Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Moral Hazard of Impious Impartiality

Well, it appears that Bob Somerby's withering critique of William Saletan's cheap moralistic attack on those who charge the Right with having transgressed the bounds of political decency only encouraged Saletan to greater heights of sophistry in condemning every exercise of the faculty of political judgment.

What's worse, even my own sarcastic post to the Fray didn't stop him. So of course I posted again. Just in case the Fraymaster doesn't recognize the utter brilliance with which I dismantle Saletan's paltry defenses, here is that second post, in unexpurgated form:

The Moral Hazard of Impious Impartiality

Praise to Mr. Saletan for having had the good grace to admit that he was to blame for the "confusion" that led Bob Somerby to charge him with indifference to the possibility that "one side lies more than the other." His confession would have been more praiseworthy still had it not been followed by an apologia that redoubles the very same confusion.

Mr. Saletan now says that, while of course it matters if one side lies more, what matters about that fact "is the lies, not who lies more." Let's see how this fine distinction might work out in practice:

1. At law: The rival parties present their respective cases. Side A's case is flawed (a secondary witness is shown not to have been in a position to know what he claims to know). Side B's case is a litany of speculation, half-truths and outright lies. According to Mr. Saletan, justice requires that both sides' shortcomings be brought out in court -- but not that the first side prevail.

2. In the classroom: Two students submit their math homework. Jane has nine correct answers out of ten. Dick has one correct out of ten. According to Mr. Saletan, the teacher's job is done when all incorrect answers have been reviewed before the class. Who gets the A and who gets the F is a matter of moral indifference.

3. In science: Rival theories have been contending for paradigm status, with the following result: The first theory is left with a key hypothesis untested; the second theory contains half a dozen such hypotheses, plus a dozen more that have been falsified. Once this is widely known, according to Mr. Saletan, all is well -- even if the investigators go on to adopt the second theory.

4. In political journalism -- but here Mr. Saletan has already drawn the moral for us: Rush Limbaugh and Bob Somerby each expose the "tricks" of the other side. Once you know this, it is a matter of irrelevance which one of them is the trustworthy critic of journalistic folly with a pronounced streak of intellectual independence, and which the partisan blowhard with a pronounced weakness for rumor and innuendo.

The exposure of political chicanery is not a game without stakes. To the extent that we are citizens, our attitude towards it is not that of a collector of moral curiosities ("spin"). Political lies and dirty tricks are not to be judged one-by-one, sub specie eternitatis, but rather as part of our complex historical present, to which their consequences directly contribute.

In historical time, political lies add up. They cumulate in the accounts of those who rely on them too much, too deeply -- and unfortunately also in the accounts of those who do not. When the bill comes due (as it is starting to now, in Iraq and on the economy) there is an overwhelming public interest in seeing to it that those ran up the largest portion of red ink pay the heaviest political cost. This is the "moral hazard" argument for being intensely "interested in which wing lies more."

Conservatives used to be the guardians of the old truth that to treat dissimilar things equally is as profound an injustice as treating like things unequally. Too bad modern "conservatives" have abandoned their guardianship of this truth -- we could all use the reminder right about now.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

This Time, It's Personal

E.J. Dionne nails the underlying dynamic of the 2004 election: The widely-shared animus against Bush among Democrats is not a sign of ideological radicalization. On something like the contrary, it is a response to what Democrats of all stripes view as the outrageous ideologization of American political life by this administration and its allies in Congress, the courts and the media.

How else explain the leading role being played, in articulating that animus, by such eminently moderate figures as Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, Josh Marshall and Jonathan Chait? We are not talking about extreme leftists here, and yet all of these individuals have expressed dismay and even outrage at the ruinous course of this administration's policies, at its repeated assault on plain truths that ought to be beyond dispute, and at its apparently bottomless willingness to exploit the intense fear and uncertainty occasioned by 9/11 to secure political victories it could never have won in a fair fight.

There is an important lesson here for all Democrats -- one that Michael Moore, for example, articulated well in his Appeal to Gen. Clark: In this election, there can be no question of whether the Democratic party is an alternative worth fighting for. The ideological debate within the party (whatever its stakes and however intensely it plays out after the election) is simply dwarfed by the vast gulf that Bush and company have opened up between themselves and all Democrats -- indeed, all Americans who do not happen to share the agenda of that coalition of theocrats, neo-imperialists and economic royalists that now dominates the Repulican party. The only real question will be whether Democrats can summon the courage of their most broadly-shared convictions when they come head to head with the vast humming political machine that has driven that extreme agenda forward with such ruthless efficiency.

In this environment, we do not need to be ideological to be radical, and we do not need to be purists to have the energy and incentive to prevail against corruption. An economy of outrage, based on a shared sense of decency, will be enough to set off a revolution.

Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation: A Non-Review

This is a movie about being what it calls stuck, and about how getting unstuck means making a break for it. It's about how, to make a break, you need something called an accomplice. So it is inevitably a film about loneliness, and how the right kind of connection, with the right kind of an other, can help turn a loneliness that is going nowhere into a solitude (an acknowledged separateness) that might be headed somewhere satisfying.

The right kind of other, according to this movie -- the kind that makes a good accomplice -- is someone just like oneself, yet completely different. One way the movie accomplishes this is by caring passionately and equally about the viewpoints of two people, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who are equally stuck in their respective shells of loneliness, but in utterly different times of their lives -- one hesitating on the threshold of full adulthood, the other in the middle of life's way.

So this is also a movie about the different ways that youth and age have of getting stuck, which you can call melodrama (for Charlotte) and comedy (for Bob), provided you see the resigned sadness in his comedy, and the pent up willingness for joy in her melancholy. It's crucial to see these angles, because they are what each sees in the other, brings out in the other, and they anchor a mutual attraction. Another way to put this is to say that the movie refuses to pick a genre, but instead shoots for a delicate balance of two.

And so it becomes a movie about what youth needs from age -- roughly, hope that there is a way forward, into a reality where your life has its specific weight, one that all life's ironies can't float away, if only because your choices, no matter how much of an outsider you may feel like in making them, have definite consequences for yourself and others; and what age needs from youth -- roughly, hope that there is a way back, into that intense wishing for precisely what one doesn't and can't yet know that one wants, because it is not yet in view, a form of unstructured desire that comes easy in adolescence, and that makes the all-too-specific realities of biography and history humanly bearable.

The movie gives us another way to think about the sameness and difference of these two people in what it shows to be their joint absorption in and by philosophy -- or as it is sometimes presented, soul searching. Charlotte, like Augustine, perhaps knows too much philosophy (courtesy in her case of a Yale B.A.); Bob knows what he calls philosophy's angles, which help you go far in this world -- but then he, too, is searching for something. Yet all philosophizing, or seeking after meaning, is as if temporarily frozen for these two -- because, as it turns out, there is something neither can find without being drawn to it through the other, that is, through their love of the other. Which is why this is a love story -- in something like the way the Phaedrus is a love story, mutatis mutandis.

And, speaking of philosophy's preoccupations, it turns out that the break these two people make, the one that serves to help each other get unstuck, is a break in time, into each each other's time. Both start the movie out of phase with their surroundings -- that is, with the world, here represented by a fancy Tokyo hotel. Jetlagged and sleepless, the time they are in is not their own (which is both source and sign of their loneliness). But then they find each other, and make time for and with each other, which gets them out of the hotel and into a new world (the world of the city, in this case Tokyo) -- one that comes alive for them only because they occupy it together.

An old idea says that love's intense twoness takes us out of the world. But that assumed we were already in the world, indeed absorbed in it -- as maybe we all were when the world's time was different than it now is. But what if we aren't absorbed in the world, because instead we're stuck in time? Then love might be the very thing to take us back to into the world, by giving us someone whose time we want to share in it, thereby making us grateful to time again, even as it puts asunder what it had joined together.

That at least would explain why we, like Bob and Charlotte, leave smiling, having just had our hearts broken.

Taking the Pledge

Praise and honor to Chris at Interesting Times for this marvelous pledge of unity in the cause of Regime Change 2004.

Lord knows, we Democrats (and fellow travelers) are an unruly bunch. And this is as it should be. "I belong to no organized political party." A proud tradition of philosophical anarchism is ours, and we should embrace it with the fervor of Emma Goldman at a Village blow out -- as long as it doesn't get in way of actual victory.

Let's keep that last clause in mind, though. The Original Thirteen (that's three more than we have candidates, people!) were no less unruly and jealous of their independence -- and rightly so, states' rights being then still a rallying cry of liberty, and not yet the base apology for human tyranny into which it would later descend. Yes, it was hang together or just plain hang, back then, and we are the proud inheritors of that tradition, too. "A republic, if you can keep it."

So let's all do what we can to keep it, first and foremost by avoiding the circular firing squad -- a decidedly poor formation when heading into battle against any foe, much less one as ruthless and cunning as the Axis of Reaction currently occupying all three Branches and a big swath of the Fourth Estate. This crew has violated the Nonsense Non-Proliferation Treaty one too many times, adamantly refuses to allow public inspections of anything it's done, and is almost certainly stockpiling a dozen Weapons of Mass Excreta, aimed straight at the head of the first Democrat across the electoral drawbridge.

Ye gods! Somebody's got to go in there and clean up that awful mess or we'll never be able to invite respectable countries over for dinner again. Fortunately, we've got ten would-be champions here, and the vast scale of the task at hand means that everyone can have a stable of their own to show what they can do. May the mightiest shovel win.

As for the rest of us, let's be careful out there. Remember to call for backup whenever the VRWC flashes its true colors, which will be often enough.


Monday, September 22, 2003

Clark Character Assassination Machine Hits the Wall

Or perhaps I should say Tilts the Scales. What has me risking so optimistic a claim? Prometheus' posting of this magnificent exchange, wherein yellow journalist Brit Hume turns legibly red with embarrassment at the repeated refusal of Fox military analyst Maj. Gen. Robert Scales to take the anti-Clark bait thrown his way with such salivating anticipation.

It is apparently one thing to dredge up anonymous bureaucratic jealousies and retail them as profound insights into a man's character, and quite another to expect honorable officers publicly to demean an exemplary former brother-in-arms for the delectation of the dittoheads and freepers in the cheap seats.

It may be wishful thinking, but I find I can't suppress the rising hope that this may be the beginning of the end of more than just the Clark-is-an-arrogant-prick meme. Perhaps, as with McCarthyism, this is what it will take to finally awaken the country to how far over the civil limits the Right has (once again) taken American politics.

If Clark's candidacy prospers, they will hardly be able to resist trying to do to him what was done to Clinton, Gore, McCain, Cleland, et al. The gutter opened up a long time ago on the Right, and the old, dark drive that came spilling out is insatiable by nature, and unlikely to ebb back until there is a tidal change in our politics.

But if there is to be a high water mark for Rightist demonology in our day, I have this feeling that it may just come (once again) with the attempt to blacken the military (or a proxy for it) with the same filth that has served the Right so well when applied to less-respected targets. Will the Right's response to the prospect of a Clark nomination become our Army-McCarthy hearings?

Maybe, maybe. But hold on. Because even if that turns out to be true, it's going to get a whole lot uglier before the Beast surrenders the field. And as anyone who has studied the history of his periodic appearances on the political scene knows, he never has gone back to his cage without one hell of a fight.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Did Clark Stumble Out of the Gate?

Joan Walsh's statement that it would "feel good" to declare the Clark candidacy doomed suggests that Democratic supporters still haven't learned how to keep the Bush/Rove machine from maneuvering them into a circular firing squad.

Now Walsh is hardly the only journalist casting a quick stone or three Clark's way. Over at the Newspaper of Record, the long knives are already out, if only to start whittling the complex reality of the man and his views down to the elements of an Agreed Upon Narrative. Already they've begun to take shape -- an "unpredictable nature" given to "foolhardy and dangerous" decisions and "lapses in judgment," "obsessively competitive" even about "meaningless" things, a cunning political operator with a "reputation for arrogance," who climbed the ranks through careerist guile and yet was somehow too politically clueless to keep his own job.

Newsweek was marginally kinder, but still found room to print such choice slurs as "champion brown-noser and know-it-all," and "nut" who is "dismissive" and "defensive" about having such charges thrown in his face, thereby demonstrating a "contrariness" and "self-absorption" ill-suited to the elevated discourse of the modern campaign trail. Attention Bob Somerby: It looks like the Washington press corps may have finally found a new chew toy to replace their thoroughly gummed Al Gore dolls.

But Walsh's blast was particularly discouraging because it came in an (avowed) opinion piece by one who is a supporter of the central Democratic cause of the next thirteen months -- the defeat of George Bush. In that context, it was foolhardy of Walsh not to acknowledge the fact that Bush's war resolution was a hard vote for Democratic legislators -- because it was designed to be. That vote was meant to exploit both Dems' genuine desire to do the right thing in Iraq, and their entirely justified suspicion that Bush would do precisely the wrong thing, given half a chance. It was designed, in other words, to make them choose between looking soft on defense and human rights abusers, or forfeiting the right to criticize Bush policy in the future.

And it pays new dividends every time Dems beat themselves up over their own positions, instead of emphasizing how shamefully the White House abused an authority granted them in good faith. I was immeasurably cheered by Senator Byrd's noble speech in which he called upon the ghost of Lincoln in denouncing a resolution that opened the way for a president to wage war at pleasure. That was a true summons to our deepest and best commitments. But Senator Byrd is not running for President, and Howard Dean was not in the position of having to cast a vote on specific legislation. A charitable patience for Clark's (and, even more, Kerry's) struggles to articulate nuances of judgment on a matter on which the White House sought to ban all nuance, would serve the Dems better than repeatedly forcing all of their candidates back into the either/or trap so astutely laid down for them by Bush/Rove.

Then there is the matter of the particular glee with which Walsh welcomed the prospect of a Clark crack-up. Walsh rejoiced in the "great rebuke" this would be "to party big shots who are trying to foist him on Democrats." Now Clark has already attracted some 23,000 meetup members -- second only to Dean, and with most of these having committed before it was even certain the man would run. I know the Dems are inclusive but I had no idea that the inner circle of party hacks was so large that it included people like me!

And if it should turn out that Clark is the favored choice of some DLC cabal, well, then that crew has picked themselves an odd champion -- one whose expressed views on key economic issues place him firmly to the left of (for notable example) Howard Dean. How many other candidates have publicly worried that we may be nearing a Keynesian liquidity trap, and bluntly proposed, as a way of avoiding that fate, the sort of Keynesian fiscal stimulus that used to be the sine qua non of the Democratic Left? Never mind that -- how many would recognize a liquidity trap if it strode up and bit them on the nose? Who knows? Maybe Clark's Oxford economics training may come in handy for something besides burnishing the old resume.