So much for that ‘filibuster-proof majority.’

May 20, 2009

Senate Democrats decisively derailed one of President Obama’s most popular initial moves — closing Guantanamo Bay — today:

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to cut from a war spending bill the $80 million requested by President Obama to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to bar the transfer of detainees to the United States and its territories.

The vote, which complicates Mr. Obama’s efforts to shutter the prison by his deadline of Jan. 22, 2010, was 90 to 6. Republicans voted unanimously in favor of cutting the money.

“The American people don’t want these men walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota. “The American people don’t want these detainees held at a military base or federal prison in their back yard, either.”

Right — how could we ever hold an unspeakable terrorist on our soil? Like Tim McVeigh (imprisoned in Colorado until his execution), or John Walker Lindh (currently imprisoned in Indiana). (Of course, they were white. Not to sound like a leftist, but that’s really the deal-breaker here. McVeigh might have murdered 168 people, and Lindh might have deflected to the Taliban, but wouldn’t you still rather live next door to them than one of those dreadful Arabs?)

Though the article emphasizes Republican opposition to the bill, the NYT makes it clear that the blame should be placed squarely on the Democrats:

The move by Senate Democrats to bar, for now, any transfer of detainees to the United States, raised the possibility that Mr. Obama’s order to close the camp by Jan. 22, 2010, may have to be changed or delayed.

“Guantánamo makes us less safe,” the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said on Tuesday at a news conference where he laid out the party’s rationale for its decision. “However, this is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this. Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.”

Remember when Senate Democrats saved Joe “Democrat Party” Lieberman’s skin because it was “what Barack wanted”? Now they’ve abandoned one of their popular president’s most popular proposals to date because it’s not “comprehensive” or responsible.” Funny, isn’t it, how partisanship only manifests itself when the party bosses find it useful.

Give the people what they want?

May 11, 2009

The “center-right” myth lives on, though the major players no longer bother reciting it, so threadbare and unpersuasive has it become. Now it’s left to the sub-pundits, the “strategists” and “advisers” who make their careers pretending that politics is no different, fundamentally, than pro hockey:

The second organization founded this past week chose the name Resurgent Republic, and has as its leaders two veteran Republican campaign strategists and advisers: Ed Gillespie, who most recently was a Bush White House counselor, and Whit Ayres, a pollster and strategist for an array of GOP candidates in recent years.

In its launch, the organization stressed its view that conservative positions were not as out of favor as Obama’s successes might make it appear. “America remains a center-right country,” Ayres argues. “They perceive Barack Obama as a liberal, and they perceive themselves as center-right. They voted for him not to support liberal policies but because he represented change.

What electorate is this, that believes in “center-right” values and deliberately votes for a candidate who opposes those values because they want “change” from what they actually want? No wonder Mencken called democracy “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

If the president does it…

May 5, 2009

Condoleezza Rice explains the concept of monarchy to a fourth grader:

“Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. After September 11, we wanted to protect the country,” she said. “But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country. …

Well, isn’t that a relief! Last week at Stanford, according to the article, Rice told students this: “And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

Gosh — where have we heard that one before?

Was the Civil War a just war?

May 2, 2009

“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1848

“The process of disintegration in the old Union may be expected to go on with almost absolute certainty, if we pursue the right course. We are now the nucleus of a growing Power which, if we are true to ourselves, our destiny, and high mission, will become the controlling Power on this Continent.” — Alexander Stephens, March 21, 1861

War is a degrading and inhuman thing. Reading Homer’s exuberant descriptions of hand-to-hand combat today, we shudder at the bone-crunching details, the relish his killers take in killing. We cannot feel what his original listeners must have felt, that this was a glorious and manly and even fun pastime. The wretchedness of war is a relatively recent discovery, but once we discovered it we could not forget it. Any war, regardless of the righteousness of its actual aim, is conducted by the sickening and horrible spectacle of countless people giving their lives — or becoming killers — for reasons that invariably seem remote to their immediate condition. There is a basic injustice inherent to the concept of war that no result can entirely atone for. I can think of only a handful of wars in all of human history that seem justified by their goals, and only barely; the rest is a record of misery, cruelty and hellishness. This is an essential point to make before attempting to defend the righteousness of any war.

In my view, the United States has only fought one completely justified war of choice since its founding: the 1861-65 war against the leaders of the so-called “Confederate States of America.” (1) Although it’s since come to be called “the Civil War,” that name was rarely used during the actual war. (The term “War Between the States” does not seem to have been used at all.) It was most commonly referred to by the same name that the federal government itself still uses to refer to it in its official records: “The War of the Rebellion.” Those who fought against the United States referred to themselves as “rebels.” These terms have fallen into disuse, for reasons that will probably become obvious. Read the rest of this entry »

Tom Friedman vs. the Republic

April 29, 2009

The ever-entertaining Tom Friedman has a very useful column up at the Times, explaining why everyone feels “unsatisfied” by the current “compromise” with the principles of law and order, even those who agree with it. It should be read by everyone who wonders what’s going on, and wishes to understand why those who wield power do not wish to see government crimes prosecuted even if it means the punishment of their purported enemies.

After all, we’re not just talking about “enhanced interrogations.” Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 of those declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials.

The president’s decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible for this policy is surely unsatisfying; some of this abuse involved sheer brutality that had nothing to do with clear and present dangers.

In short, we are no longer dealing with torture (bad enough in itself, but a policy for which excuses can, and have, been devised). We are dealing with actual crimes, the kind of crimes that would send you and me and everyone we know to prison, or to death row. So why can’t we have justice? Friedman explains:

justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart

Friedman is exactly right: Punishing mere lackeys would be a mockery of justice. In order to have justice, we have to put the tyrant and his henchmen on trial. Any other result would make a mockery of justice. The entire country knows who was responsible for these crimes, and plucking scapegoats out of the military would be so blatantly dishonest it would arouse the scorn and anger of the entire electorate, left and right, “moderate” and extreme both.

So why not put the ex-president and his compatriots on trial? We didn’t hesitate to put another president on trial, with the whole world watching, for a puny private offense. Nor did Democrats come to their president’s aid; they abused him and denounced him to the press and called for his resignation. No fear of “tearing the country apart” was then heard, even though the president was popular and there was no mob howl for his head. No fear then, either, of consuming the entire attention of the country for a year and more, of diverting attention from all other domestic and foreign affairs, although that was exactly what happened. Why then, but not now?

We are told it would “tear the country apart.” In fact, the great danger is not that it would tear the country apart but that it would bind the country together, arouse the people’s love of justice and righteousness, and unite them behind the great principles of republican government (as opposed to the fake principles of “pragmatism” and “pluralism” that delight the oligarchs). That is what an exposure of some great public evil always does. Four months after Sept. 11, the whole country exploded in outrage and indignation at the misdeeds of the Enron Corporation. Instead of turning the country into a lynch mob, interested in nothing but bloody revenge on the entire Middle East (as Friedman quite falsely claims), the constant focus on the courage and selflessness of bystanders and firefighters had made Americans despise selfishness and injustice far more than they had in years. As ever, the great majority of the American people had proved to be wiser and better-spirited than the powerful few had made them out to be. But let’s return to Friedman and his “explanation”:

and the other is that Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.

Here Friedman reverts at last — and it took him all of four paragraphs! — to the Great Fallback. Yes, he’s just admitted, all of this business had nothing to do with Al Qaeda; nonetheless, Al Qaeda exists, and its existence requires us to do bad things that have nothing to do with fighting Al Qaeda.

Incidentally, notice that Friedman uses the past tense when he needs to portray Al Qaeda as a grave threat that required extreme measures in the past:

Al Qaeda was undeterred by normal means. Al Qaeda’s weapon of choice was suicide. Al Qaeda operatives were ready to kill themselves…

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda aspired to deliver a devastating blow to America.

Later, when he needs to remind us that such extreme measures may be needed once again, he switches to the present tense:

Al Qaeda is primarily focused on defeating America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world

We have to enjoin those who confront Al Qaeda types every day on the frontlines to act in ways that respect who we are, but also to never forget who they are. They are not white-collar criminals.

The essence of Friedman’s argument is rather brutal: No matter how many crimes a leader might commit, he is still a “white collar criminal” and hence more deserving of our special understanding than a vicious, borderline-inhuman Al Qaeda terrorist. Well, I would sooner spend an evening with Dick Cheney than Ayman al-Zawahiri, but let’s not forget that the vast majority of dictators don’t shoot people themselves, and ordering soldiers into battle doesn’t put you on a higher moral plane than the 20-year-old throwing the grenade.

If you have to fear that the person next to you on a plane or in a theater might blow up, there can be no open society.

Friedman descends here into an irrelevant diatribe about the need to suspend civil liberties in wartime. The point is moot, since nothing he talks about — airport security? — has anything to do with the actual crimes committed by (or on the watch of) the last administration. His actual point seems to be that we should let our leaders do whatever they want whenever there is the slightest peril.

One more 9/11 and you’ll be taking off more than your shoes at the airport. We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”

“This torture debate…” But wait, I thought it wasn’t about torture! Remember: “After all, we’re not just talking about ‘enhanced interrogations.’ ”

We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”

It’s easy to nod at this mentality until something actually happens. Then it looks significantly more troubling. “Do whatever it takes” — really? Should we round up suspicious Americans and put them in internment camps? Should we nationalize the airline industry and triple security measures? Should we revive the Sedition and Espionage Acts? Should we begin invading countries at random, to put terrorism-supporters on notice? Should we suspend habeas corpus? How much is “anything”? When will a threat cease to be a readymade excuse for anything and everything our leaders wish to do to us?

So, yes, people among us who went over the line may go unpunished, because we still have enemies who respect no lines at all.

Since Friedman admits himself that the Bush administration crimes had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, he can’t really explain why they ought to go “unpunished.” So he doesn’t bother explaining, apart from that smooth line about it “tearing us apart.” The rest of the powers that be have a much better-sounding excuse. Their reason is that it would make us look like a “banana republic.”

Senator Kit Bond of Missouri: This whole thing about punishing people in past administrations reminds me more of a banana republic than the United States of America. We don’t criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: “If there is evidence of criminality, then the Attorney General has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.”

Karl Rove: “What they’ve essentially said is if we have policy disagreements with our predecessors…. [W]e’re going to turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses. … Now, that might be fine in some little Latin American country that’s run by, you know, the latest junta — it may be the way that they do things in Chicago — but that’s not the way we do things here in America.”

The problem with this reason is that it looks absurd if you think about it for longer than it took any of these people to say it. Banana republics are countries where rulers are corrupt and self-serving and rewrite the laws at will. If we decide that presidents are, by definition, unable to commit crimes (which both parties openly declared was not true in 2000 when they impeached President Clinton for perjury), and crimes themselves become “policy disagreements,” then every potential crisis becomes grounds for suspending the law and giving the president the power to do whatever he pleases. In short, we become a banana republic. Nor does a terrorist attack, however tragic and unsettling, count as a crisis that threatens the nation’s existence. (Compared to Imperial Japan or the Confederacy, Al Qaeda’s “threat” doesn’t even register.)

In brief: Friedman’s catechism is useful because it collects the various self-serving falsifications and Orwellian double-thoughts into a single place. If some daring Representative is brave enough, s/he ought to read out Friedman’s column on the floor as a devastating expose of the kind of lies a burgeoning banana republic’s ruling elite likes to tell itself.

Thoughts on this blog’s future.

April 23, 2009

The torture debate (sickening, really, that it even is a debate) has set Andrew Sullivan on fire. I’ve been reading him on-and-off for a couple of years, and I can’t recall him ever being as good — as righteously furious because he’s right — as he has been in the last day or two. Just about every post from the last couple days is chilling, right-on, and perfectly put.

Reading The Daily Dish today, in fact, made me wonder exactly what it is I want to do with The Civic Spirit. Posts have been sporadic this year, in part because I’m busy with my real-world job but more because I’m not sure what I have to add to the chorus on most issues. I take it as a given, for instance, that torture is a bad thing and that we should avoid doing it regardless of whether it “works.” Up until fairly recently, this seemed to be the attitude of the rest of the country. Bush and Cheney changed that. They made torture an option, put it on the table, and its “effectiveness” is now seriously discussed by the country’s pseudo-journalists and self-vaunting intellectuals. The fact that the United States didn’t even torture Nazis during World War II has no effect on the pro-torture crowd. The argument is no longer “we are better than them because we don’t do that” but “we have the right to be every bit as bad as they are.” I could write serious posts about the torture “debate,” but why bother? It’s all been said, and yet it remains an “issue.” All I have to do is read one of the pro-torture arguments, and I feel like I’m floating in an acid bath. To respond to one of these things — to force yourself to take the premise seriously and understand where the other person is coming from — might be necessary, but do I have to be the one to do it?

Leaving things like that aside, I’m often not sure what I can say that Greenwald or Sullivan or someone else hasn’t already said. The blogosphere certainly needs a radical-republican take on Obama’s New New Deal, on the ongoing wars, on the recovering Right — but I’m busy trying to absorb it all. Events are moving so quickly that keeping track of what they all mean is a full-time task. But since I’ve decided not to comment on UA or local issues for the time being, that doesn’t leave me much room for taking time off from national politics.

Quote of the day.

April 20, 2009

In keeping with this blog’s tradition of exposing the undemocratic leanings of Supreme Court Justices, here’s Justice John Paul Stevens, on why he thinks the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays:

“A lot of people like to think it’s Shakespeare because…they like to think that a commoner can be such a brilliant writer,” he says. “Even though there is no Santa Claus, it’s still a wonderful myth.”

You heard it here first, folks: Shakespeare — not to mention Chaucer, Goethe, Joyce, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Orwell, Hemingway, Woolf, Faulkner, Waugh, Wodehouse, Salinger, Ellison, Emerson, and Whitman — couldn’t possibly have written anything of worth, because he was a “commoner.” Clearly, only members of the landed aristocracy should even be permitted to own typewriters.

An epiphany.

April 13, 2009

Justice Clarence Thomas rarely speaks in public, and judging from these rambling remarks at an event sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, it’s easy to see why.

The event, on March 31, was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.

‘Today there is much focus on our rights,” Justice Thomas said. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.”

“I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?”

In this unguarded moment, Justice Thomas blurted out the essence of his faction — the evil, ugly essence of the reactionary Right. It is marked by detestation of liberty, for liberty brings chaos and crime in its wake. It is marked by hatred of those who defend the powerless and hatred for the powerless themselves. And it is marked by yearning for an omnipotent social order imposed by the state, for the authoritarian Right, unlike its libertarian counterpart, feels no deep distrust of the state unless it emboldens its enemies. How contemptuous these faux-conservatives are of those with “grievances,” and how resentful of a “proliferation of rights” that weakens their own power over others.

Blessedly, the moment also reveals how comic this half-mad ideology is. Side by side with our Bill of Rights, Justice Thomas wants a Bill of Responsibilities and a Bill of Obligations. What are our obligations, one wonders? Helping little old ladies across the street? Returning library books on time? My own “responsibilities” include changing my cat’s litter box and stacking the dishwasher every other day, but do we need to put them in the Constitution?

Hannah Arendt revisited.

April 6, 2009

If I had to pick the best political thinkers of the century, Hannah Arendt would have to top the list. No one else — not even my personal journalistic hero, Walter Karp — ever asked so many original questions, and delved so deep into the answers. More than a mere philosopher, Arendt was “a storyteller, like a guide in the catacombs of history,” as Greil Marcus put it. Immensely well-read, she picked her way through each essay as if cliches were land mines, ever on the hunt for whatever it was she really thought.

Her writing is lucid enough, but it often takes me several rereadings to figure out what she meant; the flow of her argument sometimes seems more fanciful than logical, as if she were leaping from point to point without pausing to make logical connections. In her 1963 masterpiece, On Revolution, she dreams her way back into the French and American Revolutions in search of their meaning, and comes up with answers that no academic scholar — or Marxist — would ever countenance. Does that mean they were wrong? To paraphrase a much-overquoted movie line, is academia equipped to handle the truth?

The true mark of Arendt’s power and originality is that she remains, to a surprising degree, detested. I’ve been thinking about her because I just stumbled on a remembrance of her by the poet Robert Lowell, and it’s a remarkable piece, as generous and understanding as virtually every other piece about Arendt I’ve read has been prissy and judgmental. And it’s beautifully written. Lowell’s account of how he got lost on his way to Arendt’s apartment the first time he went there reminds me more of my own impressions of New York City than anything else I’ve ever read, and it’s only a paragraph long.

He also remembers a terrifying moment. In 1963, Arendt wrote a remarkable book about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was seized and put on trial in Jerusalem that year. The book, which Arendt once admitted she wrote “in a curious state of euphoria,” pursued Eichmann’s career as a thoughtless bureaucrat with deadpan relish. You read the book’s cool collecting and recounting of facts with a growing sense of helplessness, knowing what’s coming — and yet Arendt doesn’t let her mask slip. Then, at the end, Arendt turned around and spoke in the voice of some cosmic judge, saying what no real judge could ever say, in the only convincing argument for any use of the death penalty I’ve ever heard:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

But the book infuriated people. Not only had Arendt identified Eichmann as an empty suit who did what he did for no reason — not a demon, but a terrifying vision of what any of us might become if we fell into the wrong circumstances — but she condemned Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis. This did not go over well:

When Hannah’s Eichmann was published, a meeting was summoned by Irving Howe and Lionel Abel, normally urbane and liberal minds. The meeting was like a trial, the stoning of an outcast member of the family. Any sneering overemphasis on Hannah, who had been invited but was away teaching in Chicago, was greeted with derisive clapping or savage sighs of amazement. Her appointed defenders drifted off into unintelligibly ingenious theses and avoided her name. When her tolerance was eloquently and unfavorably compared with Trotsky’s, Alfred Kazin walked self-consciously to the stage and stammered, “After all Hannah didn’t kill any Jews.” He walked off the stage laughed at as irrelevant and absurd. His was the one voice for the defense. I admire his bravery, and wish I had dared speak. Half my New York literary and magazine acquaintance was sitting near, yet their intensity was terrifying, as if they were about to pick up chairs.

It could be said, as one critic of Arendt did, that there was something “heartless” about her tone. But Arendt did not write to make anyone feel better. She understood that truth was seldom a pleasant, sensible thing. Her refusal to cover up that fact is surely part of why no one can write about Hannah Arendt these days without adopting that smirky, patronizing tone, as if independent minds are all well and good for the young but the rest of us have moved on.

Electing a new people.

April 4, 2009

Why do totalitarian nations always call themselves things like “The People’s Federal Democratic Republic of Freedonia”? The answer is fairly obvious, but Slate explains. The names are meant to signify “the idea that the state and its people are synonymous.” It’s hard to imagine a more succinct definition of state tyranny: Everything the state does is in the interest of “the people,” and anyone who dissents from state purpose betrays the people.

The United States of America, then, is fairly unique these days in not bothering to include any of this business in its name. In every other way, however, we trumpet our commitment to “the people.” We are told over and over again that we rule, that everything our leaders do is done in our name and for our best interests. Then, when we get angry, we get Newsweek covers depicting us as a lynch mob. We are enjoined to eschew “paranoia,” to avoid falling into a “conspiratorial” mindset, to trust in our leaders and in the magic of “pluralism.” It is not honest debate but “bipartisanship” that will rescue us from the doldrums of democracy. And if anything goes wrong, it’s all our fault; perhaps only mass disenfranchisement would solve our problems. If the government cannot get along with the people, once cracked Bertolt Brecht, it will just have to elect a new people.

Our president is no longer a servant of the people, humbled by his office, but a demigod who can do whatever he wants. When our most recent ex-president demanded the powers of a military dictator, so-called “federalists” around the country were eager to explain to us that his infinite powers were clearly marked in the Constitution. The fact that these claims were taken seriously at all, that they weren’t laughed out of the country for claiming such a thing, could well be attributed to popular ignorance of what that great document — fourteen pages or so — actually says. In the mid-2000s, a popular sex columnist called for a new constitutional amendment to protect a universal right to privacy, oblivious to the fact that such a right is already in the Constitution. Then again, it could just be that our media is so readily intimidated — and impressed — by power that it is eager to go along with everything a powerful person says. One recent author, Gene Healy, has aptly dubbed it “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy blames the people at large for having unreasonable expectations of their president. It would be more accurate to say that no one dares any longer to have reasonable expectations.