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Showing posts from September, 2010

What's Wrong With The Democrats?

Ben and I talk about the "enthusiasm gap" among Democratic voters in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:

You almost can't blame President Obama for being frustrated. He's gotten more big things done -- a health care bill, the stimulus, financial reform -- than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, and he's done it in only two years. So why all the complaining from his liberal base? Because it hasn't been enough. And what has been done hasn't been done well.

Yes, the longtime progressive dream of a universal health care bill passed -- but in a messy form that, with its mandate on American citizens to buy their own health insurance or face penalties, seems designed to alienate as many voters as it serves. The stimulus probably averted a Depression-like disaster for the American economy, but liberals believe it probably needed to be bigger in order to lower a still-horrendous unemployment rate. Financial reform took too long to pass and wa…

Barack Obama, Tyrant?

I am profoundly disappointed by the Obama Administration's decision that it can order the killing of an American citizen without due process -- and that it can furthermore evade any accountability for that order by invoking "state secrets" to shut down any court challenges. (Adam Serwer describes the administration's position here.)I'm also disappointed by its effort to require tech providers to build their systems to enable the government to spy on its citizens -- which seems to me somewhat akin to requiring homebuilders to add a secret room in every home where your government watcher can monitor you.

Before Barack Obama's election, I wrote an essay suggesting these kinds of problems might be on the horizon. I think it's worth quoting myself at length:

What do we know about Barack Obama and the presidency that makes me fearful for him?

• He’s made compromises already. If our nation’s decision to torture terror suspects ranks as the Bush Administration’s c…

Mr. Mom Chronicles: Working At Home

I'm in the middle of typing out an e-mail to a source on a story when my two-year-old boy climbs up into my lap with a book, "Put Me in the Zoo."

"Booky?" he asks.

This is slightly annoying -- I've got work to do. But the boy is part of my work, too. If I'm going to be a stay-at-home-dad-slash-freelance-writer, then I can't neglect the dad part of the equation. Even if doing so would make the writing part of that equation much easier.

So I read the book. Tobias climbs down, retrieves another tome and brings it to me. "Booky?"

"No, son. I've read you one, and I've got to get this done. Can you read it to yourself?"

Tobias doesn't like the idea. He raises the book high over his head, then slams it down to the ground. Then he toddles off.

We're one week into this experiment -- ok, we're a week into my new way of living life -- and it's clear that this is the battle I'm going to have to fight every day. …

John Yoo and the Tea Party

John Yoo believes that during wartime there's virtually no limit -- legal, constitutional, treaty or otherwise -- on a president's power. He can suspend the First Amendment. He can order the testicles of a small child crushed. It was his legal advice that helped pave the way for the American torture regime.

So, of course: John Yoo is a featured speaker at Tea Party events.

Now: There are undoubtedly many fine and sincere Tea Party participants who legitimately want to see government restrained and fitted for a Constitutional straightjacket. That's fine. But even now, it's easy for me to believe that there's also a sizable chunk of people who didn't mind expanding deficits and tyrannical government overreach as long as a Republican is president. Tea Partiers who turn out for a John Yoo speech? Almost certainly in the latter group.

Deborah Solomon Versus: Phil Collins

Rather than repeat my litany of gripes against Deborah Solomon's stewardship of the Q&A section of the New York Times Magazine, I'm going to start a (almost assuredly) weekly feature: A look at how she focuses relentlessly on money -- without it being at all enlightening about the interview subject. This week's money gotcha: Phill Collins:

Did I read somewhere that your divorce settlement was $50 million and, at the time, the largest paid by an entertainer in British history?
I think Paul McCartney’s was the largest.

I read that he paid $49 million to Heather Mills.
It’s only money. Of course, only people with money will say, “It’s only money.”
Nice line by Phil, but it tells us something we already knew: He's rich.

That's Deborah Solomon for you: Asking questions that are rude for no real purpose. She's gaucheriffic!

Letter to a Christian Friend

As some readers may know, I grew up Christian, mostly among Mennonites in the Midwest. I even attended a Mennonite Bretheren college, and count many of my friends from that time as dear friends still. But I no longer share their faith.

Some friends still gently nudge me toward faith. And I understand the good intent of their efforts, even if it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I received one of those nudges today -- and I responded thus. The letter is lightly modified to omit unnecessary details:

Hi Friend:

It's true that I'm not too enamored of how many, perhaps most, Christians choose to live their faith. It seems at odds -- to me -- with the ethic of Jesus that I find in the Bible. But that's not the fundamental reason I'm in my current rather faithless state.

I think the best way to describe me now is "apathetic agnostic." That is: I simply don't know whether there is a God or not. And it seems to me that if there is a God, that God has chosen to rev…

Barack Obama, Bob Woodward, and the War in Afghanistan

Our Scripps Howard column this week is about Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." My take:

Bob Woodward's new book reminds us of an important proposition: American democracy and long-term war are a bad mix.

It's certainly bad for democracy. One of the most disturbing revelations is the lengths that President Obama went to in order to ensure the military obeyed his orders in Afghanistan -- dictating a six-page single-spaced document dictating the terms of 2009's surge of 40,000 troops to that country. Why the detail? Because the president felt sure his generals and admirals would find "wiggle room" to violate the spirit of the order setting a 2011 deadline to begin drawing down troops there.

The American Constitution is clear: The president is the commander-in-chief. He makes the country's big decisions about how we fight war. Generals and admirals give their best military advice, and then execute the decisions the president has made. But …

Mr. Mom Chronicles: The Playground

I hate taking Tobias to the playground.

Step back: It's not that I don't enjoy giving the boy a chance to enjoy himself -- and I'm really not opposed to him wearing himself out by running around. What's more, I'm not one of those parents who hovers over my kid: We get there, I sit on a bench and keep an eye on him, but I don't really follow him from toy-to-toy, adventure-to-adventure.

No, what I don't like is ... all the other kids.

I'm not a monster: I obviously like my kid. And I'm not one of those fussy adults who wants to ban the under-10 set from restaurants or movie theaters or other public places. Kids are necessary. But I don't much like childhood: It's all id, no ego, too much trying to hog toys, too much possibility of sudden and minor violence, too much willingness to inflict hurt feelings if the physical hurt can't be gotten away with. Kids are assholes.

Sartre said that "hell is other people." Me? I say that hell i…

DADT and the GOP's Faux Populism

Back in the spring, when Democrats -- after a decades-long odyssey -- were preparing to pass a comprehensive health insurance bill, Republicans expressed outrage their opponents would do something the public didn't want them to do: the polls, they said, showed a clear majority of Americans opposed the bill. A CNN poll in March showed that 59 percent of respondents didn't like it. Passing the bill in the face of such opposition, the GOP said, was profoundly undemocratic.

Fast-forward to yesterday, when the GOP blocked progress of a bill that would repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the law that lets the armed forces boot gay members. What's funny about this? Well, polls show that around 57-58 percent of Americans favor the DADT repeal -- almost exactly the same percentage that opposed the health care bill. The same Republican Party members who stood for the perogatives of majority-according-to-polling ignored the polling when it conflicted with their stances.

Our Ungrateful Elites

Kevin Drum doesn't think much of America's modern elites:

To a dispiriting extent, the top stratum in America no longer really seems to care about America. They care about themselves, and their money, and keeping themselves safe from the huddled masses, but for all too many of them that's about it. I'm not sure I have quite the rose-colored view of the ancien regime that Mike does, but he's certainly right about today's millionaires. No class, no gratefulness for their success, and no sense of bond to the broader society they live in. This is not a winning combination for a country that aims to lead the world.
There's been some talk lately, on the right, about how the rise of American meritocracy -- the best students get into Harvard these days, for example, instead of just the sons of the richest families -- has created a "ruling class" enamored of its own expertise and disconnected from American values. I'm not sure I buy the critique, entirel…

Surveillance State Update: The FBI Spies On PETA

Washington Post:

The FBI improperly opened and extended investigations of some U.S. activist groups and put members of an environmental advocacy organization on a terrorist watch list, even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience, the Justice Department said Monday.

A report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine absolved the FBI of the most serious allegation against it: that agents targeted domestic groups based on their exercise of First Amendment rights. Civil liberties groups and congressional Democrats had suggested that the FBI employed such tactics during the George W. Bush administration, which triggered Fine's review.

But the report cited what it called other "troubling" FBI practices in its monitoring of domestic groups in the years between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2006. In some cases, Fine said, agents began investigations of people affiliated with activist groups for "factually weak" reasons.

In others, the report said, …

Mr. Mom Chronicles: Day One

This morning, my lovely wife woke shortly before 6 am. She eased her way into the day with some sort of apple juice concoction, then showered, blow-dried her hair (!), made lunch, then departed to catch a bus. It is her first day of work.

Me? I drank some coffee, read the papers and waited for my son to wake up. This is also my first day on the job, this one as a full-time stay-at-home dad.

This is not where I expected to be. Oh, I've always said I was willing to be the at-home parent if it came to that, something easy to say to prove my feminist bona fides. But honestly, we moved to Philadelphia a month before Tobias was born -- not exactly prime job-hunting time for my wife, particularly as a recession was starting to bare its ugly fangs. The birth happened, she stayed home with our kid, I went off to the office every morning, and that was it. I never expected to actually have to back up my words with, you know, action.

When I lost my job six months ago, though, my wife drew a li…

War Always Leads to Irrational, Overreacting Prejudice

Reading Peter Beinart's "The Icarus Syndrome," a passage leaps out to me as perhaps having some modern relevance. It's about the public reaction to German-Americans during World War I:
Cincinnati outlawed the sale of pretzels; Iowa's governor made publicly speaking German a crime. When a Wyoming man was overheard saying "Hoch der kaiser" ("Up with the kiser"), a group of townspeople hanged him, cut him down while still alive, and made him kneel and kiss the American flag. In April 1918, a St. Louis mob abducted a young German-American, stripped him, dragged him through the streets, and then lynched him, while a crowd of five hundred cheered. At trial, the defense attorney called the murder patriotic, and it took a jury twenty-five minutes to acquit.Luckily, the United States seems to be more or less in a post-lynching phase of its history. But we're appalled today at the last century's irrational prejudice. I suspect our descendants wil…

Bag O' Books: 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell

I'm not sure how I missed "Cloud Atlas" when it came out in 2004: I was reading lots of novels at that point and was trying to stay current with all the best stuff. But I missed it, only to find out about it when David Mitchell's newest book resulted in a bit of hype.

Is "Cloud Atlas" a work of genius? I'm not sure. It's certainly a work of talent. It's as though Mitchell wrote a half-dozen novellas -- a South Sea adventure; a Jazz Age cautionary tale; a pulpy '70s mystery; a dystopian "Blade Runner"-meets-Asimov near-future sci-fi tale; and a post-apocalyptic story of the Last Humans On Earth -- and stacks those novellas on top of each other, weaving enough commonalities and references to the other stories to give it the sheen of a holistic artistic vision. Does that work? Maybe just barely; we begin and end in the same place -- the death of civilizations, redeemed only by the hope offered by one or two good people.

That's not…

Is the Army Thinking About Bacevichian Isolationism as 'Grand Strategy'?

A few weeks ago I pondered what America would look like if Andrew Bacevich ran the country. Though Bacevich rejects the term "isolationism" to describe his worldview, it's a term that'll do in a pinch: He essentially envisions the United States divesting itself of overseas military commitments and bringing troops home so that A) the defense establishment can concentrate on defending the United States, instead of projecting power around the world and B) the United States can start to live, fiscally, within its means.

Turns out Bacevich's vision has some fans inside military circles. The latest issue of Military Review -- one of the Army's intellectual journals, published at Fort Leavenworth -- contains an article retired Navy Commander John Kuehn, an associate professor of military history at the Army's Command and General Staff College for rising career officers at Leavnworth. His piece references and echoes Bacevich.

Prior to the outbreak of World Wars I…

Andrew McCarthy, Robert Wright, Moderate Islam and the Fundamentalist Mindset

Not long ago, National Review's Andrew McCarthy wrote something that has stuck in my craw for a few days. He conceded that there are many moderate Muslims while dismissing the possibility of moderate Islam itself. Here he is:

There is no moderate Islam in the mainstream of Muslim life, not in the doctrinal sense.There are millions of moderate Muslims who crave reform. Yet the fact that they seek real reform, rather than what Georgetown is content to call reform, means they are trying to invent something that does not currently exist.
In other words, McCarthy dismisses "millions of moderate Muslims" because -- even though those millions of Muslims live their lives in what we're calling "moderate" fashion -- Islamic doctrines aren't similarly moderate. And that makes little sense: It's like insisting that there are no Catholics who use birth control or Southern Baptists who dance, because the doctrines and practices of those churches prohibit or discou…

Homeland Security, Gay Terrorists and the Tragedy of Gov. Ed Rendell

A couple of days ago I wrote that "the surveillance state always claims to be acting in the interest of our safety and security. Sometimes, it's even true." I was writing then about a 40-year-old incident involving the civil rights movement; luckily, the State of Pennsylvania has decided to offer us a fresh example:

HARRISBURG – Gov. Rendell said Tuesday that he was "appalled" and "embarrassed" that his administration's Office of Homeland Security has been tracking and circulating information about legitimate protests by activist groups that do not pose a threat to public safety.

Rendell said he did not know that the state Office of Homeland Security had been paying an outside company to track a long list of activists, including groups that oppose drilling in the Marcellus Shale, animal-rights advocates, and peace activists.

The office then passed that information on to large groups of people, including law enforcement and members of the private s…

The Tragedy of Ernest C. Withers

Earnest C. Withers, a black man who photographed so many key moments of the Civil Rights Movement, was apparently a paid informant of the FBI during the 1960s -- keeping the government apprised of the movements and plans of Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies who fought for equal rights.

Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. “It’s not surprising,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”

The children of Mr. Withers did not respond to requests for comment. But one daughter, Rosalind Withers, told local news organizations that she did not find the report conclusive.

“This is the first time …

A Letter From A Reader on the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

Presented without comment with comments in the comment section:

Joel,

I'd like to help you put this whole arguement in a perspective you've never considered. All my life, I have admired the athletic, popular, totally successful guys who are so good at what they do, they don't feel that they have to constantly prove themselves. They are confident and secure in their own identity but they never take themselves too seriously.

That's an analogy of the United States population. We are a very benevolent society, having given more to provide food and shelter to the afflicted than all the other countries of the world combined. Who else defeats an enemy in war and then pays to rebuild their country? The US bears the torch of freedom for the rest of the world and we must be doing something right because everyone wants to come here.

Even the malcontents that scream from the rooftops about all that is wrong with our country never stop to thank God that they live in a country w…

Netflix Queue: 'The Men Who Stare At Goats'

A recent New York Times interview with Elliot Gould lamented that -- 40 years after "MASH," nobody is making good American war comedies anymore, a loss to be lamented all the more because there are some aspects of the last decade of tragedy and death that are in ripe need of satire.

Don't listen to the Times. Yes, there's been tons of anti-war schlock out of Hollywood, failures that are cause for joy among conservatives every time one goes down in flames. But the new era has given at least one fairly entertaining war satire: "The Men Who Stare At Goats."

Now: It's not a great movie. It's a deeply flawed movie, in some respects, clumsily playing for pathos near the end -- and coming up with a trick in its last second (literally) that weakened the whole "do they have powers or not?" structure of the flick. And structuring it around the home life of the journalist played by Ewan McGregor was, well, a misfire.

What's more, the movie wasn…

Bag O' Books: "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" by Andrew Bacevich

I'm trying to imagine what the world would look like if Andrew Bacevich ran the United States.

Every couple of years, Bacevich -- a retired Army colonel who is now a history professor at Boston U -- releases a new book that goes something like this: America is overextended and entirely too militarized. We need to live within our means, bring the troops home and start practicing a citizenship where all of us (and not just the one-half of one percent of us) serve as citizen soldiers, devoted to the common defense of our nation instead of power projection around the world. "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War" is another one of these books; Bacevich is a bit of a one-note Johnny -- but it's an interesting, angry, erudite note, and so I keep returning to him.

Instead of rooting him on, though, it might be good to ponder how things change if anybody in power took Bacevich's views seriously.

So what does the world look like if America took Bacevich&#…

Afghanistan Quagmire Alert

Here's a couple of contrasting quotes for you:


Gen. Stanley McChrystal, 8-30-09, in the memo that laid the foundation for President Obama's surge of American forces in Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict -- an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage - but above all, they are the objective. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents. Communities make deliberate choices to resist, support, or allow insurgent influence. The reasons for these choices must be better understood.

GIRoA and ISAF have both failed to focus on this objective. The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienat…

Livin' It Up at the Hotel Pennsylvania

The first time I stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania was in the fall of 2004. I had turned 30 a year previously, and had recently concluded it was time for me to be done waiting. I had spent the bulk of my adult life waiting for a mate -- somebody to make me complete, an actual grownup. It was only then, I thought, that I could embark on grownup adventures like trips to New York. Who would ever do such a thing on their own?

There was an obstacle, however: Money. I wasn’t poor, exactly, but I was a journalist, and of course had little money saved. But the idea of a New York trip -- centered around the annual New Yorker Festival -- had taken hold of me.

So I resolved to be profligate -- I would use a credit card -- but not too profligate. I would stay at the cheapest non-scary hotel I could find in Manhattan. A search at Hotels.com gave me just one plausible answer. For less than $200 a night, I could stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania.

What the website didn’t tell me, I would glean soon enoug…

Charles Krauthammer, Barack Obama and the Vagaries of History

Toward the end of his column urging President Obama to embrace being a wartime president, Charles Krauthammer makes a really perplexing statement:

Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does.
It's a bizarre statement. History is not a force that moves on its own; it's made by people. And presidents, more than most people, have a say about its direction. We went to war in Iraq because one man, President George W. Bush, decided it was in the national interest. If he hadn't wanted the war there, we wouldn't have had it.

We did learn in Iraq that the president's vision and acts aren't the only one that matter. But that's because other people also made decisions. "History" wasn't acting independently of human agency.

Similarly, we're ramping up our involvement in Afghanistan not because "history" demands we do so, but because President Obama, having examined his options, decided it wa…

Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and America's Lost Honor

Has America lost its honor? That's the topic of my latest Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk -- inspired by Glenn Beck's "Restoring America's Honor" rally last weekend. My take:

Has America lost its honor? Absolutely. The campaigns against Muslim mosques in New York City and Murfreesboro, Tenn., represent a profound betrayal of this country's traditional values of religious tolerance.

We Americans should repent the ugliness directed at our Muslim fellow citizens.

What? Wait. You mean that's not the "lost honor" Glenn Beck was talking about? Of course not. Whatever you think of America's honor, one thing is certain: Double standards are alive and well in this country. When liberals point out how America falls short of its ideals, they're often accused of "hating America." When conservatives do the same thing, they're treated like prophetic voices calling citizens back to their roots.

Why is that? Possibly because when lib…

Walter Phillips Wants Philly Courts To Violate The Constitution

Philly's court system is a mess. Lots of people get charged, but not so many ever make to a plea or a trial: They go underground instead. In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, former prosecutor Walter Phillips provides the solution: Trials in absentia!

One way the city's Common Pleas judges could address this problem - without any expense - would be to take the unified stance that trials will go on even in the absence of such defendants.

The trouble is that many Philadelphia judges just won't call the bluff of absent defendants and follow the law that allows trials to go forward in their absence. A variety of reasons have been advanced for their timid stance: fear of reversal, the awkwardness of forcing defense attorneys to make fundamental decisions without consulting their clients, and just plain lethargy.
This would seem to violate Constitutional guarantees that a defendant can confront the evidence and witnesses against them. But Phillips waves those concerns away, sug…

Islamophobia, Park51 and Stu Bykofsky's Collective Guilt For Thee, But Not For Me

Stu Bykofsky's at it again. He's in the Daily News today, taking on the "Ground Zero mosque" issue by decrying the intolerance and insensitivity ... of the left.

No really.

I don't oppose building Cordoba House or Park51, or whatever it's called this week, near Ground Zero, but I understand why many dislike the location.

They are assaulted by the Hard Left as un-American, Islamophobic bigots. Is that fair? Is there no other possible explanation for their opposition?

The Hard Left demands, rightfully, that we not judge all Muslims by the acts of a few, but then judges all conservatives by the acts or remarks of a few.

It's disheartening that the same progressives who condemned Sen. Joe McCarthy's guilt-by-association tactics find it so easy to smear their opponents.
I'm not quite sure who all Stu is lumping into the "hard left" here, but I get the feeling it includes a lot of people who are merely, you know, liberal. And vigorous about def…