Monday, July 7, 2008

True Americans

The ideal of a God-given liberty and God-given equality have been posited from the beginning of our experiment in democracy as a standard that we will never achieve but will always, at our best, aspire to. ... So what we should not be at times when we're disappointed with our country is anti-American. We should be true Americans, and we should go back to those ideals and revitalize them, and hold the nation accountable for what its founders dreamed to be possible. -- Forrest Church, speaking at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly on 27 June 2008

In This Week's Sift:
Nationalism vs. Patriotism. Should we love our country and try to improve it? Or just worship it no matter what it does?

Silly Season on the Campaign Trail. Did you hear the terrible thing Wesley Clark said? Probably not, because he didn't say it.

Wars and Rumors of Wars. Will Bush attack Iran before he leaves office or not? Seymour Hersh paints a disturbing picture of an attempt to gin up an incident that will make the public accept another war. Also, the problem with the Surge suddenly becomes obvious.

Short Notes. Fat States of America. A 235 MPG car. Africa's worst dictator isn't who you think. Justice O'Connor goes gaming. And an archdruid coins a new term.

Nationalism vs. Patriotism
Everyone talks about patriotism near the Fourth of July. Obama did it better than most, but not even he put a name to the main threat to American patriotism: its rival, nationalism. Patriots love their country and want it to be as good as it can be. Nationalists make an idol of their country and demand that all kneel before it. The nationalist's country is great and good by definition, not because it lives up to its ideals.

In recent years authentic patriotism has been losing out to nationalism. In order to fight back, patriots need to start doing two things: First, always call nationalism by its true name; don't let the nationalists get away with calling themselves patriots. And second, we need to understand -- and make the public understand -- that nationalism is not just bad politics, it's bad religion. A nation, even one with the power and accomplishments of America, can only be a false god.

This week's clearest example of how nationalism has usurped the place of patriotism is the column Obama's Real Patriotism Problem that National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg wrote for Tuesday's USA Today. Despite his superficial denial, the "patriotism" he promotes is pure and simple nationalism:
Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.
No matter what our country does, it has "inherent and enduring goodness" and is "good as it is."

Goldberg goes on to charge that Obama, like liberals throughout American history, can't manage this kind of patriotism. He recalls a series of articles a liberal magazine published in 1922 in which "smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the 'backward' attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country." Someone even had the gall to suggest "that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal 'missionaries' so that the 'light of civilization' might finally be glimpsed down there."

Umm, Jonah, I don't know how to break this to you, but that's exactly what happened. The South in 1922? Jim Crow, remember? The liberal missionaries were the Freedom Riders and all the other civil rights activists of the fifties and sixties. If we follow Goldberg's definition, though, the real patriots were the people who thought the Jim Crow South was "fundamentally good as it was" -- not disloyal liberals like the Freedom Riders or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.

In May I was at the Newseum in Washington, the brand new journalism museum. They display a piece of the lunch counter from the Woolworth's in Greensboro where civil rights sit-ins began, and show a filmed interview with one of the original Freedom Riders, whose name escapes me. He explained that they didn't stage events for the press, but that if they expected trouble, they made sure reporters knew about it. "If you're going to beat us up," he said (or words to that effect; I'm pulling this quote out of memory) "don't beat us up by the dark of night. Beat us up where everybody can see."

Bunch of anti-American wimps, eh, Jonah? They just couldn't see the goodness of America as it was.

I suppose Goldberg must find Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech from 1852 to be extremely unpatriotic. Douglass pointedly refused to tell his white audience that America was good as it was:
The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
Douglass had to contend with people who thought he should argue more calmly and reasonably against slavery, as today we have to contend with people who want us to do a cost/benefit analysis of torture. What, Douglass wondered, would such an argument be? Should he attempt to prove -- to those not already convinced -- that the slave is human? That humans have rights? Douglass refused:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Would that my country had more such people today. Because those are the words of a man truly loyal to the ideals that America represents, someone who wants his country to be as good as it can be. That's the patriotism of a true American.

Silly Season on the Campaign Trail
I was happy to see the L.A. Times recognize how silly all the recent campaign controversies have been. As Paul Krugman notes:
Al Gore never claimed that he invented the Internet. Howard Dean didn’t scream. Hillary Clinton didn’t say she was staying in the race because Barack Obama might be assassinated. And Wesley Clark didn’t impugn John McCain’s military service. ... Again and again we’ve had media firestorms over supposedly revealing incidents that never actually took place.
TPM put together everything you need to know about the Clark incident -- the simple true statements Clark made, the way they were blown into something Clark never said, and the indignant way the media shot down those overblown statements of their own creation. It's a good lesson in how political media works, and is pretty clear evidence that the media bias still tips towards McCain.

The other tempest in a teapot was Obama's alleged flip-flop on Iraq. Obama said that in pulling troops out of Iraq he would "take facts on the ground into account." If you had imagined that Obama's plan was for our troops to throw down their weapons and run full speed for the Kuwaiti border, then this was a significant change. But anyone who has actually been listening to Obama, like TPM's Josh Marshall or Tim Starks of Deutsche Welle's Across the Pond blog, wasn't all that shocked. Jed Lewison analyzes CNN's attempt to manufacture an issue here.

Like a lot of people, I'm disappointed that Obama isn't taking a strong stand against telecom immunity. And I'm even more disappointed that it looks like the FISA bill is going to pass. I expect to say more about this next week.

Wars and Rumors of Wars
Iran. The biggest question of 2008 isn't the election, it's whether Bush will attack Iran before he leaves office. Seymour Hersh says yes, as he has been saying for some while now. Mostly using his usual collection of anonymous sources, Hersh paints a picture of a bureaucratic wrestling match between Dick Cheney, who wants to attack, and the Pentagon, which doesn't.

The most disturbing part of Hersh's article is the allegation that covert ops are already in progress, aiming to exploit ethnic tensions among the Ahwazi Arabs (Iran is predominantly Persian, not Arab) and religious tensions among the Baluchis, who are Sunnis. (Iran is predominantly Shia). He quotes former CIA officer Robert Baer:
The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda. These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.
Hersh notes that 9-11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a Baluchi. Afghanistan in the eighties is where Al Qaeda came together.

While polls show the American public opposed to yet another war in the Middle East, an incident in January convinced the administration that the public might support -- or even demand -- a military reaction if it appeared that the Iranians had shot first. One of Hersh's anonymous sources told him that
a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.
Neocon columnist Bill Kristol, who has been pushing for an attack on Iran about as long as Hersh has been predicting it, said on Fox News that Bush might attack Iran "if he thinks Obama is going to win." Under that Bizarro-world logic, I guess, hawks should root for Obama and doves for McCain.

Commentary's Max Boot thinks that Hersh's article "is a combination of innuendo, hearsay, and opinionizing that detracts from the sum total of public knowledge" and that Hersh "is partly a victim of his anti-Bush worldview and partly a victim of his sources." Of the alleged meeting in Cheney's office he says, "That’s the kind of meeting which only takes place in the fevered imagination of Hersh and his leftist cohorts." However, Boot brings no facts or sources (even anonymous ones) to the table, just his own intuition about how the administration works.

Afghanistan and Iraq. In hindsight, the real problem with the Surge has become obvious: You should never commit your last reserves until the decisive battle. If you're about to win or about to lose, throw in everything. But otherwise, you need to keep the enemy guessing.

For the second straight month, coalition deaths in Afghanistan set a record, and were higher than coalition deaths in Iraq. 46 coalition troops died in Afghanistan in June, 31 in Iraq. (If you only care about American troop deaths, Iraq wins 29-28.) The Pentagon would like to send more troops to Afghanistan, but there aren't any. "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," says Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen. The Taliban knows this, and can escalate attacks without fear that we'll escalate in response.

In Iraq, the insurgents and militias know we can't maintain this troop level, so why not lay low and wait? That's the real reason casualties and violence are down. We haven't disarmed or defeated the insurgents, and the Malaki government hasn't made peace with them. They're just waiting.

Strangely, the administration has fallen into the trap that they so often warned about whenever a timetable for withdrawal was proposed: If the enemy knows you're leaving, they can wait you out. Well, the Surge brigades are starting to leave now, and we don't have any brigades to replace them. The Iraqis know this. Look for violence to ramp up again after the November elections, when the Surge is completely over and Iraq starts to become the next president's problem.

Or maybe this isn't so strange. Maybe the point of the Surge wasn't to improve the situation in the long term, but just to kick the can down the road. For the rest of his life Bush will say, "We were winning when I left office." The mess he leaves his successor will not be his fault, because nothing is ever his fault.

Short Notes
I spent last week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, where I kept a blog and wrote some articles for the UUA web site. You can find the links to them on my Free and Responsible Search blog.

538 still predicts a solid Obama win, but the margin has shrunk to a 309-229 electoral vote split, closer than the 339-199 projection two weeks ago. Real Clear Politics, which has always had a more conservative estimate of Obama's lead, has a similar 304-234 projection. My prediction: The race will drift closer until the conventions, when the nation compares Obama's acceptance speech to McCain's. Then the margin will grow, and the debates won't help McCain close it.

Slate's Peter Maass argues that the worst dictator in Africa is somebody you've probably never heard of: Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea "whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre." Maass explains why the American media hasn't bothered to cover Obiang. Yes, he's crushing the spirit of his nation, and yes, he's stealing all the oil money and leaving his people in poverty. But hey, the oil is flowing, ExxonMobil is happy, the Bush administration considers Obiang "a good friend," and the victims are almost all black. So what's the big deal? Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.

Speaking of oil, Andrew Leonard's How The World Works column at Salon explains Why $140-a-barrel oil is no surprise
a tipping point has been reached. Enough people now believe that the era of cheap oil is over to ensure a significant, and ongoing, adjustment upward in the real price. Modern civilization as we know it is dependent on cheap oil, and cheap oil is becoming scarce. VoilĂ  -- time to panic. And a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic kicks in. The higher the price of oil goes without encouraging dramatic increases in production, the more worried the market gets.
One response is VW's soon-to-be-marketed concept car, which gets 235 MPG.

On a deeper level, John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report -- how many of you have been reading that blog? -- has given a name to something that really needed one: the Silent Running fallacy. Named after a classic sci-fi movie, the fallacy is "the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It’s this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it’s cute." (Now we need a name for a similar fallacy on a smaller scale: that emotions are an amenity androids could function without.)

And just when we were getting used to the idea of Peak Oil, what about Peak Metal? A lot of industrial metals -- gallium, indium, hafnium, and even (to a lesser extent) zinc -- are being used up faster than we're discovering new supplies.

CalorieLab released its annual fattest states rankings: Mississippi is the repeat champion, with 31.6% of its adult population classified as obese. West Virginia waddled past Alabama to claim second at 30.6%. Colorado is the slimmest state at 18.4%. In general, the Mountain West and New England are the least obese regions, the South the most. But it's getting worse across the board -- CalorieLab had to shift the color-coding standards on its map this year.

Ian Welsh on FireDogLake comments intelligently on the rankings and why Americans are so fat. Our farm policy "literally subsidizes crap food that makes people fat. ... And if you're missing essential nutrients in your diet, your body keeps wanting them and keeps telling you to eat more, in the vain hope you might eat something that isn't crap." (Those subsidies could also explain why the fattest states tend to be the poorest states.) He also blames unwalkable suburbs and recommends that physical education classes teach children how to exercise rather than just play team sports that involve a lot of standing around.
When I grew up back at the dawn of time -- before SimCity, in other words -- we thought games like Monopoly were educational because you had to figure out how much change to give somebody who buys Baltic with a $500 bill. Well, games currently on the drawing board are supposed take things to yet another level. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is involved in a game project called Our Courts, which is scheduled to appear late next year. She describes it as "online, interactive civic education project for seventh- and eighth-graders." (It's necessary because the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Reagan appointee O'Connor, has "effectively squeezed out civics education" in the schools. Guaranteeing an uninformed populace for decades to come -- just one of the many accomplishments of George W. Bush.)

Microsoft and AMD sponsor the Imagine Cup, an annual student competition to create computer games. Each year (2008 is the sixth) the games revolve around a theme from the UN's Millennium Goals. This year the theme is "Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment."

I noticed this stuff when Mike Musgrove wrote about it in his @play column in the Washington Post. But a more consistent source of information is the Games For Change blog.

While we're talking about play, a great internet toy is Policy Map. It combines U.S. maps with all sorts of data sets so you can see things like how income is distributed around the country, or between neighborhoods of your city, or which neighborhoods have a lot of car thefts. A bunch of the data sets come from the 2000 census, so the unemployment figures are way out of date. But the crime stats come from 2006 FBI reports, and the ethnic distribution of the country probably hasn't changed that much since 2000. The basic interface resembles GoogleMaps, so you can zoom in or out at will. It's hours and hours of wonkish fun.

I frequently highlight statistics showing how poorly the economy is doing. The American magazine presents the other side: How well the American economy is doing over the long term. One criticism: Most of the article's graphs display averages. Meaningful economic graphs display medians. Unlike medians, averages hide the gap between rich and poor, as well as the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

For example, if Bill Gates (net worth $58 billion ) walks into a bar in a poor neighborhood, the bar's average customer becomes a billionaire -- hiding the fact that all the other customers (besides the guy who mugs Gates) are still poor.

Suppose Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (net worth $16 billion) invites Gates to join him in the owner's box at a Seattle Seahawks game, and fills the rest of Qwest Field's seats with 66,998 homeless bums. Then the average fan is a millionaire, but the median fan is a homeless bum.


Anonymous said...

That's "Douglass", not "Douglas". Also, "withdrawal" not "withdrawl".

Doug Muder said...

Thanks. You're right, and I fixed it.