December 31, 2008

The Long Dark Primary Race Of The Soul

From a New Yorker profile of Obama in 2007:

A potential crisis in the Social Security system is a long way off. Why, then, would a new President spend political capital on yet another tax hike when he will almost certainly seek to undo the Bush tax cuts for more immediate demands, like universal health care? When I asked Obama about this, he smiled and leaned forward, as if eager to explain that my premise was precisely the politically calibrated approach that he wanted to challenge. "What I think you’re asserting is that it makes sense for us to continue hiding the ball," Obama said, "and not tell the American people the truth—"

I interrupted: "Politically it makes sense—"

He finished the sentence: "—to not tell people what we really think?"

And this is Ali Abunimah, also writing in 2007:

Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker....

The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"

How completely predictable that Obama is eager to say what he "really thinks" when (1) what he "really thinks" is inaccurate and (2) it serves political power, but is not eager to do so when (3) what he "really thinks" is accurate and (4) it requires confronting political power. (Of course, god only knows what Obama truly believes about Israel/Palestine at this point.)

PREVIOUSLY: "Power was taking her son."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:08 AM | Comments (23)

December 30, 2008

"I Wonder Where You Are Tonight"

By: Bernard Chazelle

All bluegrass songs are sad, Bill Monroe said. This one is no exception.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 09:07 PM | Comments (10)

The Lighter Side Of The Bombardment Of Gaza

The funny thing about the Israeli attack on Gaza following its long blockade is that Israel's original justification for taking over Gaza in 1967 was that Israel was being subject to a blockade. This is from the official Knesset history of the Six Day War:

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran on May 21st and 22nd to all shipping from and to Eilat; the area was open to Israeli ships under UN supervision since 1957, and Israel repeatedly stated that such a blockade will be considered as casus belli (justification for acts of war).

Of course, there are many differences between the two situations. Just for instance: (1) Israel could still receive shipments by water via the Mediterranean, and (2) Israelis are human beings, whereas Palestinians are wolves in human form.

In any case, I expect this provides Gaza residents with quite a chuckle as they ponder whether their wounded children will succumb first to their injuries or to their intestinal parasites caused by contaminated water.

THANK YOU, MEMORY HOLE: As best as I can tell with Google News, no journalism has drawn this obvious parallel.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:29 PM | Comments (18)

Barak's "War to the Bitter End"

By: Bernard Chazelle

The military operation in Gaza is the brainchild of Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak. He is trying to become Prime Minister again but he is facing three major obstacles along the way: one is the head of Kadima, Tzipi Livni, the second is Bibi Netanyahu; the third is his transcendent political ineptitude. He's the only guy in the world who could wash your dishes, walk your dog, give you a million bucks, and still manage to leave you thoroughly pissed off.

Barak's road to the PM's office runs through Gaza. He's prepared this assault for months. The truce (the "tahdiya" or "calm") was fairly effective. It was violated unilaterally by Israel on Nov 4th, a day when, if you remember, Americans were a bit distracted. The chart below (h/t) shows how the number of rocket attacks against Israel went down but not how the siege of Gaza was tightened. What Israel negotiated with Hamas was this -- oh sorry, I forgot that Israel does not negotiate with terrorists. I meant to say what Israel got Egypt to tell Hamas it agreed to was this: No Qassams, openings of border crossings (Sufa, Karni, Rafah): that was the deal in June. The blockade of Gaza was not eased. On the contrary. On Nov 5th, Israel sealed Gaza completely. The tahdiya was dead.

Barak has a problem. He has no exit strategy. The US and its poodles are not doing their part. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the PA all hate Hamas. The idea was that after a few days Uncle Sam would force Israel to stop. Then Barak could turn to his people and say "See, just as me, your magnificent commander on my white horse was about to finish off Hamas, the cruel world made us stop!" He's got the cruel part right. The US is applauding the offensive. So are Israelis anxious to restore their precious deterrent lost in the hills of South Lebanon. For Barak to ask for a ceasefire now would be a big political gamble. Many in Israel question his resolve; hence his "Sharon" complex. Plus, Qassams would keep on crashing into Sderot and he could easily be the new Olmert. A sustained ground operation would lead to heavy Israeli casualties. In the end, there will be a ceasefire with occasional violations on both sides. But Hamas is there to stay. How Barak's War to the Bitter End does not turn into the War to the Bitter End of Barak remains to be seen. All we know is that hundreds of innocent people have already paid with their lives for his electoral ploy.

Qassam attacks per month

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 12:09 PM | Comments (21)

December 29, 2008

Questions Answered

In a comment to a below post, Seth asks these questions:

Ok Jon, so what's the explanation? Why is the UN Sec-Gen soft on Israel?

Does the Israel lobby of the US dominate the UN too? Is he too scared of the US reaction?

Seriously, he has nothing to lose by condemning Israeli aggression in the strongest terms he desires. So why is he holding back?

Here are some answers:

This is from a New York Times story from November 26, 1996. (Note that, according to Nexis, the Times didn't even bother to run a story on November 19, when the actual veto was cast.)

The Clinton Administration, which vows to prevent [Boutros] Boutros-Ghali from winning a second term [as Secretary-General], vetoed his candidacy in the Security Council last Tuesday and asked Africans to come up with other names, which they were expected to do by this week. If they do not, American diplomats say, Africa may lose the Secretary General's position to another continent.

The United States has refused to name its own candidate, knowing that in the current mood here, that person would be rejected. American diplomats believe that Africans are less united behind their candidate than divided among themselves over an alternate. A number of Africans are known to be waiting in the wings for a call.

Until Africa or another region makes a move, the 14 other Security Council members, all of whom voted against the United States and for Mr. Boutros-Ghali last week, are not in a position to change their preferences, diplomats say.

Here's more detail in a quote from Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies:

Albright and I and a handful of others (Michael Sheehan, Jamie Rubin) had entered into a pact together in 1996 to oust Boutros-Ghali as Secretary-General of the United Nations, a secret plan we had called Operation Oriental Express, reflecting our hope that many nations would join us in doing in the UN head.

In the end, the US had to do it alone (with its UN veto) and Sheehan and I had to prevent the president from giving in to pressure from world leaders and extending Boutros-Ghali's tenure, often by our racing to the Oval Office when we were alerted that a head of state was telephoning the president.

In the end Clinton was impressed that we had managed not only to oust Boutros-Ghali but to have Kofi Annan selected to replace him.

And here's a great deal of detail, in an extremely informative column by Phyllis Bennis:

By the middle of 1996, as President Clinton's second election campaign was in full partisan swing, the administration known for its domestic priorities suddenly turned on the United Nations. Its target, on the 38th floor, was UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the pro-Western Egyptian whom even the staunchly reactionary Washington Times admitted "has done nearly all the US wanted - even if he squawked about it". Madeleine Albright, then ambassador to the UN, announced that she intended to veto Boutros-Ghali's expected second term in office. And Israel would play a key role.

The campaign wasn't really about Boutros-Ghali, of course. Washington did not suddenly begin condemning the UN and halting UN dues payments in 1996 because they didn't like Boutros-Ghali. (It was during the Reagan administration, back in 1985, that Washington first refused to pay up.) Boutros-Ghali was merely a convenient scapegoat for an anti-UN crusade...

The main parameters of the administration’s campaign were set quietly by State Department officials in early 1996...The State Department team quietly offered Boutros-Ghali a "deal", a one-year extension of a single term; he turned it down, but counter-offered that he would accept a two-and-a-half year "half term". Washington refused, and the battle was joined.

Washington's support for Israel further shored up US determination to get rid of the secretary-general. Israel's August 1996 air assault in south Lebanon had targeted, among other things, a UN peacekeeping center at Qana, a small Lebanese village. Hundreds of refugees had taken shelter there from the bombardment. The Israeli attack killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians, and wounded several Fijian peacekeepers serving with the UN peacekeeping contingent in south Lebanon. The UN's report, issued some months later, documented the presence of an Israeli drone surveillance plane in the immediate area during the air strikes, rebutting Israel's claim that the Qana attack was an unfortunate accident because they never knew about the civilians sheltering in Qana. US diplomats worked hard to prevent the information from being released, but eventually Boutros-Ghali allowed the report to be made public. It was carefully edited, but unmistakably damning to Israeli claims. US officials were furious, and their anger at the secretary-general consolidated Albright's already intense anti-Boutros-Ghali campaign.

Albright had also correctly recognized that no one ever lost points inside the Washington beltway by being too antagonistic towards the UN As ambassador to the institution Washington loved to hate she was best positioned to blame Boutros-Ghali for everything in the UN that Washington hated. She could orchestrate his downfall, claim credit for it, and reap her just reward –- appointment by a victorious Bill Clinton as secretary of state in his second administration. Her campaign was successful: Boutros-Ghali was forced out, Albright moved up the State Department ladder, and Kofi Annan was anointed UN secretary-general with Washington's blessing.

P.S.: This is not just a blug post. It is also a sophisticated psychological experiment.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 11:18 PM | Comments (30)

More Evidence Of UN's Shameful Bias Against Israel

From today's statement by the Secretary General of the UN:

Both Israel and Hamas must halt their acts of violence...

One Palestinian family has suffered more deaths (five daughters out of their nine children total) in the current "acts of violence" than all of Israeli society (four killed by Gaza rockets).

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:35 PM | Comments (9)


This is from a new interview with Thomas Friedman in Scientific American:

Q: Is it a good idea to meddle so extensively with the free market for energy?

FRIEDMAN: [Laughing] Oh, yeah, a totally free market dominated globally by the world’s biggest cartel, dominated domestically by fossil-fuel companies who have written all the rules in Congress—pages’ worth of depletion allowances and tax shenanigans that these guys have written in to give themselves advantages. We wouldn’t want to upset that free market, would we? There is no such thing as a free market, no more than there is a farm or a garden that grows without fertilizer, without proper plowing, without intelligence brought into it. Markets are shaped by rules, incentives and disincentives, and right now our market is shaped by the dirty fuel system.

Wow, there's no such thing as a free market! Heresy! I just hope this guy never runs into New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman!

April 3, 2005:

I am talking about the people of China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Central Asia. Their economies and political systems all opened up during the course of the 1990's so that their people were increasingly free to join the free market.

June 1, 2003:

During the 1990's, America became exponentially more powerful -- economically, militarily and technologically -- than any other country in the world, if not in history. Broadly speaking, this was because the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the alternative to free-market capitalism, coincided with the Internet-technology revolution in America.

September 15, 2002:

[W]hat gives America its unprecedented power and influence today is the fact that, more than at any time in history, the world has come to accept the Western values of peace, democracy and free markets...

June 1, 2001:

Environmentalists refuse to sit on their hands anymore. Instead, the smart ones are mobilizing consumers to fight multinational polluters on their own ground. You have to admire it. It's so Republican -- using the free market. 91 more references to the non-existent "free market" by Friedman in the New York Times in the past fifteen years.

(To be fair to Friedman, during the same period he made 108 references to "America's commitment to magik faeries," with the same unspoken understanding that his readers would know he was talking about something imaginary.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:12 AM | Comments (10)

December 28, 2008

The Moving Walkway

During my current Vacation in America's Airports, I've heard the phrase "The moving walkway is ending"—always in the same anxiety-producing female voice—over 10,000 times.

I keep hoping that JUST ONCE the moving walkway will be something other than "ending." For instance:

• "The moving walkway is exploding"

• "The moving walkway is in love with you"

• "The moving walkway is heading toward a human abattoir"

• "The moving walkway is ending, like all good things must"

• "The moving walkway is actually only moving in an emotional rather than physical sense"

• "The moving walkway is filled with resentment about being constantly stood upon, you dickhead"

I urge airport administrators to get on this as soon as practicable.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:10 PM | Comments (5)

Why Do They Hate Us?


Israel destroyed Hamas's main Gaza security complex in an air strike on Sunday and prepared for a possible invasion of the territory after killing more than 280 Palestinians in the first 24 hours of a powerful offensive.

From page 250 of the 9/11 Commission Report (pdf):

KSM remembers Bin Laden pushing him to launch the attacks amid the controversy after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem...

KSM claims to have faced similar pressure twice more in 2001...The second time he was urged to launch the attacks early was in June or July 2001, supposedly after Bin Ladin learned from the media that Sharon would be visiting the White House...Bin Ladin pressed particularly strongly for the latter date in two letters stressing the need to attack early.

Of course, the current Israeli attack on Gaza is medium-to-small potatoes in the annals of U.S. and Israeli attacks in the mideast. Still, it might be nice if, when it came to whether we live or die, the U.S. media were able to provide some context for events.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 07:43 AM | Comments (31)

December 27, 2008

Annapolis: Bush's 'Peace In Our Time'

By: Bernard Chazelle

When, in a movie, you see a gun on a table, you can be sure someone will be shot within the next hour. Likewise, when yesterday Israel allowed 90 trucks into Gaza to deliver humanitarian assistance, you knew an attack was imminent.

Gaza has been under supertight siege for the last 2 months (not to be confused with the tight siege since Jan. 2006). It's an open-air prison with 1.5 million inmates denied food and medicine. Inexplicably, Hamas chose not to renew its 6-month truce with Israel. (What part of the word "starvation" could those terrorists possibly dislike?) It's been raining bombs over Sderot ever since and it can't be much fun living there: 9 Israelis have been killed since 2005; on the other hand, 1,400 Gazans have been killed by Israeli forces.

Bombing Gaza is Israel's version of "Yes We Can!" It's electoral politics by other means. (There's a big election in a month.) If Lebanon '06 is any indication, this may end up badly. A ground invasion will be resisted at all costs by Israel (too dangerous), but, without it, rockets from Gaza are unlikely to be stopped. So, then, what? The US is in no position to do anything: Condi no doubt sees birth pangs again, somewhere, and Obama is windsurfing; Bush is on his victory tour; and Hillary? She's learned not to kiss wives of terrorists and won't soon forget that lesson. Plus the US does't not talk to Hamas, anyway. The EU, as usual, talks, and that's pretty much all it does. Maybe UN soldiers from the Fiji Islands can help...? Except that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has been missing and it's only a matter of time before his picture appears on milk cartons at your local supermarket. Tony Blair flies to the region once a month; no one knows why.

Israel's "policy" (if that's the word) is clear: Peace with Syria; Gaza is Egypt's problem; and the West Bank is Jordan's. This means a Two-State Solution is dead. Its funeral is taking so long it even has a name: Peace Process.

People call me a pessimist regarding the Middle East. I should really try to snap out of that. I mean, what's the matter with me?

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 05:04 PM | Comments (54)

December 25, 2008

Bush's Last Speech

By: Bernard Chazelle

Harold Pinter, a great man of letters, wrote a speech for President Bush:

'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.'

Merry Christmas.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 05:27 PM | Comments (10)

December 23, 2008

"A force of freedom and a force for peace"

By: John Caruso of The Distant Ocean

Here's what George Bush said at his press conference last week in Iraq, shortly before Muntadhar al-Zaidi humiliated him in front of the entire world:

This is a future of what we've been fighting for -- a strong and capable democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace ...

And this is what's happened to al-Zaidi since he was brutally beaten by Iraqi security forces and taken into custody:

One of Zaidi's brothers, Uday, told AFP he had been able to visit him in custody for the first time on Sunday and charged that the journalist had been tortured by his captors "for 36 hours continuously" and forced to sign a statement.

"He has been hit with iron rods and cables," the brother said.

"There is very severe bleeding in his eye, and he has bruises on his feet and nose, and he was also tortured with electric shocks.

"He was forced to sign a statement confessing to receiving money from different groups and saying that he did not throw his shoes for the honor of Iraq."

Yes, thank goodness we've been fighting for a strong and capable democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace.  You can only imagine what might have happened to al-Zaidi otherwise.

NEW YORK TIMES POWER-SERVICING BONUS: If anyone can reconcile these two consecutive paragraphs from the New York Times article about al-Zaidi's torture, I'd love to hear how:

Uday al-Zaidi said his brother had said: "After the torture and the cold-water shower, I told them to bring me a blank sheet of paper and I would sign it, and they could write whatever they wanted. I am ready to say I am a terrorist or whatever you want."

But Muntader al-Zaidi told his brother that the men had stopped beating him and did not force him to write or sign anything. The journalist said that a letter to the prime minister written by him from jail expressing regret for the attack had not been coerced, his brother said. It was unclear if this was the same letter Mr. Maliki referred to.

I'm always impressed at how far the Times will go to pass along official spin, but this is really above and beyond the call of duty, like they just allowed the Iraqi government to insert a paragraph into the article wherever they wanted.

Posted at 05:33 PM | Comments (7)

December 22, 2008

Jim Hoagland Has Discovered That We're Horrible

The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland wants us to know how awful "we" are:

We have taken the greatest financial, technological and political opportunities the world has ever offered and abused them for our own pleasures, greed and egos. We read about Bernie Madoff so avidly because deep down, Bernie is one of us. He got what he could while he could...

Bernie was one of all of us who refused to vote for politicians who would raise our taxes and make the nation live within its means, even as we went to war. Bernie was one of all of us who did not demand more diligent supervision of financial markets as long as the outsize returns kept flowing. And in his own special way, Bernie was one of all of us who wasted energy in myriad forms, kept on consuming imported goods even when it meant going into debt to foreign lands that do not wish us well, and cut budgets for regulatory and law enforcement agencies even in the fat years.

So we got what we didn't pay for, too. And so will our children.

John Milton described this type of behavior from Washington Post columnists 350 years ago:

No marvel if the people turn beasts, when their teachers themselves, as Isaiah calls them, "are dumb and greedy dogs, that can never have enough, ignorant, blind, and cannot understand; who while they all look their own way, every one for his gain from his quarter"...

Had they but taught the land...then the poor mechanic might have so accustomed his ear to good teaching, as to have discerned between faithful teacher and false. But now, with a most inhuman cruelty, they who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness.

Hoagland via Dean Baker. Last Milton sentence swiped from this.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:30 PM | Comments (17)

December 21, 2008

Carol Chomsky, Presente

Carol Chomsky, wife of Noam and herself a noted linguist, has died at their home in Massachusetts at 78. According to a New Yorker profile of Chomsky, they first met when she was three and he was five; they had been married for 59 years.

Please keep all her family, from the littlest up to Poppa Bear Chonky himself, in your thoughts.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:36 AM | Comments (14)

December 19, 2008

Questions Answered

P.J. O'Rourke ponders what went wrong:

We Blew It

What is the coherent modern conservative foreign policy?...

Is there a moral dimension to foreign policy in our political philosophy? Or do we just exist to help the world's rich people make and keep their money?

Is there a moral dimension to foreign policy in conservative political philosophy? No.

Does conservative foreign policy just exist to help the world's rich people make and keep their money? Yes.

Of course, that's the main reason for the existence of "liberal" foreign policy too, but there's no reason to confuse li'l P.J. on the first day of kindergarten.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:27 PM | Comments (21)

Honor Thy Leader

By: Bernard Chazelle

Donald Johnson linked to this comment by Rick Perlstein:

Liberals should not make light of or license the physical assault on the leader of a sovereign state, no matter how much he's deservedly hated. This is not how we do politics, unless we're in favor something tending toward anarchy, or fascism.

This seems open and shut to me: the Iraqi journalist should go to jail for a rather long time.

Whenever a liberal "of impeccable credentials" shouts "long prison sentence!" I reach for my deconstruction toolkit. First, a rhetorical question: Should Marylin Klinghoffer, of Achille Lauro fame, have gone to jail for a rather long time after she spat in the faces of the terrorists who murdered her husband? After all, no one wants to make light of or license the physical assault on any man, no matter how much he's deservedly hated. This is not how we do justice, unless we're in favor of something tending toward anarchy, or fascism.

The question is useful because it disposes of the rejoinder: "You're not being serious by defending shoe throwers." For Perlstein, the parallel stops there. He is clear about it. It's not about the person but the authority behind it: a "leader of a sovereign state, no matter how much he's deservedly hated" deserves respect. Two interesting points: first, Perlstein presumably confines his sphere of respect to "our kind of leaders" (not Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Saddam, etc.) Second, Kant's theory of respect-for-persons as an end in itself is neatly swept aside. It's OK to spit at a terrorist but not at a president. Why? Because, as liberal bloggers write, out of spectacular ignorance, one should "despise the man but respect the office." Do they realize the essence of the Enlightenment was to reach precisely the opposite conclusion? That shoes should be aimed at kings and presidents, not at the persons behind them.

Perlstein speaks from the gut. His insistence on a long prison sentence is visceral. He feels violated by a bit of lese majeste, a touch of desacralization, and a pinch of blasphemy. The sentiment behind it is reflexive deference to authority. Many Americans just can't shake their royalist instincts. I see it in the classroom and on campus every day. I see it in sidewalk demos -- my working definition of a royal subject is someone who demonstrates against the war on the sidewalk but takes over the whole fucking street for the Annual fire department parade. I see it in the blind worship for the military. I see it every four years when the bloke-in-chief moves into his new quarters and it's Lady Diana getting married all over again (or buried again, depending on your political affiliation). The horses, the cannons, the flybys, the pageantry, the gravitas of Tom Brokaw. When you've been brainwashed with that sort of crap all your life, it's awfully tough throwing your Rockports at Dear Leader.

"He is our president, don't you understand!? "

No, I don't. Maybe it's me, but I've always regarded Gerald Ford's supreme ability to trip and fall down the steps of Air Force One as the greatest gift to US democracy in this past century. I would think more highly of George Bush's America if a CNN reporter had thrown a cream pie into his face as he declared Mission Accomplished on the USS Lincoln.

I don't mean to go all Freud on poor Perlstein but methinks he has a bit of a Big-Daddy complex. Almost makes one wish America had had a revolution... After my ancestors beheaded Citizen Louis Capet (as we used to call the ex-king), they engraved the word "fraternity" on their currency. By that, they meant to do to the Father what Nietzsche later did to God: "The ruler shall be your sibling, not your father." (And who among us hasn't thrown a pair of slippers at our brothers?) As the royal head rolled into the basket, the judge wrote this note:

"Today we have just convinced ourselves that a king is only a man."

There was no need to behead the man: to toss a pair of Revolutionary loafers at His Royal mug would have been fine by me. "Humble" comes from the word "humus," which means dirt. The video of Bush ducking flying shoes will be his "humus" for posterity. Bush is a war criminal who'll escape prosecution. He won't escape ridicule, however, and for that, Mr Muntazar al-Zaidi, America will always be in your debt.

PS: To keep me from being in favor of something tending toward anarchy, or fascism, I have found this wonderful web site very helpful.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:01 AM | Comments (106)

December 18, 2008

Support The Shministim

December 18th is the day of action for the Shministim—Israeli high school students who've been imprisoned multiple times for refusing to serve in the Israeli army.  In the words of one of them, "I will not lend my own hand to the occupation and to acts that contradict my most basic values: human rights, democracy and the personal responsibility each and every human being bears towards fellow human beings."

Please take a minute to send a letter to the Israeli government telling them that people with this kind of courage and integrity should be honored, not thrown in jail.

— John Caruso

Posted at 03:59 PM | Comments (2)

The Hits Just Keep Coming

By: John Caruso of The Distant Ocean

I didn't know much about Obama's choice for Interior Secretary (Ken Salazar), but all the information I needed was contained in these two paragraphs from the New York Times article about the appointment ("Environmentalists Wary of Obama's Interior Pick"):

Oil and mining interests praised Mr. Salazar’s performance as a state official and as a senator, saying that he was not doctrinaire about the use of public lands. "Nothing in his record suggests he’s an ideologue," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "Here’s a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue." ...

"He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture in battles over global warming, fuel efficiency and endangered species," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of Center for Biological Diversity, which tracks endangered species and habitat issues. "He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It’s a very disappointing choice for a presidency which promised visionary change."

Oil and mining interests happy?  Check.  Environmentalists unhappy?  Check.  Yes, I believe I get the picture.  The usual translation applies, by the way: "ideologue" = someone insufficiently dedicated to advancing corporate interests.  I'm sure Suckling, as an actual environmentalist, qualifies.

But this is the most important paragraph in the article:

Mr. Salazar, wearing his customary ten-gallon hat and bolo tie, said that his job entails helping the nation address climate change through a "moon shot" on energy independence. But that would include not just the development of "green" energy sources like wind power, but also the continued domestic development of coal, oil and natural gas, fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases when they are burned.

Addressing climate change through the continued development of coal is like addressing drug addiction through the continued freebasing of heroin.  Handwaving about the unicorn of "clean coal" aside, though, Obama has done nothing but genuflect to coal and mining interests, and this is just one more bow.  But why should we worry?  It's not like the fate of the entire planet hangs in the balance.  Oh, wait.

So Obama's record of flipping off his liberal supporters remains unbroken.  You've got to admire him; it takes real talent to pull off such a thoroughgoing bait-and-switch, and Obama not only did it but made it look easy.  The guy's a pro—in every sense of the word.

— John Caruso

Posted at 01:22 AM | Comments (26)

December 17, 2008

The Funny Economics of Senate Seats

By: Bernard Chazelle

Please name a commodity that you can buy but not sell. That's right, a Senate seat.

Governor Rod Blagojevich, or, rather, to follow MSM court etiquette, Disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich, forgot the basic trade rule of American democracy. The fool tried to sell Obama's seat on eBay. Now, where were you, Chuck, when Rod needed a crash course in Senate economics?

Charles E. Schumer, you see, is quite the expert. He knows you don't sell a Senate seat. You buy it! He bought his the old-fashioned way. Being from New York meant he got to do his Big Pimpin' on "The Street," rather than on the street, raking in a cool $3.6 mil from bankers, second only to Ketchup Man himself, John Kerry.

Why? Naive souls believe Schumer helps filthy rich bankers get richer. Nope. His job is to keep them from prison by passing laws that legalize gangsterism. The only difference between hedge fund guru John Paulson, who made $3.7 billion last year (no typo), and Bernard Madoff, is that Paulson's bank robberies are lawful (thanks to Schumer and his legislating buddies) but Madoff's are not (at least not yet).

But even Schumer has gone too far. Two men of considerable wisdom are shocked, shocked:

“He [Schumer] is serving the parochial interest of a very small group of financial people, bankers, investment bankers, fund managers, private equity firms, rather than serving the general public.”

This was John C. Bogle speaking. No Marxist-Jihadist he, mind you. He is the founder and former chairman of the Vanguard Group, a mutual fund house so unbelievably rich the janitors who work there are given not 1 but 2 lollipops for Xmas.

The other wise man who has it in for Schumer is the Nerdy Sage of ATR -- me. Rewind to last April and watch him wag one badass mother of an angry finger at Chuck E Cheese:

The senior Democratic senator from New York, the “ultra-liberal” Chuck Schumer, recently killed efforts to raise the tax rate of hedge fund managers to that of his cleaning lady: a nice government handout to overpaid bankers that is worth, annually, half of the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. “I am not a populist,” said Schumer, "I am just an asshole!"

OK, I made up that last bit of self-flattery. Schumer is a player. Unlike The Disgraced, he understands the subtle difference between a senator's seat and a senator's soul: the first one you buy; the second one you sell.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:36 AM | Comments (5)

December 16, 2008

My High-Level Emergency Working Group

Wow, I'd forgotten this Hillary Clinton proposal from last March on how to combat the foreclosure crisis:

A High-Level Emergency Working Group on Foreclosures to Investigate How to Achieve Broad Restructuring of At-Risk Mortgages...[Hillary Clinton] is calling on President Bush to appoint an Emergency Working Group on Foreclosures to address this question within the next three weeks. The group could be headed by eminent leaders like Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, and Bob Rubin...

This is a great idea, and I hope it can be implemented as soon as we've established my proposed High-Level Emergency Working Group on Preventing Cannibalism headed by Jeffrey Dahmer.

HA HA HA: Of course, with Obama we're essentially getting two out of the Emergency three.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 07:15 AM | Comments (9)

December 15, 2008

Sign Of The Times

Last week I witnessed a New York Times reporter trying to persuade a busy person to speak to him by telling the busy person how many page views the Times website gets. That's, uh, something of a change for the Times. (Intriguingly, the reporter was a graduate of Stutts University. I have high hopes that eventually the internet will do to Stutts what it's done to the Times.)

Also: I hope to feature more clever, clever headline puns in the days and weeks to come.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:24 PM | Comments (2)

December 14, 2008

"This Is a Farewell Kiss, You Dog!"

“This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

(From 2008 Video of the Year)

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:25 PM | Comments (31)

Steve Eisman, Our Secret Spiritual Brother

Be sure to read this long, fantastic piece by Michael Lewis about how Wall Street obliterated the world economy. Its focus is Steve Eisman, a hedge fund analyst who got the housing bubble right.

I'm especially fascinated by the way the housing bubble hysteria worked exactly the same as the Iraq WMD hysteria. Ie, all the powerful "serious" people were screaming that reality was a certain way, while it obviously was the opposite. But even though many of those in the bowels of the relevant institutions understood the official version of reality was bullshit, there were only a small number of individuals willing to say so. And in both cases, the mindset of this small number of individuals was the same. Eisman sounds eerily like Scott Ritter or Glen Rangwala.

Certainly I was willing to bet $1000 Iraq had nothing for exactly the reasons Eisman made the bets he did. Like Eisman, I knew from direct experience in school and at work that the people running America are generally liars, or idiots, or lying idiots—and you must interpret everything they say with that in mind. Like Eisman, I knew you will never find this out by reading the New York Times. And like him, I nevertheless am continuously shocked by this, and what the people in charge can get away with:

There’s a long list of people who now say they saw it coming all along but a far shorter one of people who actually did. Of those, even fewer had the nerve to bet on their vision. It’s not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria—to believe that most of what’s in the financial news is wrong or distorted, to believe that most important financial people are either lying or deluded—without actually being insane. A handful of people had been inside the black box, understood how it worked, and bet on it blowing up. Whitney rattled off a list with a half-dozen names on it. At the top was Steve Eisman...

Eisman wasn’ analyst with a sunny disposition who expected the best of his fellow financial man and the companies he created. "You have to understand,” Eisman says in his defense, "I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold."

Harboring suspicions about people’s morals and telling investors that companies don’t deserve their capital wasn’t, in the 1990s or at any other time, the fast track to success...

Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn’t fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.

"The one thing Steve always says," [Eisman's co-worker Vincent] Daniel explains, “is you must assume they are lying to you. They will always lie to you."

Eisman’s willingness to be abrasive in order to get to the heart of the matter was obvious to all; what was harder to see was his credulity: He actually wanted to believe in the system. As quick as he was to cry bullshit when he saw it, he was still shocked by bad behavior...

"I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years," Eisman says.

There was only one thing that bothered Eisman, and it continued to trouble him as late as May 2007. "The thing we couldn’t figure out is: It’s so obvious. Why hasn’t everyone else figured out that the machine is done?"

Eisman was appalled. “Look,” he said. “I’m short. I don’t want the country to go into a depression. I just want it to fucking deleverage.” He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. ..."Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.”

The rest.

It's tempting to throw up your hands and blame this all on immutable human nature. But the consequences are so serious that we can't. Whether or not humans can do better, we have to act as though they can, because it's our only shot at avoiding extinction.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:10 PM | Comments (26)

December 13, 2008

Vortex Of Corruption

This is US weapons inspector David Kay in 2004, describing Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein:

KAY: [Iraq] was really spinning into a vortex of corruption from the very top in which people were lying to Saddam, lying to each other for money; the graft and how much you could get out of the system rather than how much you could produce was a dominant issue.

This is a description of America under the rule of George W. Bush:

On Wall Street, his name is legendary. With money he had made as a lifeguard on the beaches of Long Island, he built a trading powerhouse that had prospered for more than four decades. At age 70, he had become an influential spokesman for the traders who are the hidden gears of the marketplace.

But on Thursday morning, this consummate trader, Bernard L. Madoff, was arrested at his Manhattan home by federal agents who accused him of running a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme — perhaps the largest in Wall Street's history.

Regulators have not yet verified the scale of the fraud. But the criminal complaint filed against Mr. Madoff on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan reports that he estimated the losses at $50 billion.

Speaking of Madoff, here's a repetition of my rule of thumb for US politics, since it clearly also applies to US society generally:

There's a rule of thumb for American politics that will never steer you wrong: if the Washington press corps worships a political figure and squeaks for decades on end about how he's a Brave Man of Honor and Wisdom, that political figure is one of the most dangerous lying scumbags on earth.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:48 PM | Comments (6)

December 12, 2008

Moving Down A Few Worlds

What's it like to live in the Third World? Well, your elites always make a point of crushing your middle class, both for their own benefit and the benefit of foreign corporations.

By contrast, here in America, our elites...


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 04:32 PM | Comments (5)

Why US Health Care Is the Best in the World

By: Bernard Chazelle

In a recent survey of 1,026 U.S. adults,

55 percent said they thought the United States has the best quality [medical] care of any country.

Easy to see why:

The U.S. has the worst mortality rate from treatable conditions of 18 other industrialized countries. In other words, get sick here and you’re more likely to die than you are in Canada, France, Britain and 15 other countries. Our mortality rate after age 75 is 50 percent higher than in France, Japan, Spain, Italy, Canada and Australia.

The U.S. is 20th of 21 developed nations for child well-being, reflecting high infant mortality rates, a high percentage of low-birth-weight infants, and a low rate of immunizations.

The U.S. is 28th in healthy life expectancy at 69 years. In Japan it’s 75.

47 million Americans have no health insurance.

Only 55 percent of U.S. patients get treatments that scientific studies show to work.

Estimated 44,000 to 98,000 annual deaths from medical mistakes in hospitals and to "amenable mortality"—deaths preventable by medical care. Those total about 101,000 a year, [which] puts America dead last of the study's 19 industrialized countries.

The United States is well behind other developed countries on measures from cancer survival to diabetes care that cannot entirely be blamed on the rich-poor or insured-uninsured gulf.

Such prowess does not come cheap: US medical expenses per capita are the highest in the world, about twice the average in the industrialized world. Normal people might want to follow the money trail to see where it leads. Not Newsweek! In vintage MSM fashion, we're told things are so bad because that's what we, the people, want:

we “prize individual choice and resist limiting care [..] We choose to hold these values. Consequently, we choose to have a more expensive system than Europe or Canada”—and one that does not keep us healthier or alive longer.

Good thinking. It's my very own choice that all medical bills should exceed $350, especially when I see a doctor for a total of 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Dunno about you, but me I choose to get 12 insurance forms sent to my house, all written in Swahili in a font size that only my home electron microscope can decipher. I demand that no reimbursement should ever exceed $2.35. I choose that all complaints be referred to an automated phone tree that automatically hangs up on me at Step 15. I demand a $500 EKG every time I get a splinter in my big toe. Hey, if my toe is bad, just think how bad my heart must be! And when I run a high fever, I insist on being told the magic words, "No doctor available for 2 weeks; go to the ER!" There I get to meet all sorts of interesting people and give them a chance to inhale the flu viruses I am busy coughing out. And since Big Pharma has been incapable of discovering any new molecule in the last two decades, I insist on paying hundreds of dollars for an ancient rebranded medication whose generic version is readily available from Indian labs for 25 cents. I cherish my belief that the essence of medicine is paper-pushing, and I am so relieved to know that more than half of US medical expenses have nothing to do with caring for people's health.

As Newsweek puts it,

[T]he problem with our health-care system is that we persist in thinking like Americans.

and in reading Newsweek.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 03:30 PM | Comments (16)

December 11, 2008

Inside The Mind Of Tzipi Livni

By: John Caruso of The Distant Ocean

Here's Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni discussing the situation in Gaza:

"A [military] response is important; even if it doesn't automatically end the Palestinian rocket fire, there is something important in the impression, and Israel's deterrence ability," she said during a conference in Tel Aviv. ...

"If Hamas knows that Israel won't be quiet when missiles fall on Ashkelon, they will feel the responsibility on their shoulders," she said, adding that she is "ashamed to call what is currently happening a ceasefire."

And just what is Israel doing in Gaza?

The former high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson has said that in Gaza, nothing short of a "civilisation" is being destroyed. Desmond Tutu has called it "an abomination". The humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Maxwell Gaylard, said that in Gaza there was a "massive assault" on human rights. Most recently, the European commissioner, Louis Michel, described the blockade of Gaza as a "form of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians, which is a violation of international humanitarian law".

To which we can add the UN Special Rapporteur's accurate characterization of Israel's actions as a "crime against humanity."

So to recap, things that make Tzipi Livni feel ashamed: Israel's cease-fire with Hamas.  Things that don't make Tzipi Livni feel ashamed: practicing vicious siege warfare on 1.4 million men, women, and children.

A guy who has the uncanny ability to express my innermost thoughts once wrote something that seems particularly appropriate in this case:

[O]ne of the worst things about Israel is the corrosive effect it has on those who claim to support it (both Jewish and otherwise).  It exerts an irresistible magnetic pull on the moral compass of those who embrace its self-aggrandizing mythology, rendering them capable of depths of ethical blindness or outright malevolence that are all the more repellent for the self-righteousness in which they're so typically couched.

SHAME BONUS: Ehud Olmert talks about rampaging Israeli colonists in Hebron:

"We are the children of a people whose historic ethos is built on the memory of pogroms. The sight of Jews firing at innocent Palestinians has no other name than pogrom. Even when Jews do this, it is a pogrom. As a Jew, I am ashamed that Jews could do such a thing."

Which qualifies him as slightly more of a human being than Livni.  But here's Olmert on Gaza:

"We haven't done anything in Gaza that we should be ashamed of. If anything, Hamas should be ashamed. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza."

If only the Jews had an historic ethos built on the memory of collective punishment, so he could also feel ashamed about what he's inflicting on innocent Palestinians in Gaza—you know, something that could make him see why threatening an entire people with a bigger holocaust is wrong.  But without this critical historical referent, Olmert is sadly incapable of feeling any shame for turning Gaza into a huge "ghetto."

— John Caruso

Posted at 02:49 PM | Comments (82)

Best Newspaper Website Use Of Linking Ever

This is how an op-ed by Indiana Republican Mike Pence appears on the Washington Times website:

On Election Day, only 22 percent of Americans described themselves as liberal, even while electing the most liberal, one-party government in American history. We remain essentially a center-right nation. So, what happened? I believe Republicans walked away from the principles that minted our governing majority in 1980 and 1994. There is a way out of the wilderness. But it will require humility, vision, positive alternatives and a willingness to fight for what makes America great.

"I was recently reading an op-ed by Representative Mike Pence, and I saw he mentioned something called 'America.' I was intrigued, and wanted to know more about what sounds like quite a compelling subject. Normally I wouldn't have known what to do next, but the Washington Times website included a 'link' to the paper's other coverage of 'America.' Apparently they've written about it quite a bit! This whole thing is truly ingenious. Let me tell you, the person who reconceived the Times for the 21st century really earned their paycheck this week!"

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:29 AM | Comments (8)

December 10, 2008

Overheard On The Street

WOMAN #1: Ow! Ow! Ow!

WOMAN #2: What's wrong?!?

WOMAN #1: I accidentally set my hair on fire!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:29 AM | Comments (14)

December 09, 2008

"Apparent Evolution"

By: John Caruso of The Distant Ocean

Here's Jeremy Scahill writing about late-breaking mainstream media recognition of Obama's "nuanced" position on withdrawal of US forces from Iraq:

The New York Times is reporting about an "apparent evolution" in president-elect Barack Obama's thinking on Iraq, citing his recent statements about his plan to keep a "residual force" in the country and his pledge to "listen to the recommendations of my commanders" as Obama prepares to assume actual command of US forces. "At the Pentagon and the military headquarters in Iraq, the response to the statements this week from Mr. Obama and his national security team has been akin to the senior officer corps' letting out its collective breath," the Times reported. "The words sounded to them like the new president would take a measured approach on the question of troop levels."

The reality is there is no "evolution."

Anyone who took the time to cut past Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric of "change" and bringing an "end" to the Iraq war realized early on that the now-president-elect had a plan that boiled down to a down-sizing and rebranding of the occupation.

I particularly appreciate the Times' choice of headline: "Campaign Promises on Ending the War in Iraq Now Muted by Reality."  This is an extremely useful principle I'm sure we'd all like to employ at one time or another: "Unfortunately, Tom, my promise to pay back that money you loaned me has now been muted by reality—namely, the reality that I never had any intention to.  Sucker!"

For anyone who actually wanted to know how Obama would govern, the single most important thing he said during the campaign was this: "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified. ... Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself."

AND ALSO: I'm sad to see that FAIR is handling this same story with the new favorite strategy of Obama backers: to point to his official campaign policy positions and pretend that he never said anything different then from what he's saying now—and if anyone foolishly thought so, they just weren't paying attention.  This is a particularly disingenuous tactic since it studiously ignores the "overheated rhetoric" Obama used on the campaign trail that contradicted those official positions and convinced so many of his supporters that he intended to bring the Iraq war to a complete close.

Oddly, FAIR never felt the need to make such fine distinctions when they were cataloging Bush's attempts to link Iraq to 9/11, even though those also took the form of insinuation and implication rather than outright assertions.  I wonder what the difference could be?

— John Caruso

Posted at 12:28 AM | Comments (40)

December 08, 2008

Save Us, Internets!

This is from Who Will Tell the People by William Greider, written in the early nineties:

The late Lee Atwater expressed the view that the deep resentment and alienation that permeate modern American politics are connected to the communications revolution and he expected them to continue until the disorientations of communications work themselves out of the society.

And this is from Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, an extremely weird book famous among weirdos that was published in 1980:

The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of the two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:32 AM | Comments (22)

Life Imitates Apocrypha

I was talking to a cab driver today, and he told me he voted for McCain because he'd been a big Hillary Clinton supporter.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:24 AM | Comments (15)

December 06, 2008

New Tomdispatch

I've fallen behind on Tomdispatch. Their latest two articles are both well worth reading:


Who Are the Taliban?
The Afghan War Deciphered

By Anand Gopal

If there is an exact location marking the West's failures in Afghanistan, it is the modest police checkpoint that sits on the main highway 20 minutes south of Kabul. The post signals the edge of the capital, a city of spectacular tension, blast walls, and standstill traffic. Beyond this point, Kabul's gritty, low-slung buildings and narrow streets give way to a vast plain of serene farmland hemmed in by sandy mountains. In this valley in Logar province, the American-backed government of Afghanistan no longer exists...

The police say they don't dare enter these districts, especially at night when the guerrillas rule the roads. In some parts of the country's south and east, these insurgents have even set up their own government, which they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the former Taliban government)...

Just three years ago, the central government still controlled the provinces near Kabul. But years of mismanagement, rampant criminality, and mounting civilian casualties have led to a spectacular resurgence of the Taliban and other related groups...

The burgeoning disaster is prompting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and international players to speak openly of negotiations with sections of the insurgency.


Still Preparing to Attack Iran
The Neoconservatives in the Obama Era

By Robert Dreyfuss

What, exactly, does Barack Obama's mild-mannered choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, former Senator Tom Daschle, have to do with neocons who want to bomb Iran?

A familiar coalition of hawks, hardliners, and neoconservatives expects Barack Obama's proposed talks with Iran to fail -- and they're already proposing an escalating set of measures instead. Some are meant to occur alongside any future talks. These include steps to enhance coordination with Israel, tougher sanctions against Iran, and a region-wide military buildup of U.S. strike forces, including the prepositioning of military supplies within striking distance of that country.

Once the future negotiations break down, as they are convinced will happen, they propose that Washington quickly escalate to war-like measures, including a U.S. Navy-enforced embargo on Iranian fuel imports and a blockade of that country's oil exports. Finally, of course, comes the strategic military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran that so many of them have wanted for so long.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:10 PM | Comments (6)

December 04, 2008

Is It OK to Abort Only Female Fetuses?

By: Bernard Chazelle

Preamble A common pro-choice position insists on legality and rightness. This coupling is a mistake, both philosophical and strategic. This post is longish, wonkish, dullish, but if you're interested in the abortion issue, this one's for you. There's a meta-philosophical objection to dispose of at the outset. Abortion talk sounds like a lot of reversely engineered ethics: that's when you start where you want to end and then build your moral system backwards so it leads to it. I see no way, for us pro-choicers, to dismiss that charge. I will remind readers, however, that the usefulness of a philosophical system is less its intrinsic validity than the strength of its local inferences. In other words, what matters is not so much "X is true" but "If X then Y." This post is about the "If X then Y"s of Pro-choice.


As though poverty, religious tensions, terrorism, and Kashmir were not enough for one country, now this:

The Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, which recently surveyed the worst-affected parts of Delhi, estimates that 10 million girls have been lost to female foeticide in India over the past 20 years.

Most alarming for those monitoring the figures is the fact that the gap appears to be widening. Today the national average for births is 933 girls to 1,000 boys; in 1991 it was 945. 'The low numbers in a state like Delhi tells us the enormity of the situation,' said Anju Dubey Panbey, of the Centre for Social Research. 'In India today, if you are blessed with a son you are almost revered, and if you are the mother of daughters you are made to feel guilty and your status in your family goes down. It is very, very disturbing.'

What's not to like about female feticide, really? It aligns itself with sexist practices; it wreaks havoc on demographics; and it's bad for men, who'll have trouble finding a wife. And what about the fetus? Many feminists are caught between their desire to cast their pro-choice stand as a matter of freedom and the sexist context of gender-selective abortions, which they abhor. Tabitha Powledge speaks for many when she describes female feticide as "one of the most stupendously sexist acts in which it is possible to engage."

The sentiment is worthy of respect but the statement is misleading. The decision to abort a female fetus is rarely based on value judgments but rather on utilitarian considerations. Your decision to purchase a Yugo and not a BMW says something about your wallet, not your taste in cars. Indian mothers might prefer boys -- or not -- but sex-selective abortions cannot be used as evidence. To see why, imagine that New Delhi passed a law to reward the parents of any daughter with a billion-rupee cash prize. No doubt Indian boys would quickly join the list of endangered species. The law would be sexist but to act on it would neither add to nor subtract from its sexism. It would simply align with it. Indian women are no different from Westerners in that regard. I see no fundamental ethical difference between seeking an abortion in the US as a career choice and doing it in India because a baby girl is too costly; if anything, the latter, often coerced, might be easier to justify. Both decisions seek to maximize a utility that, in and of itself, implies no sexist position. To impute sexism to Indian women on that basis is to confuse cause and effect. If you've been unjustly incarcerated, eating the prison food hardly signifies assent with the judge's sentence.

One should forget about the sexism of the act itself; fine, but it is still fair to ask: are all pro-choicers entitled to recoil at the killing of a female fetus (for whatever reason)? As I shall demonstrate, the answer is no. The standard pro-choice position is that an abortion should remain a matter between a woman and her conscience. Trouble is, this stand lacks a stated premise. After all, killing a child or, for that matter, a healthy dog is not a matter between a man and his conscience. It's a matter between a man and a judge, for it's plainly illegal for reasons with which most people would agree. To invoke freedom, therefore, is not enough: one needs a premise. As commonly stated, it is that a fetus is to be denied personhood as well as any moral status derived from the potentiality of human life. This automatically renders any condemnation of female feticide, in and of itself, moot. The sexism behind it might be loathsome but it is irrelevant to the intrinsic ethics of the act. Its motivation might be repugnant but sex-selective abortion per se is, from a (common) pro-choice standpoint, kosher. Case closed.

Well, except that our intuition tells us something's amiss. If the reification of the fetus enables a woman to view abortion as a simple utilitarian exercise of her freedom, devoid of any moral dimension, as many American pro-choicers would argue, then why stop at the X chromosome? Why not abort fetuses whose characteristics look "unpromising"? If the fetal tests of the future suggest the stork won't bring you a Baby Einstein, then why not say "Off with Its Head"? Come to think of it, who says birth should be a culling deadline? My colleague Peter Singer argues that killing a one-month old handicapped baby should be legal.

You may disagree with Singer -- I do -- but give the guy credit for asking the right questions. For pro-choicers to accept a ban on abortion after X weeks might be convenient politics, as it shifts the debate from ontological conundrums to settling on a number, X, but it's philosophical hogwash. I explain why. By and large, pro-choice advocates view personhood, which is necessary to assert moral status, as a binary thing: you have it or you don't. (Biology has little to do with the matter; abortion is for most people a matter of intuition, not science.) If a fetus acquires personhood at some unknown time Y<38, then we use some suitable X as our best estimate. If we overshoot and set X>Y, however, an average abortion has a nonzero chance of being manslaughter, like forcing someone to play Russian roulette. Fine, but can't we just take a chance and postulate that we luck out and X is less than Y (in which case all legal abortions will be ethical)?

No. The reason is the asymmetry of the stakes: personhood so much outweighs non-personhood that setting X=0 is the only permissible estimate, ie, one must adopt a worst-case position. To see why is easy. Say you're driving at night and you run someone over; you feel the bump, you hear the crushing of the bones, but you drive on because you alone can save 100 children about to drown on the other side of town. It surely was OK then not to stop but is it OK now to assume your hit-and-run victim is fine? No. It is unethical to assume anything but the worst, as one must always err on the side of prudence when a life is at stake. No one is in a position to disprove the (binary) personhood status of a fetus at any stage -- unless one accepts a definition that makes it tautological -- therefore one must adopt the fallback position that to destroy a fetus is to kill a person with full moral status.

Pro-choicers are backed into a corner. What to do? Only one way out: to postulate that personhood does not begin until birth, ie, Y=38. Unfortunately, this position has dire consequences. First note that, in practice, X is typically set much lower than Y: obviously a political compromise that has not the slightest basis on pro-choice ethics. Again, recall our model: pro-choice with a binary definition of personhood and Y=38. For reasons that are self-evident, this swings the door wide open to sex selection and designer babies. In short, you may blame the missing Indian baby girls on "one of the most stupendously sexist acts in which it is possible to engage," or you may be a regular pro-choicer and deny the fetus any moral status derived from personhood. But you cannot do both!


This would be the end of my post, if not for my desire to offer pro-choicers an exit strategy. Following a venerable philosophical tradition, I suggest personhood be viewed as a continuum (none of that binary on/off stuff). This has an immediate consequence that pro-choicers won't like one bit: an abortion must now be considered, as a default position, the "killing of a human person." The killing is of a different nature from the kind discussed above, however, since it no longer rules out the possibility of being just. Humanhood is indisputably binary -- one is entirely human or entirely not -- but my point is that to be a person can be usefully seen as a malleable concept. Barack Obama is just as human as Ariel Sharon, but one could make a case that he is more of a person because Sharon has been in a coma for 2 years. We would then say that Obama has higher moral status than Sharon. The idea therefore is to grant the fetus some level of personhood, which confers upon it moral status and the right to life. Wait! Doesn't this imply the right not to be killed, then? (If so, it would vindicate abortion foes and make pro-choicers wonder what kind of help I am offering them). The answer is no.

Here is why. Persons are granted the right to live but not the right not to be killed. The distinction, argued with great care by MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, is subtle but crucial. All societies grant the right to kill justly. (I realize this can easily slide into an empty statement such as killing ethically is ethical, so perhaps it is safer to speak of the right to kill under certain pre-established constraints of decency.) Self-defense is one example, but there are many others with none of the "my life or yours" quality of defensive killing. Suppose you steal my gigantic fortune to pay for the heart operation that will save your life. The Great Depression of 2009 has ruined everyone else on the planet, except me, and only my money can save you. Should I call the cops to get my fortune back, thereby killing you by commission (I call, you die; I don't call, you live)? It would be indecent for me to do so (even though I might suffer the excruciating pain of seeing the repainting of my yacht delayed) but it would not infringe upon your right to life, only upon your (illegitimate) right not to be killed justly. This thought experiment is hardly science fiction: hospitals routinely engage in such decision-making. The conditional right to kill is pretty much universal. So is the absolute right to life.

I would advise pro-choice advocates to accept a fetus's claim to some level of personhood (to evolve as the pregnancy does) and the moral status that goes with it. Then they could justify abortion on the grounds that the right not to be killed is not absolute. The benefits? The time limit X could now be chosen ethically on utilitarian grounds in a manner consistent with the rejection of sex selection, designer babies, and other eugenic practices. The costs? Admitting that abortion, being the killing of something with moral status, is always wrong, with the level of wrongness varying from negligible (rape, mother's health) to moderate (career choice) to serious (aborting to avoid cancelling a snorkeling vacation in the Bahamas) -- and with timing. The issue would no longer be about moral imperatives but moral decency. As such it should be left entirely in the hands of the concerned individual, the mother, and not the state. Furthermore, abortion opponents could then be accused of wanting to legislate decency and, therefore, of gross inconsistency (unless, of course, they also pushed for a law that, say, forces people to call their mothers on Thanksgiving Day).

It truly counts as one of the silliest indulgences of our time this notion that best is always right. The optimal decision from an ethical standpoint may still be morally wrong. Sophie's Choice has no right outcome. Hillary Clinton seemed to understand this when, in the course of defending Roe v Wade, she called abortion "a tragedy." Naturally, she was immediately heckled down as a sellout by pro-choice freedom fighters. (For this flash of sanity, Obama rewarded Hillary with the chance to lead US foreign policy, an area in which she is certifiably insane.) Two-thirds of Americans are happy with Roe v Wade, but many reject the "legal-and-right" view of pro-choicers. A "legal-but-wrong" settlement of the issue might be the political and philosophical way out of this impasse.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:12 AM | Comments (103)

December 03, 2008

Good News About Card Check

Attention, white upper-middle class liberal blogistas: there is NOTHING more important during the Obama administration than passing card check.

What about an economic stimulus package? And getting out of Iraq? And health care? And global warming? Aren't they more important?


Nothing is more important than card check because card check has the possibility to truly change the face of American politics. Canada isn't Canada because their elites are so much nicer than ours. It's Canada because 50% 30% of the labor force is unionized, compared to about 10% here. And their union density is that high (in part) because they have half of Canada has card check. Anything approaching that level of union density here would give progressives the kind of power we currently can only dream about. (CORRECTION: According to William Greider's book Who Will Tell the People, Canadian union density was almost 40% in the early nineties. However, it's now fallen to 30%. Meanwhile, the union certification process in Canada has also been changing: "In the last 25 years, a major change has occurred in the way unions are recognised in Canada. In 1976, every jurisdiction in Canada used card check. Today, more than 50% of the Canadian labour force is covered by mandatory vote legislation...")

Moreover, even if the day comes when all our desired legislation on everything else is passed, it will immediately come under attack. That will be the beginning of the fight, not the end. And without card check any victories will be swiftly eroded, and before long it will be like they never happened. With card check, we'll be able to hold onto the victories and build on them.

That's why it's encouraging that the Obama transition has firmly restated their commitment to passing card check. Of course, they'll weasel out of this if they possibly can. But that's why it's important to pay attention to this and scream about it as loudly as possible.

NOW: Sign up with the Employee Free Choice Act campaign. Then, watch this hilariously bad anti-card check filmmaking from the American Hotel & Lodging Association:

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:06 PM | Comments (51)

John Kerry Happy That John Kerry Wasn't Elected In 2004

By: John Caruso of The Distant Ocean

John Kerry in 2004:

John Kerry and John Edwards believe that the Kyoto Protocol is not the answer. The near-term emission reductions it would require of the United States are infeasible, while the long-term obligations imposed on all nations are too little to solve the problem. Unlike the current administration, John Kerry and John Edwards will offer an alternative to the Kyoto process that leads the world toward a more equitable and effective answer, while preserving coal miners' jobs.

In the Kerry-Edwards Administration, the U.S. will equitably match the initial efforts of our  industrial-country trading partners and competitors.  U.S. reductions will be achieved in a reasonable and realistic timeframe.  American workers and industries should not be forced to shoulder the costs of these reductions.

(The standard translations apply: "coal miners' jobs" actually means "coal corporations' profits" and "workers and industries" means just "industries".)

John Kerry now:

"It's a moment we've been waiting for, many of us, for some period of time - for eight years, to be blunt. ... after eight years of obstruction and delay and denial, the United States is going to rejoin the world community in tackling the global climate challenge," Kerry said.

I at least give him credit for recognizing that his corporation-servicing stance on global warming in 2004 didn't represent a break in the eight years of obstruction, delay, and denial.

BUT: Kerry's deft rewriting of history won't come as a surprise to most of the people who voted for him, since 74% of them had no clue about his 2004 position on Kyoto anyway.

— John Caruso

Posted at 04:12 AM | Comments (2)

December 02, 2008

The System

How do hardcore radical weirdos refer to the status quo in the United States? As "the system":

A judge dismissed eight indictments Monday brought by a South Texas prosecutor against high-profile figures including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a state senator.

The order by Administrative Judge Manuel Banales ended two weeks of proceedings that some courtroom veterans declared the most bizarre they had ever witnessed.

It also began to dim the lights on the rocky tenure of outgoing Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who even in thorough defeat saw the outcome as confirmation of the very conspiracy he had pursued.

"I expected it," Guerra said immediately after the hearing. "The system is going to protect itself."

But what about people at the very apex of American society—how do they refer to the status quo? It turns out they also talk about "the system."

These are excerpts from the 1971 "Powell Memo" by Supreme Court Justice-to-be Lewis Powell. He refers to "the system" about fifteen times:

[T]here always have been critics of the system...In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities...The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system...Although New Leftist spokesmen are succeeding in radicalizing thousands of the young, the greater cause for concern is the hostility of respectable liberals and social reformers. It is the sum total of their views and influence which could indeed fatally weaken or destroy the system...The foregoing references illustrate the broad, shotgun attack on the system itself...businessmen have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare with those who propagandize against the system, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it...If our system is to survive, top management must be equally concerned with protecting and preserving the system itself.

Indeed, Powell sounds much like The Communist Manifesto:

[M]odern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

Or as Noam Chomsky has said:

[B]usiness is very class conscious, in fact very Marxist. If you read the business journals they sound like vulgar Marxism...It’s sort of laughable. But they don’t have to read Marx—they know the basic story.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:43 AM | Comments (10)