Archive for December, 2009

Peace, Tolerance, and Other Liberal Nonsense
December 23, 2009

Mike Potemra, a writer at that intellectual hotbed known as the National Review, wrote a pretty amazing paragraph that’s been getting some play on liberal blogs:

Coincidentally, I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility).

Wow. In addition to surrendering peace, tolerance, due process and even progress over to liberal hegemony, Potemra sets up a pretty lazy dichotomy. It’s not just that “human perfectibility” does not, as far as I can tell, play any significant role in modern liberal political thought–it’s that I see no reason why skepticism about it should be at all contradictory to the “unabashedly liberal” ideals he mentions. “Skepticism about human perfectibility,” when placed in direct contradiction with progress, is little more than a quick and dirty evasion of moral responsibility by way of the Nirvana fallacy. It’s a way of saying: “Well, things will never be perfect, so why try to even make them better? Why not just stay in this perfectly acceptable holding pattern until the Rapture?”

Problem is, unless you’re advocating some kind of Rosseau-style return to nature (which is its own breed of starry-eyed utopianism), then staying where we are means accepting all of the progress we’ve already made. Something tells me that Potemra, were he given a time machine, would not spend most of his time running around telling his ancestors to forsake geometry, running water, and Christianity* because of “skepticism about human perfectibility.”

With that in mind, why should things be different now? It’s supremely arrogant to just assume that we’ve already reached our peak along the long arc of history, and any attempt to meddle with it will result in failure. And, for that matter, it’s significantly more naïve than the “human perfectibility” straw man, because it presumes that we’ve already gotten as close to the ideal society as we ever will. The result isn’t cold, hard realism; it’s a pathological aversion to change, even when we absolutely must.

*This is not to call the rise of Christianity “progress,” which is an entirely different and extremely complicated debate, but for now it should suffice to say that most National Review writers probably see it as such.

A Philosophical Challenge for the Left
December 22, 2009

Long-time friend of the blog Matt Zeitlin having recently resumed blogging at his old place again, has been doing some interesting work on the left’s internal debate over the Senate health care bill (which will likely be, more or less, the conference bill). Characterizing the argument of bill opponent Glenn Greenwald writes:

What matters is not that the bill “will also do some genuine good, as it will help many people who can’t get coverage now to get it.” The immediate policy implications are not as important as the affirmative says they are.

The “genuine good” is really insignificant when it comes to the fight that truly matters, the fight against corporatism: “But if one finds this creeping corporatism to be a truly disturbing and nefarious trend, then the bill will seem far less benign.” We should bed discussing corporatism and strategies to defeat instead of wasting our time thinking up and passing policies in the corporatist system.

We shouldn’t just consider the immediate consequences, but instead consider how this bill upholds and strengthens a corrupt mode of governance and policy making: “Even if one grants the arguments made by proponents of the health care bill about increased coverage, what the bill does is reinforces and bolsters a radically corrupt and flawed insurance model and an even more corrupt and destructive model of “governing.” It is a major step forward for the corporatist model, even a new innovation in propping it up.”

This entire debate comes down to a weighing of alternatives. If we accept Greenwald’s own terms and his description of the debate, we must ask what is more important, expanding health care coverage and regulating the insurance industry, or drawing a line in the sand and saying that this “corrupt and destructive model of governing” is wrong and should be fought and rejected at every turn?

Which is to say he’s making a process argument. Greenwald is an attorney, and so he’s concerned with matters of precedent.
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Philosophy Matters
December 21, 2009

It’s kind of funny how willing I’ve been to mouth off on this blog on a number of very important, complex issues when the most direct experience I have with those issues is through spending a lot of time on the Internet, while the one topic on which I actually do have some degree of (undergraduate) formal training–philosophy–has gone pretty well neglected.
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War Games
December 18, 2009

So I was going to write a whole big thing about my conspiracy theory regarding Iran’s seizure of an oil field in southern Iraq, but then Michael Crowley wrote a post about how this isn’t really news and I breathed a sigh of relief, but THEN I thought, well, hell, why not put the idea out there anyway and play a little armchair strategist?

So imagine, hypothetically, that this was actually an unprecedented grab at valuable property by Iran. My theory was that the broader strategic goal was to drag the United States into an even more prolonged occupation of Iraq. I’m admittedly fuzzy on the strength of the Iraqi military, but something tells me that it probably couldn’t handle a conflict with Iran on its own, and Maliki would have incentive to ask Obama for a longer troop commitment. Of course, this comes right after we’ve already committed more troops to Afghanistan, so the American military would be overextended. And because Obama’s more measured than his predecessor, Tehran might feel more comfortable pushing his buttons like this.

What this would do for the Iranian regime, besides being a test of its status as a regional power, is help with the situation at home. What better pretense for cracking down on dissent and further militarizing the country?

Of course, this is all sort of moot now. But if I ever decide I want a career writing crappy political thrillers, I think I’ve got my first premise.

How Morally Culpable is Joe Lieberman?
December 17, 2009

Via Dylan’s twitter feed, James Poulos remarks that Ezra Klein’s characterization of Lieberman’s moral failure on health care was “reckless and irresponsible hyperventilating.” Here’s the offending sentence in the offending post:

That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.

Strong words! But not so irresponsible, I think. The objection Poulos raises is that the more accurate construction would be to argue that Lieberman is letting hundreds of thousands of people die. He argues:

In truth, of course, to kill a bill that would prevent people from dying is not to kill those people — just as refraining from saving a person in mortal peril is not causing them to die.

But that’s not a proper analogy. To refrain from rescuing someone only requires passivity; it’s about what you’re not doing. For Lieberman, that would mean not voting at all. What he did instead was to threaten to filibuster the bill, thereby killing it. That isn’t inaction, but action–extraordinary action, in fact, although threats of filibustering have become so prevalent that we tend to forget just how extraordinary a measure it is.

The proper analogy, then, would not be refraining from rescuing someone, but instead actively obstructing a rescue attempted by someone else. Imagine that in more concrete terms: say a United States Senator was physically restraining a paramedic who was on her way to administer a necessary, life-saving procedure. If we are reasonably certain that the individual the paramedic is intent on saving would recover were the procedure administered, and if we’re also reasonably certain that the procedure would be administered were the paramedic not physically restrained, then it’s hardly “irresponsible” to claim that the person doing the restraining is causing a death.

So yes, Ezra Klein’s description of what Lieberman did was accurate. His post on the topic wasn’t an out of line assault, but a public service; if only more pundits articulated the actual consequences of all this parliamentary maneuvering as clearly as he did.

The Discipline Problem is Getting Even More Serious
December 17, 2009

And Boehner knows it. He has reason to be excited about the fracturing of the Democratic Party, although if we’re very lucky, his celebrating is premature. It’s not too late to reverse this trend.

Reversing it, of course, requires conceding something on both the right- and left-most flanks of the party.

On the left: Sanders, Dean, Moulitsas and others should accept an improvement over the status quo as what it is and not vocally oppose the status quo legislation (me can’t form sentences good).

On the right: It’s time for Reid to summon up just a little of his inner Tom DeLay. Yglesias is correct that the White House can’t apply much pressure to Nelson and Lieberman. And Nelson, at least, is responding to real political pressure as a red state Senator.

Reid, though, has some leverage, albeit leverage that he never seems to use. I wouldn’t recommend targeting Nelson, because it’s unlikely someone more liberal could ever make it in Nebraska. But he could, at the very least, provide an instructive example for Nelson and others about what happens when you stray too far off the reservation by finally doing something about the Lieberman problem. I’m not necessarily saying he should move on trying to strip Lieberman of his committee assignments and seniority immediately; only that he put that tactic back on the table and make it clear that he’s not going to ignore bad faith attempts to sabotage major legislation any more.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for the Senate vote. If the Democrats manage to cobble together something close to a unified front and pass the bill, maybe things will start looking better on this front too.

What the Hell is Howard Dean Thinking?
December 16, 2009

I like Howard Dean. I supported him during the 2004 presidential primary, and I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit (outside of netroots circles, anyway) for his role in herding the Democratic Party to a historic electoral victory in 2006.

But all of that being said, this is just nuts:

“This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate. Honestly the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill, go back to the House, start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill.”

Never mind that this is a damn good bill. Never mind that reconciliation could only be used to pass a limited portion of the bill. And never mind that the health care reform Dean proposed in 2004 was significantly less ambitious than the legislation he’s calling insufficient now. None of that’s terribly salient, given that the odds of him getting his wish are roughly equivalent to the odds of Joe Lieberman getting visited by the eight ghosts of Hanukkah, having an abrupt change of heart, and crying for medicare expansion to be put back into the bill.

No, what really gets me about this is that Dean, a major voice in the grassroots progressive movement, seemingly wants to deprive them of a major victory.

When health care reform passes, the left should celebrate. We should be able to hold this up as a huge milestone, and the first step in a continual expansion of the new Great Society. But instead, Dean–and other organizers who oppose the bill–would have us distance ourselves from the most significant legislative coup we’ve had in a very long time, thereby substantially, and unnecessarily, weakening our position.

Of course, there’s a significant portion of the netroots–Dean’s base within his base, you could call them–that disagree with me. Dean’s telling them what they want to hear, and he knows that. I hope his motives, however misguided, for calling for the tanking of the Senate bill are purer than just a blatant pander to the Kos-and-MoveOn crowd. It would be a damn shame if one of the left’s foremost leaders was taking a page out of the far right’s book and taking a position he knows will help him advance within the movement to its detriment.

The Warm, Comforting Feeling of Doing Nothing (For Now)
December 15, 2009

So the gathering consensus for why Lieberman should keep his chairmanship and seniority for now is that we might need his vote down the road. And that’s a real concern, albeit one that would be a little easier for me to accept if we hadn’t been listening to that tune since 2006. What has it gotten us so far?

There’s a certain psychological tic prevalent in individuals of all political stripes that Lieberman is a master of manipulating. It’s the reason why he’s still a member of the Democratic caucus, and it’s the reason why so few pundits have the stones to go hard on him like Ezra Klein did. Basically, there’s immense institutional pressure–from the media, yes, but also from what influence Lieberman already wields in the Senate and within beltway opinion–to just let his numerous infractions slide. But not permanently; just for now.

After all, now isn’t a very good time. There’s all this stuff going on. Why not just kick the can down the road a little while longer, until there isn’t all this stuff? Maybe when the Democrats have 61 seats, or when Ezra Klein has Charles Lane’s job and can say whatever he wants. In the meantime, let’s just leave it be. And who knows? Maybe he’ll stop screwing us in the meantime, on account of us being so accommodating.

The problem is, there’s no end to this line of thinking. It’s the perfect perpetual inaction machine. And the longer this remains the consensus, the more damage Lieberman can do.

Joe Lieberman
December 14, 2009

Given that the hallowed halls of the US Senate currently hold everyone from Evan Bayh to Jim Inhofe, it’s quite a feat to be the single most contemptible individual in the bunch. But Joe Lieberman really takes the cake, and this latest stunt just proves it.

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around. There are his defenders in the media, such as Charles Lane, who validate his pathology by mischaracterizing it as a series of brave, noble stands. But Lieberman’s greatest enablers–and therefore the people who really have to answer for this–are the leaders in the Democratic Party who have spent years refusing to exert any sort of pressure on him. These are the people who refused to support their own party’s nominee in 2006. The people who wanted Lieberman to keep all of the perks and prestige of being a ranking member of the caucus in 2008, despite having actively campaigned against the party.

The most prominent members of that group are, of course, Barack Obama* and Harry Reid, the latter of whom has insisted on flagrantly ignoring the party’s Lieberman problem at every available opportunity.

If the health care bill still passes–and I think it will–it will have been significantly weakened thanks to Lieberman. But the silver lining will be if the Democratic Party finally–finally–learns its lesson.
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The Neoconification of the Left
December 12, 2009

Over at the Wonk Room, Matt Duss highlights a great quote from Obama’s Nobel speech:

At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

Of course, the right does not have a monopoly on “the satisfying purity of indignation.” Indeed, if anything kills the left’s recent resurgence, it will be our surrender to that very thing.

The thing that’s so disastrous about the once-reigning, now thankfully moribund doctrine of neoconservatism was that it was superficially compelling–Democracy is good! Evil regimes are bad! The former should blow up the latter!–while, in fact, being outright disastrous thanks to its refusal to accept basic realities, and the hard moral choices that come along with that acceptance. Now we’re seeing something similar in certain corners of the ideological movement I’ve called home all my life: the acknowledgment that progressive reform is good and that a lot of what Obama and Congress has been doing is not good, but without letting that morph into a moral understanding much more nuanced than fighting the man versus providing aid and comfort to the man.

Of course, one thing that’s nice about having a binary conception of ethical choices is that it makes it very easy to frame your platform in starkly moralistic terms, and limit your opponent’s capacity to do the same. This was a cruel irony in the neoconservative case for the Iraq War, since the ultimate decision to go to war was, by any reasonable standard, horribly immoral. Not only was the war initiated under false pretenses, but it led to the preventable deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands and destabilized the region.

Now look at where we are today: there’s an internal debate raging among progressives over whether remain engaged with the Democratic establishment and the Obama administration, or whether to simply opt out of two-party politics entirely, because George W. Obama, etc. Once again, the latter choice is more emotionally satisfying, and certainly easier to make the case for in black-and-white ethical terms: Obama’s escalating in Afghanistan! He hasn’t rolled back all of the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses! The health care bill is weak! How can we possibly support an individual or party who has conceded this much ground on progressive issues?

I don’t think left-wing critics of this attitude (myself included) have done enough to frame their own objections in moral terms. But make no mistake, this is a matter of morality. Because indulging in “the satisfying purity of indignation” and simply withdrawing from the mainstream channels available for political action (such as electing major party candidates that we share some common interests with and supporting compromise bills that accomplish some but not all of what we would like) will have simply disastrous consequences in the long run. To name one: a GOP resurgence in 2010 could doom the push for legislation dealing with climate change. That’s not just something that affects us–it affects the entire world.

Plus, I’m not sure if the left could come back from ritual seppuku like that. There’s a reason, after all, why the evangelical right always comes back to the Republican Party, even when they don’t get everything they want–if evangelical leaders really followed through on their perennial threats to form a third party, it would be a joke, a historical footnote, and the GOP wouldn’t kowtow to them on anything anymore. Similarly, if we won’t do business with the Democrats, what are our options? Cynthia McKinney? We might as well just put on Guy Fawkes masks and start shrieking about the gold standard for all the influence we’ll have.

The point is, now that we’ve got a slippery grasp on some degree of political influence, it’s time to grapple with what the neocons never could: that in the realm of politics, every single choice you make involves some degree of moral compromise, and the art of politics is all about managing and minimizing that compromise. To be supposedly “uncompromising” is exactly the wrong way to do that: it’s tantamount to crippling yourself, and your whole agenda as a result. And because I believe the progressive agenda is still largely one that needs to be implemented for the welfare of the United States, I consider acts of self-hobbling to be severe moral failures.

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