Monday, February 22, 2010

Sufficient Causes

We humans do, when the cause is sufficient, spend our lives. We throw ourselves onto the grenade to save our buddies in the foxhole. We rise out of the trenches and charge the entrenched enemy and die like maggots under a blowtorch. We strap bombs on our bodies and blow ourselves up in the midst of our enemies. We are, when the cause is sufficient, insane.
-- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Shadow
In this week's Sift:
  • Meet Joe Stack. The media can't decide whether the Austin kamikaze was a terrorist or not, but they're sure he was crazy. I'm sure he was a terrorist, but his manifesto sounds disconcertingly sane to me.
  • Torture is Nobody's Fault. Nobody cares when Dick Cheney confesses to war crimes, and John Yoo gets off scot free. All in all, a bad week for the rule of law.
  • Short Notes. My town stands up to conservative slander. Coverage of the stimulus' first birthday lacks substance. A Lord's Prayer parody. The real Ronald Reagan opposed military tribunals. The rich get richer and pay lower taxes. Obama's outrages were OK when the white guy did them. And more.

Meet Joe Stack
I admit it. I came to the Austin-kamikaze story expecting to fit it into this larger narrative of right-wing violence: Sooner or later the more wigged-out conservatives start manifesting the figurative violence of mainstream conservative rhetoric.

I still believe that story, but I don't think Joe Stack is an example of it. I'm not even sure how wigged-out he was.

Crazy conspiracy-theory types have a writing style that gives them away. They're so overwhelmed by the power of their own thoughts that they can't imagine the reader's point of view. They strain for emphasis by WRITING IN ALL CAPS or inappropriate bold and italics or

They mix up the general and the particular, so that an abstract discussion of political philosophy suddenly turns into a denunciation of a boss, sibling, or ex-wife of no public consequence. They want to make sure history records not just that they were right about the direction of western culture, but also about that incident at the bar in El Paso.

If they're writing a suicide or martyrdom note, they often seem to be whipping themselves up to the deed, as if they were afraid of chickening out. And they aggrandize the deed itself: It is part of some messianic mission that will bring down the Powers of Evil.

Joe Stack's suicide note/manifesto does none of that. It is surprisingly readable. For example, his first line correctly anticipates the reader's state of mind:
If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, "Why did this have to happen?"
Apparently Stack was a long-time anti-tax activist. He says that in the 80s he belonged to a group that tried to avoid taxes by using 
the wonderful "exemptions" that make institutions like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church so incredibly wealthy. ... However, this is where I learned that there are two "interpretations" for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us. ... That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0.
Throughout the piece, Stack's tone is alienated and embittered, but not irrational. He clearly believes that there is a corrupt power structure in this country, and that the people at the top (whether they are in government, business, unions, or churches) recognize each other's power and cooperate.

Is he wrong?

He contrasts the quick bailout of GM and the big banks with the slow effort to reform the medical system, where the insurance companies 
are murdering tens of thousands of people a year ... It's clear [our political representatives] see no crisis as long as the dead people don't get in the way of corporate profits rolling in.
Bitter, yes. But do you have to be crazy to believe that?

About the plane-crash plan itself, he says very little -- and nothing at all about his glorious martyrdom and the wonders it will accomplish. Instead, he seems quietly determined and claims only that other tactics will not work.
Nothing changes unless there is a body count ... I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change.
Cynical, definitely. And immoral in his willingness to shed innocent blood to promote his agenda. And maybe, when the full story is told, we'll discover that he was crazy too. But nothing I've seen so far proves that.
The most ridiculous aspect of this story has been the media's uncertainty about calling it terrorism. The guy destroyed a civilian office building outside any war zone in order to produce "a body count" that would draw attention to his political agenda. That would seem to be a textbook example of terrorism -- except that what terrorist really means these days is Muslim. That's why the Fort Hood shooter was called a terrorist, even though he targeted soldiers on a military base. (Strictly speaking, that should make him a traitor, but not a terrorist.) Glenn Greenwald elaborates. AtlanticWire collects a range of comments.
Just a couple days before the Stack crash, Fox was trying to make the University of Alabama shootings into an example of left-wing violence -- despite a complete lack of evidence for any political motivation.
Senator Scott Brown gave his first post-election national TV interview to Neil Cavuto of (naturally) Fox News. (If you don't watch Fox you may not have noticed, but the network decided early on that the Haiti earthquake was boring and instead focused on promoting the Brown campaign.) 

TPM noticed Brown relating Joe Stack to his own voters, but I was more struck by what passes for an interview question on Fox. Cavuto asks: "Invariably people are going to look at this and say, well, that's where some of this populist rage gets you. Isn't that a bit extreme?"

So Cavuto imagines what "people" might say about Stack's attack, invents a response, and asks Brown to agree to that response. My question: Why does Brown need to be there at all when Cavuto can just interview his own imagination?

Torture is Nobody's Fault
It was a bad week for the rule of law. Last Sunday, Dick Cheney confessed to war crimes on national TV. Granted, he didn't say the exact words "I committed war crimes." But he did say, "I was a big supporter of waterboarding." Previously, he had told the Washington Times "I signed off on it."

Only among American neo-cons is there any doubt that waterboarding is torture or that torture of captured enemies is a war crime or that authorizing a war crime is itself a war crime. But Cheney's confession was a non-issue. The NYT combined the Cheney confession with Joe Biden's appearance on a Sunday talk show under the headline: Dueling Vice Presidents Trade Barbs. The WaPo had similar coverage.

If Cheney travels outside the United States, he may be brought to justice through extraterritorial jurisdiction, a legal doctrine by which any country can claim jurisdiction over war crimes that cannot be prosecuted in the home country. Or a country whose citizens were waterboarded under Cheney's signature may prosecute him. Barring that, he will remain at large. (You can sign a petition calling for Cheney's prosecution.)

And then Friday, the Justice Department finally released the 289-page report of its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR is the Justice Department's internal watchdog agency) on the "torture memos" written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee for the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Council (OLC). The OLC is the official interpreter of the law for the executive branch, and other members of the executive branch use its opinions as cover -- if the OLC says something is legal, how are they supposed to know it isn't?

That's why it's particularly bad if the OLC becomes corrupt and starts justifying whatever the president wants it to justify, as Yoo and Bybee did. If the penalty for such corruption is not harsh, you can wind up in what law professor Jonathan Turley has called "Mukasey's Paradox" (after Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey):
Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.
In other words, there are crimes but no criminals -- like torture, which violates the Convention Against Torture signed by Ronald Reagan, among other laws. But the torturers (and all those who had command responsibility over them, up to and including the president) can claim to have had the OLC's blessing. And yet the OLC is not responsible either. Everyone now admits the OLC's opinion was wrong, but so what?

That's essentially where we have wound up. The OPR report itself is highly critical of Yoo and Bybee. Each "committed professional misconduct" by failing to offer "independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective, and candid legal advice." Yoo's misconduct is described as "intentional" and Bybee's as "reckless disregard of his duty". (This is all on page 11 of the report.) OPR intended to refer these findings to state organizations that could have Yoo and Bybee disbarred as lawyers -- which is already far too light a punishment, in my opinion.

However, the conclusions of the report (which were ready for release in 2008, but have been held up by various internal Justice Department processes) were set aside by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who wrote a 69-page report supporting the statement: "I do not adopt OPR's findings of misconduct."

So Yoo and Bybee walk away with no consequences whatsoever.

I have not read either report cover-to-cover. I may have more to say later.

Yesterday, General Petraeus came out against torture on Meet the Press:
I have always been on the record -- in fact, since 2003 -- with the concept of living our values. And I think that whenever we have (perhaps) taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside.
On hearing this statement, Matt Yglesias pronounced the death of the Petraeus for President movement.
it seems impossible at this point to imagine a Republican nominee who believes in the rule of law and humane treatment of detainees. And that, in turn, is obviously a sad state of affairs.

Short Notes
I'm used to national conservatives making up sensational nonsense, but recently a local conservative has been slandering my town's public schools. During a hearing of the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee, Nancy Elliott, a Republican state representative from neighboring Merrimack, said that a Nashua parent had told her that fifth-grade students in Nashua were being shown pictures of naked men and told how anal sex is performed. Elliott blamed New Hampshire's same-sex marriage law for this outrage, rather than the true culprit: her own lewd imagination.

Fortunately, a Nashua alderman had the courage to call her on it: "Either turn in the name of the mother whose child was subjected to this alleged display of pornography to the Nashua Police Department, as required by law to protect the children, or recant and apologize publicly." Wednesday Alderman Sheehan got her apology from Elliott, who admitted that she could not verify her claims.

The first anniversary of the stimulus produced a lot of commentary, but not much insight. I found a lot of he-said/she-said about whether or not the stimulus was a success, but not much factual analysis of what it actually did. (I'd like to see an updated version of this pie chart.)

In general, critics of the stimulus point to the fact that unemployment is higher than it was a year ago, and they tell anecdotes about wasteful spending -- most of which are uncheckable.

Supporters point to the conclusion of just-about-every-economist-in-the-world that unemployment would be much worse without the stimulus.

I've been unsuccessfully googling around to find an original source for this parody of the Lord's Prayer. I got a version by email and have found other versions online, so I've cobbled the parts I like best together with some amendments of my own:
Oh Wall Street, which owneth Congress,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy lobbyists come.
Thy will be done
in legislatures as it is in boardrooms.
Give the unemployed this day no daily bread,
and forbid the homeless from trespassing, lest they bother us.
Lead us not into compassion,
but deliver us from socialism.
For thine is the loophole and the earmark and the bailout
forever and ever.

It's official: The very rich have been getting richer and paying lower tax rates. The government's report on the top 400 taxpayers showed that their inflation-adjusted incomes have increased 399%  from 1992 to 2007, while the bottom 90% of taxpayers saw an increase of only 13%. Meanwhile, the 400 paid an average tax rate of 16.6% in 2007 -- less than rate they paid in 2006 and less than the rate paid by those making a thousand times less.

Back when I first analyzed the Palin phenomenon in September, 2008, I predicted she would have trouble with "the other Republican base" -- not the working-class evangelicals, but the suburban professionals. At the time I fantasized what Barbara Bush might be thinking, but George Will would have worked just as well.

He still does. Thursday, George wrote the pretty much the same thing about Sarah that I wrote Monday.

Glenn Greenwald calls attention to the opposite media treatment of two similar events: It's bad for protesters to wave Mexican flags, but good for Sarah Palin to sport an Israeli-flag pin.
Ron Paul won the straw poll at the Conservative PAC convention Saturday with 31% of the vote. Romney got 22% and Palin 7%. Remind me again how popular Palin is.
Breaking news from the Onion News Network: The newly crowned Miss Teen USA declares herself beauty queen for life after executing several judges: "Opposition to my rule will be, like, totally crushed." 

ONN also covers the protests against Minnesota's proposal to ban marriages between people who don't love each other. Says one protester: "Beth and I have been seething silently in front of the TV for years. You can't tell me that's not marriage." 

At some point conservatives are going to have to decide how far to ride the energy of the lunatic fringe. Michael Gerson is already starting to worry.

These days racism always claims to be about something other than race, but whatever was OK when the white guy did it is outrageous when the black guy does it. Case in point: President puts feet on historic desk.

Oh, and now that we have a black president, we need an organization of military officers pledged not to follow unconstitutional orders (founded March, 2009). This apparently was not necessary under Bush and Cheney.

I know they can make up anti-Obama stories faster than anyone can check them, but you have to try sometimes: Obama actually did not use a teleprompter to talk to elementary school kids.
The comedians at Second City Network suggest a different way to make the point I wrote about last week: Climate is not weather.
Two interesting articles about the practice of journalism: (1) Michael Kinsley (Atlantic) claims that the conventions of newspaper-writing make stories much longer and harder to follow than necessary. And (2) George Packer (New Yorker) says that if the subject were war or finance, we would never accept the vapid stuff that passes for analysis of American politics:
A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

Harper's Scott Horton interviews Will Bunch about his book: Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy. The most interesting paragraph:
And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”
Bremer was Reagan's Coordinator for Combating Terrorism at the time.

The New York Times Magazine had a long-but-worth-it article asking How Christian Were the Founders? It starts with the largely successful efforts of Christian fundamentalists to make Texas history texts say what they want: "that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts." And then it examines how accurate that position is.

Answer: It's complicated. Christianity and the Bible were indeed important to the Founders, but it's a mistake to jump to the conclusion that 18th-century Christianity was all one thing -- namely, fundamentalism. The Founders interpreted the Bible in various ways, just as we do today. And ultimately you have to explain this: They could have referenced God or the Bible in the Constitution, but they chose not to. That couldn't have been an oversight.

I wish the article had made this point: In addition to Christianity, there was also a strong classical Roman influence on the Founders. They often wrote under Roman pseudonyms. (The Federalist, for example, was a originally series of newspaper articles signed "Publius" rather than Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.) And their ethical ideas had as much to do with Greco-Roman Stoicism as with Christianity.

Apropos of nothing: a hilarious story of what happens when your 2-year-old gets his hands on something totally embarrassing.
Former Senator Rick Santorum understands why Admiral Mullen and other military leaders want to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military: "I'm not too sure that we haven't so indoctrinated the officer corps in this country that they can actually see straight to make the right decision."

That's because anyone who disagrees with Santorum can't have an actual reason, and because it's inconceivable that the head of the Joint Chiefs might know more about the military than Rick does.
According to the Wall Street Journal, female MBAs aren't keeping up with male MBAs. Prioritizing family over career may account for some of the long-term problems, but the bad first jobs are hard to explain without invoking discrimination.
Sunday the WaPo's Dana Milbank published what amounts to a fan letter for Rahm Emanuel, blaming every problem of Obama's first year on not listening to Emanuel. In response, Cynk Uygur does some interesting speculating: He figures that Emanuel is on his way out, and Milbank is publishing Rahm's parting shots for him.

Time will tell on that. But I have to comment on this Milbank assertion:
Emanuel, schooled by Bill Clinton, knew what the true believers didn't: that bite-sized proposals add up to big things.
After 10 years it's fair to ask: What "big things" started as bite-sized Clinton proposals? Seeing none, I draw the exact opposite lesson: Bite-sized proposals fritter away your supporters' energy. Being too small to affect most voters, they just validate the conservative view that government can't solve our problems. I give Clinton credit for being a good executive (at least by comparison to W). But he left the Democratic Party no Clintonism to run on -- no long-term vision, no inspiring ideas, nothing to organize a movement around. That's why the Democrats got pounded in 2000, 2002, and 2004.

More details of the smear against ACORN are coming out.

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