Archive for March, 2011

“Coalition” is a Euphemism
March 21, 2011

One of the points that I keep hearing over and over again from liberal defenders of intervention in Libya is that this is a multilateral effort conceived through official UN channels. The US, they say, will play only a minor role in a broad coalition of states, meaning there will be no undue strain on our already depleted resources.

Yesterday I said I was skeptical of that claim, because I expected this to be a prolonged struggle during which the United States would be required to accept a gradually increasing portion of the burden. But it turns out that even there I was being optimistic: I expected it to happen in a matter of weeks, not immediately. Via Justin Elliot, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports:

Despite the White House attempts to make this look like it’s a huge coalition effort — obviously it required coalition political support — but for now the U.S. military is not only in the lead but conducting almost all military operations, with only minor participation from the French, as you mentioned, even British fighters over night. There’s a U.S. commander. And even this morning I talked to senior military officials, when I asked them how soon will the U.S. turn over the command to the coalition — and the indication is the U.S. military is in no hurry to do that.

If this continues for much longer, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the “coalition” is little more than a PR gimmick designed to provide an aura of legitimacy to America’s latest military misadventure — while also making the coalition’s more apathetic members seem tough on war criminals. I can’t decide which part is more amazing: that such a ploy seems to be working, or that “internationalism” has come to mean the same old senseless brutality, this time blessed with the gauzy halo of UN sanction.

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Mission Creep
March 20, 2011

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday’s presidential address has done absolutely nothing to quell my profound misgivings regarding military action in Libya. In fact, it confirmed my suspicion that no one — including the White House — can say with any confidence what it is we’re getting ourselves into. Consider this statement:

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya. In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.

Protecting civilians is certainly a noble cause. But is it a well-defined goal? Not really. It’s just an admirable sentiment dressed up as a strategic objective. What I want to hear is where the White House thinks this should end: with Gaddafi chastened but still in power? With a democratic Libyan regime? Two states, one controlled by Gaddafi and the other by the rebels? The phrase “fulfill their aspirations” seems to indicate options B or C. But given the current state of affairs, I don’t know how either of those options could be realized “peacefully.”

It gets worse. Though I’m sure the “no ground troops” pledge was made in order to assuage intervention’s critics, it just makes me even more convinced that there’s no coherent strategy at work here. After all, there’s no such thing as a peacekeeping party composed entirely of cruise missiles; protecting civilians requires more than just exploding projectiles. Sure, the obvious response is that America’s pledge not to deploy ground troops only means that the rest of the coalition will cover the gap. But how plausible is it that, really? Britain and France are going to happily dispatch their own infantry while the United States — which, even in its weakened state, has the mightiest armed forces on earth — takes a knee? Beginning with a pledge not to use ground troops is almost worse than the alternative, because it means any eventual deployment will be an escalation of a preexisting conflict. Gradual escalations, remember, are often how quagmires begin.

Even if this conflict never becomes a full-on quagmire, you had better believe that Gaddafi will drag it out for as long as possible. The atrocities he has already committed have likely ruled out any sort of peaceful, Mubarak-style abdication. His only remaining options are prosecution for crimes against humanity (charges the International Criminal Court is already investigating), death, or somehow keeping this going for long enough to break the political will behind the coalition so that he may retain control over some or all of Libya. The lattermost of those possibilities is the by far the most distant, but I suspect he would rather die trying to achieve it than give up and submit to judgment at The Hague.

In other words, this is not a man susceptible to threats or negotiation. That leads me to believe that this can only end either with full-on regime change or a divided Libya. The latter would probably be another regional conflict waiting to happen; I have no idea what the former would be. We know too little about the composition of the resistance movement too make any firm predictions, much less the nuances of Libyan tribal politics. But I do know this: the United States and our coalition allies are making a huge gamble. Nothing about this indicates to me that it is an acceptable one.

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The Backwards Logic of Intervention
March 18, 2011

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

Image via Wikipedia

I was just 11 years old when the United States declared war on Afghanistan and thirteen when we invaded Iraq. Those two wars played an instrumental role and shaping my political sensibility. Needless to say, I can’t separate my experience growing up with those two wars from my intuitions regarding the UN Security Council’s vote to intervene in Libya. Maybe coming of age in a nation at war left me with anxieties and prejudices that are now hopelessly muddling those intuitions. I hope that’s the case, and I hope I’m dead wrong on Libya. Because right now, I don’t see a good outcome to military intervention.

I’d probably feel differently if the vote had come a couple weeks earlier, when the rebels still had the upper hand. Not that I supported active military intervention even then, but I definitely thought the United States and the international community should have been playing a more active role in shaping events on the ground. Checking off a few items on this list would have been nice. Anything to keep the momentum on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces while keeping the odds of yet another American military entanglement to an absolute minimum.

But we missed our window. By all accounts, the winds have shifted back in Gaddafi’s favor, and I suspect that means tilting things back in the opposition’s favor will require a significantly larger commitment than I originally envisioned. A no-fly zone — that is, a “humanitarian half measure” — won’t cut it. That’s why the resolution includes some ominously open-ended language, allowing for a much deeper level of engagement.

The one option the resolution does preclude, fortunately, is that of a “foreign occupation force.” That term might mean something more specific in international law than is commonly understood — I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that we have little idea what shape a post-Gaddafi Libyan government would take, and a whole lot of disparate parties that would like to mold such a government to their benefit. Even if we don’t end up as occupiers (which I still don’t think is a sure thing), this sounds like a recipe for long-term military entanglement of some kind or another.

In other words, I don’t think we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And for that reason, we can’t possibly have a sound strategy for eventually getting out. Which is a tremendous bummer for a lot of reasons, the least of which is this: I honestly didn’t expect this sort of stuff to happen under the leadership President Obama. I thought our days of military adventurism were, well, not over exactly, but dwindling. Sure, I didn’t have any illusions about withdrawing from Afghanistan during the Obama presidency, but it never occurred to me that we might risk yet another unforced quagmire. I figured that, at the very least, Iraq and Afghanistan had left Democratic policy makers with a hefty dose of martial humility.

Turns out no such luck. I failed to take into account a few big factors. Such as the fact that institutional memory is short and bureaucratic inertia is huge. Such as the network of incentives that allow policy makers, pundits, corporate leaders and military brass to net significant short-term benefit from a push for war. I don’t mean to be cynical: I do think the most strident advocates of this military intervention firmly believe that it is just and good. And hell, I can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re wrong. But I think they probably are, and I’m dismayed to watch this play out anyway.

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Small-R Republicanism and Capital-F Freedom
March 15, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

For me, it all comes down to freedom. That — not, say, equality or aggregate hedonic pleasure* — is the basic unit of measurement I use for moral goodness. I don’t have a logical proof for why moral goodness equals total aggregate freedom, but then, I don’t think this is strictly a logical question. “Freedom = good” is a fact about my moral attitudes and intuitions, not a fact about the universe. Ask me to justify those intuitions, and I’ll probably mumble some hodgepodge about Simone de Beauvoir and Nietzsche. But that’s another post, or several.

(Aside: My veneration of freedom might seem like it directly conflicts my deterministic view of human behavior. And yeah, it’s true that I suspect at least 99.9999% of all actions committed by all persons everywhere, no matter how unpredictable those actions may have appeared, and no matter how thoroughly those persons were able to rationalize those actions to themselves, were in fact directly causally linked to biological and environmental factors such that a sufficiently advanced computer might be able to plot out the entire history of every person ever. But that leaves 0.0001% of our behavior to account for, and no way to tell whether that behavior is also predetermined, totally random, or in fact the product of a free, unrestrained will, whatever that looks like. I choose to err on the side of the latter. And besides, regardless of the external facts, each of us experiences our own choices as freely determined. Even if our intuitions about our own behavior are incorrect, the fact that we have those intuitions is not irrelevant.)

If you take “freedom = good” as a given, then you might well decide (as I have) that an ideal state does the best it can to promote freedom. So far so good. But then you’re stuck with another question as difficult as the first one: What the hell is freedom?

The libertarian theory of freedom is the one you’re most likely to hear espoused in modern American politics. Libertarians posit that you are free only when the state doesn’t interfere in your affairs. I’ve never been a big fan of this theory of freedom, which has always struck me as rather anemic and arbitrary. Anemic because the movement’s single-minded focus on government interference neglects the ways in which unrestrained private industry can also constrict the self-determination of persons. And arbitrary because I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for why negative liberties (that is, those by which one is protected from certain kinds of interference) should be accorded so much more moral weight than positive liberties (that is, those by which one is entitled to certain benefits). I remain skeptical that a thick, black line can even be drawn between the two genuses.

So when it came time to hone my own theory of freedom, I ditched libertarianism’s conceptual framework entirely. Instead I went for a simple, though perhaps obtusely literal-minded, version inspired in equal measure by existentialist thought and G.A. Cohen’s paper “Freedom and Money (PDF).” The result went something like this: how free you are in any given context is determined by the aggregate number of discrete options available in that context. So for example, someone who can choose between drinking Budweiser and Heineken is less free than someone who can choose between drinking Budweiser, Heineken and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Sounds simple enough, right? But I’ve started to notice some holes. For one, there’s an obvious rebuttal ad absurdum. If you go to the supermarket to buy shampoo and can choose between fifteen different brands, then that’s all fine and dandy. But what about 500? 1,000? Imagine an infinite shampoo aisle stocked with every conceivable variation of hair cleaning product known to man. At some point, adding more options does nothing to improve your state of affairs. In fact, all that choice can start to feel pretty oppressive.

And then there’s the conflict with determinism. If we’re not really all that free and promoting “freedom” mostly involves cultivating the phenomenological sensation of freedom, then it would seem that the proper role of government is to act as a sort of false choice factory. A government that buys both determinism and the above theory of freedom would simply strive to create the illusion of choice, while in fact manipulating the populace with invisible strings. I’ll admit that I’m fond of Nudge-style libertarian paternalism, but the theory of government I just outlined goes waaaaay beyond that.

So I’ve been shopping around for a different theory of freedom. And that brings us to republicanism. Small-r republicans espouse a gently (but significantly) tweaked version of libertarian freedom: rather than conceiving of freedom as the absence of state interference, republicans view freedom as the absence of arbitrary domination by any state or non-state actor. You can read more about the argument for that view of freedom, and its implications, over at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Based on what I’ve picked up there, republicanism sounds pretty intuitively attractive.

It’s on the strength of the case laid out in the SEP that I went out and bought Philip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. I’m cracking it open tonight. Once I really dig into the meat of the book, I’ll probably jost down some impressions in this space.


*Though if you want to read a really good defense of the latter view, see “The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism” by Neil Sinhababu.


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America Fails The Wikileaks Challenge
March 13, 2011

Free Bradley Manning 314

Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Given that my security clearance is so low I can’t even get behind the New Yorker paywall, it’s probably wise for me to approach broad pronouncements on the impact of the Wikileaks cable dump with a certain amount of epistemic humility (which, granted, I haven’t always done). But for now let’s take the Secretary of Defense at his word when he says that this was a mild irritant to the United States government and its interests, not a genuine threat. If that’s the case, then it strikes me that the challenge Wikileaks poses to the US is more philosophical than anything else.

This challenge attacks directly America’s conception of itself as a free and open society. To understand how it does that, we first need to make explicit some key features of open societies: namely that they contain major legal institutions and statutes designed to protect both whistleblowers and critics of the state. Additional statutes ensure that any individual accused of a crime is entitled to a fair hearing and (both before and, if applicable, after conviction) humane treatment.

In any society that shares these features, the state runs some pretty major risks, including the possibility of a major leak like the Wikileaks cable dump. So the Wikileaks challenge as articulated by someone who supports the cable dump (which, to be clear, I do not) might go something like this:

Any attributes America shares with a true open society are merely cosmetic. In reality, the United States government’s primary interest is not in making sure even its least well-off citizens prosper, but in securing and maintaining power for an elite few. For these elite, maintaining the illusion of an open society while consolidating their influence requires a softer touch. Expansive secrecy and information asymmetry are among their most important instruments of power, and if their monopoly on these instruments are threatened, the illusion of an open society will start to break down as the elite regresses into using more traditionally authoritarian methods of control.

On the other hand, of course, a truly open society could absorb a threat to state secrecy without too much of a fuss. People may get put on trial for criminal acts, but you won’t see any real cracks in those legal statutes and institutions I was talking about.

So how has the United States government performed? Well, there was some noise early on about extraditing Julian Assange to the US and trying him under the Espionage Act, but that seems less likely before. If Assange is not brought to the US, then we will have just barely passed the Wikileaks challenge on that front.

But there will still be Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker, to contend with. Though Manning, a US citizen, has only recently been formally charged, for months he has been held in solitary confinement and subjected to the sort of brutal, humiliating conditions you wouldn’t exactly expect from the government of an open society. More recently, President Barack Obama has tacitly endorsed this sort of inhumane treatment.

So with regards to Bradley Manning, the United States government’s response to the Wikileaks challenge has been an abject failure. That should be particularly dismaying to anyone who thinks the pro-cable dump case I laid out above is cynical and wrong. America’s open society features are far more than cosmetic, but far less than what they could be. And if the Manning case has made one thing clear, it’s that we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction on these issues.

In the aftermath of the cable dump, the United States had a perfect opportunity to demonstrate its ability to withstand and even profit from the potential risks of an open society. Bradley Manning’s treatment is evidence of the exact opposite reaction. I still believe — have to believe, actually — that the pro-cable dump argument is wrong. Too bad that the United States government has inadvertently become its most strident advocate.

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Our Serious Intellectuals
March 8, 2011

There are intellectuals, and there are Intellectuals. There’s no real consensus over who qualifies for the former category, but a capital-I Intellectual is way easier to spot. These are people situated roughly within the mid-to-upper brow of mainstream American culture who expound on the important matters of the day and are often referred to in public as intellectuals.

David Brooks is such an Intellectual. In fact, he’s an extraordinarily accomplished Intellectual. And if PZ Meyers’ scorching review is any indication, then Brooks’ new book — called The Social Animal — might be his greatest accomplishment yet. Consider this passage from the review:

The plot is deadly dull: Erica, for instance, ascends smoothly from private school to business management to business leader to significant government functionary to the inner circles of Davos to a blissful retirement spent wallowing in high culture, with only brief stutters — losing a tennis match, a failed business, a brief marital infidelity — which she powers through with the discipline of her will, pausing only long enough for David Brooks to lecture the reader on how the mind overcomes adversity. What story there is here is pure mainlined bourgeois wish fulfillment, a kind of yuppie Mary Sue for the whole of the trust-fund set. There aren’t even any losers to contrast with Erica’s unending winningness, because everyone around them seems to be rising on the same cheerful bubble of privilege.

Nothing changes. In the introduction, Brooks even mentions this, that the story “takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century,” so the characters are born in this decade, grow up in this decade, work in this decade, die in this decade. Brooks has created a world where history doesn’t matter and there are no troubling external intrusions on the blithe reality of Harold and Erica. If ever you are in the market for the antithesis of the Great Russian Novel, here it is, the petty provincial string of anecdotes about only two characters who never experience a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.

That’s as good an encapsulation as you’ll find of the Intellectual master narrative: affluent yuppies succeed in their endeavors and feel generally good about themselves, forever. If Meyers’ review is to be believed, then Brooks tells a particularly naked, archetypal version of that narrative in The Social Animal. But just as the salvation narrative reveals itself in so much Christian philosophy, the foundational myth of Harold and Erica provides a conceptual skeleton for nearly every work in the Intellectual canon.

Take another example from the work of David Brooks, a recent New York Times column called “Make Everybody Hurt.” In the limited column space given him, Brooks (1) reaffirms soothing truisms his audience will recognize; (2) presents a not-particularly-dire problem which won’t alarm the audience (thereby making them shrill) but will concern them (thereby making them serious); and (3) offers up a solution that costs the audience nothing but will make them feel brave and clear-eyed for demanding sacrifices from others. In other words, Erica and Harold will have once again saved the world without breaking a sweat.

And then there’s a less obvious example of Intellectual dogma, courtesy of Simon Critchley and, yes, The New York Times (which seems to be a central organ of modern Intellectual thought). In “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley dazzles the audience with some clever parables from ancient times and a couple of self-deprecating remarks about his profession, but never gets to anywhere substantial or challenging. That’s because the point of his essay has absolutely nothing to do with explaining philosophy and everything to do with flattering the intelligence of his readers. Erica and Harold are intended to walk away from “What Is a Philosopher?” having learned just enough to feel educated witty, but not enough to feel troubled or challenged.

And here we begin to see that the project of the Intellectual is in many ways antithetical to anything approaching a genuine intellectual endeavor. Though few of their kind remain anywhere near the cultural mainstream, many of the intellectuals of yore were pugnacious radicals, rightly reviled by the Ericas and Harolds of their time. Their politics and philosophies were often extreme, their writing sometimes offensive. But their work bled, which was the important part. It sunk its burrs into your spine and clung to you long after you thought you had walked away.

David Brooks is the quintessential Intellectual in that he promises you, in PZ Meyers’ words, a whole life without “a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.” But those moments of self-doubt and inner turmoil are where the real intellectual work begins. The intellectuals we need — always, but I suspect now more than ever — are the ones who stir up that turmoil and then kick their readers in the ass just hard enough to make them pull themselves out of it. To those people, the Intellectuals are the enemy.

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Men Be All Like This, But Men Suffering From A Crisis In Masculinity Be All Like THIS
March 3, 2011

Knocked Up

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose I should probably be insulted by the recent wave of faddish books and essays about how young men aren’t really men anymore because feminism/hipsterdom/Judd Apatow has turned us all into slackers/little girls/total basket cases. Mostly, though, I don’t get it. I mean, yes, there exist young men with no direction or ambition. If you look hard, you can also find some young men who are resentful, sexist assholes. And I’d be pretty surprised to find out the majority of men haven’t, at one point or another, felt some anxiety over what they felt was insufficiently masculine behavior or impulses on their part.

But what, I’m supposed to believe that this shit didn’t exist before the 80’s? All of these challenges and failings strike me as rather mundane and irrevocable aspects of the human condition. I seem to remember life being hard before Knocked Up came out.

I suppose I could be persuaded it’s particularly bad now if someone cared to show me some statistical evidence. But so far all I’ve seen is a whole lot of anecdotal evidence and wild speculation. What statistical case has been offered up looks pretty dubious.

So maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Not: “What is the cause and nature of the modern crisis in masculinity?” But: “Why the fad in shirt-rending over a supposed crisis in masculinity?”

Allow me to engage in some wild speculation of my own and suggest a few factors: One is that being “counterintuitive” about feminism will always be lucrative for social critics, especially female social critics (who get extra points for novelty and are insulated from charges of misogyny). Even though the orientation of American culture is essentially conservative and rather atavistic, it’s still considered innovative and revolutionary to blame a lot of bad things (real or imagined) on second wave feminism. That’s especially true if the victims of said bad things are white dudes, the eternally persecuted martyrs of the modern world.

Another factor: for a number of reasons (including second-wave feminism) the definition of what is acceptable masculine behavior has relaxed to the point that men can get away with doing all sorts of things in public that their grandparents would have derided as girly or undignified. This is, on balance, a good thing, but it can be frightening and disorienting for people with a very particular vision of what it is to be a man. These frightened, disoriented people end up concluding that the whole gender has fallen on dark times.

And one more biggie: We actually do have, I think, an epidemic of hedonism and self-absorption. But it’s exceedingly easy epidemic to misdiagnose in a way that conforms to one’s preexisting prejudices and absolves one of any complicity.

That last one is an entirely different blog post. Hell, it’s probably a whole book, albeit one that would sell very few copies. Instead, I should just write one about why Seth Rogen is the face of the decline of Western Civilization.

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