. Audiences embrace coaches who enforce an insane work ethic on their teams, who scream and punish their players until they have performed that final, soul-cleansing push-up.
Yes and no, because at some point the coaches need to bend a little in order to give their charges more room to breathe. That's a key plot element in many of these films.
Clothed in the garments of the sports story, all the ambivalence people feel about ambition falls away. Horatio Alger success stories are tepid compared to this.
The story of the ambitious successful underdog who triumphs is a staple of American movies since the industry began, and stretches past sports stories into liberal films like Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich, not to mention films like Sunrise at Campbello and the Broadway musical Fiorello. Horatio Alger success stories are not not tepid compared to this. These are Horatio Alger stories. So again, Brooks is....wrong.
What Brooks is doing is underlining the Republican trope (of the "stern parent") that sixties "values" (the "nurturing parent") screwed up America, and that what he and his fellow right-wingers are doing is fighting the good fight against them.. This pops up in talk radio and on blogs and even in the mouths of right wing television commentators.
Brooks has also moved into his own contradiction. Now he's talking about the entrepreneurial spirit whereas berfore he was talking about subjugating one's self to the team. These two, in Brooks' terms, cannot co-exist. The reason they do here, however, is because these films are not about either: they are about one thing: the triumph of the underdog, usually through self-expression, hard work, and a refusal to subjugate oneself to societal restrictions. This is Ayn Rand territory, and Brooks cannot have it both ways.
It all pays off, because society is just. In the world these movies create, there never has been a championship game contested by two teams with similar sociodemographic backgrounds. Instead, the poorer, harder-working team triumphs over the richer, self-satisfied one. When Texas Western, Rocky or Seabiscuit wins, the American ideal of social mobility is confirmed.
Horatio Alger sports stories have been going on unabated all along. Remember "Pride of the Yankees" or how about "Knute Rockne, All American"? "Rocky" was a hit in 1972, when "sixties values" were flourishing in America. To say it's somehow an "American" ideal is ridiculous. The reason some of these films only flourish in America is because these are American sports. "Bend It Like Beckham" was a huge hit in Europe, and it's the same story, along with the same need for discipline to get ahead. Actually, if you think about it, all stories of this kind feature discipline: if you have the discipline, you'll have the success. It's hard to find a single example in fiction which teaches that one should get ahead through laziness, egomania and lack of ambition. In real life, there's George W. Bush. But that's in real life.
It's always about the harder working team against the richer, self-satisfied team. If, as one book title once put it, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, nobody cares. The ideal of social mobility isn't confirmed in the old musical, "Damn Yankees," but the Washington Senators do win, and beat the Devil to boot.
In short, these movies embrace the civil rights part of the 1960's and 1970's. Women and minorities should be given full access to the competitive world of the meritocracy. But they take the therapeutic, progressive, New Age part of the 1960's and 1970's and they crush it dead. They create a culture of all-inclusive traditionalism.
That is to say, "traditionalism" as an example of the "stern parent," and therapeutic, progressive New Age" as an example of the "nurturing parent." The problem is that traditionalism could also include wife-beating, corporal punishment, stoning homosexuals, jailing doctors who perform abortions, and so on. He's jumped from "stern parent" to "traditionalism" without a break, which is a typical Brooks move. The fact that these movies are successful ignores the success of other movies with different themes, and also ignores the fact that these films have hit a brick wall. After the success of "Seabiscuit" and "Remember the Titans" and "Miracle," we've gotten "Glory Road" (which failed somewhat at the box office) and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (which bombed big time). Brooks also is doing a bit of cherry-picking here. The best reviewed upbeat sports of movie of 2005, "Cinderella Man," bombed, while "Million Dollar Baby," which in some ways was the antithesis of these other spoits movies, won an Oscar for Best Picture and brought in $100 million at the box office..Also, who is the most successful coach in the NBA? Phil Jackson, whose philosophy epitomizes "sixties values."
Which is about where American society as a whole has settled after all the tumult. The 1960's happened. Vince Lombardi won.
No. This says nothing about American society, other than what films like these have always been saying, which is...Americans love underdogs. But then again, so does everyone else. (updated Feb. 5, 2:40 pm)
Jerry Beach: It's important to remember that the 'strict father' and 'nurturent parent' models are natural ways of organizing concepts, conceptual metaphors, which enable us to get our brains around topics that are too complicated or abstract to think about directly. And each of us uses both models in various aspects of our lives. In Lakoff's article about conservatives forcing our legal system away from fairness and balance, and toward the corporate interest, he points out:
"In the ideal case, fairness between contestants is maximized. The judge has a limited strict father function: knowing right from wrong, interpreting the legal rules, and imposing his knowledge and authority. But, in principle, the authority of the judge is limited to points of law and proper trial procedure, with the purpose of giving rulings to guarantee fairness. If the judge is prejudiced, or if other unfairness comes in, there is an appeal to a higher court."
Our legal system builds in a limited strict father function, in the role of the judge, in order to guarantee the nurturent value of fairness.
In sports, this role most aptly applies to the referee, not so much the coach. The coach's job, as you've said, is to build self esteem. "You can do this!" is the subtext behind most of those Hollywood scenarios and, "Even if you don't believe you have it in you, I'm here to show you that you have more potential as a group of players than you think you do, and I'm going to teach you how to do more than you believe is possible." At their heart, these movies are often about a nurturent morality. If Brooks wanted to teach us about the underlying values of the far right, then he would be more consistent to take his themes from the comic book movies of Arnold Schwartzeneger & Bruce Willis where the good guy, or I should say, the baddest guy, is unnaturally powerful, or unbelievably lucky, and where winning is all that matters
February 4, 2006
Smells Like Team Spirit
By JOHN TIERNEY
To understand what's wrong with politics today, take a good look during the Super Bowl at the Steeler fans with their Terrible Towels. Imagine what's happening inside their minds as they wave the gold rags. This is your brain on partisan politics.
As was mentioned in an earlier post, the first line of Republican defense is, "We didn't do it." The second line is "Everyone does it." That's the line Tierney is using now: it isn't that Republicans are excessively partisan, it's that BOTH parties are excessively partisan. In addition, it's not really about policy, it's all about personality, about Bush-bashing or Liberal-bashing. Partisanship for partisanship's sake. Because Tierney is attempting to equte Republican and Democratic partisanship, this is a variation on David Brooks' use of the term "Deanism" to describe Democrats who don't go along with the extremist Republican agenda.
From the Democratic perspective, as Molly Ivins likes to point out, it's not really about Bush or Republicans as people, it's about their policies and how their policies kill people.
In fact, it's the Republican propagandists who often have no politics.NYU media professor Mark Crispin Miller has said that if you remove the bile and vitriol and name calling from folks like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, there's nothing left. David Brock notes in his memoir "Blinded by the Right" that Laura Ingraham had no books in her apartment. He adds that he and Coulter spent much time together and never actually talked politics. Roger Ebert told me last spring that he often gets e-mails from people on the right and the left who criticize his reviews. The folks on the left write long, detailed missives, carefully explaining why he's wrong. People on the right just curse him out.
This is the level of rational deliberation measured by Emory researchers who scanned the brains of devout Republicans and Democrats contemplating statements by George Bush or John Kerry. When faced with contradictions by their party's leader, the partisans responded like the Pittsburghers who still refer to Franco Harris's dubious touchdown in 1972 as the Immaculate Reception..
I don't mean to suggest there's anything wrong with my fellow Pittsburghers (or the Immaculate Reception). My living room is equipped for tomorrow with four official Terrible Towels. Sports fans, believe it or not, enjoy above-average mental health. But there is no evidence that politics improves when it's conducted like the Super Bowl.
Which is a valid objection to that column in The National Journal that reads like it's from espn.com.. If Tierney were talking about how mainstream journalists cover politics, he's nailed it. The rest of the analogy --- well, it's Republican propaganda, similar in spirit to those who say the Abramoff scandal hits both parties. It doesn't. It's a purely Republican scandal.
When a rabid fan watches his team, his brain reacts as if he's on the field. (The deluded Seahawks fans actually call themselves The 12th Man.) The fan's testosterone surges when his team wins and plummets when it loses. One study found that both male and female fans of a college basketball team suddenly rated themselves as more sexually attractive when their team won.
After an impressive play, the levels of dopamine in fans' brains spike similarly to the brain's response to cocaine. When their team wins, their level of arousal — as measured by heart rate, brain waves and perspiration — is comparable to their reactions to erotic photos or pictures of animal attacks. (Don't ask why killer animals are as stimulating as pornography. That's beyond my expertise.)
Again, the assumption here is that there are no basic political differences affecting peoples' lives at stake in the political arena.
But it isn't just about winning and losing elections. It's about all our lives. Bush's terms have given us 9/11, the Iraq War, the Katrina non-response, one of the weakest recoveries in history, increased global warming, and so on. If Pittsburgh loses tomorrow, IT DOESN'T MATTER.. There's always next year ,which is just as important as this year. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, people will die. People are dying every day in Iraq. Policies matter.
When their team loses, serious fans tend to blame bad luck or bad referees, the same coping mechanism observed by the Emory psychologists who studied political partisans.
This is a sly dig at those who claim the 2000 and 2004 elections were stolen. Blame the referees. But if the referees cost Pittsburgh a game, nothing is at stake. If the elections were fixed, then we're living in a dictatorship.
When the Democrats or Republicans were confronted with contradictory statements by their party's candidate, the parts of their brain involved in reasoning and judgment took a break while the emotional centers lit up.
"People were feeling distressed," says Drew Westen, the lead researcher, "and they were latching onto any kind of beliefs that would make them feel better." The brain then turned off its negative emotions and activated the feel-good circuits.
"If their candidate does something slimy or contradictory, they deny it, and their brain rewards them with the same kind of dopamine victory signal that sports fans get," Westen explains. "The moral in politics is that you really have to make conscious efforts to avoid self-deception. It makes it pretty hard to learn anything if your brain is telling you that every fumble by your team was actually a bad call by the referee."
One could argue, however, that both Bush and Kerry were placeholders for their political views, and that the slimy and contradictory statements were excused because these men were placeholders, not because their supporters were self-deluded. Defending Kerry against Bush required a suspension of disbelief considering some of Kerry's obtuse statements, and defending Bush against Kerry also required a suspension of disbelief because the man has trouble uttering a single coherent sentence on his own.
Die-hard sports fans tend to be less lonely and depressed than average, presumably because they're satisfying their inner Stone Age warrior. Fake wars are a healthy outlet for those yearnings to unite and vanquish the enemy clan. But turning politics into a war between good and evil is not so satisfying, because neither side ever wins and the public grows tired of the spectacle.
Most Americans aren't wildly partisan, but they're stuck with a national political debate led by the new tribes at the extreme of each party: the voters who commune on talk shows and blogs, the politicians in gerrymandered districts who play only to the party faithful.
Another Republican myth. Where are the extreme members of the Left? There's no one on television to counter Hannity or O'Reilly or Coulter or Cal Thomas or Brit Hume or Chuck Scarborough. There are the folks at Air America, and Amy Goodman over at Pacifica, and Michael Moore when he surfaces every couple of years, and the bloggers. But nobody on television. It isn't just that the right has the bigger voice. It's that outside of Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart, they have the only voice.
As these extremists have come to dominate Congress, the State of the Union address has been looking more and more like the Super Bowl. The lawmakers haven't started painting team colors on their faces yet, but Republican supporters of the Iraq war did show their solidarity at last year's speech by holding up purple fingers.
The extremists in the Democratic Party do not dominate Congress. Centrists like Dianne Feinstein and Harry Reid dominate the Senate, and even Nancy Pelosi must move toward the center if trying to hold a large majority of the Democrats in the House. Unlike fixated Republican extremists, Democrats are all over the map, as witness the fact that the party was unable to come up with a filibuster against the radical right-wing judge Samuel Alito.
This year the Democrats came close to doing the wave when they ecstatically rose to cheer the defeat of Social Security reform, and the audience got into the spirit by introducing team jerseys. The Capitol police ejected Cindy Sheehan and a Republican congressman's wife for wearing dueling T-shirts, but the police later acknowledged they should have been allowed to stay.
If bipartisanship means following an extremist Republican agenda, then Democrats won't be and shouldn't be bipartisan. It's not as if Republicans have compromised or been bipartisan in any way while in control of this government. In the past two presidential elections, the final vote was virtually split down the middle; the vote for Congress, all told, was virtually split down the middle. There are no real red states or blue states, only the color purple. But damned if the Republican government has ever recognzied that, or even cared.
So next year we should have more T-shirts and more innovations — maybe team hats, which the Capitol police told me would be acceptable. The police spokeswoman wasn't sure about Terrible Towels, but after the Steelers win the Super Bowl, look for red and blue rags waving during next year's speech. Just don't expect either side to be as happy as the Steeler fans tomorrow.
February 2, 2006
The Nation of the Future
By DAVID BROOKS
Everywhere I go people tell me China and India are going to blow by us in the coming decades. They've got the hunger. They've got the people. They've got the future. We're a tired old power, destined to fade back to the second tier of nations, like Britain did in the 20th century.
Actually, David Brooks is among the people talking about China and India. His column of November 13th: If we want to keep up with the Chinese and the Indians, we've got to develop our Human Capital. And in his "humor" column for Thanksgiving: For it is from those Pilgrims, the last WASP's to truly look good in black, that we have inherited the essential elements of the American character - our ability to look honestly at ourselves and find other people less intelligent; our ability to endure moments of amazing hardship before resorting to litigation; our ability to build this nation, so broad and strong, which the Chinese will one day be proud to own.
This sentiment is everywhere — except in the evidence. The facts and figures tell a different story.
So if Brooks himself played the China/India card in the recent past, what's going on here? Why is he suddenly challenging the conventional wisdom he himself has been spreading? Why now? Maybe it's just serendipity that his research and column comes two days after President Bush's lastest State of the Union address. Could it be that the press's response --- detailing how screwed up America has become under Bush --- is compelling him to write a glad tidings column?
Timing is everything, but this timing is a little over the top.
Has the United States lost its vitality? No. Americans remain the hardest working people on the face of the earth and the most productive. As William W. Lewis, the founding director of the McKinsey Global Institute, wrote, "The United States is the productivity leader in virtually every industry." And productivity rates are surging faster now than they did even in the 1990's.
The McKinsey Global Institute appears to be a real think tank, not a right-wing propaganda mill like the Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute. Check it out.
Given how the number of hours American workers stay on the job each month continues to increase, and the few hours of vacation time they take continues to fall, it's no wonder productivity rates are surging. One would think, therefore, that Americans are making money hand-in-fist and saving for the future. But they're not. Savings accounts are at their lowest level in apparently a half-century or more. Americans aren't happy. They're spending more and enjoying less. But that's not on David Brooks' mind. These aren't real people: they're "Human Capital." And from a "human capital" perspective, America is thriving.
Has the United States stopped investing in the future? No. The U.S. accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world's R. & D. spending. More money was invested in research and development in this country than in the other G-7 nations combined.
Is the United States becoming a less important player in the world economy? Not yet. In 1971, the U.S. economy accounted for 30.52 percent of the world's G.D.P. Since then, we've seen the rise of Japan, China, India and the Asian tigers. The U.S. now accounts for 30.74 percent of world G.D.P., a slightly higher figure.
Democrats contend that Bush has taken America into a downward spiral. The problem is that such a spiral might not become apparent for several years. Thus, these figures may not accurately reflect the future. That's why even Brooks has to say, "Not yet," to give himself some breathing room.
What about the shortage of scientists and engineers? Vastly overblown. According to Duke School of Engineering researchers, the U.S. produces more engineers per capita than China or India. According to The Wall Street Journal, firms with engineering openings find themselves flooded with résumés. Unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are no lower than for other professions, and in some specialties, such as electrical engineering, they are notably higher.
This sounds terrific until you realize that America is a white collar society, and China and India are not. Vast populations still work the land, and giant factories turn out textiles at enormous rates. Plus there are lots more people in both China and India than in America. Notice he says "per capita" rather than discussing hard figures. What this simply means is that Americans aren't working in sweatshops and aren't tilling the soil and aren't working in factory assembly lines and there are a lot fewer of us. We knew that.
Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation told The Wall Street Journal last November, "No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage." The G.A.O., the RAND Corporation and many other researchers have picked apart the quickie studies that warn of a science and engineering gap. "We did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon," the RAND report concluded.
What about America's lamentable education system? Well, it's true we do a mediocre job of educating people from age 0 to 18, even though we spend by far more per pupil than any other nation on earth. But we do an outstanding job of training people from ages 18 to 65.
At least 22 out of the top 30 universities in the world are American. More foreign students come to American universities now than before 9/11.
Conservatives rant about the closed-mindedness of American universities. Is Brooks actually saying good things about the American community of higher learning institutions? Remember this is a propaganda piece extolling the virtues of America, not a piece scolding American liberals. That will have to wait for a later column.
More important, the American workplace is so competitive, companies are compelled to promote lifelong learning. A U.N. report this year ranked the U.S. third in the world in ease of doing business, after New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S. has the second most competitive economy on earth, after Finland, according the latest Global Competitiveness Report. As Michael Porter of Harvard told The National Journal, "The U.S. is second to none in terms of innovation and an innovative environment."
The National Journal considers itself nonpartisan. Weird though: it has a column on upcoming Senate races which reads more like sports analyses than political ones.
What about partisan gridlock and our dysfunctional political system? Well, entitlement debt remains the biggest threat to the country's well-being, but in one area vital to the country's future posterity, we have reached a beneficent consensus. American liberals have given up on industrial policy, and American conservatives now embrace an aggressive federal role for basic research.
After a few upbeat paragraphs, it's time for a little below-the-belt partisanship, all phrased within a context where it doesn't look like partisanship. "American liberals have given up on industrial policy." Hogwash. "American conservatives now embrace an aggressive federal role for basic research": Today's news articles highlight how Republican businessmen have pushed Bush on this issue, to their credit. But still, this doesn't take into account the American "conservative" role in shutting down stem cell research and the "conservative" role in limiting any form of research that might upset the fundamentalist base..
Ford and G.M. totter and almost nobody suggests using public money to prop them up.
While it's valid to say almost nobody suggests using public money to prop up bad business models, it's also true that one of the reasons these companies are tottering is because they're stuck with union contracts tied to health insurance, and those costs have skyrocketed. Lots of people are suggesting a national health care system, and Ford and GM will be amongst the primary beneficiaries.
On the other hand, President Bush, reputed to be hostile to science, has increased the federal scientific research budget by 50 percent since taking office, to $137 billion annually. Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman have proposed excellent legislation that would double the R. & D. tax credit and create a Darpa-style lab in the Department of Energy, devoting $9 billion for scientific research and education. That bill has 60 co-sponsors, 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans.
Recent polling suggests that people in Afghanistan and Iraq are more optimistic about their nations' futures than people in the United States.
Which says a lot about how people in America actually regard the implementation of Bush's policies, and what's really going on in this country. Maybe people in the United States don't want to be regarded by the ruling elite as "human capital." Maybe they want to be regarded as "human beings," and current policies don't bend in that direction. But really, I don't think it's China or India that scares most Americans. It's the rise of a theocracy, the cost of health care, the hopelessness of younger generations who can only look forward to downward mobility, and so on. Everywhere they look, things are getting worse: Iraq is a quagmire with no way out; the federal government is encroaching on privacy, the response to Katrina brings no hope for future disaster victims, the economic upturns only benefit the very rich, and so on. Osama bin Laden is still out there making threats. Bush takes no responsibility for this, nor does Brooks put the onus on five years of a Republican Administration. It's the fault of Americans for not being optmistic.
That's just crazy, even given our problems with health care, growing inequality and such. America's problem over the next 50 years will not be wrestling with decline. It will be helping the frustrated individuals and nations left so far behind.
Notice how Brooks leaves out any discussion of the deficit, or the fact that if countries like China were to call in their chits, or move their capital elsewhere, the United States would be screwed. This is the result of Bush policies, and in a pro-Bush propaganda article, such facts do not have a place. (updated 2/1, 6:45 pm)
January 31, 2006
Take a Hike (excerpts)
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
First, a quiz: What "vegetable" do American infants and toddlers eat most? Weep, for it's the French fry. A major study conducted by Gerber found that up to one-third of young children don't eat any vegetable daily, but that the French fry is the single most common one they do consume. And among children age 19 months to 24 months, 20 percent eat French fries at least once a day.
President Bush is slated to discuss health care in his State of the Union address tonight. It's about time: it's scandalous that babies born in the United States are less likely to survive their first year than babies born in Slovenia. But the solutions to the health crisis lie less in reorganizing medical treatment than in improving public health — such as steering kids away from French fries.
Unbelievable. George W. Bush has been President of the United States for five years. In that time, we've learned that nothing he says (unless it's coded or aimed toward his constitutencies) has any meaning other than propaganda. Kristof, as most mainstream journalists, just sits there and listens to Bush and what his people have to say, and then comments on the meaning. There is no meaning, and there is no reason to listen to George W. Bush in his State of the Union. It's all garbage, and its relationship to policy and philosophy has as much bearing on truth as the memoirs of James Frey. Krugman gets this. Herbert gets this. Dowd gets this. Kristof is still living in fantasy land. So what's Bush going to say? That the medicare prescrption system is working beautifully? That health care in this land is terrific but people must exercise more, like he does?
Ban soda, potato chips and other unhealthy snacks from American schools, and discourage them in the workplace. It's unforgivable that our schools help to send children on the road to diabetes. Obesity kills far more Americans than heroin does.
The Bush Administration has done all it can to ensure that soft drink companies continue to serve American students, and has apparently blocked efforts to get vending machines out of high schools.
Promote jogging and biking. Since we pay for all the consequences of inactivity (like those heart bypasses), we should encourage exercise. We should build more bicycle paths and turn more streets over to bikers, skaters and pedestrians — starting with Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
With federal revenues destroyed by tax cuts to the wealthy and various wars and crony contracts, obviously the federal government can't pay for this. Nor would they. Let private enterprise build the parks and paths, and then charge admission.
Here come several paragraphs listing various ways obesity can be countered, from exercise breaks to exapnsion of phys ed in schools to building better stairwells, subsidizing running shoes, et al.
Look, personally I'm convinced that we need universal health care based on a single-payer system. But that is not politically feasible now, while a systematic assault on the causes of American ill health could make a big difference.
As Pual Krugman has pointed out in recent columns, there is no incentive for most HMOs to promote ways in which Americans can stay healthier. The cost of providing prevention is prohibitive in the short term. Couple that with lobbying efforts by the fast food and junk food corporations, and the best you can get from the powers-that-be are lame pleas for abstinence. "Don't eat that french fry!"
Granted, a War on Sloth isn't as dramatic for the Bush administration as a War on Terrorism. And for Democrats, attacking junk food isn't as attention-grabbing as denouncing corruption in Congress. But there is perhaps no area of public policy where it would be easier to save the lives of countless Americans than in promoting public health.
There is a direct link between junk food and corruption in Congress. It's part of the same puzzle. Kristof needs to get his head out of the sand. As for a "war on sloth," does he actually believe that at any level, George W. Bush or his people give a shit? (posted 1/30, 9 pm)
January 31, 2006
Just Doing His Job (edited)
By JOHN TIERNEY
After I wrote last year about Richard Paey, the wheelchair-bound patient who's been in physical agony for two decades, a lot of readers asked me what kind of monster could have prosecuted him for obtaining painkillers. If you watched "60 Minutes" Sunday, you could see for yourself.
With Bush and Rove defending the president's use of illegal wiretaps, not to mention the Justice Department's ill-conceived attempt to gather Google records, and the continuing (and growing) Abramoff scandal, it's no wonder that Tierney, aside from the occassional gratuitous attack on liberals and Democrats, is staying as far away from partisan politics as he can.
Scott Andringa, the prosecutor in Florida who sent Paey to prison for 25 years, did not come off well on "60 Minutes," but he didn't look dementedly evil, either. He seemed exactly the way I've found him in interviews: earnest, conscientious, convinced he had done the right thing. That's why he scares me. He's one of the many well-meaning public officials whose judgment has been so warped by the war on drugs that they can't see what they've become. Andringa, echoing the line of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has assured me he would never stop patients from getting medicine for their pain. "I have the utmost respect for doctors who try to treat pain humanely and responsibly," he told me. "I am not a doctor. I have never claimed to be a doctor."
Yet there he was playing doctor on "60 Minutes" to explain why it was "reasonable" to infer that Paey was a drug dealer. There was no evidence that Paey had sold any of his painkillers (and agents had conducted surveillance of him and his wife for two months). But Andringa inferred that Paey must have been selling them because the prescriptions he received worked out to about 25 pills per day.
Paey had no trouble explaining to me why he was taking 25 pills per day: his doctor cautiously gave him a variety of low-strength pills in order to avoid prescribing the kind of painkillers that tempt drug abusers and invite investigation from the D.E.A. Instead of taking a few high-strength oxycodone pills, Paey took a cocktail of pills containing low doses of oxycodone and other less effective pain killers like Tylenol. As a result, the total daily dose of oxycodone in all those pills Paey took was less than what he could have gotten in a single high-strength OxyContin pill. And there are some chronic-pain patients who need 10 of those high-strength OxyContins every day because they, like Paey, have developed a tolerance to the drug over the years.
So there was no good medical reason to assume that Paey wasn't taking all those pills. In fact, he says he wasn't getting enough pain relief because of his doctor's fear of the D.E.A. Yet Andringa simply made his own medical diagnosis — too many pills — and proceeded to exploit the extraordinary leverage that prosecutors have been given over doctors and patients. The typical approach is to put pressure on patients to turn on their doctors, but it can work the other way, too. Paey told me he was offered a deal by investigators: "They said if you're willing to testify against your doctor it would go a long way to having these charges go away." Paey refused, and then found himself facing hostile testimony from the doctor, who said he had not authorized the contested prescriptions.
After the doctor's credibility was challenged in court — he was contradicted both by his own words and by pharmacists who said he'd approved the prescriptions — the prosecutor came up with a mind-boggling new argument against Paey. Andringa told the jurors that even if they believed the doctor had prescribed the drugs, Paey should still be convicted because the doctor should never have written the prescriptions.
Andringa argued that the doctor wasn't practicing proper medicine — according to the prosecutor's standards — so the prescriptions were illegal and Paey shouldn't have filled them. By this logic, instead of listening to his doctor, Paey should have tried to anticipate what a prosecutor would prescribe for him.
I spoke to Andringa yesterday, after he'd watched "60 Minutes" and seen Paey's wife and the three teenage children whose father may die in prison. "I'm not thrilled about this case," he said. "I'm only proud that I did my job as a prosecutor." And self-appointed doctor.
Given the insanity of the federal government's ongoing bipartisan war on drugs in all its phases and philosophies, from the Justice Department's battle against medical marijuana and Oregon's right-to-die law, down to the counterproductive policies intended to end illegal drug usage in this country --- it's nice to see one columnist highlight at least a piece of the foolishness and stupidity. Kudos to Tierney on this one, even if the real danger to this country still resides in the White House, and not just amongst gung-ho federal prosecutors wasting time, money and lives in the pointless pursuit of anti-drug headlines..
Of course, one hopes Tierney isn't going to use this to build his case against dogged feds going after participants in the Abramoff scandal, or even the White House itself for various illegal actions.
(updated 9/30, 9 pm)
January 29, 2006
The Long Transition
By DAVID BROOKS
As I watched the images from Gaza on Friday — the shocked Fatah activists burning cars and firing rifles — I couldn't help thinking that Yasir Arafat didn't live in vain. He instilled habits of mind that still shape his people.
Arafat channeled Palestinian aspirations into a romantic cause. He created symbols: the kaffiyeh, stubble and gun. He created a nationalist mythology, and instilled in his followers a revolutionary mentality: that political struggle is heroic; that lofty militancy is better than mundane governance; that vehemence is better than compromise; that opponents are evil, terrorism is noble and the eventual triumph will be sublime.
Once you replace the word "terrorism" with a slightly different word to define a slightly different kind of violence, you could be describing segments of the Israeli population, or more appropriately, the right-wing Republican movement in the United States.
Arafat's organization grew decrepit as he aged, but it never became ordinary. Arafat rejected peace at Camp David because it would have meant giving up the struggle for mere administration. Fatah never really had a place for the prosaic tasks that concern most governments.
Neither do the right-wing Republicans in the United States. Just ask the good folks of Louisiana.
And so a rival grew in Palestine. Hamas is attentive to average people, but in one way it is like Fatah. Hamas is also driven by a heroic and revolutionary ideology. It also sees politics in absolutist terms, as vengeance and glory, victory or martyrdom.
It also sees it as resistance, which puts Hamas in strange parallel with movements like the French Resistance during World War II. Brooks is defining Hamas in absolutist terms, as evil. The problem with demonizing the enemy is that your side becomes pure enough to justify the ends over the means. Demonizing first Fatah and later Hamas absolves Israelis of all blame in their own actions, and escalates the violence. No question that Fatah and later Hamas define the Israelis in the same terms. It seems to me you cannot find any kind of solution when both sides think the other is evil.
The Islamists of Hamas are not as fanatical as the leaders of Iran, the former U.S. envoy Dennis Ross says, but one look at their founding charter reveals a mentality that is hate-filled, paranoid and apocalyptic.
The elephant in the room is not Iran, but al-Queda. Brooks is being coy here because if Hamas is not in line with al-Queda, maybe they're not the evil enemy, and his entire argument goes down the tubes. Here he's comparing two fundamentalist regimes and ostensibly how they treat their own people (what else could he mean?) but when discussing a mentality that is "hate-filled, paranoid and apocalyptic," he is clearly letting our imaginations roam to al-Queda. It's a nifty piece of conflation and might even be unconscious on Brooks' part.
And so while Fatah and Hamas are rivals, neither has a democratic mentality. Democracy in its everyday manifestation is bourgeois and unheroic. It is about partial victories, partial defeats and issues that are never resolved and never go away.
Brooks has just explained why the Republican Party does not have a democratic mentality.
Yet a democratic tide is sweeping the globe, promoted not only by the U.S. but by the spirit of the times, and an election came to Palestine. Voters had to choose between two revolutionary movements, one corrupt and one attentive to their needs.
That tide has prompted several leftist governments In South America. Let's see how well the Bush Administration reacts to these changes, or whether (as with Venezuela) democracy for the U.S. is only important as long as our side wins.
Such bad choices are becoming common across the Arab world. Democratic success depends on democratic voters and leaders, but those voters and leaders can't be created amid tyrants and terrorists. Under these conditions, the transition to democracy is like building a plane during takeoff.
But flight has begun and the democratic transition hurtles on. Palestine is entering the most traumatic phase, when a romantic, revolutionary people is compelled to transform itself into an ordinary, democratic polity.
This is, as I say, a matter of shifting mentalities, from the heroic and inspiring to the pluralistic and mundane, from poetry and theology to prose and administration. The African National Congress mostly achieved this transition in South Africa, thanks to Nelson Mandela. The Russians have only partially achieved this transition, and still favor the vehement, totalitarian politics encouraged by communist education.
There is no Mandela to lead the Palestinians toward this new mentality. There are only terrorists, the friends of terrorists or the hapless Mahmoud Abbas, a corrupt but democratic man perched precariously atop an organization of militants.
The U.S. promoted democracy in the Middle East on the bet that the transition, though traumatic, would not be catastrophic. But it must be conceded that, as Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker has observed, sometimes the fever doesn't break and leave the patient cured. Sometimes the fever leaves the patient dead.
The crisis moment we all knew was coming is at hand, and all we can say now that it's begun is that the old Arab world led by absolutist movements was no paradise either.
To that degree, it would be very nice if the United States served as an example to the world, with a government that itself was not absolutist, believed in compromise, was pluralistic, was itself honest and competent. The current model in America, of Christian and "free market" fundamentalists running amok, offers the wrong example for either Fatah or Hamas to follow.
But there is progress. Palestinian voters have already brought some accountability to the Palestinian Authority. Europe never held Arafat and his successors accountable for their corruption, lies and killing. But Palestinian voters, beginning their democratic self-education, have.
The first thing we can do now is to in turn hold the Palestinian people accountable for their choice. By clearly and steadfastly isolating Hamas, we can remind Palestinian voters that their choices too have consequences, that in democracy radical options are self-destructive, even if they make you feel good at the time.
In other words, rather than force Hamas to be accountable to world opinion, with financial incentives to propel the moderates into positions of power, Brooks is saying they're all evil, Palestinians have screwed themselves, and in the words of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, "They all deserve to die." An atypical topic, but typical Republican projection: Brooks is describing Hamas in absolutist terms, while decrying Hamas' absolutism.
If the Europeans refuse to isolate Hamas, if they forgive radicalism, they will destroy this budding cycle of accountability. They will reward the old revolutionary mentality. They will stop the momentum that makes this the most promising moment as well as the most dangerous. For this is the moment when a truly democratic movement might emerge, opposing both Hamas and the old Fatah..
Finding and fostering that opposition will be the next phase of the long transition.
Not once has Brooks mentioned Israel in this column. This is probably because he knows how much of the Palestinian hatred is reactive to Israeli policies, from indiscriminate carpet bombing to populating the West Bank. This is not just a Palestinian problem. It is an Israeli and Palestinian problem. To paraphrase Israeli author Amos Oz, it's not that either side is wrong, but that both sides are right.(last update 2 am Jan. 28)
January 28, 2006
Your Ticket to Mars
By JOHN TIERNEY
There are three reasons to rush to see "Roving Mars":
1. It's the best Imax movie ever.
2. You will be one of the first humans to know exactly what you'd see joy riding across Mars.
3. If the box-office gross per screen is high enough on this opening weekend, you could see someone really joy riding on Mars before you die.
Grosses for the first movie filmed partially on Mars should be extremely high no matter what, so the Box Office gross the first weekend is meaningless.
I realize you may be dubious. In the hierarchy of cinematic praise, "the best Imax movie" may sound to you like "the best global-warming documentary starring Al Gore." You have every right to be skeptical of a drama starring NASA engineers, science geeks and two geologists that are literally robotic.
No question the film is noteworthy. Whether its pleasure factor tops "The Polar Express" in Imax 3D remains to be seen. Given there are no global-warming documentaries to pierce public consciousness, starring Al Gore or anyone else, Tierney's comparison isn't particularly apt. Besides, isn't Al Gore The Bore an old frame?
But trust me, this is not some dutiful NASA documentary on man's endless quest for knowledge. It's a Disney film directed by George Butler, who made Arnold Schwarzenegger famous with the "Pumping Iron" documentary. Its producer, Frank Marshall, has done a range of films that include "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Color Purple." It's got music composed by Philip Glass and an introduction narrated by Paul Newman, who sounds like the voice of God. Most important, it's got the three elements that Butler demands in his films: story, story, story.
The Sf Chronicle's Mick LaSalle found it a bore. Nathan Lee of the New York Times says that Glass's score is "phoned in." But more to the pont, from Lee: For the Kennedy Space Center set, "Roving Mars" is sure to prove a rocket-science riot, but others may grow perplexed and dismayed once the journey takes off into space. Computer animation takes over where cameras can't go, so that the whole spectacular Rover adventure ultimately plays like an extravagant cartoon. If many of the scenes are fake, however, the thrill of the project is not, and what we do see of the surface — hyperclear photographs on the scale of 100-by-180 feet — is out of this world
Until now, the public has been bored by Mars exploration because it's been conducted by NASA as a scientific quest. The result is a Catch-22: NASA needs enormous public interest to get the money to send a human to Mars, but the public won't get interested as long as NASA is in charge. It can't tell a good enough story.
Didn't Bush push a man on Mars a couple of years ago to distract from the latest scandal de jour? His comments had no traction, though a few science fiction fans got really jazzed. Is Tierney merely excited by a new film, or does he have some other agenda here?
It doesn't have the flair of Ernest Shackleton, the explorer featured in one of Butler's previous films, "The Endurance." Shackleton went to the Antarctic a century ago, which seemed as remote and as useless to humans as Mars does today. Instead of trying to persuade taxpayers to foot the bill, he financed his expeditions through books, lectures, photographs and the new medium of the motion picture.
To get to Mars anytime soon, we need a modern Shackleton, someone who can enthrall the public (and a few wealthy patrons). The potential revenues are enormous because a private adventurer can take the kind of risks that Congress would never allow NASA to take — and the more dangerous the trip, the more lucrative the story. When the ice crushed Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, he turned the failed mission into a best seller.
So we're talking about private enterprise financing a trip to Mars, much in the same way the East India Trading Company financed trips to the New World. That worked out really well for the local inhabitants, didn't it? These ideas, by the way, were promoted some sixty years ago by Robert Heinlein in short fiction published in Astounding Science Fiction.
Unfortunately for Butler, nobody in "Roving Mars" is in danger of death except the robots. But the film still has the basic dramatic elements of the explornography genre — a bunch of zealots stumbling to a godforsaken place — because Butler focuses on the humans as they struggle to build two machines that can survive the trip to Mars. When the first rover, Spirit, swathed in air bags, finally descends on Mars, the sight is astonishing: you see what looks like a bundle of giant tennis balls bouncing across the red landscape. But the most dramatic shots are of the anxious humans back on Earth as the minutes tick by without any signal from their robot child.
The scenes on Mars are mostly computer-generated footage, but they're meticulously based on Imax-quality photographs and other data from the rovers. When Spirit lands, the bounces and spins you see are exactly the way it moved. When it traverses a crater, the terrain is precisely what its camera photographed.
Here's the real problem, which the Times' Lee nails: it's computer-generated imagery, same as "King Kong," same as "Polar Express," and with the same veracity as "Capricorn One," that old thriller about a faked manned space flight to Mars. From most of the reviews, the film doesn't sound much different from similar documentaries, albeit the imagery toward the end is awesome.
Steve Squyres, the chief scientist for the mission, says he was floored by the movie because it was the first time he really saw Mars. He endowed his robots with 20/20 vision, and it takes an Imax screen to recreate that sight. But as much as he loves the movie and his robots, he says there's no substitute for sending a human to Mars. "If there's life on Mars, it's probably hundreds of meters below the surface, and it would be very hard to drill that deep without humans on the scene," Squyres told me. "A human can do in two minutes a job that takes a robot four days. We need humans on Mars both to explore better and to inspire people back on Earth."
He and Butler hope the movie will inspire schoolchildren today to become the first humans on Mars. I have a more immediate hope: that it generates enough box-office revenue to persuade an adventure marketer like Shackleton to try for Mars right away. You won't just be buying a ticket to "Roving Mars." Think of it as a small down payment for an even better story.
Nothing wrong with pumping Mars, it just seems kind of a distraction in the current political climate, which is what Bush was using it for --- remember, he dropped the subject quickly, meaning the Administration really didn't care one way or the other. Does Tierney?.
January 26, 2006
Dollars and Sense
By DAVID BROOKS
Today's column is a classic example of right-wing propaganda in which Brooks uses all the tricks, from spin to framing to rectal journalism (pulling facts out of his ass) to outright lies, all in the name of shilling for fascism. So let's get on with it.
The Greeks used to say we suffer our way to wisdom. The Democrats have been doing most of the electoral suffering, and these days the wisest political analysis comes from Democrats who are trying to figure out what went wrong.
Rule of thumb for Democrats, as I've stated before: Never let your enemy define who you are. Right-wing propagandists have been using this ploy for years, most notably in Ann Coulter's hatchet job, "Slander." That's first. Second, as time goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Republican operatives disrupted the 2004 election to such a degree in Ohio (based on a report issued by Rep. Conyers and his unofficial election committee) and elsewhere (according to several sources) that the election was at the very least far closer than the final tally, and at most, an outright theft. Therefore, any discussion about "what went wrong" talking about Democratic strategy may be misdirection, one which many Democrats have accepted without examination. In addition, whatever the outcome of the presidential race in 2004, Democrats actually got more votes than Republicans in congressional races. Thus, there may be nothing wrong with the Democratic message to begin with. Third, Republican ratings have been consistently terrible since the 2004 election, and Bush's popularity is tanking, so the Democrats may not need to do more than get themselves a spine to take control of Congress.
Over the past few decades, Democrats have generally conceived of America as a society divided between comfortable haves and insecure have-nots. Having read thousands of gloomy articles about downsizing, outsourcing and wage stagnation, they've tried to rally the insecure working majority against the privileged minority — or, as Al Gore put it, the people against the powerful.
What Brooks is really saying is that the Democrats have been running on a campaign of class warfare. This is hogwash. The right wing and the very wealthy have been working overtime to put the tax burden on the middle and lower classes. The Bush tax cuts are a prime example of that: throw a few crumbs to the middle class, and steal the rest. The forthcoming elimination of the estate tax is another example. Brooks is attempting a frame which says Democrats only represent the lower class economic interests, and not the middle or upper middle classes.
But since this strategy has notably failed, some analysts are thinking maybe there is no frightened majority longing for government succor.
The strategy Brooks suggests has failed has not had much traction in the Democratic Party since the Mondale and Dukakis defeats. Clinton stayed away from that strategy, as did both Gore and Kerry. The DLC has controlled the message for several years now, and that message has little to do with protecting the poor --- as witness Clinton's "welfare reform" initiative. What's happening now, though, is that liberal Democrats are fighting back against the DLC. Brooks (and the DLC) want to nip that one in the bud.
Last year, the liberal economist Stephen Rose posted an essay on the Emerging Democratic Majority Web site in which he observed, "It is an occupational hazard of those with big hearts to overestimate the share of the population that is economically distressed." Rose concluded that only 19 percent of males and 27 percent of females are poor or working poor — a percentage that is "probably much smaller than most progressive commentators would estimate."
Stephen Rose is a former senior advisor to Robert Reich when he was Secretary of Labor, and is clearly a DLC type. He is emphatically NOT a liberal. Based on his pedigree and the opinions given in his essay, he is a very moderate Clintonian. His entire argument takes issue with liberals within the Democratic Party. The essay is, in many respects, a gift to David Brooks. At one point, Rose excoriates Democrats for believing that "the media has obfuscated the truth." What planet does Rose live on? Does he actually believe Americans are being well-served by the media? Here's the essay
What's also apparent is that Rose has completely missed the boat. Most Democratic strategists are discussing the reasons why the party has lost its lower class base. Educated voters are still flocking to the Democratic Party, as are young people. However, by discovering this essay and its sister essay at The American Prospect website, Brooks is able to lead discussion away from the real issues and toward something entirely phony.
Furthermore, he wrote, the percentage of Americans with reasonably well-paying corporate jobs has expanded over the past few decades: "Contrary to what some on the left might think, the share of bad jobs fell significantly as more workers with postsecondary education moved into an expanding set of managerial and professional jobs."
Rose calculated the household incomes for people between 26 and 59 and found that the average annual family income is somewhere around $63,000 a year — an impressive figure. Opinion polls consistently show that people at these income levels feel as if they're doing quite well and don't feel oppressed by forces beyond their control.
One of Brooks' favorite techniques is to start a paragraph with material taken directly from a Democrat, and follow it with a sentence that sounds as if it comes from the same individual, but really comes from David Brooks. Thus, we have Rose's calculation, followed by a line about opinion polls that doesn't come from anywhere near the essay, but reflects Brooks' own opinion.
Jerry Beach: This is an old sales tool. (Used by hypnotists too!) It's called "the yes set." Not a single Fox News program goes without at least one yes set. You start by getting a head nod, then a second head nod (uh huh), then another, then you simply slip in the frame that you want them to accept without them questioning you. Usually, the conservative 'slip in' is delivered within a generalism like "Many people are saying..." or like Brooks' "Experts agree..."
This suggests that liberals have adopted an overly negative view of reality.
Because the opinion poll comment comes from Brooks, and not from Rose, this statement has no bearing on much of anything, and may not even be true. It's yet another frame/spin which reinforces the idea that liberals are negative people. Given how the Republican Noise Machine spews hate and negativity wherever it goes, one could argue this is typical right-wing projection.
Barbara Ehrenreich's books are well and good, but if you think they represent the broader society, you'll get America wrong.
Brooks has just disrespected anyone outside of the management class. Her books represent the broader society, as do the cartoons of Scott Adams, as well as novels of Philip Roth. There is no "broader society," only various subsets within it. He's being disingenuous.
Smart Democratic analysts are also taking another look at values issues. There has been a tendency in Democratic circles to regard values as a sideshow that Republicans use to fool the working class into voting against its self-interest.
Back after the election, a flawed poll showed that 22% of the people voted "values." That piece of chicanery took on the scent of truth as the right-wing punditry played it up. Notice how Brooks equates "values" and Republicans, even though the only Republican value on the news these days is a propensity toward monetary corruption. Values indeed.
But over the past year the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner has noted that voters don't separate values issues from economic issues.
Buried deep within the client list on the webpage of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner is the Democratic Leadership Council. Why am I not surprised?.It's the DLC's apparent goal to move Democratic politics toward so called value issues and away from economics. Given this is coming from the party's corporate class, it's not surprising. What it means, though, is that DLC types have their own agenda and are looking for statistics and arguments to back it up.
Jerry Beach: Brooks' trick here was to frame Democrats in an "economics vs values" light, as if the core of progressive economics has nothing to do with values. A more successful progressive frame might be "Sound economic policy --- one that protects the public --- IS a values issue." In a sense he is right to say that the Dems don't get it. The far-right conservative frame amounts to economic fundamentalism: "Unlimited free markets will solve all our problems." Any time you hear "all" or "anyone" or "totally" (as in unlimited), beware! Those words indicate the neighborhoods of fundamentalists and extremists. The real question is, which morality. Market fundamentalism? Or sound economic policies for the common good?
They use values issues as stand-ins and figure the candidates they associate with traditional morality are also the ones with sensible economic policies.
It's not clear if Greenberg, Quinlan conflated "traditional morals" and "values issues," or if that's Brooks pulling another fast one. "Traditional morality" is a buzzphrase used by Republican propagandists. As with the phrase "compassionate conservatism," it means not only what it says it means, but also has a coded meaning for fundamentalists. If Democrats buy into this, they're directly buying into a Republican right-wing frame. You cannot win using your enemy's frame..
In the current issue of The American Prospect, Garance Franke-Ruta also notes the interplay between values and economic issues. "Traditional values have become aspirational," she writes. "Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle-class people they want to be like."
Franke-Ruta refers to the Rose essay in the article (and calls Rose a "centrist." by the way). It's possible a statement using the words "traditional values" exists in the article, but I haven't found it. In any case, that would be the only time that specific phrase is used. Franke-Ruta uses phrases like "value matrix" and "bridge values" to avoid using charged buzzwords. If "traditional values" are defined as lower divorce rates, fewer abortions, less family strife, etc. then we're not talking about "traditional values" in the sense that Brooks is using the term --- which amounts to a form of conflation on his part.
With these sentiments, Democrats seem to be moving away from materialistic determinism. In past decades, Democratic political campaigns have been based primarily on appeals to economic interests. But especially in the information age, social values and cultural capital shape a person's economic destiny more than the other way around.
Cultural background and social values have ALWAYS shaped a person's economic destiny, and a person's economic status has worked hand-in-glove with shaping cultural and social values. This is a tautology, not a revelation, and the reason why fascist movements always go for the "values" issues. Appealing to general economic interests is a populist enterprise, but it relies on thought, rather than visceral reactions. Funny, though, how appealing to the economic interests of the very wealthy is a perfectly valid political strategy when offered by Republicans. Notice, also, how Brooks equates Democrats with "materialistic determinism," when in fact materialistic determinism is the sine qua non of a party aiming to rigidify class lines through smaller taxes for the wealthy (who already have the advantage of tax breaks unavailable to most folks), an end to affirmative action, increased college loan costs for low and middle income students, and so on.
If you are a middle-class woman, you have more to fear from divorce than from outsourcing. If you have a daughter, you're right to worry more about her having a child before marriage than about her being a victim of globalization. This country's prosperity is threatened more by homes where no one reads to children than it is by big pharmaceutical companies.
What Brooks is really saying is that no political campaign should ever sit on generalisms, but must go directly to the individual needs and feelings of the voters. If Democrats have indeed been talking about vague concepts and not specificity, then they'll always lose. This has nothing to do with the specific issues, though. Brooks is conflating form and content.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that the core conservative truth is that culture matters most, and that the core liberal truth is that government can reshape culture. But liberals have turned culturally libertarian. Afraid to be judgmental about things like family structure, they've dropped out of the core values debate.
Franke-Ruta discusses the authoritarian nature of many Americans. Just because Americans have that streak in them, does that mean that Democrats need to become autocrats themselves? What Brooks is saying is that liberals must give up their own core values in order to be part of the core values debate, in other words, have no values at all. At which point, they'll be fair game --- as Kerry was --- for being accused of saying anything in order to get elected. It's a win-win situation for Brooks. This is a good reason why Democrats should be wary about Republicans bearing gifts.
Conservatives, especially evangelicals, have had free rein to offer their own recipe for social renewal: churches that restrain male selfishness, decency standards that check hedonism, social norms that discourage childbearing outside wedlock.
The asumption here is that Americans are listening, and voting for evangelical Christians. This is a bold-faced lie. A large group of activist theocrats took over the Republican Party, and in league with others desperate for power, combined to move the GOP strongly to the right. With heavy funding and a compliant media, they've spread their gospel throughout this country. However, if asked if they actually want a Christian theocracy running the United States, a large percentage of Americans would say no. These three peculiar notions (restraining male selfishness --- whatever that is; decency standards --- is he arguing for censorship?, norms that discourage childbearing outside wedlock --- almost an argument for abortion, if one didn't realize the subtext is racist) would seem to form the basis of Brooks' pathological politics.
Middle-class Americans feel social anxiety more acutely than economic anxiety because they understand that values matter most. Democrats are beginning to understand this, too.
Yet as Franke-Ruta points out, the televised cultural mileau is even more depraved than it has ever been, and these "values-conscious" Americans are the ones who are watching it the most. There are core contradictions here, but Brooks, with his specific ideological agenda, chooses to ignore them.
Brooks is afflicted with that oddball prudishness that afflicts the American soul. We saw it at work during Prohibition, when millions of Americans broke the law on a daily basis, during the height of the Hollywood Production Code, when films were censored and artistry destroyed in the name of "morality," in the scolding of hypocrites like the inveterate gambler Bill Bennett, the pill-popping drug addict Rush Limbaugh, the skirt-chasing Jimmy Swaggart, the venal and corrupt Christian spokesman Ralph Reed, and of course, the power-hungry and vicious Tom DeLay. History has taught us that puritanism and patriotism are the first and last refuge of scoundrels. Cases in point. (last update 7:00 pm, Jan. 29)
January 24, 2006
Sex, Lies and OxyContin (excerpts)
By JOHN TIERNEY
PITTSBURGH -- Jennifer Riggle, a drug addict, was a star witness in the trial of her doctor, Bernard Rottschaefer. She testified that he had fondled her breasts in the examination room and then given her prescriptions for OxyContin and Xanax in return for sex. In testimony in federal court two years ago, Riggle quoted the doctor as saying, " 'You satisfy my needs and I'll satisfy yours.' Rottschaefer denied the allegations but was convicted and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. The "drugs for sex" trial in Pittsburgh appeared to be a triumph for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had helped investigate the doctor. But now it looks more like a frightening example of what's wrong with the D.E.A.'s war against doctors.
It's especially unfair for the D.E.A. to go after doctors who treat pain, because they're dealing with symptoms that are notoriously difficult to measure. Doctors can do tests, but they also have to make judgments based on what patients tell them - and the Rottschaefer case ought to show the federal drug warriors how tricky those judgments can be.
If you believe Riggle's letters, as I do, there are two possible conclusions about the behavior of the D.E.A. agents and prosecutors. At worst, some of them illegally encouraged a witness to commit perjury. At best, they were duped.
The agents and prosecutors are supposed to be experts at detecting liars, and they had far better investigative tools available to them than Rottschaefer did. Yet they apparently weren't careful enough or shrewd enough to see through Riggle's story. If they don't deserve prison time for that mistake, neither does her doctor.
It's quite likely that Tierney's previous column brought forth attorneys for Bernard Rottschaefer, which is why this column exists. While it's good to see Tierney go after government oppriession, one also knows that this man, a libertarian when it suits him, shills for a fascistic theocracy on a regular basis. One of those rare columns in which Tierney solely focuses on one topic, and unless I miss my guess, is not taking a partisan political stand nor sending a subtextual message.