Monday, January 12, 2009

Wrath and Righteousness

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
-- James 1:19-20
In This Week's Sift:

Gaza: When the Center Fails
In reading about Gaza this last week, I've noticed that three stories practically write themselves:
  • The Israeli government is evil, and everything would be fine if it just behaved. Naomi Klein's article in The Nation proposes nonviolent strategies: Boycott, Divest, Sanction, but is based on the idea that the fault is clear. "Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade."
  • Hamas is evil, and everything would be fine if it just behaved. In the US this is the establishment point of view (see the Senate's resolution), so it's easy to find extreme examples: According to Saul Singer at PostGlobal, the Israeli soldiers in Gaza "are doing a service for humanity."
  • The whole situation is tragic, it's too complicated to solve, and all good people can do is wring their hands helplessly.
If you want to read any of those three article-types, you'll have no trouble finding one. But I'd like to approach the situation from a different angle. Back in 2004 I wrote Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz, which made it to the front page of DailyKos and drew a lot of comment. Its point: Many of the things done by terrorists (and corresponding anti-terrorist extremists) may look crazy, but they are actually part of a coherent strategy. To understand that strategy you need to grasp one key idea: If you're an extremist, your first enemy isn't the extremist of the opposite side, it's the moderate of your own side. Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center.

Let me repeat that, because it takes a while to sink in: Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center. They'll fight each other in the second round, after the center is eliminated.

Now, I'm not saying that opposing extremists actually conspire. They don't need to. But those cycles of attack-and-reprisal that look insane and counterproductive are in fact very productive, if the purpose is to derail any possible compromise and make the center untenable.

To see what an untenable center looks like, you just need to drop in on any online discussion of Gaza. Take just about any article on Gaza (say, this one) and look at the comments. Commenters who express compassion for the victims on both sides are either ignored or quickly shouted down. People who favor one side but try to understand the other are easily driven to extreme positions they never intended to sign their names to. You just have to project the opposite extreme onto them and watch them wriggle: Are they saying that Jews should just surrender and wait for another Holocaust? Are they saying that Palestinian civilians don't count, and that Israel can kill any number of them if one or two Jews have died? And what about the Munich Olympics or the Sabra and Shatila massacre or any of a hundred unforgivable acts by either side in the last sixty (or six hundred) years?

In the current climate you need a Gandhi-like inner harmony to express a genuine desire for a just peace and hold that position in an open discussion. You're balancing a pencil on its tip. Extreme positions, on the other hand, are easy to maintain. My side just wants to live in peace, but the other side wants to annihilate us, imprison us, or drive us from our homes. Every nasty thing we have done was forced on us by other side. We had no choice.

Eboo Patel, an American Muslim whose family is from India, has a good article at On Faith. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization devoted to fostering discussions among young people of all religions. (His book Acts of Faith is a very good spiritual-journey memoir. I discussed him on a different blog last summer.) His article describes two sets of rules: (1) the "Status Quo Rules" for discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict; and (2) the "Solution Rules".

The Status Quo Rules would have you frame the current situation, whatever it is, within your side's narrative (the one where you want peace, but the other side forces conflict on you). You'd be happy to have a person from the other side come and validate your narrative -- you'd showcase an anti-invasion Jew at your pro-Palestinian rally or an anti-Hamas Palestinian at your pro-Israel rally -- but you aren't interested in talking to anybody on the other side who doesn't already agree with you.

The Solution Rules start here: "Rule 1. Make your first phone calls to the people who disagree with you on the current situation, but who agree with you on the basic outlines of a long-term solution - two states, with security and dignity for all."

What Patel is talking about is rebuilding the center. And I think his tactic is exactly right: The polarizing pattern involves burying the center in details and specifics: this horrible event, that horrible event -- what is the right response to that? do nothing? If you frame the current problem narrowly enough (and write off any larger solution as pie-in-the-sky), violence will solve it. Take that Saul Singer article I mentioned above. To him, the problem is the rockets hitting Israel. Those rockets are smuggled into Gaza. Hamas fires them. Iran pays for them. Violence can solve all that: Israeli soldiers can seize the rockets and destroy the smuggler's tunnels. They can kill the leaders and soldiers of Hamas. And if the United States will add its weight to the scale, the government of Iran can be overthrown. End of problem.

Except of course that there's a larger problem than rockets. Large numbers of Palestinians would rather die and kill than accept the future that Israel is willing to offer them. As long as that is true, someone will lead them and someone will arm them. Annihilating the leadership of Hamas or overthrowing the mullahs in Tehran does nothing to solve that problem, and in fact makes it worse. The number of Palestinians willing to die or kill has undoubtedly gone up in these last few weeks.

Likewise in Israel, many believe they must kill or be killed, destroy other people's homes or lose their own. Hamas and Hezbollah do nothing to decrease their number. Killing one such person -- or the mother or child of such a person -- creates a hundred more.

That's the larger problem, and we can't let ourselves lose sight of it. Violence and polarizing rhetoric isn't solving it. In the long view, the strategy of both sides is failing: Israel is not becoming more secure and Palestinians are not achieving a better life. Ultimately, there is only one violent solution: ethnic cleansing, backed up with the threat of genocide. (Or, if you can get the right weapons, you can go straight to genocide.) The point of attack-and-reprisal is to make that solution palatable to ordinary people, by convincing them that there is no other choice.

The struggle to maintain the center is all about maintaining a larger view, never forgetting that any solution other than ethnic cleansing eventually depends on the moderates of each side figuring out how to live in peace. The "solution" of every smaller problem needs to be measured against that ultimate necessity. It's easy to get lost in the details of who-killed-who, and to pretend that we don't know where the violent path goes.

But we do know.

The Ever-Increasing Number of Bogus Trends
Over at Slate, Jack Shafer has started a worthwhile series: The Bogus Trend of the Week.

Trend might be the most abused word in journalism. To write a typical trend-story, all you really need is one event to serve as an example, a just-so story about why this might happen a lot these days, and then some hand-wringing (or hopeful, if the trend is positive) quotes from people who claim to be be affected.

The tell-tale mark of a bogus trend story is the absence of meaningful statistics. As any fan of the TV series Numbers knows, we live in such a measured and quantified society that any trend worth writing about has to produce some statistics somewhere. We are snowed under by statistics. To steal an image from baseball stat-guru Bill James, believing in an important trend that produces no numbers is like believing that elephants have been dancing in that snow without leaving tracks.

Anyway, here are two samples of Shafer's bogus trends:
So far the bogus trends haven't been earth-shakers, but Shafer may help you join the trend towards increased reader-and-viewer skepticism regarding stories the media creates out of nothing.

Hypocrisy Watch: John Yoo's New Opinions on Executive Power
You had to wonder how long it would take for Bush-administration officials to flip from arguing for the supremacy of the Republican executive branch to sounding the alarm about the dangers of an imperial Democratic presidency. I was naive enough to think they'd wait until the inauguration. But no.

In a January 4 NYT op-ed, John Bolton and John Yoo write that we should "strike the proper balance between the executive and legislative branches" by making sure that any international agreements Obama makes go through the formal treaty process, requiring a 2/3 ratification by the Senate -- a supermajority that allows any 34 of the 41 Republican senators to block whatever they don't like.
The Constitution’s Treaty Clause has long been seen, rightly, as a bulwark against presidential inclinations to lock the United States into unwise foreign commitments.
If Yoo ever reminded President Bush about the constitutional limits on presidential power, the incident was not recorded. Instead, he wrote the famous torture memos, in which he argued that a treaty duly signed by the United States and ratified by the Senate -- the Convention Against Torture (CAT) -- was essentially meaningless. Under his constitutional power as commander-in-chief, Yoo claimed, the president can order torture without notifying either the Senate or the countries we made the treaty with.
Any presidential decision to order interrogations methods that are inconsistent with CAT would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions.
But the president was a Republican then, so the Constitution meant something completely different. Now Bolton and Yoo worry that Obama will commit the US to the Kyoto agreements against global warming, to the International Criminal Court, or to other agreements that subordinate America to international law. (Yoo ought to worry. If the US were subject to the ICC, he could find himself on trial there for his role in the Bush administration's war crimes. It's shameful that the Times presents Yoo as if he were a disinterested observer when he clearly is not.) Obama might attempt this purely by executive agreement, or by executive agreement supported by a majority-vote congressional resolution rather than a 2/3 Senate ratification.

This has been done in the past by Republican presidents, or by Democrats with Republican support (like Bill Clinton and the NAFTA agreement). But of course there's a difference:
It is true that some multinational economic agreements, like Bretton Woods, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect after approval by majorities of Congress rather than two-thirds of the Senate. But international agreements that go beyond the rules of international trade and finance — that involve significant national-security commitments, or that purport to delegate lawmaking and enforcement functions to international organizations, or that could fundamentally alter the American constitutional system of individual rights — should receive the intense scrutiny of the treaty process, regardless of their policy merits.
A few objections:
  1. The Constitution never mentions a distinction between economic and national-security agreements.
  2. Our trade agreements surrender sovereignty to international organizations (like the WTO) just as much as national-security agreements do.
  3. The most outrageous abrogation of Congress' role in treaties -- the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that the Bush adminstration just signed with Iraq -- goes completely unmentioned. The SOFA required extensive parliamentary debate in Baghdad. But (according to former Reagan deputy attorney general Bruce Fein)
Bush promulgated the SOFA unilaterally as an executive agreement. He neither sought nor received congressional ratification. ... The enormously important international military pact was a unilateral diktat of the president, similar to the treaty-making power of British monarchs circa 1776.
But never mind. The SOFA happened before Obama's historical inauguration, which will completely change the meaning of the Constitution -- for some people, anyway.

Consequences of Blowing (or not Blowing) the Whistle
Dianne Feinstein got a lot of attention by announcing that Obama didn't consult her before nominating Leon Panetta to head the CIA, and that she'd rather have an intelligence professional for the job.

Other than Rachel Maddow, the mainstream media did a bad job of presenting the subtext of this conflict: Feinstein, like Jay Rockefeller and some other high-ranking Democrats, is tainted by the the Bush administration's crimes. They didn't torture anybody or tap any phones, but as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they got enough information to know that illegal things were happening.

Nobody was in a better position to blow the whistle. Yes, the programs were classified, but Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution forbids prosecuting members of Congress for anything they say on the floor: "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." But they did nothing. They went along. That's why DiFi and Jello Jay (nicknames I didn't make up) want the CIA headed by "an intelligence professional" -- someone who is similarly tainted, in other words.

One reason Dick Cheney is so certain he'll never be brought to justice is that a full accounting of the last eight years would make a lot of Democrats look bad as well. Cheney et al assume there will be a gentlemen's agreement not to look under too many rocks. In other words, mistakes were made, but no purpose would be served by spelling out what those mistakes were or who made them. (A Wall Street Journal editorial lays out this you'll-go-down-with-us case.)

That's a popular point of view in the establishment Village. Whether or not such a gentlemen's agreement will stick is going to be one of the defining conflicts of the Obama administration. Virtually by definition, most of that conflict is going to take place out of the spotlight.

In contrast to the Feinsteins and Rockefellers, some people with a lot more at risk really did blow the whistle, and they're paying the price. Newsweek tells the story of Thomas Tamm, the guy who told the New York Times about warrantless wiretapping.
The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past two and a half years. Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life. Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if or when federal agents might arrest him.
Glenn Greenwald comments at length. Fellow whistle-blower Jesselyn Radack wonders
how many taxpayer dollars have been spent "investigating" me, Tom Tamm, Sibel Edmonds and so many others who were simply trying to do their jobs, encountered gross wrongdoing, tried to correct it, and then were crucified with Javert investigations, criminal probes, professional assassination, character smears, astronomical legal bills, and the attendant health problems and family troubles that few could avoid under such circumstances.

Short Notes
The Gaza issue had me cruising a bunch of Jewish and Muslim web sites I don't usually visit, and as a result I found some amusing links I wouldn't usually find. Like this report from about a Santa Monica synagogue trying (but failing) to break the Guinness record for simultaneous dreidel-spinning. That near-historic event caused the Bintel Blog to link to one of the few Tom Lehrer songs I'd never heard: Hanukkah in Santa Monica.
Two of my favorite TV people: Jon Stewart interviews Rachel Maddow.

While recovering from her hysterectomy, an evangelical Democrat takes time out to read Sarah Palin the riot act about claiming sexism and classism.

More next week in my Bush retrospective, but the Center for Public Integrity's "Broken Government" project is worth a shout out.

The Detroit Auto Show showcases electric cars and hybrids due for introduction in 2009 or 2010.

In a NYT op-ed, Bush advisor N. Gregory Mankiw argued the exact opposite of the Economic Policy Institute numbers I quoted last week. He claimed that a dollar of tax cuts provides about twice the economic stimulus of a dollar of government spending.

I was skeptical, but I was too lazy to chase the links and figure out if he was presenting the research honestly. Nate Silver was less lazy, and guess what? Mankiw didn't present the research honestly. The paper he referenced (co-authored by Obama advisor Christina Romer) was not talking about a tax cut as a counter-cyclical stimulus, but about a tax cut under different circumstances entirely. And then Nate answered Mankiw's response.


Kelsey Atherton said...

so, I was just led to your blog by Christine of iMinister (, you may or may not know her; it's kind of a moot point, but I figure credit's due where credit's due. Anyway, that's moot to my main point: your Gaza piece is brilliant. I'd been struggling to find that perspective, that exact wording, and you nailed it. So, thanks for being not just smart but articulate and well-reasoned on the blogosphere. I'll certainly be reading here more often.

pwlsax said...

Bogus trend spotting seems not to have spread past Slate in 4 years of Jack Shafer writing about it.

I'm thinking either:

a) it requires a journalistic eye, more than even most media people possess, and our hardcore journos are stretched too thin and too focused on Real Issues to care about the culture;

or else b) it takes too much of a generalist mind-set for our ever-more-niche-focused lives. You might care about one bogus trend, but the typical modern person could never see that this is a pattern of media behavior.