Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 14, 2011
I must confess that I skipped most of the stories and columns on the anniversary of 9-11, but I did read a few, two of which are worth mentioning.
Surely the award for the strangest must go to the house editorial in The Washington Post . The column was notable for complacency and a peculiar weighting of the effects of September 11, but more than anything else, it was an attempt to defend the paper’s pro-war position.
It argued that “the conventional wisdom seems to be evolving from ‘We will be hit again’ to ‘Osama bin Laden won by provoking us into a decade of overreaction’ ” The latter position is that “al-Qaeda goaded the nation to curtail civil liberties and construct a monstrous homeland security apparatus while bungling into adventures abroad that birthed new enemies, sapped the American economy and distracted the nation from bigger problems.” The Post declined to endorse the new paradigm: “it would be dangerous if it took hold.”
The editors did acknowledge that not everything has gone well over the past ten years. “The nation stained itself with its treatment of foreign detainees and particularly its use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that had long been recognized as torture. By refusing to raise taxes to face the new reality, it endangered its fiscal health. The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence . . . .” Homeland security programs resulted in ”an occasional total lapse of common sense and undoubtedly a large dose of self-dealing in the contractor world. . . .” But these, apparently, are relatively minor matters; on the whole, everything worked out for the best; as the caption of the column put it, “The gains outweigh the mistakes.”
According to the Post , even though “there were excesses in the earliest, most panicked years,” and “hateful acts against Muslim Americans,” there were no major assaults on civil liberties. “The Patriot Act enabled a modest, mostly court-supervised expansion of law enforcement vigilance.” No doubt that is why states and cities passed resolutions condemning the Act. We invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence, but apparently we were nonetheless right to do so: “The United States must protect itself at home as much as it sensibly can while taking the fight to its enemies overseas. . . .” The Post understands that invading countries is not a perfect solution to security threats; however, that simply leads it back to another rationale for dominating the Middle East: “aggression must be coupled with efforts to promote development and democracy in places that would otherwise breed terrorism.”
In case that isn’t enough backup, here are a few more theories: “The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan gave two nations at least a chance at freedom, removed potential havens for America’s enemies and, along with the fall of dictators elsewhere in the Arab world, opened for Muslim-majority countries an alternative path to the medieval caliphate championed by Osama bin Laden.” Note the waffle on “potential” havens. The caliphate was an absurd fantasy, but by invading two countries and prolonging one invasion into the longest war in our history, we’ve provided an alternative dream.
Although it was irresponsible to cut taxes in war time, no big deal: “Over the decade, the United States devoted a far smaller share of its gross domestic product to defense than it did throughout the Cold War. Although it would be nice if those resources could go toward something more peaceful and constructive, the spending is not the cause of America’s economic difficulty.” As I understand the numbers, relative spending on “defense,” including many warfare-related costs not included in the DOD budget, is lower, but not “far lower,” than in the Cold War period. In either case, does that justify the wars? Spending on the wars, whatever its percentage of GDP, is one of the causes of our economic difficulty, along with tax cuts and the bubble-created recession, and it would be more than “nice” if that money had been spent on projects which actually would make us more secure.
Even if we have focused too much on war, the Post thinks that we can be excused: “if the U.S. foreign policy establishment hasn’t paid enough attention to the rise of China or the spread of AIDS, that shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the fight against terrorism; a great power will always have to do more than one thing at a time.” That doesn’t make much sense. If we, the great power, must do more than one thing at a time, why haven’t we?
“None of this means that the United States must remain perpetually at war.” Oh, good. “Having created an enormous apparatus to protect the country, we should be vigilant that it does not exaggerate the threat to justify its existence.” But there still are bad guys out there: “the greatest danger now may be premature retreat from a difficult battlefield.”85 Weaklings that we are, might be tempted to do that; after all, “it is human nature to be recaptured by the bustle of ordinary life. That we have had the luxury to do so is testament to the dedication of compatriots, in uniform and out, seen and unseen, fallen and surviving, who have fought and worked to keep the country safe.”
The last line is the one that most turns me off to the ten-year remembrance. If it were focused on the sacrifice of the first responders, the murder of those on the planes and in the twin towers, the brief moment of genuine togetherness, then yes, let us remember the date. However, too much of it is in one way or another a justification for the wars that followed, which often takes the form of praise for the soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan “to protect our freedom.” True, it is difficult to face the fact that most of the casualties in those wars were unnecessary and, as to national security, pointless. The dead, and the wounded, and those who gave years of their lives may have believed that they were defending the nation, but the wars have had far less to do with that than with misguided imperial adventures. We should remember them, and honor their loyalty and sacrifice, and provide for their care and for their families, but do so honestly, not use them as props in a tableau of faux patriotism.
The other column dealt with economic aims and effects, and addressed the new “conventional wisdom” which the Post disdains. Jon Talton, in Sunday’s Seattle Times , argued that a goal of the attacks was to “provoke a hysterical American overreaction that would begin bleeding the nation into economic ruin”, and asked, “Mission accomplished?” The source of his comment about al Qaeda’s goals presumably is a taped address by Osama bin Laden, broadcast by al Jazeera in 2004. Here is a summary by CNN:
"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah," bin Laden said in the transcript.
He said the mujahedeen fighters did the same thing to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, "using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers."
"We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat," bin Laden said.
He also said al Qaeda has found it "easy for us to provoke and bait this administration." "All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations," bin Laden said.86

Talton stated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “as well as other increased military spending” cost $1.469 trillion through the 2009 fiscal year. He didn’t cite his source, and it’s difficult to establish a firm figure. The studies I found place the direct cost of the wars as of the end of the current fiscal year at about $1.3 trillion, which surely is appalling enough. Talton also noted the estimate by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes that the wars eventually will cost from 3 to 6 trillion. He described examples of waste and crony contracts, which make the costs even more unpalatable.
He turned, rather irrelevantly, to “what might have been, either without 9/11 or with a different American response.” We have “taken no serious steps to address either climate change or looming worldwide oil scarcity, both of which will prove to be major national-security challenges as well as costly to the economy.” Infrastructure is neither well maintained nor, in some cases, modern. Education needs improvement, but we are laying off teachers.
These failures cannot be laid at the feet of bin Laden or the misdirected reactions to 9-11, as he acknowledged. Even without war, we might still have been too foolish to deal with climate change or other issues. Neither the attacks nor the wars required tax cuts, and the economy collapsed for reasons largely unrelated to war spending. However, Talton’s conclusion is apt: “The tragedy is that America still lacks an exit strategy — from any of these challenges and follies.”


85. In a column on Sunday, Jackson Diehl, the Post’s deputy editorial page editor, made a separate argument for staying the course, describing a policy which would have us stuck in Afghanistan at least until 2014. The house editorial argued on Monday that the GOP candidates have gone “AWOL from Afghanistan.”
86. Excerpts from the bin Laden tape are here:
and the full broadcast is here:

Monday, September 5, 2011

September 4, 2011
Saturday’s Seattle Times carried a story from The Washington Post about Mitt Romney’s problems with tea party voters. Apparently there is a dispute over whether Romney should be invited to speak at a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire on Monday. “For some leaders in the tea-party movement,” the article said, this is “the opening shot . . . in an all-out war to make sure the former Massachusetts governor does not win the Republican nomination to challenge President Obama next year.” Tea Party Express had co-sponsored the event with Freedom Works, but the latter “pulled out and planned a protest because of Romney's involvement.” A comment by Matt Kibbe, the president of Freedom Works, was quoted; no other movement leader was identified, so “some leaders” is an exaggeration. Leaving numbers aside, the reporter is confused or disingenuous about what and who the Tea Party is. Freedom Works is not a tea party organization, so its president hardly can be termed a tea party movement leader.
Freedom Works was founded long before the “movement” arose in 2009. Its moving force is Dick Armey, libertarian former Congressman. The Freedom Works Foundation board includes such average Americans as Steve Forbes and the head of an investment management firm which “primarily provides its services to individuals, including high net worth individuals.”81 Kibbe’s statement — "If every political opportunist claiming to be a tea partyer is accepted unconditionally, then the tea-party brand loses all meaning" — is ironic. Freedom Works’ alliance with tea party groups is opportunistic and Armey’s involvement has caused some resentment among those groups.
Tea Party Express also is suspect as a populist organization, and is almost ephemeral. Its web site 82 does not show membership, and perhaps there isn’t any. In 2008, a PAC, “Our Country Deserves Better,” was created by a California public relations firm. It organized a national bus tour to hold rallies to oppose the election of Barack Obama. In 2009, it ran another bus tour, having changed the name from the “Stop Obama Tour” of the previous year to the “Tea Party Express.”8€ That is being repeated this year. In 2010 it was expelled from the Tea Party Federation, whatever that is, because of racist statements by its spokesman.84
The story noted that Romney “appears all too aware of the threat to his campaign from the tea party — particularly since Perry, who is popular with the grass-roots movement, joined the race.” We have here yet another example of the ineptness of the media and its disservice to voters. Assuming that any aspect of Tea Party agitation qualifies as a grass-roots movement, neither of the organizations involved here does so.

Friday, September 2, 2011

September 2, 2011
The presidential election season is, depressingly, under way and, although the candidates have much to say, none of it is useful. That is not entirely due to their limitations; it is partly a function of the audience to whom they are playing. In the case of Republican candidates, that audience is dominated by the so-called tea party movement, a noisy, manipulated group of extreme conservatives, which forces the candidates into absurd positions (or encourages absurd positions in those already disposed to them). A conservative candidate cannot believe in evolution because a certain limited version of religious belief finds it incompatible. He must deny human contribution to global warming or the effects of pollution because it would be inconvenient to corporations but also because, according to the noted theologian Rush Limbaugh, it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's earth. The candidate will advocate teaching creationism even though it has no factual basis. He must denigrate intellect because thinkers are elitists, elitists are liberals and liberals are immoral.

Consider the first test for Republicans, the Iowa straw poll. Somehow, a sideshow to a fundraiser has become a litmus test. It is so, presumably, because Iowa will have the first vote that counts, by way of its caucus, but why do we put up with that? Iowa hardly is representative of the population at large, but failure to do well in its caucus can be fatal.

Worse, the Iowa Republican Party has drunk the tea. Its platform,79 adopted a year ago, has a few provisions which make sense and a few which are of arguable merit, but it is overwhelmingly a reactionary document, one which a few decades ago would have been the subject of derision even by other Republicans. Here is a summary of its “guiding values and principles for the Republican Party”:

• Consistent with the usual pretense by conservatives that they represent the people, not the elites, the Iowa platform is headed “Declaration of ‘We the People’ of Iowa,” and there are many references to the people, including this: ”The God-given right to govern is vested in the sovereign authority of the whole people.” However, they don’t mean that. "Our founding fathers were very clear in their writings that the United States of America was to be a Republic and not a Democracy (a government of the law and not of the masses)." They interpret “pursuit of happiness” to mean “the right to property.” One might detect a whiff of elitism there.

• True to their adoration of property, the Hawkeye Republicans “support the permanent elimination of the estate, gift, and inheritance taxes, while retaining the step-up in basis to fair market value on the assets in a descendant's [sic] estate.” (The last bit is a nice example of having it both ways). They call for “the U.S. Congress to make permanent all tax relief enacted since the year 2000. . . .” Of course, they advocate abolition of the IRS and, for good measure, abolition of the Federal Reserve, repeal of the Federal Reserve Act, and a return to “the gold and/or silver standard.”

• Perhaps to protect their property from the masses, or perhaps just for the hell of it, the Iowa Republicans want to carry firearms, "open or concealed, without a permit."

• The platform declares that "Progressivism, Collectivism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism and or any other form of ideology contrary to our founding fathers' concept of a republic should be resisted, rejected and considered as an enemy." (Apparently a progressive republic is a contradiction in terms).

• The platform calls for repeal of all minimum wage laws, enactment of a national “right to work” law and elimination of OSHA. (Unions, decent wages and worker safety cater to the masses).

• The Iowa GOP believes that “claims of human caused global warming are based on fraudulent, inaccurate information and that legislation and policy based on this information is detrimental to the well being of the United States.” It opposes cap and trade. It advocates the teaching of intelligent design.

• The Iowa Republicans “believe that health care is a privilege and not a right,” and declare that “with the eminent [sic] failure of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Republicans should take any and all necessary actions to abolish these programs, over time, and replace them with private solutions.” (This attitude may explain why the United States has fallen to forty-first place in preventing infant mortality).

The poll is made even more unrepresentative by the limited number of voters, partly a function of the fee required to participate. Some of the fees and other costs are paid by the candidates, essentially paying for votes. It isn’t even an especially good predictor: the winner has been the Republican nominee only twice in the five events to date. The last time around, the eventual nominee, John McCain, finished tenth. As bizarre as all of this is, the poll results this year forced former governor Pawlenty from the race, almost fifteen months before the election.

One message of the Iowa GOP statement of values and principles is that morality must triumph over facts. “A free people cannot survive under a republican constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong. The most promising method of securing a virtuous and morally stable nation is to elect virtuous leaders . . .” That is accomplished by requiring that certain values must be present in all candidates for public office: honesty, humility, common sense, personal responsibility, gratitude, sincerity, hard work, courage, reverence, thrift, moderation and hope. There is no mention of intelligence, education, knowledge, judgment or experience. Common sense certainly is a virtue but it is not a substitute for reasoned, informed decision making.

The platform does emphasize education, and in one passage praises critical thinking, but education is to be placed in service of ideology, as in the call to teach creationism as a science. History is to be instrumental: “We support the teaching of the documents and beliefs of our founding fathers, with emphasis on patriotism, citizenship, responsibility, respect for our country and its symbols, and pride in the United States' unique contributions to liberty and freedom, and U.S. history, including its religious heritage.” The last includes the notion that “the basis of our laws and our founding documents are rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” Sex education should not be mandatory and, when given, should stress abstinence. State and federal Departments of Education should be abolished.

The subordination of thinking to morality is nothing new. In the early years of the last century, John Erskine delivered an address, later published as an essay, entitled “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent.” He stated the issue by quoting from “A Farewell” by Charles Kingsley:
"Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever." Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other . . . .
There is a strong tendency, persisting if not enhanced today, to believe that we can reach moral results by unaided intuition or by a selective reading — or more likely an unexamined impression — of the teachings of the Bible. (The platform calls for displaying the Ten Commandments in schools; I wonder how many of those who voted for that provision could recite them). Erskine maintained that we have a moral obligation “to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end.” However, people who are certain that they have a direct line to ultimate truth are reluctant to reexamine their conclusions, especially if that requires an appraisal of real effects or other distasteful encounters with facts. Erskine noted that his essay was criticized “as a menace to religious faith and a peril to the young,” and “an attack on conventional morals.” The same would be true today.

However, conservatives do not have a monopoly on fuzzy thinking, even though Republican politics is unusual in glorifying it, nor is religion the only problem. The American people in general are suffering from a serious knowledge deficit and a disinclination to think. Numerous surveys have demonstrated ignorance about elementary topics in geography and history. Rejection of evolution is more widespread than belief in the literal accuracy of the Bible. 80 Americans need to be better educated, but there is no consensus on how to accomplish that. Meanwhile, Republican candidates and, to a lesser extent Democrats, will continue to pander to ignorance.

79. . I described a few other features in my note of 8/4/10.
80. Forty per cent reject human evolution, , and thirty per cent believe the Bible to be literally true, .
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