Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Transformers 2: the Rise of the Moderates

Let me see if I’ve got everything:

“Once-in-a-generation” healthcare bill is proposed to transform a failing healthcare system. Liberals shout with joy and conservatives shout with outrage. First draft of plan leaked in late spring shows concessions to conservative arguments before conservatives can argue against it. New draft comes out of finance committee chaired by Congressman Max Baucus to outrage by Left because it eliminates the biggest cost-saving principles (competition) and its instrument of fundraising may reduce the quality of care (tax on “Cadillac plans”) as well as by the Right on principle. The House cleans up this now weaker proposal, but soundly passes it with an eleventh hour draconian anti-abortion amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak (who I once voted for). Sarah Palin posts on her Facebook page that this bill transforms the country into the Soviet Union by creating imaginary “death panels” and rationing. August is spent watching confused Americans scream “take your government hands off my Medicare” and other nonsensical things. The Senate reconvenes and takes up the debate, starting with Majority Leader Harry Reid courting the two Republicans that they got to cross over last time as well as members of his own party that are apprehensive. They believe that something should be done, but not for another 5 years or so and not anything that would actually change anything or cost anything or actually do anything after all. Sen. Joe Lieberman says that he’s in favor of Medicare expansion, lowering the retirement age—a suggestion bouncing around Washington since Gov. Howard Dean’s proposal on the campaign trail in 2004. As Republicans continue to stonewall and talk about those imaginary “death panels” and communism and socialism and the state taking away your guns and wanting to kill grandma, the two Republicans signal that all of those bipartisan discussions were for nothing since they won’t break ranks. Sen. Lieberman now opposes Medicare expansion. Now Reid and Pres. Obama have a bill in which they are forced to compromise with their own party—or more specifically, the four holdouts in Nebraska, Louisiana, and Connecticut. The compromise brokered this weekend brought back the original complaints in the Baucus bill and seems even more compromised than Liberals feared and many are now talking about rejecting the current compromise bill.

Did I get it all?

There are several storylines in this mess that are worth noting, especially the basic political eventuality of many of the issues within it, but I’ll hold to this one thing: what the self-described moderates have managed to create is a bill that changes very little.

I’ve blogged before about the problems with moderates (including my first one on the myth of the political center, this one on the myth of the U.S. as "center-right," this one on the scandal of centrism, and this rant), but mostly that in their practical application as a subgroup (and not “liberal” or “conservative”, but as a third option) they have a truly and classically conservative impact on the discussion by minimizing the change to the status quo. Where conservatives act to maintain the status quo (or revert back to a previous status quo), the moderates serve to avoid significant alterations to the status quo in either direction. In many ways, this is a much deeper form of conservatism because it avoids transformative change, while conservatives are willing to transform the culture to better embody an idyllic past.

Chris Hayes of The Nation recently pointed out that the healthcare bill is not a transformation of a bad system into a better system, but the patching up of a bad system. I’ll bite at the obvious analogy. It’s like treating cancer with orange juice or a broken leg with a Band-aid: yes, it is helpful, but doesn’t combat the underlying problem. It’s the medical equivalent of treating the symptoms without attacking the presenting illness.

In some ways, the most masochistic part of the president’s demand for bipartisan support is that, in doing so, he gets no true transformation. To transform the system, the president would be better served reaching out to Conservatives, not Moderates, as they would be more willing to see dramatic change to the system. This may seem counterintuitive, especially in light of the two Republican Senators from Maine (Collins and Snow) who, in their willingness to even have a conversation, were treated as a revelation. Moderates, however, look to minimize the impact and drive unyieldingly after compromise, when better solutions may be negotiated without compromise—or perhaps come through compromise, not in compromise.

I’m not suggesting that the President miscalculated anything or that what the current bills offer isn’t significant change. They are. But it isn’t transformation. It isn’t a radical change in the behavior of Americans toward their healthcare system. Some of the symptoms will look better: fewer medical bankruptcies, expansion of care opportunities, and perhaps more standard expectations of care. But the presenting illness will remain unchanged: it protects the profit-making of insurance companies, corporate hospitals, and entrepreneurial physicians while limiting the recourse of those citizens seeking medical treatment, which means that today corporate CEOs get to decide whether Granny lives and dies (to use Sen. Chuck Grassley’s obsession with Grandmothers).

Perhaps before the story ends on healthcare reform, the leadership will be able to tell the difference between Re-Form and touching up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's the context, Stupid!

NOTE: I originally published this on another blog, here.

There’s a reason people don’t trust journalists anymore.

OK, there are several, many of which have to do with political hacks arguing about bias, but there’s a more fundamental problem with journalists. The pursuit of objectivity creates subjectivity.

It’s easy for most of us to look at a situation and say “here’s how it happened…” and much like the game of telephone, how the story is told depends on who is telling it. This is how it works. The complexity in our brains means that no two people tell a story the same way without a script.

And there it is: the script. The common component. The one thing that can make my version of the story the same as your version. But what if the script is flawed?

This morning I listened to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. A very trusted news source with trusted journalists that anchor the show. One of the stories that came out had to do with new figures that came out yesterday. Now, I don’t remember the precise wording, but this is the form they used to present the information:

“Medicare fraud more than doubled this year from 3.7% to 7.8%. Officials claim that the increase is due to new (more strict) accounting rules.”

The journalist argues that the news of the day is the higher percentage of reported fraud. The changed accounting rules is the rationale given by the officials, whose word must be seen in light of their potential bias. But there’s a gigantic hole in this argument: namely the context. The context for the news of the day is just as important as the news itself.

Context is important. If we think about it, the increased number, by itself is not news. Imagine this weather report:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees. “
When? For how long? When won’t it be 72? Will it always be 72? And what about precipitation? In this way, the context for the fraud is the important part of the story. Now imagine this:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees. The guy who reads it claims that the unseasonable warmth is due to weather coming from the south, off of the Gulf.”
Suddenly, the obvious conclusion about the nature of weather becomes someone’s claim or projection. Does this mean, that when the temperature only reaches 71, we’ll complain about ‘the guy who reads it’ and how completely wrong he was?

If we were honest, we’d adopt the story’s context as natural, just as we do with most anything else. Here’s what they could have said:
“Changes in accounting rules adopted earlier in the year have revealed a significant higher number of Medicare fraud cases from 3.7% to 7.8%.”
This statement adopted all of the information given in the previous statement, but places “today’s news” (the increase) in context with “yesterday’s” (the changed accounting rules). If we think more deeply about what was done in the first statement, a true event (the changed accounting rules) was placed within the contexts of an argument for why things changed. This not only calls into question the government’s defense for its new number, but it compromises the actual facts themselves. It suggests that “some people” think it has do with changed rules—and further implying that others might not. But did the rules actually change? Yes! Of course they did! Would they affect the number? Yes! They’re more strict! They are intended to actually find more cases of fraud. That the number grew means that the rules and the regulative body are actually doing their jobs! Today's news reveals that yesterday's news is succeeding at its intended purpose and what is revealed today must be taken as more accurate. This would then generate new thinking on fraud and the like.

So, despite the obvious context of the story that they could be writing, the journalists, in their effort to avoid subjectivity, present the news in a way that actually contradicts the nature of the event. By compromising the context of the story and projecting bias onto the regulatory agency, the journalist turns a story about more accurate numbers of Medicare fraud into a misrepresentative story about increased fraud. That this year’s number is larger does not demonstrate increased fraud when the measurements have changed, only that we should adjust our understanding of fraud to recognize a different percentage. Let’s go back to my weather analogy:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees.” Was yesterday’s report.
“The Doppler projects 20 degrees.” Is today’s report.
Hmm. We might be tempted to wonder why these numbers are so drastically different. Our first inclination is to blame the Doppler itself. But along comes ‘the guy who reads it’ who explains that the Doppler was on Fahrenheit yesterday, but was switched to Celsius. In fact, ‘the guy’ actually told us yesterday that he was switching the numbers, but we didn’t think it would make very good news, so we buried it at the end of the report. So what does the journalist do?
“The Doppler projects 20 degrees. This is a 52 degree drop-off from yesterday. The guy who reads it claims that he switched the analysis from Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

Of course this scenario is absurd, but no less absurd than the notion that we can talk about today’s events without talking about its context, let alone an accurate accounting of yesterday’s events. Because the rules changes themselves are less sexy, we don’t actually process them as happening. We don't adjust the reality then, when we should. This means that when the results of the change differ from our pre-existing expectations, we’re perplexed and turn into inconsolable weepers.

There is an obvious connection to our churches and their existing expectations. For many, our evaluation tools haven’t changed from the 1950s or ‘60s. This provides for inaccurate assessments of the current base of Christians as well as potential members. For some, the switch over from membership to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was seen in just the same light as these changed accounting methods. The numbers are compromised because we attack the messenger or we see it as the work of “those higher-ups in New York”. When we do that, we don’t take all of the conversation in context, and we fail to recognize the truth of the situation.

But I think this speaks more broadly to the way we interact with the world. We actually do have a subjective view of the world: we’re optimists that believe in Jesus’ coming to save the world, and in our part in building up the Kingdom of God here on earth. We aren’t called to be objective about this.

But we’re also called to better understand the Scripture and God’s call for us. We shouldn’t get ourselves into the he-said/she-said style of journalism. If we did, we might find ourselves presenting the gospel from last week this way.
“Jesus left the Temple with his disciples. The Jewish Rabbi claimed that the Temple would be destroyed. Critics of the Rabbi and his followers protested this evaluation, suggesting that…”
I can’t imagine any of us wants to see The Story reduced in that way.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The West Wing, leadership, and how easy it is to offend the Right

I've been watching The West Wing again.  We got rid of cable, so my wife and I now spend that time watching TV on DVD.  It actually seems pretty silly.

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about the show is that it seems to be a show about leadership.  We get to see how people act when times are good and bad.  We get to learn about repercussions and expectations.  And more to the point, the show was perpetually timely.  Watching the first season, you just know that it is 1999-2000.  You can feel it in your bones.  The issues they are discussing, the popular wisdoms, and even the way the parties respond represents that time period.  It is a wonderful time capsule.

As I watch through the seasons, I also watch/listen to the commentaries.  I like to know what goes into the making of the show, where the writer and director are coming from, and getting to know some of the actors' personalities when they aren't in character.  One thing that keeps popping up from Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme is that they received heavy criticism about the show's "politics".  They discuss it a bit, but cast it off.  I, however, want to challenge this--even if it is a few years past.

I just watched the episode "The Two Bartlets" from the third season.  The two primary issues in the episode are about friendship and affirmative action.  In fact, the only thing that was of particular interest in terms of "issue politics" was the debate over affirmative action that was had between C.J. and Toby (two democrats) who take very different positions.  In fact, Toby refrains from tearing down C.J.'s arguments (con), even though I, a viewer, could.  The show, in fact, proclaims two positions and refrains from saying either one is better.  I can't see what the problem is here.

They also have a secondary issue in which Josh is asked to take advantage of a friendship he has with someone to solve a national defense issue (long story).  Josh does make an impassioned plea on the part of his friend, the demonstrator, and bringing up his stance (which seemed pretty solid from where I sit).  Again, what is not at stake was a clear policy position taken by the people running the show, because Josh is still being forced to convince his friend to stop protesting.  This not only avoids a rendering on the issue, but says something instead about the workings and priorities of governments, which is often in action, not argument.

But the crux of the episode is not the issues in and of themselves, but a discussion about the people that are given the authority to deal with them.  In the case of the show, that is the White House staff and the elected officials that lead them.  In the climax of the episode, Toby takes his concern for the president not taking a stand on the affirmative action debate into the Oval Office.  He wants the president to take a stand.  He also raises the question of why he didn't take a stand: Pres. Bartlet doesn't want to be smart.

Viewers of The West Wing know that Pres. Bartlet is brilliant.  He has a PhD in Economics and is a broadly-read and classically-trained scholar.  He is smart.  Toby suggests that there are two Bartlets: the nutty and jovial professor and the impassioned and determined reformer.  What Toby is getting at is that the President tries to be the nutty professor because, of all things, he was smarter than his father, and it cost him love.  The implications of this are that he only expects to get love when he avoids looking smart.

What is both timely (2002) and timeless about this episode was that we were in the midst of 'frat-boy' politics.  We had a president in real life that many would have preferred to have a beer with than the other guy.  We didn't like people looking smart.  Just like my best friend in grade school that hid his report card because he didn't want people to know he got all A's.  Just like I am told that I occasionally preach over the heads of people.  I won't call it an anti-intellectual agenda, but something worse.  This is the politics.

In the show, the "plain-spoken" everyman Republican candidate wins the Iowa primary, setting him up to be the one true challenger to the president in season 4's election.  What this represented was Karl Rove (as a disciple of the Barry Goldwater school of politics) and his strategy to challenge an opponent's greatest strength, thereby weakening the whole candidate.  In this case (like what happened in 2000 and would get replayed in 2004), the candidate not only runs a campaign that suggests that an 'average joe' has worthy skills, but that it is preferable to intelligence.

This strategy only works if the intelligent one is reluctant to show his intelligence.  I'll overlook the fact that many Americans prefer smart people in the White House, to take this argument: what is Pres. Bartlet if you take intelligence out of the equation?  What happens to his identity?  What is even left?  The very notion that this president would shy away from an intellectual challenge demonstrates truly poor leadership on his part.

The reality of the show in general was that the politics were very fair, even when they didn't need to be.  The president himself demonstrated a hawkish foreign policy and a neo-liberal economic policy, both of which should clearly appeal to conservative and pro-corporate sympathies.  And the one area that he was most liberal were on social issues, which always took a back seat when the times got tough.  In fact, the Left-Wing was thoroughly abused in much of the show's run.  While fairly representing the Democratic Party of the 1990s and 2000s, it also seems to be a less problematic position for conservatives, I would assume, as it matches or complements their positions on issues than a platform more Rooseveltian or Johnsonian.  Instead, the real problem many conservatives had with the show was simply that it was told from a Democratic administration's perspective and the viewer was asked to root for Democrats.  The horror.

For me, I still look at the examples of leadership.  You stand up and shout whenever the President or staff take a stand.  The times you feel good about them are when they say what they believe.  There is a reason the first season's "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" is one of the show's best episodes: it's about taking a stand.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why I don't care about the Insurance Lobby

Here's just a quick thought.

Over the last decade we have seen a mass exodus of American manufacturing overseas. As of 2007, New Balance, the last holdout of a company producing shoes in the U.S., was manufacturing in China. They have since re-established some of their manufacturing in the U.S. But that is only one shoe company.

Also, check the labels on your shirts, pens, coffee mugs, and anything else you touch on a daily basis. Not much "made in the USA".

We allowed the manufacturing sector to shed tens of millions of jobs and General Motors and Chrysler to file for bankruptcy (after shedding tens of millions of jobs since the 1960s themselves). We watch our IT and customer service work shipped to India. In fact, as we learned last fall, we placed the entire health of our economy on those beacons of altruistic thinking: Wall Street, Bankers, and Real Estate.

Like the decision of the Big Three to focus on high-margin luxury SUVs while abandoning the small car and alternative-energy industries, our entire economy has been turned away from providing for the small needs of the many and toward the big wants of the few. If you don't believe me, call a lobbyist.

So here's my quick thought: why do we care what health insurance companies have to say? They don't provide the care or seek it. They don't provide the new technologies that provide better access to life-saving methods. They aren't working on new drugs that are revolutionizing patient care. They take money from people in hopes that they never have to spend it. Is this an industry that is essential to the livelihood of this nation? Why should we preserve their existence? Why should we ignore the displacement of millions of Americans from their stable jobs, but suddenly care about the insurance industry? Why should we place the future of the medicine on the bottom-line of Blue Cross and Met Life?

Isn't there a place for my right to quality care? Shouldn't we have a medical system that actually puts saving lives before saving the jobs of the insurance lobby? Shouldn't people be encouraged to go to the doctor and not worry about whether or not their crappy insurance will cover the visit, or worse, what is found when they get there? How many have walked into a doctor's office and prayed that nothing is wrong, not because they want to stay healthy, but because they can't afford for something to be wrong? I for one have. Isn't that more important than the insurance industry?

You can scream and rant about free markets till the cows come home but the statistics are staggeringly against the status quo on this one. If we actually crafted a HEALTH-care system, none of us would need to worry about finding new jobs for all of those insurance agents--they could get jobs helping facilitate care.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Defense briefings manipulated Pres. Bush

Leading off last night's Countdown, Keith Olbermann reveals that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made cover pages for his presidential briefings that combined scripture with pictures of military personnel in Iraq. The full story can be viewed here:

The pages revealed such pairings as:
"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us."
A picture of soldiers praying--the day before the invasion.

"It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men." -1 Peter 2:13
A picture of Saddam Hussein.

"Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, The nation that keeps faith." --Isaiah 26:2
A picture of the crossed swords, the entrance to the ceremonial parade route.
These cover pages are pretty sick.

Olbermann's discussion and conversation with Richard Wolffe were quite good and covered the purpose and repercussions of their use. But there is one thing that they failed to mention. In their attempt to describe how brazen and manipulative this was on the part of Rumsfeld, they missed one specific opportunity: Bush is famous for not reading what's handed to him.
Rumsfeld isn't simply using Biblical quotes to manipulate a devoutely religious president, but giving a visual "summary" for a leader that wouldn't read the interior pages.
The pages themselves are constructed in a highly visual manner. They contain a photograph taken on the previous day, and a quote from the Bible that is made relavent to the photograph to tell a story of righteousness on the part of the United States. This is, in itself, a disturbing thing. But paired with Bush's tendency to rely on the good intentions of his subbordinates, reveals an incredibly dangerous opportunity for manipulation and deceit.

As governor, Bush famously suggested that he could decide death penalty cases in 15 minutes (despite dozens of pages of documents per case), and then part-way through the term, he reduced the time to 10 minutes. When setting foot in the Oval Office, Bush changed the protocol to include single-page summaries so that he would not be responsible for reading the entire document. Conscious of this tendency on the part of the then-president, Rumsfeld was able to color the summary he was giving the president to fit the schema that they had developed: The United States is acting righteously, boldly, and with God's support in its attempt to bring down the forces of evil.

What we do with this evidence, I don't really know. It does continue to reinforce our fears that their was a shadow-government in the White House, run by the Vice President and assisted by the Secretary of Defense to convince the president to start a phony war. Or it could be a disturbingly crass misuse of Scripture. But does it really matter? The damage is still done.

Monday, March 30, 2009

More on the fallacy of "the moderate"

In the U.S., we have an infantile view of political ideology. Perhaps it is born out of a two-party system (more vibrant democracies have more than two parties--we're actually the only highly industrialized nation that has only two parties of consequence) and its inherent bifurcating of issues into yes/no or good/bad or mine/yours. It is a truly immature form of governing.
Note: I say immature, which is ironic, since young voters are most likely to vote for third party candidates, thereby exercising their belief in a more vibrant democracy. Our older (and ostensibly more mature) voters become increasingly less likely to do so. Perhaps this should help us reorient our understanding of maturity?
At the same time, instead of operating in a non-dualistic system, we create a false paradigm of linear relationship. Such as can be seen in this diagram:

At the one end is liberalism and at the other is conservatism--as if there is no way in which they can have matching ideologies--implying that they are, indeed, polar opposites--and in the place of unity must certainly be in the mythical midpoint: moderatism.

I bring this up because of the new 'working group' forming in the Democratic Party, led by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. A long-time Clinton associate and supporter of Sen. Clinton's campaign until he switched to then Sen. Obama. Bayh, given speaking time at the Democratic Convention, given access to the president, has now decided to make himself a kingmaker.

Bayh's op-ed in the Washington Post argues against this, while actually demonstrating that he is intending to do just that. His prime argument is this:
The stakes are too high for Democrats to fear a policy debate. Such debates produce better legislation. On nearly all important votes, a supermajority of 60 senators will be needed to pass legislation. Without Democratic moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans, the president's agenda could well be filibustered into oblivion.
What is interesting is that he didn't suggest such a thing under the previous president, a time in which (arguably), his ideology was most needed and concensus building were most important. Instead, he stood on the sidelines. At the same time, he is making a bold, and fundamentally flawed (in the Shakespearean sense) argument if he actually believes that "moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans" is an appropriate task for him and his group, "praised" by the White House and Senate Leadership. Friedmann would remind us to stay away from triangulation and attempts to intercede on behalf of someone else. I would say, Who gives you the right to decide policy for the entire Democratic Party? How can this be seen as anything but a power play? If he were truly post-partisan, he would be using many more carrots than sticks in this conversation.

He then makes the foolish argument that the country is "moderate". And conservative. Just not liberal. Moderate with more conservativism than liberalism. Or something.

What Bayh seems to be doing is to actually create a new party within the Democratic Party. Perhaps we should look at a different graph:
In this graph, you can see that the horizontal access demonstrates the spectrum of liberalism to conservatism. The vertical access shows the differing parties.

Bayh's idea is that Democrats have to allign themselves appropriately with the ideologically similar groups: liberal Democrats with conservative Democrats and that conservative Democrats are most like liberal (or his word: reasonable) Republicans, so they should hash out some compromises on the part of the party.

But look at the graph as I've composed it. Since we have already thrown out the previous understanding, Bayh's rationale doesn't seem to make sense. If you are a "left-leaning" Republican, why should we assume that the point of contact is with a "right-leaning" Democrat? What makes us so sure that they have more in common than the liberal Democrats? Isn't it possible that the so-called moderates (or liberal Republicans) are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and that conservative Democrats might be socially conservative and fiscally liberal?

Ah! But there's Bayh's argument! We're fiscally conservative like they are! Remind me again why we should have you speaking for the entire party?
We plan to be a positive force in our caucus, exemplified by the constructive role a number of us played in making reasonable adjustments to garner the GOP votes needed to pass the president's economic recovery package.
A package that ended with less money than both sides started with ($900 billion vs. $820 billion finished at $780 billion).
In 1993, the three of us, as much younger politicians, stood with great expectations as the last Democratic president was sworn in with big plans, a head of steam and a Democratic Congress ready to begin a new progressive era. In less than two years, it all came crashing down, with disillusioned moderate voters handing the GOP broad congressional victories in 1994.
Yes, but again, was it a lack of moderates in the Democratic Party and in the senate, running their own operation, and cutting their own deals? Shouldn't we suggest that Bill Clinton, a southern Democrat and neoliberal, is much different than Barack Obama, a midwestern Democrat and traditional liberal? Doesn't the Clinton agenda have more to say in its own failure (and impact on the Senate) than the Senate had in impacting the Clinton years? And don't we have something to learn from a 1976 election in which a conservative president (Carter) was compromised in the Senate by a liberal Democratic leader (Ted Kennedy)?

And if our problem is the confrontational mode of liberal/conservative (and the ensuing need to be moderate), how is the creation of a shadow, deal-making group of Senators going to bring about a different paradigm? Back in 2007, I made this post about the fallacy of "the moderate". What it means for us is that the operating principle of the moderate is to radically eliminate conflict, working at odds with some competing agendas while reinforcing other ones. In the other post, I use the example of Supreme Court confirmations and the filibuster rule. The moderates give away the confirmations to preserve the filibuster. In this way, the fundamental argument (confirmations) is given a lower priority than the side argument (filibuster rule). Compromise between moderates then cannot be seen as a reliable means of doing business, as the primary function of the compromise was to deal directly with the confirmations--not the filibuster. Secondly, its interest in preserving the law and minimizing perceptual damage is actually the classic definition of conservatism. Conservatives make bad compromisers since they are ideologically opposed to disrupting the status quo.

Now look again at the second graph. Why would we want conservative Democrats to speak for the President of the United States?

Also, look at Rachel Maddow's take. It is perfect.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"They're both doing it"

Let me start by saying this: I hate this statement. It is a pernicious and deceptive non-argument that operates with something I might call "fudged facts".
Fudged Fact - to misrepresent an otherwise accurate assessment by messing with its context.
Let me describe the issue and its problems.

You have no doubt been in the middle of a conversation/debate with someone when the other person suddenly makes the claim that "they're both doing it." The phrase, at its base, is used to suggest that two opposing parties are both guilty of the same problem. It is also most commonly used to refer to politicians in the Republican and Democratic Parties specifically.

The phrase is also commonly uttered on TV yakfests, such as The View or cable news shows. Some talking heads (pundits) employ it during real news broadcasts, and even some self-described Moderate politicians will use it to condemn both parties. I have complete faith that you've heard the phrase at some point--if not ad nauseam.

But here is why I consider it pernicious:
  1. It implies equality. The suggestion of the phrase is that since two opposing parties are doing something, then they are of equal guilt. This does not take into account the possibility that one may be far more likely to do it or has already participated in it to a far greater extent.
  2. It is an act of misdirection. It redirects the conversation away from what is currently being discussed. It is often the associations or experiences that are the center of the problem, but in misdirecting our focus, our attention is turned toward this presumed equality.
  3. It actually cuts off debate. It eliminates the very center of the argument and pulls us to the lowest common denominator. If two parties receive money from an energy company, but only one seems to re-write regulation to curry favor with the company, the act of bringing up the perceived equality in receiving funds keeps us from debating the actual problem, which is the legislation that produces the favor.
  4. It is an act of derision. It makes the claim that because persons A and B have this same association, they are both bad. This (again) brings up the lowest common denominator: A is actually perceived as less of a pariah if A and B are both pariahs!
The last implication brings up the prospect of 'taint'. This is a variation of poisoning the well. It brings equality among the unequal. Like the old stereotype that "one drop" of African American blood makes you African American (and therefore not white), the suggestion is that it doesn't matter how bad you are; if you have done something bad, then you are bad. Bernie Maddoff is equal to a shoplifter.

This may also imply that all crimes are equally bad--which could be the real reason why we can't seem to punish the Bush White House or Wall Street--we know better. We know that these crimes aren't equal.

When we paint with the same broad brush, we miss the actual differences--just as when we focus on the differences, we actually ignore the similarities. But in the case of the non-argument "They're both doing it," we are laying equal guilt and directing the conversation elsewhere, when the central concern must be what the one is doing. Let's use the above example:
Throughout the 1990s, one energy company (Enron) gave millions in campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats. The ratio was something like 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 (favoring Republicans). They helped rewrite legislation in Texas under a Republican governor (who himself received many millions in contributions), reciprocating deals for the company, and even getting them exclusive access when he became President of the United States. The same company used the energy crisis in California to force its governor (a Democrat) to sign a reprehensible contract to save his state. Enron held millions of people hostage through a shady, quasi-legal contract. Further, under the Texan, the Enron contract was upheld and not investigated, even though there was clear evidence of extortion. In the late 1990s, legislation was passed by a Republican-controlled congress (and they overrode Clinton's veto) that allowed a company like Arthur Anderson to both audit and advise a company like Enron. These rules allowed Enron to exploit the consumers, make a killing on Wall Street, and make a fortune off of the backs of people that would later to the brunt of the abuse when Enron collapsed. So here's the checklist:
  • Enron greatly favors Republican candidates
  • Republicans grant access to Enron
  • Republicans re-write laws allowing Enron (and Arthur Anderson) to cheat
  • A Democrat is extorted and a state is held hostage
  • Enron's collapse generates millions for the board and CEOs
  • Investors lose everything.
The result: anytime this was brought up in the 2000, '02, and '04 elections, it was received with that great misdirection: but you just pointed out that "they're both doing it"! Yeah. Sure.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Don't frighten the economy!

If we are to believe the current knocks on Pres. Obama, it is that he dares to talk responsibly about the economy.  Rachel Maddow called it "talking like a grownup."  If he keeps talking about the current mess with such (gasp!) honesty, then he might frighten it into a recession.  So we should he needs to sweet talk it.  He should have sent flowers and chocolates to it for Valentine's Day.  Maybe take it out for a dinner and a movie once in a while.  Poor neglected economy!

Even former Pres. Clinton got in the act.  Stupid Bill.  Don't you know that you're not supposed to be talking right now?

Not only is this line of reason pretty laughable, the truth of what they are saying seems to be lost on them.  The fact that Wall Street (you know--legalized corporate gambling) runs on fear--that it rises and falls based on people's irrational responses to good and bad news--has been a recurring theme since the first stock market dip in 2001 and 2002.  That fear-based selling and pack mentalities tend to cripple our economy when more stable-minded investing encourages long-term growth is well known, but seemingly unpracticed on Wall Street.  Extending this idea to broader economic conditions seems logical.

Except for one thing: the president isn't the one doing the selling.  He isn't even the one feeding information to stock-holders or CEOs.  They are the ones acting immaturely and without regard to our economic future.  You don't blame the victim of a crime for the perpetration of the crime any more than you blame the official that points out that a crime has taken place!

This is the "more of the same" has to change.  This is the behavior that needs an overhaul.

The public (unsolicited and inappropriately open) "suggestion" that Clinton gave Obama was to express more confidence.  A commentator compared this with FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself", but they are missing the forest for the trees.  The nature of addressing fear is not calling the president a cheerleader-in-chief, but the actual standing up to the fear.  Confidence is great, but if it isn't used to stand up against the fear, it is misused.

I can't help but think of all of the abuse perpetrated on others because we don't want to rock the boat or make hay over things.  Allowing criminals to go unpunished and victims to go without justice.  It sanctions violence: physical, political, economic, psychological, and karmic.  The only sollution to this kind of violence is to clear the air.  This requires honesty and openness.

Perhaps its time the people entrusted with our economy, who demand an unregulated market, actually acted as if they could be trusted to spend five dollars on anything but candy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Prosecuting Torture, Part 3

Our rule of law is based on two spheres of influence: personal and public. We are free to do as we please in our personal sphere as long as it stays in the personal sphere and doesn't impinge on my freedom over here in my sphere (the public sphere being the space between our personal spheres). The famous interpretation of liberty comes to mind: your right to swing your fist ends at its contact with my nose.

It seems, therefore, that the rule of law is based on the interactions of people. Our primary laws are about violence enacted by Person A against Person B. Violence can be defined broadly: such as murder and intent to murder, rape, fistfights, and sexual assault, for starters. It also implies the psychic violence of oppression, theft, torment, kidnapping, and so on. In most criminal activity there is a transgressor and a victim of some form of violence.

We also have laws with less widespread support, and more vocal opposition, because the primary 'victim' of the crime is actually the perpetrator. Most common examples of this are drinking laws, possession and use of drugs, and some traffic violations (seat belt and helmet laws). In each of these cases, the primary execution of the law is based on the individual (and his/her rights within his/her own sphere of influence), while they each possess a secondary public sphere component--underage drinking may lead to drunk driving which may lead to harming others and/or property; accidents in which drivers are not wearing seat belts put a greater strain on the medical system; etc..

In this case, our understanding of criminal activity is inseparably related to violence of one to another. This has also extended to groups of people--both separately and corporately--as well as corporations being arraigned for their collective violence against other people. Each of these is consistent with our rule of law.

So here's the kicker: it really doesn't matter how we define torture, because the world's definition holds greater sway.

As I've spoken before, first on the inconsistency of the opposition to prosecution here and then in the political ramifications of prosecuting torture here, it is clear that something has to be done. What I am doing here is dealing with the very nature of crime (as opposed to the nature of prosecution, or giving reasons for why the Bush Administration has actually committed a crime: both of these have been well described elsewhere) and the nature of relationship.

And back to my supposition. As crime is about relationship and the disabling of relationship through violence, there are times when the "facts" are compromised by the perpetrators. For us, that means the U.S. government, the President of the United States, the greater U.S. military and its officers, the C.I.A. and N.S.A., and even Congress are compromised in their ability to deal with the crime of torture as perpetrated by agents of the United States. This makes the prosecution no less necessary on the part of the Attorney General, and I still strongly encourage this to happen. At the same time, the very nature of the crime of torture is that there are several acts of violence that are actionable: the individual acts of torture are each subject to prosecution (numbering in the thousands) and those military and intelligence officials that perpetrated those acts are subject to prosecution. Next are the officers that either condoned the action or ignored the action; for the officers, either case is prosecutable. What is most likely, however, is that they will be targeted for a third option: promotion of these actions. Of course, this is likely to go up the chain of command until it reaches the former Vice President and President, who not only admitted to knowing about torture, but admitted to endorsing its use. All of this is actionable on the part of prosecutors.

The amazing thing, however, is that, just as a crime can be both a violation of state and federal law, a crime can be a violation of federal and international law. This means that the legal protections written by John Yoo and interpreted by the Bush Attorneys General are entirely irrelevant. It may be possible for the courts, or even the Supreme Court, to come up in support of Bush's torture policy (though obviously unlikely) and still be tried and convicted in the international court.

This is what I find so strange about this line of argument on the part of the Bush Administration, which suggested, as former President Nixon suggested: if the president does it, it isn't illegal: and yet it is. It is illegal. Truly and sincerely so. If you get a bunch of people in a room, hold up an apple and shout at the top of your lungs: this is not an apple!: who is going to suggest that the piece of fruit stopped being an apple? You might convince a couple of idiots that it is something else, especially if you give it a fancy new name like "juicy fruit plucked from a tree" and refuse to honor its apple identity. You might get a couple more people to start using the new name Juicy Fruit Plucked From a Tree in place of apple because they fear the suggestion that they are operating from a position of bias; and yet it is still an apple!

Don't mistake this existential example as refuting postmodernism--because its understanding as apple is not dependent on those within the system, but in the entire system. In other words, it doesn't matter how the Bush Administration and its apologists defined torture, the definition of torture by the broad community and its institutions still set that definition. For as long as there is Amnesty International or legal institutions like the International Criminal Court, the definition of torture will be broad. Just because news agencies put quotes around the word torture or parrot the phrase "enhanced interegation" doesn't mean it isn't torture.

The apple's identity is dependent not on the individual that stops calling it an apple, but on the wider community that still knows and refers to such a fruit as apple.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Erroneous pundits

This was a nice find. The blogger gives a full accounting of how wrong pundits were a year ago about President Barack Obama. Plus, look at who got it right and who got it completely wrong--worth a strange thought.

The Speech

It's interesting, really, to listen to the talking heads blather on about things. Its a lot like a blog--only on television and without the chance of reflection or proper consideration due the subject matter.

If you saw the inaugural speech yesterday, you no doubt recognized something different. Unlike his predecessors, President Barack Obama didn't outline the next 100 days. He didn't flatter us with praise about how great we are. He didn't pretend that his campaign promises are no longer relevant since he won the election. No, Obama's speech was clever, subtle, demanding, challenging, eloquent, and showed a deft touch with the English language hinted at throughout the campaign. It wasn't just a homerun, but a ninth inning grand slam.

But those talking heads sure felt blase about the speech. I heard one say that Obama chose to speak "in prose" when he should have been speaking "in poetry". They were disappointed. They expected more. It seems appropriate to point out that the early returns on Bush's first inaugural were "he's greatly improved". Hmmm...

Here we are. One of the historians on Jim Leherer News Hour did suggest that the gravity of the day may have led people to expect too much--something adroitly suggested in advance on The Daily Show Monday night.

Or it could be that we aren't use to responsibility--true responsibility. The responsibilities encouraged of us over the recent decades have not only been personal, but were ones deffered by the government. Consumer protection, healthcare, financial planning for retirement--you know, the kinds of things that rich people hire other people to worry about (itself seen as a personal responsibility). Mr. Obama called on individual responsibility to respond to the crises before us. To make ourselves involved in the system and be involved in the way our government operates. To be full and active citizens in our own country. To reach for higher ideals than we have ever been challenged to do.

And this is the real issue. The part that threw all of the pundits and talking heads off. The real part of the thing, which is the part they still don't get about Mr. Obama. The speech was a simultaneously a clear divorce from recent history and an embrace of our historic traditions. His speech evoked references to Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy (not Bush, Clinton, Bush, or Reagan) while saying the needs of today do not match the leadership we have had. In this way, the speech isn't just a stick in the eye of the Bush Administration (which it clearly was), but a stick in the eye of those Washington insiders that have grown fat off of the culture wars and politics of the Reagan and post-Reagan eras.

Even more than this, we are condemned. It isn't just Bush and Cheney; Clinton, Bush I, Reagan. It is us. We have been misguided and wrong. We have failed to make the hard decisions ourselves. We have kicked the can down the street. This is the real reason talking heads didn't like the speech. They don't want absolution for their sins, they don't want their sins exposed!

The true genius of Mr. Obama's speech is the way in which he covered each of these elements. Yes, we are at fault. Yes, truth hurts. But the light of day can clean us. And working together, as we have in the past, can absolve us. In Obama's America, there is no your and my problems; only our problems. In Obama's America, we can solve those problems together. Has a speech ever been more relevant than that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama

It is now official!

We have a new president!

Happy Inaugration Day!

Here is my first chance to wish everybody a Happy Inauguration Day!

Get the champagne ready and give out a big ol' 'Whoot!'

Prosecuting Torture, Part 2

On last night's Countdown, Keith Olbermann produced the following 'Special Comment' urging soon-to-be president Barack Obama to prosecute former Pres. George Bush, former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, and administration officials for war crimes.

Olbermann gives a concise argument for the prosecution, but he also gives a great deal of attention to the gestures that Obama has made toward not prosecuting. Most important, however, is his final argument, which I will summarize this way: many of our biggest disgraces as Americans and as people have been the times in which we sought an earlier compromise in place of dealing directly with the political consequences.

This in no way suggests that there isn't a great deal of hardship with our current climate. Especially considering the heightened divisiveness fostered by and festering since the mid-90's. However, the lack of action will most certainly serve as presidence and opportunity in the future for domestic malfesance. And worse, it will endanger the very DNA of our country, staining the Constitution and endangering the democratic nature of our republic. Nothing will prove the unitary executive like the not holding of its proponents accountable for their crimes.

Is this who we really are? Is this who our children and grandchildren want to be?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prosecuting Torture

Or why 24 is still part of the same scam.

It is well-documented that Fox’s hit for the last seven years, 24, is a persistent supporter of torture. We are familiar with the case: Jack Bauer tortures bad guys, gets important information, saves the world. We are also (almost) willing to admit that Jack Bauer has been Bush’s best ideological recruitment tool for the support of torture. The impact of the show is truly staggering as the television depictions of torture, which were virtually nonexistent before 24 aired, have grown to incredible volumes, with over 80 such depictions in a single year on networks in 2006. We have also heard that the biggest problem facing military instructors is that new recruits often site Jack Bauer as not only an influence, but as a defense for their opposition to the military code of conduct.

We all know this. But the new season of 24 has altered its pro-torture stance subtly; perhaps subtle enough to persuade the unsuspecting.

Before I go any further, I must disclose that I don’t watch 24. I did watch the first season on DVD, found it incredibly riveting, and always planned to watch the second. Reports of the content, however, have calmed my interest. My depiction of the first four episodes of the current season are based on a radio report of the show, which included audio clips of the content.

In the new season, Jack is in legal trouble for his actions (you know, the torturing). His defense is, essentially, yes I did it, but these are tough times. In tough times, you have to be willing to do the unpopular thing. Before I go any further, you are likely to say that this message is no different than the message we heard in support of torture in 2004 when public news broke about it. But look at the message in its new context—being prosecuted for torture. In 2004, we were still in the get-the-bad-guys-mode and many claimed they were willing to throw out the constitution for the appearance of safety. That isn’t the case in 2009. This old argument is given a new frame in this later context: civil protester. Bauer’s defense, which mimics the Bush Administration’s defense in their last-minute propaganda drive, attempts to lure us into a false dichotomy that is even more dangerous now than it was in ’04: civil disobedience for the public good vs. following the law at the expense of the public good. Jack Bauer, originally cast as an anti-hero, is now being drawn up as a saint and conscientious objector (figure that one out!).

The problem with this understanding is, of course, that the false dichotomy is truly false. The facts are on the side of torture’s opponents—torture is a less effective method of information gathering, and always has been—while the ideological support is there, as well.

But here is my real argument. Ideological struggle must be met with a willingness to not only accept punishment, but welcome it. Protestors that immolated themselves recognized that the sacrifice of their very life matched the integrity of their ideology (opposition to the Vietnam War). Those protesters that were beaten and abused in Seattle for their protest of the G8 summit in 1999 not only understood what was likely to happen to them, but demonstrated the veracity of their argument by accepting punishment—just or unjust. The civil rights movement employed this concept to such a degree that the entire decade of the 1960s is wedded to ideological protest. Most important, however, is that these two concepts (ideology and acceptance of punishment) are necessarily linked—causally linked, actually.

This is where Jack Bauer comes in. He is now being cast as this same type of protester, whose ideological position on torture will necessarily put him at odds with the authorities who will (rightly or wrongly) punish him. The show, however, doesn’t see Jack as a criminal, but one of greater conscience, who makes the 'tough decisions that we don’t have to.' Except that Jack doesn’t get punished. I don’t know what has happened so far or what is going to happen this season—as I said, I’m not watching it—but I can’t imagine Jack will land in a prison cell, and if he does, it won’t be for long. In fact, Jack’s punishment will nowhere near fit the crime—which is the problem with the Jack Bauer as protester scenario. Jack is praised for his work by the very show itself, not to mention vindicated by a prosecutor that shortly into the season encourages Jack to do some more torturing.

This has broad implications for the outgoing Bush Administration, as well. They have been making this same Jack Bauer argument on their history-revision tour. They set up the false dichotomy, trot out their talking point that we are safer now because of torture, and that they are being crucified in the media. If they were true warriors of conscience and believed in their moral superiority, they would not only welcome prosecution and trials, but actually hope for them. The trials themselves would test both the fortitude of the protester and the very mettle of the ideology itself. Christian martyrs gained intellectual, theological, and spiritual power in their willingness to embrace sacrifice for a greater good through adherence to a higher legal code. That the Bush Administration began using and codified a practice that is both abhorrent and ideologically incompatible with the Constitution while simultaneously using political and legal means of self-preservation demonstrates the weakness of their ideology. Even in light of Vice President Cheney’s virtual daring of the Obama Administration to prosecute him, the Bushies are entirely unaware of the manner in which they have compromised their own position.

There can be only one truth about this time in U.S. history, and it was something that Jonathan Turley suggested on Countdown on Friday: if the United States chooses not to prosecute its own perpetrators of war crimes, then the world will be forced to. In that instance, the problem of torture will not only be Bush’s, but it will then be ours.