Dictators and Tyrants

My president claims that his illegal wiretaps are essential to protecting the lives of Americans.  But he is responsible for protecting my liberty (remember Patrick Henry), and that is what he is relentless chipping away.  I don't know if we have faced, as a nation, as an experiment in democracy and self-government, such a critical moment as we face now that W has thrown down the gauntlet.  His pugnacious radio address yesterday made it very clear -- he believes that he is authorized to take any action that he feels is necessary in his war on terror.  He is not subject to legislative or judicial review. 

He says the program is reviewed every 45 days -- by him, his attorney general, and his lawyer.  Good grief.

The rumbling in congress is encouraging.  But the president's partisans are coming on strong as well.  The next few weeks will tell -- are we so craven as a nation that we will turn our back on the dreams of Franklin and Washington and Jefferson and Adams in search of some elusive illusion of security?  Tyrants and dictators always arise with the consent of those they govern.  We get the government that we deserve.


The Revenge of the Sith

A couple of quotes from today's New York Times:

"The position of the executive branch," said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University who has consulted with lawyers for several detainees, "is that it can be judge, jury and executioner."

and

"Much thought goes into how and why various tools are used in these often complicated cases," Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said on Friday. "The important thing is for someone not to come away thinking this whole process is arbitrary, which it is not."

I'm not concerned about whether or not those decisions are arbitrary -- it's the fact that the executive branch believes that it can make those decisions in secret and with no oversight that shreds democracy and moves us into a dictatorship.  In popular parlance we think of a dictator as one who is imposed and not subject to removal by the democratic process.  But in the classical sense, the dictator is simply the ruler whose decisions are subject to no oversight and no challenge.

Cheney's opposition to the McCain amendment is not principally about whether or not the president has the right to order torture in extraordinary cases.  The fundamental issue is whether or not the president is to be subject to the rule of law.  The people who run our government very explicitly believe that he should not be.  Their arguments are always couched in the language of not constraining the president's ability to prosecute the war in whatever way he sees fit.  There's no subterfuge or duplicity involved in this dismantling of the republic.

But the proper response to that objection should be, "Exactly.  The President should not have the authority to do whatever he feels is necessary.  The whole complicated process by which we hold the delicate American experiment together is predicated on the notion that no one branch of government, and certainly no one person should have the ability to determine an individual's fate.  In giving that up, we are betraying everything that we're sending those young men and women to Iraq to die for."

This is the tragedy of George W. Bush's patriotism.    Relentlessly determined to send more and more of our finest and most idealistic off to die in the name of an ideal that he is steadily destroying.  And I really don't think he knows what he's doing. 


Honest Politicians?

In these dark days at the end of the Republic, we've been trying to watch the Daily Show more often.  Last night was a repeat, with Barack Obama as the guest.   He's a great foil for Stewart -- witty, open, quick.  Best exchange came when Stewart asked him if he feels a lot of pressure from all of the hype surrounding him.  Not so much, says Obama.  "I just try to do the best I can, speak openly about what I believe in.  But yeah, there's some pressure -- the only person who's more overhyped than me is you!"  Stewart nearly fell on the floor laughing and said that was about the best answer he'd ever heard.

So one hopes the best for young Barack and his idealism.  But realistically, can it last?  Politics is inevitably about compromise, and one necessarily ends up agreeing to things one would rather not in the service of attaining a more important end.  Even in my small sphere of academia I run into that all of the time.  I make choices about what I'll pursue, where I'll stand my ground, what risks I'm willing to take, what opportunities I'll pass up.  Fortunately for me, the political stakes are relatively small (this is academia, after all) so I've never been in a position where I've felt that I've had to compromise on principle.  I like to believe that if I were ever put in a position where I couldn't avoid acting unethically, I'd resign.  Fortunately, I've never been tested in that way.  In my world, I get to be honest and still reasonably effective.

But Senator Obama?  In the snakepit that is the United States Senate, how long will it be (if it hasn't happened already) before he feels that he has to make choices that chip away, even just a little bit, at his ethical core?  Where will he decide to take his stands?  What compromises will he find himself forced to make?

Is it possible, in that world, to be truly honest and still be effective?  Many years ago, when I first saw the biography of LBJ on The American Experience, I was struck with the awareness that Johnson had a fundamentally different view of truth and falsity, right and wrong, than what I'd been brought up with.  In his world there were goals and objectives to be reached, and one used whatever tools were at hand to get there.   Notions of "truth" were pretty much irrelevant. 

Johnson did more to improve race relations and to combat poverty in America than any other president.  And yet, in his pursuit of the Vietnam War, his choices made him a war criminal.    Reagan was probably the 2nd most effective president of the  20th century, and his hold on reality was clearly quite tenuous.  He couldn't even get the facts of his own history straight.  But he was a natural-born storyteller, and the truth of the stories was what mattered more to him than any actual historical facts.

A willingness to ignore ethical norms may be necessary for success in politics; but it's not sufficient.  If W's administration continues its collapse, and is viewed in retrospect as the disaster that it has in fact been, it won't be because they played fast and loose with the truth; it won't be because they are ethically corrupt.  It'll be because they're incompetent. 

In recent presidential elections, both parties have cynically played up the "character" issue, as if that really matters.   But the people of the United States have always loved their corrupt politicians, as long as they deliver.

That's the reality that someone like Obama has to face.  There'll come a decision point where he can achieve something that his constituents will celebrate, but only at the cost of a bit of his soul.  What will he do?


Abuse of Language

"...any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false."  So says Dick Cheney as the administration's full court press continues.   He's fond of the word "reprehensible."

It would seem that the evidence of the administration's manipulation of intelligence is overwhelming, but looking at it that way is getting caught up in that "fact-based" fallacy again.  The war at home, the political war, is a war of words and emotions.  And Cheney is a master.  He was able to convince half the public that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks, while simultaneously expressing outrage that anyone would claim that such a suggestion was coming out of the White House.  Now he's praising Murtha as "a good man, ... a patriot" while blasting anyone who agrees with him as engaging in "revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."   

It must've hurt when Bush was forced to say that he completely rejected the notion that anyone disagreeing with his policies was unpatriotic.  His minions had spent the earlier part of the week trying to make exactly that charge.  Maybe it's kind of a "hate the sin, love the sinner" thing -- I reject any suggestion that you are being unpatriotic, despite the fact that your lying reprehensible comments are giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

It's kind of fascinating.   While it's difficult for me to imagine that Bush might recover politically, it would be foolish to discount the possiblity altogether.   Public opinion is pretty manipulable.   It remains to be seen if the growing distrust and disillusion with my president will stick, or if he can somehow turn it around.    Unfortunately, even if he doesn't, he'll be able to continue the debacle in Iraq for another three years.  I don't dare hope that the growing pressure within his party for an exit strategy will be sufficient to get him to actually declare victory and pull out.   If he was just a corrupt and cynical politician, that might happen.  But I still think he's a true believer, convinced he's doing God's work.   


Bitching For Sport

The shadow spreading over my country from the Crescent City has taken away my appetite for writing for the last week.  I've been obsessed with following the story and, since I rarely watch TVnews, I've been getting it online.  I read the coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and check the Times-Picayune for updates.  I click on AP headlines to see if there's anything new.   When I run out of new news there, I can't help myself from digging further into the blogosphere.  That's where it gets really depressing.

I'm not surprised at the partisanship, at how quick the anti-Bush crowd is to see this as more clear evidence that the idiot should be impeached, while his defenders just as quickly focus on the failures of local and state officials and praise W for his efforts to rescue them from their manifest incompetence.  At this point I can almost give a shrug of resignation at the paucity of genuine thought on both sides, how the partisans cherry-pick the news for those items that "prove" their points, while ignoring or dismissing all evidence to the contrary.  It's as if recognizing the fact that Nagin waited too long to call for a mandatory evacuation would enable our president to slither away from the blame, or to admit that the head of FEMA is manifestly out of his depth would be to allow an unadmissible chink in the armor protecting W, the great and decisive leader.  The partisans have long since decided what they want to believe, and in this age of emotion and irrationality, it is considered completely acceptable to rummage around in the barrel of broken facts and pull out just those that you can arrange neatly as "evidence" for your position.

Most dismaying, however, is the amount of petty viciousness.   Not so much in the blog entries themselves, but in the comments.    Over and over I see comment threads that descend into hostile name-calling among anonymous posters.    Clearly these people are not interested in anything like discussion.  When you call someone a "reactionary, ass-sucking, right-wing fuck" I don't think you're trying to persuade them to your point of view.

At this level of babble there's no distinction between the right and the left.  And I can't figure out what drives these people.  You imagine them hunched for hours over their keyboards, scanning their hundred favorite blogs, feeling like a heat-seeking missle, looking for postings or comments that they can obliterate with a blast of withering, scatological scorn.  I suppose they think that they're incredibly clever.  Do they think they're defending their version of the truth?  Or is it just another videogame -- seek out and destroy the bad guys.

This is the part of the blogosphere that the sceptics (remember Gorman?) are talking about.  And there is a lot of it.   For all the self-preening among bloggers about "citizen journalism" and the dawn of a bold new age, most of the billions of words that get spewed every day present us at our very worst.  Makes me want to close up shop and quit participating.  I don't want to be associated with those people.


Echoes and Incompetence

So there's my president on national TV yesterday morning, excusing the pathetic federal response by saying, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."  All too reminiscent of Condy's comment after 9/11 that no one could have imagined that someone would try to fly airplanes into office towers.  It's hard to know what to think of W making such a stupid remark.  Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post, quotes Bush and then links to three newspaper stories documenting many instances of people anticipating that very catastrophe, warning against it, and begging for the funding to do something about it -- funding which Bush repeatedly cut from the budgets.  So did he actually believe that statement?  If he knew that it was false, why in the world did he say it?  Or was he just not paying attention to the words coming out of his mouth?  He is such an embarassment to his country.

His performance was bested later in the day, however, when Robert Siegel interviewed Michael Chertoff, director of homeland security.  Siegel refers to the couple of thousand people at the Convention Center without food and water and asks how soon supplies will get to them.  Chertoff says, we're getting food and water to the Superdome...  Siegel interrupts -- I'm talking about the Convention Center.  Chertoff babbles that we've got plenty of supplies, but we're limited by conditions on the ground, and we've been hit with a double catastrophe, and we're doing everything humanly possible...  Siegel presses, but when these people at the Convention Center ask our reporters how soon they'll get some relief, what should we tell them?  Chertoff sidesteps the question again, burbling about the "heroic efforts" being undertaken, and how there may be some isolated areas where people aren't being reached, but that we need to be cautious about extrapolating from rumors and isolated reports...  Siegel says, but these aren't rumors!  These are reports from seasoned reporters who've covered many natural disasters, and they say there are thousands of people at the convention center without food and water!   Chertoff says, "I have not heard a report of thousands of people at the Convention Center without food and water." 

Siegel comes at it from another angle, referring to a report from 2001 about the possible impact of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans.  As someone who inherited FEMA, he says, referring to the consolidation of agencies under the department of homeland security, "Have you had a plan, in an office somewhere near yours, that says, 'Huge hurricane hits New Orleans, here's what we do in the case of that catastrophe'"?  Chertoff says that FEMA has plans for every forseeable catastrophe, and they're working that plan, but "a plan only gets you so far."  There's a long pause, and Siegel says, slowly, "And our reporter says there are two thousand people at the Convention Center without food and water."  Chertoff, sounding semi-hysterical, says, "I'm not going to argue with you about what your reporter says,... if you're suggesting that we missed a group of people, then we'll go find them..."  "Thank you..."  says Siegel, and the interview is over.

If Chertoff coached a college basketball game that ineptly, they'd fire his ass.  W will probably give him a medal of freedom.   

I sat in my car listening to the end of that interview, just stupified.  I understand that this is a tremendous challenge, a logistical and communications nightmare, and I certainly don't expect that everything will be going smoothly.  But this is a level of incompetence that is hard to fathom.  Unfortunately, it is perfectly consistent with this administration's performance since day one.

The Department of Homeland Security was designed to eliminate the confusion and conflicts among agencies that W's crew blamed for their pathetic response to the terrorist threat they inherited when they came into office.  It wasn't their fault that they'd ignored all of the clear warnings of an Al-Qaeda strike -- it was a systemic problem because of the way government was organized.  W's plan would fix that.  He assured us that it would make us safer, and would dramatically enhance the ability of the federal government to respond in case of a national emergency.  This was its first test.  And now we know.


Somebody To Vote For

Anybody know how long you need to be a Texas resident to be eligible to vote for governor?  I'd be willing to commute for awhile just for the opportunity to vote for Kinky.   

All of the news in the papers yesterday was depressing -- more killing in Iraq, Jewish settlers being torn from their homes, W seeking "balance" in his life by going for a bike ride while the white crosses proliferate down the road...  The work day was intense and long, and when I finally got home, so tired and beat that I was snappish with Lynn, I poured some Macallan and sat down to read the recent profile in the New Yorker.  I felt a lot better right away.

The first time I saw the Kinkster was in Kansas City in the late eighties.  I was there for an MCMLA meeting and I found out that he was doing a performance and book signing at a local club.  I remember walking a long way from the hotel through some somewhat seedy parts of town (the locals were a little freaked when I told them the next day what I'd done), and having a wonderful time.   He played guitar for about an hour, telling stories in between, and then signed copies of his latest mystery (his second, I think).  I came away with a signed copy of the book, a guitar pick with his name on it, and a matchbook emblazoned "Kinky for Sheriff" (he hadn't been elected).   I thought he was brilliant, and while I've never been a huge fan of his books (not my type of thing), I've tracked his progress over the years and my admiration has only grown.

The next time I saw him was recently (a year or so ago?) when Jake arranged for him to do an event at the Stephens Center.  Not much guitar this time, and he didn't have any picks to hand out, but the stories were bolder and better and the man himself was having a good time being iconic.  He was just starting to talk about running for governor but still hadn't quite decided on the campaign slogan --  "Why The Hell Not?" vs "How Hard Can It Be?"  At that point it was all just part of the schtick, but, as the New Yorker article relates, the response that he got was more than he'd expected.  And he started to really think, why the hell not?  And now it's a real campaign.

It could happen.  And the very fact that it is possible is a clear indication of how frustrated we are with the political establishment and how truly unrepresentative our government has become.   Ventura in Minnesota, and the Governator in California are part of the same phenomenon.   The notion that we could put somebody in office who actually speaks his mind, doesn't try to hide his faults & failings, and wants to try to do something good is so thrilling to most people it trumps disagreements about particular policies or issues.  Kinky is so iconoclastic that you can't imagine that there's anybody who would agree with all of his positions on issues (he's self-contradictory so that includes him as well) but who cares?   

Willie Nelson is hosting a little lunch event at his ranch on September 24th.  If I wasn't going to be out of the country that week, I'd be there.   

I wonder if I can find somebody in Texas to give me a visiting professor gig for awhile....  Isn't it about time for me to take a sabbatical?


Stuck

Bush's poll numbers are looking grim.   On the whole we're about as happy with his handling of Iraq as we were with Johnson's management of Vietnam in March of '68, just before Johnson announced that he wouldn't be seeking re-election.  Of course, W isn't seeking re-election either.  Sigh.

The numbers are deceptive, however.  Ninety percent of those who identify themselves as Republicans do approve of what W is doing.  That's probably sufficient for a tough guy like him to reassure himself that he needs to stay the course.

A lengthy piece in yesterday's Washington Post, however, suggests that the course we're staying on is very different from the one initially envisioned, despite what W continues to claim.  If the Iraqi convention is, in fact, able to agree on a constitution by today's deadline, it's going to look very different from the western-style democracy that the administration predicted was just around the corner.   One of those ubiquitous "senior officials" is quoted: "What we expected to achieve was never realistic..."  Great.

This kind of reporting isn't likely to affect those hard-core supporters.  It's difficult to imagine what might.  Some Republicans are starting to get skittish about the '06 elections, and there may be some entertainment value in watching them turn on each other.  But the Iraq policy is dug in too deep, and there isn't any way to make a significant change in that without acknowledging that serious mistakes have been made.  We know that W isn't going to admit that.


Blind, Blinkered Bush

Maureen Dowd is back.  My favorite newspaper columnist has been on leave from the New York Times, ostensibly working on a book.  I've been a fan of her writing for years -- whether I agree with her or not, I always love the way she expresses herself.  She's got a sharp, sarcastic, very witty style that makes use of lots of clever word games to make her points.  Frequently, that leads her into hyperbole and rhetorical exaggeration, but the results are so fun that it's worth it.

Today's column addresses the case of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who is camped out near W's ranch, insisting that she's going to stay there until he comes out to talk to her.  She wants to tell him face-to-face that it's time to bring the troops home.  (Sidebar: As much as I despise this war and revile the idiots who blindly pushed us into it, I am not in favor of an immediate withdrawal.)

As Dowd points out, the most baffling thing about the incident is why my president doesn't have "the elementary shrewdness to ... simply walk down the driveway to hear her out, or invite her in for a cup of tea."  He doesn't have to agree with her, for crying out loud, but you would think that simple political calculation (if not human decency) would dictate something other than sending out a couple of suits while the spokesman says that Bush doesn't have to meet with her because he already met with her along with a group of other bereaved parents some months ago.  I guess she'd have to have another son or daughter killed in order to score a second handshake.

In the run-up to the war, I was channel flipping one night, and came across an MTV Europe station.  Tony Blair was sitting casually in a studio talking with a dozen or so teenagers.  They were asking him tough questions.  It was very clearly unscripted.  And he was very carefully, politely and thoughtfully answering their questions.  The show went on for something like ninety minutes.  He wasn't persuading all of the kids, and I don't think he imagined that he would.  But he knew that he owed it to them to explain himself.  I thought longingly of what it might be like to live in a country where my president thought he owed that to the people he supposedly serves.

But the disdain that W and his crew feel for the American public has been evident since the early days of his first campaign.   And the longer that his imperial presidency lasts, the more obvious it becomes.  His hissy fit at Carol Coleman, the Irish reporter who dared to challenge him last year, the faces that he pulled during the first debate with Kerry, his obvious frustration when he mouths his platitudes and can't understand why people don't automatically fall in line just because he says so...  It just gets worse and worse.

The most recent polls show an increasing number of Americans feeling that W is not honest and that his "forthrightness" is really arrogance.  Too bad they didn't pick up on that sooner.  We always get the president that we deserve.


Democracy and Populism

A lengthy excerpt from John Lukacs' recent book, Democracy and Populism, in the April Harper's gives one of the most striking analyses of the current political climate that I've seen.  He uses words precisely, a talent that is unfortunately quite rare in most of the political chatter that I read.  He recognizes that we are in an age where the unreflective genuflection to "majority rule" and the glib use of the word "democracy" by "colorless presidents such as George W. Bush," presents real dangers to the kind of community envisioned by the founding fathers.

Is democracy the rule of the people or, more precisely, rule by the people?  No, it is rule in the name of the people, which is far more complicated.  In its predominant sense democracy is the rule of the majority, but here liberalism must enter. ... Majority rule must be tempered by legal assurances of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women.  And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more than populism.  More precisely, it is nationalist populism.

This is a sentiment that I've long believed, although I've rarely seen it stated so concisely.  It underlies much of the fury that people feel toward the federal courts, and the resentment so many legislators feel at their inability to have their way.  A truly "democratic" system (in the way the word is understood by most legislators and most Americans) would have no need for those courts, because the law would simply be whatever the majority wants it to be on any given day.  The system that the founders designed, however, is carefully crafted to guard against the dangers of populism.  Lukacs points out that,

For much of the nineteenth century, democracy was feared by both liberals and conservatives.  Serious thinkers from both camps spoke against the principle of popular sovreignty, and against what Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority."  Those who did not reject democracy entirely tried their best to circumscribe it.  They were aware that liberty and equality are not identical, that their aspirations are not necessarily parallel and indeed often antithetical, and that to insist on one at the expense of the other could be disastrous.

But my favorite bit from this excerpt is his description of the difference between "patriotism" and "nationalism".  I have never seen this expressed anywhere before, but it seems to so clearly clarify why my deep love for my country seems so often at odds with the chest-beaters and flag-wavers:

When... Samuel Johnson uttered his famous dictum that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," he meant nationalism, but that word did not yet exist. ...

Patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive.  Patriotism is the love of a particular land with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a "people," and is often a political and ideological substitute for religion.  Patriotism is old-fashioned...; nationalism is modern and populist.  A patriot is not necessarily a conservative; he may even be a liberal of sorts.  In the twentieth century, a nationalist could hardly be liberal.

Lukacs, of course, is using the words "conservative" and "liberal" in the old-fashioned way (as when we used to talk about the virtues of a "liberal education").    He's trying to address something deeper and more historical that lies beneath the current fury of political debate.  I've always believed that the bedrock of the American experiment is that it is a system designed to protect the weak and defenceless; those that hold unpopular opinions and those that can easily find themselves the targets of the fury of the angry and frightened mob.  In these days of increasing intolerance on the part of the fearful, Lukacs helps to describe what it is that we are at risk of losing.