Sometimes I wish we could magically take the partisanship out of our political disagreements long enough for people to make objective determinations about who, if anyone, has the better of the argument. One of the dangers of the Conservative Movement is that it attracts team loyalty first, and then once its fans are on board they will defend virtually anything their side does on the moral plane, regardless of whether or not it violates their previous standards and code of ethics.
The most obvious recent example of this was the way the right felt compelled to defend the selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate. Palin’s shortcomings were so glaring and overwhelming that, in order to defend her, conservatives had to devalue all the things that they previous thought were absolute prerequisites for holding such a high office. This list here is long: familiarity with history and current events, a basic working knowledge of global geography, some minimal level of intellectual curiosity, the ability to face the media and answer tough questions, the ability to conduct oneself appropriately during a formal debate without resorting to beauty queen tactics, basic family stability and rectitude, competency in the office one already holds, some basic regard for facts over blatant fabrication.
These values were eroded during the Bush administration, but they still existed to one degree or another on the right when Palin was selected. They were all weakened dramatically during the sixty-some days of the McCain-Palin campaign, and they never even came close to recovering their previous standing among Republicans, whether on television and radio, in print, or just with people in their living rooms.
Karl Rove certainly played his own part in lowering the standards previously held by people on the right. The U.S. Attorneys Scandal was staggering in this regard. But he’s dragging his political movement down to depths that almost no one could have been pessimistic enough to predict:
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace pointed out that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture had revealed techniques including a “series of near drownings,” sleep deprivation, and unnecessary “rectal feedings.”
“Isn’t that torture by any definition?” Wallace asked.
“No,” Rove insisted. “Let’s get the rectal feedings out. In this report, there are nine references on 14 pages to rectal feedings. And four of those five, it is the result of a hunger strike by the detainee.”
Rove asserted that waterboarding, slapping detainees, and solitary confinement were also “carefully designed.”
“The tests were, do they involved severe pain or suffering or do they involve severe and prolonged mental pain or suffering?” he opined. “And in each instance, these procedures were designed so that they would not pass those barriers.”
“Take, for example, waterboarding,” Rove continued. “In waterboarding — unlike World War II, where the Japanese attempted to drown people by basically pouring water in their mouths — here the feet were elevated so there’s little or not chance of any fluid getting into the lungs. And very careful standards set in place so these would help break the the resistance of the detainee without placing their life in danger.”
It seems wrong to even lower myself to respond substantively to these remarks, but it should be obvious that the Imperial Japanese Army killed those it wanted to kill and tortured those it wanted to torture. They did not use waterboarding as a long and entertaining way to kill people they could have just bayoneted. What distinguishes the actions of the CIA under the Bush administration from the Japanese army under Emperor Hirohito is not how they conducted their waterboarding.
As for his defense of so-called rectal rehydration, Physicians for Human Rights have an opinion on its use to deal with hunger strikes.
“Contrary to the CIA’s assertions, there is no clinical indication to use rectal rehydration and feeding over oral or intravenous administration of fluids and nutrients,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “This is a form of sexual assault masquerading as medical treatment. In the absence of medical necessity, it is clear that the only purpose behind this humiliating and invasive procedure is to inflict physical and mental pain.”
The effect of Rove’s defense of these tactics can be seen easily simply by watching any CSPAN program that deals with this controversy and listening to the opinions of the conservative callers. Almost to a person, they are calling in to dismiss the seriousness of torture, to justify it, to attack the Democrats who produced the report, and to even call for more brutal treatment of our “enemies.”
These people may have troglodytic tendencies to begin with, but they wouldn’t be defending this behavior if it had been carried out under the leadership of the “other team.” They are following two basic instincts: the instinct to follow their leadership, and the instinct to defend their team from attacks originating primarily on the left.
And once the train leaves the station, it is gone forever. These people do not go back to holding their previous standards. Their standards are just lowered, and lowered for good. The vanguard of the GOP now holds that brutal, repellent abuses of human rights are not really a problem, and that, if anything, our government should be more harsh in the future.
This is how the banality of evil works. Once people are led to take up a side, they are highly susceptible to following the leadership regardless of where it takes them.
The conservatives have already led their flock away from science or any reasonable standards about their candidates’ fitness for office.
Now they are leading them as fast as they can away from any minimal sense of human decency.
The turmoil in Greece is but one instantiation of the broader crisis in the Eurozone. I chart below the latest jobs data to illustrate that the zone’s unemployment rate is worse than that of any non-zone European country. That big red bar on the far right reflects substantial human misery.
Charting economic growth adds insult to injury. The Eurozone is dead last here, generating not even a third of the growth of the best performers, Britain and Hungary.
Numbers like the above, both in themselves and relative to other European countries outside the Eurozone, create enormous pressure and something’s gotta give. But what will it be?
Will it be a massive stimulus package? European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker announced an impressive sounding 315 billion Euro investment package, but upon close inspection it turns out to be quite puny, and in any event Juncker’s future is unclear as revelations emerge that he may have helped wealthy corporate friends evade taxes. Meanwhile, Germany ordoliberals remain committed to spending restraint, suggesting that the Eurozone isn’t likely to go on a spending binge in order to avoid a deflationary spiral.
Another alternative is that the pain continues to mount until populist movements gain control of member governments and start taking radical action, for example defaulting on their debts, or, exiting the Eurozone entirely. The Euro doesn’t have a well of democratic legitimacy upon which to draw. It was always an elite project designed with little regard for (or understanding of) the man and woman on the street. The elite commitment to not owning up to the basic flaws of the system will therefore not count for much if the suffering masses get their hands on the levers of power.
Richard Skinner’s work on the partisan presidency has been getting some well-deserved attention in the last few days, most recently from Brendan Nyhan and then here from Hans Noel, who provides useful context about the development of parties and ideologies.
Richard’s research provides a terrific framework that’s been really helpful in making sense of the data I’ve gathered on how presidents interpret election results. The era he identifies as that of the partisan presidency coincides pretty closely with what I’ve termed the “age of mandate politics,” although the polarization/sorting of the party system isn’t the only contributing factor.
In his post, Hans points out that the partisan conflict that shapes presidents’ opportunities and limitations is “in sync with the ideological conflict.” The research in my book suggests that there’s been a systematic shift in how presidents invoke party and ideology in their post-election rhetoric. In the middle of the twentieth century, presidents would invoke the idea of a mandate for their parties - if their parties had, in fact, won big in some demonstrable way, or if they were addressing groups of fellow partisans. FDR and Eisenhower referred to their respective party platforms when talking about the elections of 1932 and 1952, which delivered both solid presidential victories and unified party government. When addressing a group of fellow Democrats at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Truman talked about the Democratic Party platform as a factor in his 1948 victory.
In contrast, contemporary presidents have claimed victory for their policy positions even after elections that brought narrow victories or divided government. Even in more decisive contests, presidential communications about the meaning of the election have referred less to party labels and platforms, and more to issues and ideological commitments. Reagan and his aides talked about their “conservative” mandate. George W. Bush spoke about “the reasons I was elected” when promoting tax cuts in 2001 and Social Security privatization in 2005. Obama spoke in 2009 about theories of economic growth, noting on several occasions that conservative ideas about economic growth, like tax cuts, “had been tested, and had failed,” had been “rejected” by the electorate, and called them a “losing formula.” These comments were delivered in a variety of contexts, not just at partisan events (perhaps reflecting the fragmenting media environment).
Why does this shift from party to ideology matter? Parties - even ones that are ideologically sorted - are collective enterprises. They’re organizations and coalitions. Leading a party involves brokering among interests and distinct groups. Articulating an ideology does not. To the extent that presidential rhetoric shapes public expectations about what leaders will be able to accomplish, laying out an ideological agenda makes compromise even more difficult to achieve. As Hans points out, “Speaker Boehner has to placate a Tea Party faction that mostly differs with mainstream Republicans over how much they should compromise with Democrats.” When the president tells the nation that the election was a contest between highly distinct governing visions, it’s even harder for members of Congress to defend compromise to their constituents. When presidents cast themselves as the vessels of new political visions, they contribute to the idea that the right leader, with the right words and enough political will, can simply cut through the “mess in Washington” - i.e., the organized interests of the people of the United States, and the Constitutional checks and balances - in order to bring about wholesale change and costless problem-solving. (Nyhan has smartly labeled this the “green lantern theory of the presidency,” and president scholars like George Edwards and the late Richard Neustadt have long noted the gap between expectations and actual presidential capacity.)
In other words, the relationship between party and ideology has certainly shifted, as Hans’ scholarship shows. And the work on the presidency that Richard and I have both published suggests that this shift has in turn changed the relationship between the presidency and the political parties. But party and ideology are still analytically distinct. Furthermore, what presidents say and do isn’t just a function of the state of party politics. Presidents - and the people they employ to craft their communications - have choices they can make about how they present choices and priorities in politics. Their words may not have magical powers to change the political landscape, but they can provide clues about the ideas that shape it.
In the High and Far-Off Times (2008 and 2011) I blogged some photos of modern French and other designs for high-voltage electricity pylons that look like well-designed pieces of engineering, not a child’s failed Meccano project. I told you that the British Department of Energy and Climate Change had launched a competition for pylons for the British grid, then forgot about it. Rather late, here are the winner and the five others that made the shortlist. This was actually announced – ahem – in October 2011. There hasn’t exactly been a rush anywhere to phase out the old lattices, so it’s still a good idea to publicise them. The assessment included National Grid, the operator of the transmission network, and an eminent academic engineer served as one of the judges, so we can assume all the shortlist met engineering standards.
Winner: T-pylon from Bydstrup of Denmark
This clean but not very exciting design won in part because of its low height, making it less intrusive in the landscape: it cuts 35 metres off the existing lattices. National Grid are committed to this to the extent of building a line of six at their training centre in Nottinghamshire, and will offer the design as an option to communities affected by new lines.
Also-rans below the jump.
National Grid said they would work more on the next two with the designers.
Silhouette by Ian Ritchie
Totem by Christopher Snow
Flower Tower by Gustafson Porter
AL_A by Amanda Levete
Y-pylon by Knight Architects
Several of these incorporate advances on insulators. The ingenious suspended diamond frames of the winner are made out of mechanically strong insulators. Two designs go further and cut out separate insulators entirely. The arms of Knight Architects’ Y-pylon are silicon-sheathed so the cables can be directly attached. In Totem the projecting side-struts are made out of high-strength insulating composites.
Totem is a Fuller-style modular lattice, with thicker elements at the base. It could presumably be assembled on site in hard-to-access environments. You could even get the pieces in by mule.
My personal favourite is the Flower Tower, though it looks expensive to make. Any of the shortlist, or those I blogged earlier, would be a great improvement on current practice. There really is no excuse any more for utilities to continue to inflict cheap-and-nasty lattices on our landscapes. Though if you want to reinforce your view that civilisation is doomed, you only need to look through the complete gallery of entries.
The heavily redacted synopsis of the 6,800 page Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA and torture came out on December 9, 2014. It’s available for everyone to read. It’s important to note what we are learning that’s new.
We already knew that Gul Rahman froze to death in the “The Salt Pit,” referred to as “Cobalt” in the report; we didn’t know that the man who ordered him chained naked to the floor and left there received a $2,500 bonus for his “superior work.”
We already knew that the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohamed (KSM) 183 times; we didn’t know that his torturer could snap his fingers and KSM would “come like a dog” to be waterboarded.
We already knew that the CIA tortured innocent people; we didn’t know they tortured two of their own informants.
We already knew that we forced prisoners to defecate on themselves, or into a container; we didn’t know there was actual behavior they could exhibit to “earn the bucket.”
We already knew what “enhanced interrogation techniques” were (the government has provided helpful lists); we didn’t know one was anal rape.
It is these small details in the report that perform the greatest public service. They grab us in the most fearsome part of our imagination. The cumulative depravity of the CIA’s treatment of unnamed prisoners in unnamed places points us towards a larger set of now indisputable truths.
We tortured people; we lied about it.
We tortured people we thought were innocent; we lied about the numbers of people we tortured and the way in which we tortured them.
The CIA lied to congress. President Bush, when he said “we don’t torture,” lied to us.
Most importantly of all, we’ve been lying to ourselves for 14 years about America’s sad descent into torture.
It seems it doesn’t matter how many facts are revealed. It’s just not enough.
So what exactly would be the proofiest proof about our use of torture ? What exactly would do the trick?
Would it be the Red Cross reports released to Mark Danner, award-winning writer for The New York Review of Books, in 2009? The Senate Armed Services Committee Report on the military and torture released in 2008? The FBI reports from Guantanamo, first published in 2006? Government documents from the Office of Legal Council and the Pentagon, first released in 2004 by (again) Mark Danner in his book Torture and Truth?
Are the 6 million internal CIA documents used to compile the Senate Intelligence Committee report sufficient?
Maybe the 93 tapes of prisoner interrogations destroyed by CIA’s Jose Rodriguez in 2005 would have been enough proof. Were the photographs of broken Iraqi men in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib Prison in 2004 not sufficient? Maybe the tapes of force-feeding in Guantanamo, still, at this point, successfully withheld by the Obama administration will be enough.
Documentation is not the issue here and it hasn’t been for a long time. We don’t need additional facts to convince us that we have tortured people brutally, illegally and immorally.
There has been an endless amount of evidence accumulating in big and little fetid piles for years.
We don’t need the answers about our use of torture. We have them. We just can’t handle the proof.
Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.
A few years back I recommended In Which We Serve, the first collaboration between Noël Coward and David Lean. As their partnership evolved, Coward ceded full directorial control to Lean and the two men made a series of films (now available as a boxed set from Criterion Collection) that both reflected and defined Englishness for a generation. This week’s recommendation is the strongest of their efforts, which is truly saying something: 1945′s Brief Encounter.
Expanded from a one-act play of Coward’s, the plot is so simple that it would have been slight in less talented hands. A plain-looking, thoroughly respectable suburban housewife and mother named Laura Jesson is waiting for her regular train on her regular shopping day. A train throws a piece of soot into her eye. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey comes to her aid and something sparks between them. They meet again by chance, a third time by intention mutually disguised as a trivial convenience, and then, guiltily, on purpose. A forbidden — though by modern standards, extremely restrained — romance develops. But where can it go, for two married parents with a lifetime of British socialization in their veins?
Other than The Browning Version, no British film conveys the nature of quiet desperation as achingly as does Brief Encounter. Coward wisely does not make the choices simple for the characters or the audience. Laura’s husband is gentle and devoted and her children loveable. Alec’s family is never seen, but the audience imagines something similar regarding his own responsibilities and constraints. Alec and Laura are drawn to each other not because they are fleeing violence, hatred or some other overt misery. Rather, they are running from dullness towards passion, which is underscored (pun intended) by perfectly chosen music by Rachmaninoff.
Lean and his frequent collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan understood the possibilities of film as well as any team in the history of cinema (Not incidentally, they went on to make many classics together post-Coward, including prior RBC recommendation Great Expectations). This movie is one of many times when they hit it for six. The tone, look, pacing and editing are all unimpeachable.
The other undeniable virtue of Brief Encounter is the acting. Trevor Howard, as Alec, is strong, but Celia Johnson tour de force’s as Laura, the more fully developed of the two characters, will stay with you until the end of your days. She might have been an unsympathetic character but Johnson’s evident humanity and emotional turmoil will elicit forgiveness from even judgmentally-inclined viewers. Johnson’s most unforgettable moment: Her character’s realization that her husband loves and trusts her so much that the lie she tells to cover up meeting Alec has no chance of being detected. Johnson deservedly received a 1947 Oscar nomination for her performance. It came that long after the 1945 British release because a movie in which infidelity is not punished was long considered too scandalous to release in a number of countries, including the U.S.
Every moment, every look and every gesture rings true in Brief Encounter. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get out your hanky and watch this truly magnificent film made by a creatively matchless group of artists.
Imagine the following hypothetical conversation, set in the Oval Office some time in 2002:
CIA Director: “Mr. President, we have been able to capture some people we believe are terrorists and may have knowledge of future plots against our country. We would like to torture them to extract this information.”
White House Counsel: “Mr. President, we’ve reviewed this request, and we believe we can concoct sufficient legal justification for these actions.”
Secretary of Defense: “Mr. President, I endorse this request, which will help save the lives of our soldiers.”
How would a good president deal with this information?
Now, I should be clear about what I mean by “good president.” It’s easy to categorize presidents as good or bad based on whether they pushed policies that we liked or hated. But that’s far too simple, and, frankly, unhelpful. I’m speaking here, rather, of the kind of qualities that Richard Neustadt used to write about and Jonathan Bernstein has been touching on more recently. The idea is that there are many inherent weaknesses to the American presidency — lack of control of any one area of government, a dependence on the expertise of others in an increasingly sophisticated world, etc. — but a good politician can acquire information and bargaining chips that compensate for those weaknesses. Good presidents don’t simply defer to the experts; they also consider political ramifications. And presidents have a unique perspective: they’re the only ones with all the information about policy impacts and political fallout, and also the only ones who will be held responsible for errors.
A good president is thus one who cares deeply about his political fortunes and those of his party. This keeps him from making tragic mistakes. He processes all of the expert advice but views it through the lens of politics. Will this hurt him and his party in the next election? Will this hurt his vice president should that person seek the presidency? How will he look in the history books?
There’s a terrible narrative out there suggesting that the best president would be one who didn’t consider politics when making decisions, who simply decided what would be best for the country and went ahead and did it. In fact, leaders who don’t consider politics when making decisions tend to be the most dangerous ones. Having a democratically-elected politician in the White House is, in fact, a source of great strength.
From what we know about President George W. Bush, he was terribly uninterested in much of what presidents usually care about, such as securing a legacy, acquiring information, thinking about political fallout, making sure decisions were carried out, etc. Not unrelatedly, he had a vice president with no future political ambitions of his own. All this left him badly insulated from public opinion (which was not terribly kind to him after a few years in office). Bush also had a tendency, more so than other modern presidents, to defer to those with greater expertise. To be sure, he had some smart and experienced people around him, but deferring to the smart and experienced is not necessarily the same thing as presidential leadership.
Nonetheless, this appears to be how Bush would have responded to the hypothetical conversation above. He basically said, “You guys are the experts. Do what you’ve got to do.”
What was needed, however, was something more along the lines of, “Are you kidding? I’ll be known forever as the torture president. And my party will go out of its way to distance itself from me. Or, worse, they’ll become the torture party and evaluate future candidates by how much they like torture. Sorry. I appreciate your expertise, but find me another way to keep us safe.”
After all, the panic that followed 9/11 would not last forever, and opinion-makers and voters wouldn’t always excuse anything in the name of keeping America safe. Eventually, limits would return. A good politician would have known that.
The Feinstein report on the torture programme run by the CIA is horrific but also blackly comic.
took crucial advice from two crank psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid $81m for their services, including taking part in interrogations (NYT);
appointed as chief of interrogations in the renditions programme an oldtimer who had been responsible for abusive interrogation training in Latin America from 1983 (JW: possibly at the infamous School of the Americas) and later censured (executive summary, page 19);
carried out no research on the effectiveness of coercive methods of interrogation before applying them systematically (ibid., page 20);
waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times after he had already cooperated fully with FBI interrogators (ibid., pages 24 ff);
had no complete record of the number of prisoners held in the programme (ibid., page 14) or in particular locations (page 51);
detained at least 21 prisoners that did not meet its own subjectively assessed criteria (ibid., page 16);
subcontracted 85% of the jobs in a top-secret programme of the utmost importance and sensitivity;
failed to brief President George Bush on its interrogation methods until 2006 (executive summary, page 6);
committed a war crime all for nothing; the torture “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” (ibid., page 2).
You have to think that none of those involved would have lasted long in the more efficient operations of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Heinrich Himmler, Tomás de Torquemada, or Francis Walsingham.
But I wonder. Feinstein’s narrative is one of bunglers talking themselves into a crime. In her Chairman’s introduction (page 2), she writes (my emphasis):
.. CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.
The White House, it seems, was a passive victim of CIA deception, like Congress. The report even paints Bush’s deliberate decision in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to future al-Qaeda and even Taliban prisoners as being taken on the sole recommendation of the CIA (page 20).
There is a similar theory about the Holocaust, and it’s about about as convincing. (No, I’m not suggesting the crimes were equivalent.) High-ranking Nazis sort of talked themselves into genocide, and the Wannsee conference was an important step in the decision rather than a briefing of underlings to receive orders. In a state guided by the Führerprinzip? In the disciplined Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Administration?
What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized.”
For once, I believe Cheney. He and Bush wanted the detainees tortured, and they were.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has released its so-called “torture report,” detailing interrogation practices by the CIA during the months and years following the September 11, 2001 attacks. The report, which details both abysmal treatment of prisoners and efforts to cover it up, has elicited responses that question the nation’s claim to its own core values.
But the implications of the report extend not only to the theory and practice of a liberal value system that supposedly stresses basic human rights and the rights of the accused. Like many developments in American politics lately, the torture report has party politics implications. According to the New York Times (linked above), the report itself was “conducted by staff members working for Democratic Senators on the committee.” The committee’s Republicans issued a separate rebuttal.
One question with serious implications for party politics is how the Obama administration will respond. The practices described in the report, after all, are among the kinds of abuses that Obama’s 2008 candidacy was partly built on repudiating. However, the stakes for expressing that repudiation by holding the previous administration legally accountable are very high. At Slate, Eric Posner argues, “This is the idea that you don’t try to gain political advantage by prosecuting political opponents—as governments around the world do when authoritarian leaders seek to subvert democratic institutions.”
The administration’s own credibility on respecting rule of law in its counter-terrorism strategies is also fairly strained. Posner further points out, “Obama’s problem is that if he can prosecute Republican officeholders for authorizing torture, then the next Republican president can prosecute Obama and his subordinates for the many questionable legal actions of the Obama administration—say, the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens.”
ACLU director Anthony Romero offered a different approach: instead of prosecuting, Obama could pardon a highly visible group of Bush administration officials - including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush and Cheney themselves. Romero mentions three important instances of “preemptive pardoning,” when presidents have issued pardons in order to heal a national division: Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s pardons of Confederate soldiers, Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and Carter’s pardon of Vietnam draft-dodgers. The latter two are widely seen as having been politically costly, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon even as a serious lapse in executive accountability. Writing last year about the political use of pardons, Leon Neyfakh suggests that a number of twentieth century presidents have used pardons to signal disagreement with existing policies.
What’s striking about this list is how many of the pardons meant to send a political signal do so in a way that either repudiates opponents or affirms the president’s own political identity. As Neyfakh describes, Kennedy and Johnson used the pardon to express disagreement with crime policy passed under Eisenhower. Ford pardoned the president under whom he served as vice-president. George H.W. Bush pardoned Reagan administration officials implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal. (For more on presidential pardons, check out work by Jeffrey Crouch and P.S. Ruckman). Wilson and Carter both pardoned on issues that crossed party lines in some way - Prohibition and Vietnam, respectively. But neither constituted a reversal on a major issue, stated repeatedly in an election campaign. The biggest exceptions are Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s pardons - efforts to heal in the wake of the Civil War.
A potential Obama pardon would be different, then, from the recent pattern. It might infuriate critics on the left who are increasingly skeptical that this administration takes human rights and rule of law seriously. Like Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the act of pardoning would also acknowledge the wrongdoing, even while closing off the possibility of punishment. At the same time, it would depart from the logic that has informed many other politically visible pardons: while breaking from the past, it would acknowledge his opponent’s - not his own party’s - legitimate role in the polity despite serious transgressions. In the current political climate, that might actually be a radical move.
The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair. I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.
I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral). I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.
This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx course that he is no longer offering. There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk. I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.
Two issues are on my mind. The first is the continuum (if it is one) from
I. being an evil person in general, both personally and in one’s work, through
II. being a bad person who did some or a lot of good work, and
IIIa. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things, on the job, to
IIIb. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things in private life.
Anyone who has taken the implicit associations survey on line has to be careful about mixing up II with III. If the operational definition of “being a racist or a sexist” (traits) is having blurted out something racist or sexist , the categories thus defined are vacuous because they embrace everyone, and it’s a counsel of despair because it excludes learning. We don’t take away licenses for a single speeding ticket, and shouldn’t. I think, in general, well-meaning people are too quick with atom-bomb sanctions, hating the sinner instead of the sin, for III. Fear of having my career wrecked for a careless moment in class may raise my expected cost of saying the wrong thing very high, but (i) I don’t have careless moments because of computational errors (ii) hanging pickpockets in public didn’t prevent pockets being picked at the hangings (iii) if the only place to dance is the edge of a cliff, I’m going to just sit down. Making people afraid usually makes their behavior worse, not better.
Category I is pretty simple; despicable people who do and say hateful things might be studied in a social pathology lab or as cautionary examples, but we shouldn’t learn from them in the usual way, or hire them. So my second issue is with category II.
The easiest case would seem to be scientists; there’s simply no way not to use a finding once it’s revealed, so we have to stand on the shoulders of the occasional moral midget like Shockley and act out despising him on another stage. For all I know, Thomas Bayes was someone whose hand I wouldn’t shake, but I can’t boycott a theorem and the result is itself completely amoral. It’s a little harder for a teacher, but if there’s good physics learning on tap in Lewin’s online content, and even if there’s a sexist joke in them somewhere (that could be edited out or annotated), I think MIT made the wrong move here.
One of Nathan Pusey’s good moments was his defense of a Harvard physicist from the McCarthite hyaenas on grounds that he wasn’t teaching subversive science and his personal politics were irrelevant to his job. Maybe they can take away Lewin’s emeritus office, or make him feel unwelcome in the senior common room (depending on how the case II/case III analysis comes out). No-one at MIT would think about rewinding all their electronics courses to pre-transistor days.
Charles Murray presents himself as a scientist, but social science is a lot mooshier than physics and it’s reasonable to look at (for example) racist-comforting findings with an eye to biases the author may have revealed in private or other professional life. We have to be careful, of course, not to ignore real facts merely because we don’t like them, or we are as bad as the climate-denier fossil fuel shills.
Entertainers and artists are the hard cases, because the whole personality of the artist is part of the work (not all of it). Football players are explicitly marketed as role models, and the game as building and expressing admirable character traits. I have no problem with people who simply can’t listen to Wagner’s music because they can’t get their associations with him out of their mind; no-one has a right to an audience. While Meistersinger is overall a profoundly humane work with many priceless political and artistic insights (Parsifal, not so much) , it has some really icky moments. The whole plot, after all, is set in motion when Pogner puts his daughter up as a prize in a singing contest to prove how cultured he and his friends are.
Even in the arts, though, it’s asking a lot to boycott Wagner, or Cosby, because their creative work is so much bigger than their personal oeuvre: every composer of the twentieth century and every comedian of the last four decades is channelling them, respectively, so good luck with censoring them out of your life. Wagner was a jerk, but he was also a genius. These cases are not that different from the scientists’.
Malefactors in category II deserve some sort of sanction, including not having them to dinner, publicly deploring their behavior, and for the worst cases like Ezra Pound’s treasonous collaboration or beating your child, jail time. But if the bad behavior isn’t part of their work, I’m thinking a line should be drawn. If you think no-one will watch Cosby now, of course you take him off the air; if the football player’s endorsements are tied to his personal character, take him out of your ads. If the prof is hitting on students or humiliating them in class or not giving women author credit or teaching evil stuff, he should be fired (yes, even tenured faculty can be fired). But if he’s going to KKK meetings on the weekend and not bringing it to work, I think he keeps his job if not his friends.
On the consumer end, I think being your best self means trying to draw that line even against your first instinct, and attend to the work on its own terms, while making appropriate judgments on the character of the author. What my students appear to be willing to do.
Oh yeah, John Yoo: he got his job with a resume that notably included professional behavior as a lawyer that makes him, in my eyes, a war criminal. It’s a law school. If he can’t be fired, I think he gets a terminal assignment with no duties, no authority, and no interaction with students or colleagues, looking out his window alone at a tree with a squirrel in it. We’ve paid lots of severance pay to people whose only offense was losing football games.
Julia Azari already took apart a few of the claims in Jennifer Rubin’s op/ed from last week, but frankly, you could write a short book on the problems of this one column. I’d like to just go through a few more of Rubin’s arguments, in no particular order:
President Obama got caught flat-footed on Ebola.
I suppose we could define “flat-footed” quite a few ways, so it’s hard to really prove this statement wrong. At the same time, one of the world’s deadlier infectious diseases, having ravaged the populations of several other countries, finally arrived at the U.S.’s shores this year, and it has killed all of one victim here. Three other people infected have survived. The one death is surely a tragedy, but it seems like a rather high bar for the federal government if one death in an epidemic constitutes a failure of policy. By that same standard, Obama has failed to protect us from rabies, which kills three Americans each year.
The president… created a firestorm with an immigration overreach so vast and unprecedented that it surpassed any act of executive brazenness since Watergate.
Wow. Domestic warrantless surveillance, using drones to assassinate Americans abroad, detaining people indefinitely without trial, torture, starting a war based on faulty intelligence, blowing a CIA agent’s cover for political payback, selling weapons to Iran, using the proceeds to illegally fund covert operations in Nicaragua, pardoning Nixon… all of this pales to Obama’s using prosecutorial discretion to allow some undocumented immigrants avoid deportation for a while. Got it.
Many Americans are torn between wanting him to go away — switch channels when he is on TV, wish they could accelerate time until he is out of office, whatever — and praying he will do some triangulation, learn from errors and seek out competent advice.
This is a classic example of “me the people” — claiming that the American people want whatever the author happens to want. Of course, no evidence is cited here.
Similarly, Americans say they do not trust Obama to handle major issues, they don’t like how he responded to the Ferguson, Mo., convulsion, and they would rather Congress run things for a while.
Rubin does link to a poll showing that a majority of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ferguson, but, as Julia points out, Congress was never mentioned in the poll. Given Congress’ approval ratings, it’s hard to imagine Americans actually want what Rubin says they want. It’s also far from clear what it would mean to have Congress run things with regards to Ferguson.
And then there’s this gem:
The sad irony is that the one thing Republicans hoped that Obama (no red states, no blue states, etc.) could do — help reduce racial tensions and be an example of racial progress — he is now singularly unable to do. Virtually everything he says or does inflames and aggravates multiple segments of society… because in the six preceding years he chose to govern as a vicious partisan, jamming through his signature issue on strict party lines with a legislative gimmick and constantly taking delight (most recently in the immigration context) in sticking it to his opponents instead of brokering deals (e.g. the grand bargain he threw away).
I struggle to interpret this statement charitably. She seems to be saying that, while Republicans worked tirelessly to keep Obama from getting elected (twice), one of the few benefits of him being in the White House is that they wouldn’t have to worry about racial tensions anymore because, hey, look at the president! But Obama ruined that by signing the very laws he promised to sign while he was running. And now Obama’s “rhetoric and actions did not cause these recent racial incidents, but they come in a context he certainly created.” Yes, unarmed African American men were killed by police officers in a context created by Obama. I really don’t know how to interpret that.
For the record, I think there is tremendous value in having a profession whose purpose is an ongoing criticism of the presidency. And hyperbole may even be a useful tool in the service of that profession once in a while. But what Rubin is doing here is beyond any sense of reasoned critique. And it’s certainly not bound by evidence.
The headline of Jennifer Rubin’s Thursday piece announces that “the country has had it with Obama.” While the piece points out a wide range of criticisms that have appeared on editorial pages and in recent polls, she has a few problems in terms of facts and interpretation:
The link takes you to an earlier piece by Rubin, which features a link to the ABC poll from which she draws the conclusion that Americans would prefer Congress take the lead on responding to Ferguson. One problem: the poll doesn’t say that at all. The fourth question asks whether respondents approve or disapprove of the president’s handling of the situation. The other three questions ask about the decision itself, the way the police have handled the protests and whether the federal government should bring civil rights charges. There’s no mention of Congress in the questions. It also doesn’t actually follow that if citizens don’t approve of presidential action, they’re ready to hand the reins to Congress. Anyone with a passing familiarity with polling responses knows that “response instability” or straight-up contradictory answers is common. Furthermore, research exists that shows that Americans are particularly conflicted when it comes to our “process preferences” - we tend to distrust both government and fellow citizens to make good choices. Finally, even before its current depths, Congress tends to be pretty unpopular. Maybe voters would like Congress to take the lead in handling racial issues, but available evidence does not suggest that this is the most obvious conclusion. It’s entirely possible that voters trust neither institution to handle the situation.
2. About the contentious aftermath of the Brown and Garner deaths, Rubin says, “His rhetoric and actions did not cause these recent racial incidents, but they come in a context he certainly created.”
The disappointment about Obama’s failure to unite the country is notable in lots of circles. But let’s not forget that even if there are different choices he could have made that would have altered political outcomes, the whole reason he spoke about race and healing divisions in the 2008 campaign is that our society has historically been divided by race. Actually, that sentence is hugely sanitized. Our society is one in which part of the country used to own human beings, in which people fought and died for that to end, and then more people suffered and marched and protested and, yes, died for the right to participate equally in political and economic life. Don’t take my word for it - check out what Annette Gordon-Reed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Ange-Marie Hancock, just to point out a few people who have deeply researched this topic. Obama hardly invented racial divisions in America.
3. Rubin may well be right that Obama’s foreign policy calls for scrutiny. But there’s no reason to exempt previous administrations, including but not limited to George W. Bush, from this. Obama didn’t invent Vladimir Putin, ISIS, or the struggles of the Middle East. Given the controversy over Bush’s foreign policy at this point in his presidency, and the issues in the 2008 campaign, any serious criticism of Obama’s approach should acknowledge the long-term dynamics.
There’s been a lot of talk this week about what we should be able to expect from journalists. Even in an op-ed, basic reporting of facts isn’t too much to ask. Beyond that, responsible commentators should try to put those basic facts in reasonable context and to challenge superficial interpretations. Americans might be tired of Obama and his policies. That’s not so unusual for a president nearing the final half of his second term. But let’s not overstate - or overlook - evidence about why dissatisfaction has once again taken hold.
(As part of our ongoing coverage of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, we will be publishing brief profiles of the judges from time to time.)
Robert Wilkins, the newest member of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, has a surprising judicial resume. Wilkins comes to the bench after a career as a criminal defense lawyer and civil-rights advocate. That’s mildly unusual, even for a judge appointed by Barack Obama; like Bill Clinton, Obama has tended to favor “safe” judicial nominees, with backgrounds as prosecutors or corporate lawyers.
Even more surprising, however, is the fact that Wilkins has been not merely the lawyer, but the plaintiff, in a landmark civil rights case. Nearly a quarter-century later, his nomination to the Court of Appeals sparked another landmark decision, this one by the Senate.
In May 1992, Wilkins was a passenger in a car on Interstate 68 in Western Maryland. It was a somber family party, heading home to Washington D.C. from the funeral of Wilkins’s grandfather in Chicago. Late on a Sunday night, the car was stopped by a Maryland State Trooper for exceeding the speed limit. The trooper asked for permission to search the car and the family’s suitcases; when they refused, he detained them at the side of the road until drug-sniffing dogs could be brought in. Hours later, when the dogs smelled nothing, they were able to continue home.
The trooper explained that the Maryland State Police was stopping people in rental cars on suspicion of drug trafficking. The explanation didn’t sit right with Wilkins. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he became not only the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, but also co-counsel. The case produced discovery showing that the police agency intentionally profiled drivers based on race. The case resulted in two landmark settlements that, for the first time, required systematic compilation and publication by police regarding who was subject highway stops and searches, the justification for stopping them, and the result of the search.
Wilkins was born in 1963 in Muncie, Indiana. He graduated cum laude from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, with a degree in chemical engineering. Wilkins then went on to obtain his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1989. At Harvard, Wilkins served as Executive Editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
After graduation, Wilkins clerked for U.S. District Judge Earl Gilliam of the Southern District of California, the first African American appointed to that court. In 1990 Wilkins joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. PDS, an independent federally funded organization, is a national leader in providing legal services for poor people in criminal and juvenile proceedings. By 1995, he was promoted to chief of special litigation, handling the Service’s most complex and serious cases. In that role, Wilkins often took the lead in cutting edge cases on DNA admissibility, the scope of expert testimony, and First Amendment issues.
During his career at PDS, he served on the District of Columbia Truth in Sentencing Commission, formerly the Advisory Committee on Sentencing, an independent agency tasked with advising the D.C. Council on issues that advance fair and coherent sentencing policy for criminal charges.
Wilkins also played a key role in getting Congressional funding for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ten years after joining the Public Defender Service, Wilkins (risking a steady income at a time when his wife was seven months pregnant with their second child), left PDS and committed himself to establish a nonprofit organization advocating the creation of the museum. In 2003, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed Public Law No. 108-184. The Museum is now under construction on the National Mall.
In 2002, Wilkins became a partner at Venable LLP, a prominent corporate law firm that represents clients such as Marriot International, Panasonic, and BIPI Pharmaceuticals.
At Venable, Wilkins specialized in white-collar defense, intellectual property, and complex civil litigation. The ACLU of Maryland named Wilkins Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 2001. In 2008, the Legal Times recognized Wilkins as one of the 90 “Greatest Washington Lawyers” of the last 30 years, and the National Law Journal named him as one of the 40 under 40 most successful litigators in America.
On June 4, 2013, President Obama nominated Wilkins to the Court of Appeals. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Wilkins’s nomination by a straight party-line vote of 10-8. Wilkins’s actual nomination faced a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor. The Republicans did not attack Wilkins directly; as they had with the previous three confirmed nominees, they argued instead that another judge was not needed. Unspoken was the fact that confirmation of Wilkins would create a majority of Democratic appointees on the court.
On November 18, 2013, the Senate voted to approve Wilkins by a vote of 53-38—just shy of the 60-vote supermajority traditionally required, meaning the nomination failed. On November 21, 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats voted to change the precedent regarding cloture by requiring only a simple majority for cloture of most nominations by presidents—the so-called “nuclear option.” Despite the Democrats’ success, Reid was unable to hold another vote on Wilkins’ nomination before the Senate adjourned for the year on December 20, 2013. Wilkins was finally confirmed on January 13, 2014.
Wilkins’ confirmation marks the first time that the D.C. Circuit has had a full complement of judges since Clarence Thomas resigned to become a Justice of the Supreme Court over 20 years ago.
In rich country after rich country, under governments both of the left and of the right, the biggest worry for voters is that middle-class incomes are stagnating and the job-for-life is dead. Politicians instinctively blame their domestic opponents’ wicked or foolish policies. They cannot all be right.
Global capitalism has been a boon to hundreds of millions of people in China and India, but it has hollowed out the industrial base of developed economies. The post-war, competition-light economic boom that enriched the Western developed world — especially the U.S. — is over for good. In its place is extraordinarily intense, globalized competition to provide goods and services. National policies may make the new reality somewhat easier or harder for people who used to work in steel mills, factories and coal mines, but nothing will bring back the era when the U.S. had the world at its feet.
Politicians do not want to acknowledge this. Rather, they persist in blaming someone else (usually immigrants) for how the world has inexorably changed. As Lexington notes, left-wing and right-wing politicians are equally keen to assign responsibility to their ideological enemies:
Your columnist has covered elections on four continents, and the same themes keep cropping up. [Senator Mitch McConnell’s anti-Obama] speech in Kentucky reminded him of one given in 2011 by Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, a leftwinger with whom Mr McConnell ought to have little in common. Mr Miliband accused Britain’s Conservative-led government of betraying the “British Promise” of upward mobility, tempered with egalitarianism.the fall from grace.
In Brussels, your columnist used to watch politicians defend what some called the European Dream, involving lots of “solidarity”—ie, farm subsidies, industrial policies to prop up favoured firms, welfare, transfers from rich countries to poor ones and a dose of protectionism. Voters needed a more protective Europe, thundered Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007-12, or they would reject it as a “Trojan horse” for globalisation.
It’s hard to win elections by saying that the past in gone forever (lots of people just don’t want to hear that), but that why we call it political courage. Much of the political class of the developed world seems content to tell the public nostalgic fairy tales when what we need are fundamentally new ways to provide for ourselves in the brave new world in which we all live.
One of the scandals that rocked Tammany Hall at the turn of the 20th century was that of Murray Hall, a whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking ward heeler and member of Tammany’s General Committee. Deathly ill, Hall consented to a physical exam, which revealed that Hall a) was a woman, and b) was dying of breast cancer. Hall had been living as a man for over four decades; even Hall’s adult adopted daughter was not in on the secret. The newspapers had a field day with the story, and New York Republicans accused Tammany of dressing women up as men to vote. Hall died in 1901.
The former Florida governor has been undertaking some recent business associations that are going to be a real problem when he enters the maximum glare of the presidential arena. By Ed Kilgore12/11/2014