Archive for May, 2011

On That Secret Patriot Act
May 28, 2011

So a couple of days ago, President Obama (or, more accurately, a mechanical President Obama impersonator) signed off on an extension of several key provisions of the Patriot Act. TPM’s Ryan J. Reilly has a rundown of what we know about the provisions here. I say “what we know” because, as Spencer Ackerman reported a day earlier, we don’t know as much about the bill as we thought we did:

Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.

“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

Because Wyden can’t elaborate on classified information, there’s no way for us to know for sure what the government’s secret interpretation of the act looks like. The closest we can get is probably Julian Sanchez’s circumstantial case for a secret expansion of the government’s geolocation tracking powers. And the same thing that goes for us rubes in the peanut gallery also goes for most of the Senators and House members who voted for the extension — Wyden has clearance to see the White House’s version of the law, but most of his colleagues don’t.

So to clarify: President Obama goes to Congress with an unmarked box tucked under his arm. He displays the box to the assembled Congresspeople and says, “You will grant me the power to use the contents of this box whenever I see fit.” Congress doesn’t inspect the box. Only a tiny handful of them look in the box, and what they see they keep to themselves. And the rest just affix their rubber stamp so they can get back to the real work of failing to pass a budget.

What I’d like to see is the list of Congresspeople who don’t have the clearance to see what this law really does, but blithely cast their vote for it anyway. Then I’d like to call up the offices of each and every one of them and ask them what they think Congress’ oversight duties are supposed to entail.

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Great Republican Spaces
May 27, 2011

New Royal Theatre and Opera House in Copenhage...

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Mike Konzcal’s latest led me to David Roberts’ ongoing series of posts envisioning a progressive movement dedicated to creating “great spaces.” Roberts writes:

Today, America is making a few people rich and leaving a great many others anxious, uncertain, unhealthy, or unemployed, all while doing irreversible damage to the planet. A whole nest of challenges lies ahead: We need to radically reduce our energy use, natural resource consumption, and CO2 emissions; ramp up our innovation in clean energy and efficiency technologies; rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; restore the health of the middle class; shrink the metastasizing income gap; reform our oligarchic political institutions; reverse trends toward diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; and reconnect to each other, to mitigate the spread of depression, stress, and alienation.

That’s a handful. What ties these challenges together is the need to reorient our policies (and our myths and narratives) away from financial capital and toward social capital, so that we’re measuring success in terms of physical and mental well-being rather than GDP. It means orienting public life around happiness rather than (just) material accumulation. (Happiness isn’t the best term here, but it’s handy. More accurate would be “eudaimonia” or, as researcher Martin Seligman now prefers, “flourishing.”)

Konczal suggests that Roberts’ vision is compatible with the republican ideal of freedom as non-domination, and I’d tend to agree. It’s not just that, as Konczal points out, public spaces play an important role in pro-democracy movements; nearly all of Roberts’ policy goals can be justified using republican terms. Pettit does nearly exactly that in Republicanism when he argues that the republican goal should not be merely to stamp out domination, but also to “increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice.” That means reducing or eliminating factors that condition freedom, such as poor health.

As for the republican justification for environmentalism, Pettit addresses it directly. He writes:

[I]t is clear why the republican state has to espouse environmental concerns. That any damage is done to the environment … means that there is an assault on at least the range of our undominated choice. The damage is bound to mean that the costs of our exploiting various opportunities are raised or that certain opportunities are closed to us: at the limit, as in nuclear devastation, it may mean that few opportunities remain.

If there is any component of Roberts’ vision that is incompatible with republicanism, it must be his conception of eudaimonia as the ultimate end of the state. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the state might assume total dominating control over its citizenry in order to promote some kind of future flourishing. Nor, if we take a utilitarian attitude towards flourishing, is it difficult to imagine a state that dominates the very few to create greater aggregate flourishing among the many. For that reason, I would rather we use non-domination as the metric for what constitutes a great space. Doing so would provide a greater check on the power of the state, while remaining in harmony with Roberts’ policy objectives.

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Labor Studies
May 26, 2011

Made it official yesterday: In August I’ll be leaving DC and the fine people of Media Matters for New York City and CUNY’s Labor Studies program.

I’ll admit that labor — unlike, say, civil liberties — has not been a longstanding preoccupation of mine. It’s always be on my radar, and I’ve always been generally supportive of unions, but if you flip through this blog’s archives or my larger body of work, you’ll find barely anything on the subject. So what changed?

Several things. Wisconsin was one of them. DC was another. The longer I’ve stayed in this city the more dissatisfied I’ve become with what Mike Konczal once referred to as pity-charity liberalism. This country’s deep systemic problems cannot be solved with robust welfare programs alone. Not if those programs are still to be administered by the few, with no meaningful input from the many.

What this country then needs must be a significant rebalancing in the distribution of political power. I see no evidence that this can be achieved through what have become the conventional means for creating change. So if we’re going to expand democratic participation to a far broader swath of the citizenry, we need to first redefine what it means to participate. Surely, in an enlightened democratic republic, it is not sufficient simply to vote and mouth off from time to time.

What we need are broad-based coalitions that can provide a serious counterweight to centralized power. And I believe unions are the best model we have of how that would work.

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The Root of Knowledge
May 25, 2011

Check out the alt text on today’s XKCD comic:

For those who couldn’t be bothered to mouse over, the alt text reads: “Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at ‘Philosophy.'”

I gave it a shot with the article featured in the comic (spark plug) and, sure enough, it took me 27 clicks to get to the page for philosophy. Once I was there I kept playing the game by clicking on “rational argument,” which led to the page for reason. Reason leads to rationality, which leads to — yup — philosophy.

I’m not sure there’s any lesson that can be honestly derived from this exercise, but I’m gonna derive one anyway. That lesson being: Everything comes back to philosophy. Randall Munroe and Jimmy Wales just proved it.

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Are You Not Entertained?!
May 25, 2011

Nathan Rabin, having just stumbled through volume 34 in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation series, writes:

At this point in the THEN project, it should be apparent to everyone that pop music is just fucking with us. People with too much money and too little talent are taunting us to call their bluff and concede that they’re all empty vessels conducting an insane masquerade that has gone on entirely too long.

This is precisely what I (and, I think, many others) find so depressing about what passes for modern pop music: not its shittiness, but its poverty of ambition. I can respect the sort of woefully ill-conceived project that comes from a deeply personal place — hell, it might even make me feel a weird sort of awe. But virtually every popular medium is saturated with competently produced detritus made by people with a decent grasp on certain technical mechanics but no grasp at all on how to make something feel like it came from a goddamn human being. The fact that a handful of postmodern ironists have managed to elevate that soulless craftsmanship into a sort of self-referential joke doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better about the trend.

Sure, there’s always cool stuff happening at the margins of pop culture, and perhaps now more than ever. Sometimes, it’s even in the mainstream. But the continued flourishing of soulless craftsmanship creeps me out in all sorts of ways, and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

(Do I even need to explain how the same complaint applies to modern American politics? No? Sweet.)

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Polarization Theater
May 24, 2011

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group ...

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Last week I wrote that, regarding civil liberties and executive overreach, “we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.” Now Glenn Greenwald has again made much the same observation:

So when they were out of power, the Democrats reviled the Patriot Act and constantly complained about fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat being used to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns. Now that they’re in power and a Democratic administration is arguing for extension of the Patriot Act, they use fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns (“If somebody wants to take on their shoulders not having provisions in place which are necessary to protect the United States at this time, that’s a big, big weight to bear,” warned Feinstein). And they’re joined in those efforts by the vast majority of the GOP caucus. Remember, though: there is no bipartisanship in Washington, the parties are constantly at each other’s throats, and they don’t agree on anything significant, and thus can’t get anything done. If only that were true.

To be sure, partisan polarization is a real phenomenon. But it is also theater, and our willingness to accept its more theatrical qualities at face value has had dire consequences for civil liberties.

The beauty of polarization theater is that it paradoxically asserts and reaffirms a holistic political consensus. You probably already know one of the ways in which it does this: oftentimes both parties will implicitly accept the same basic premises but become “polarized” over the implications. In this way they make the premises established fact, so that challenging them lies outside the parameters of acceptable debate.

But polarization theater also serves as a crucial distraction. The fights of polarization theater dominate the news to such a degree that they almost entirely crowd out those issues on which both parties agree. Which is why, as Greenwald writes, another four-year extension of the Patriot Act just managed to whisper through Congress on the wings of bipartisan sanction.

Pretty neat trick, huh? But don’t fret: we’ve still got a debt ceiling to squabble over. So me and the rest of the political junkies can continue to pretend that this is about white hats versus black hats, instead of power versus everything else.

UPDATE: Turns out I was a little mistaken about the scope of the bipartisan consensus. From the ACLU’s official Twitter feed:

Inside baseball: Dem office tells ACLU Ds to vote YES on cloture b/c they want 2 debate #Patriot. Reserve right to vote NO on final passage.

h/t Dara

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Excerpts From WWD’s “Dudeiting and Nothingness”
May 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, Glamour’s dudeitor-in-chief Shane Skaarsgard was having lunch with his fellow dudeiters (Dirk “Hammster” Hamm of New York Magazine and Gregg Scottttt) when Hamm ordered a sparkling wine.

“I was like, ‘Dude! You want a sparkler?'” said Scottttt. “‘You piece of fucking shit. You sicken me to the pit of my withered soul.'”

Shit talk began. The other dudes can’t recall what drinks they had ordered, but they were almost certainly more dudely.

“We were giving Hammster a hard time because it distracted us from our own bone-deep self-loathing,” Skaarsgard recalled. “But once he pointed out that the argument was as meaningless as every breath in my gray, meaningless lungs, the playful banter lost its luster.”

They ate the rest of their lunch in silence.


“They’re the next generation,” said Andrew Kilstein, editor of Newsweek. “Further proof that there is no arc to history, and human ‘progress’ is a myth. We propagate and we die. That is all.”

“Who are you talking about?” joked Lisa Epstein of Condé Nast. “I have never heard of any of these people.”


“Fuck my life,” Skaarsgard chuckled, nursing his Orangina. “Fuck what I’ve become. Every morning I wake up cursing God for having not taken me in my sleep.”

Scottttt takes a more zen approach to life. Near the end of the interview, he blurted out, “I’m happy, though. I really am.”

And then he began to weep.

Books Ain’t Dead
May 17, 2011

IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. ...

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When you cut through all of the chaff, the debate over whether analog books are dead sounds a lot like this:

Pro-ebook, anti-book: I personally think ebooks are fine. They are also cheaper to produce. Therefore, the book is dead.

Pro-book: Hey! I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead, and we should continue to pay taxes supporting our local libraries.

Those are some pretty self-centered arguments, but as a stalwart book partisan I figure the least I can do is be unabashed about my self-centeredness. I happen to like books. Therefore, the book is not dead.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have anything against ebooks. I own a first-generation Kindle, and sometimes I even use it. But it’s almost always easier and more pleasurable for me to read a book. My attachment to them is pragmatic, and not just aesthetic or sentimental (though it is both of those things as well). As Nicholas Carr writes:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Maybe some day the ebook will become as versatile as the book. I rather suspect it will just become a different kind of medium with its own advantages and idiosyncracies. The book will remain the book: disposable for some, not so much for others.

That’s all the justification I need for keeping libraries open and well-stocked. If a statistically significant slice of the population still finds it easier and more pleasurable to read a physical book than an ebook, taxpayers should accommodate them. After all, the whole reason we have libraries is to increase everyone’s ease of access to information. For quite a few folks, gleaning that information from ink and paper is still easier than squinting at a screen.

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The Case for Civil Libertarianism
May 17, 2011

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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If you follow civil liberties news very closely, there’s a decent chance you didn’t have the best day yesterday. That was when the New Yorker released Jane Mayer’s chilling new exposé on warrantless domestic surveillance, government secrecy, and the attendant crackdown on whistleblowers. It was also when the United States Supreme Court ruled that police officers can break into your home without a warrant if they suspect that you’re in the process of destroying evidence.

Meanwhile — in not exactly breaking, but nonetheless disturbing news — the White House is scrambling to put together a “plausible theory” under which it will be legal to continue our don’t-call-it-a-war with Libya even after Congress misses the deadline for authorization under the War Powers Resolution. Lucky for the president that by the time our next humanitarian intervention rolls around, bypassing Congress could be even easier; the House is preparing to grant his office virtually unchecked power to deploy the US military at home and around the world.

Some of this is precedented, some of it is not. In the latter category: one of Mayer’s sources says that “Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history.” And Section 1034 of the National Defense Authorization Act would cede the presidency warmaking powers beyond Dick Cheney’s most audacious hopes. But for some reason none of this is news.

Sure, sure. Mayer holds some of the most prized real estate in journalism, and her article has been dutifully passed around Twitter. But will it register as more than a blip? Will Sec 1034 even reach blip status before formal debate starts? I very much doubt it.

As much as I hate playing the counterfactual thought experiment game, it’s worth asking ourselves what would have happened if comparable news had broken during the Bush administration. I’m so old I remember when civil liberties and checks and balances were the rallying cries of the left, so I can’t help but suspect that the netroots would be losing their shit hard enough to crash the servers of our mid-aught forefathers’ pre-Twitter communication tools.

But now? Crickets, mostly. Sure, there is a handful of crack progressive commentators who talk about this stuff, but by and large they’re civil liberties specialists. Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, et al put out good work on the margins while policy generalists and mainstream tastemakers mostly keep away. And since the right-wing critique of Obama tends to vacillate between, “You’re not abusing civil liberties enough,” and “I am very confused right now,” that means we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.

We need to do better. Diffidence — or, worse, apathy — is nothing less than a betrayal of the entire liberal project. Liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, should be about non-domination. It should be about the fight against all forms of dominating, coercive power, whether that power is concentrated in state or in capital. Indeed, one of the key insights of liberalism is its recognition of the close bond between these two forms of coercion. Because of that bond, granting the state more coercive power than private enterprise is only justifiable under these conditions: when doing so promotes liberty, when the state is answerable to the people, and when it must demonstrate that it is behaving in their best interests.

When state power fails to meet these conditions it is not just a problem for the opposition party. Nor is it just a problem for libertarians, or the left’s civil libertarian niche lobby. It is a problem for everyone. Because regardless of whether a state chooses to exercise its power over you, that power still exists. A government can wholly dominate you without ever interfering in your affairs.

That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you think Obama has exercised his vast power with wisdom and restraint. Nor does it matter if you don’t feel personally affected, or if you just plain don’t want to undermine your team’s agenda. This is our problem. This is supposed to be our fight. We need to do better.

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Tortured Euphemisms
May 16, 2011

“I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”

That was President Obama’s platitudinous defense of his administration’s decision to refrain from investigating the institutionalized torture of the Bush era. What happened happened, there’s no use in crying over spilt blood, etc. Better to just leave the ghosts of the past be and move on with our lives.

Except, if there’s one thing history and B-horror movies have taught us, it’s that you need to reckon with those ghosts sooner or later. Pretending they don’t exist just makes them more aggressive. Thus the dreary spectacle of yet another Great American Torture Debate. [1] The second Osama Bin Laden’s corpse hit the water Marc Thiessen and John Yoo began scribbling feverish little celebrations of our great victory in the War on Terror: that victory being that we finally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proved that torture “works,” probably, whatever that means.

I won’t bother with a step-by-step refutation of that argument. The claim, like its authors, is beneath contempt. And besides, others (what up, Marcy Wheeler) are doing a way better job at it. What I do want to talk about is The Great American Torture Debate’s stunted little goblinoid brother, The Great American “Torture” Meta-Debate. The question at the heart of that argument being: When is it permissible for a serious journalist to use the word “torture” to refer to the practice of torture? When is it far better to stay away from the T-word and instead use some kind of anemic neologism like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh questioning” or “super sad unsnuggle discomfort times?”

This week New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane uses his Sunday column to describe how various departments of the Times deal with the matter. He notes that while the editorial department occasionally gets to call torture by its true name, other sections have to resort to a litany of half-assed euphemisms. [2]

No doubt you already know the reason why. Since alumni of the Bush administration continue to insist that the practices they authorized did not constitute torture, disagreeing with those alumni in print is — in the words of NYT executive editor Bill Keller — tantamount to “taking sides.”

That this is transparently ludicrous is an old point, but one always worth repeating. The Bush administration did authorize torture. Various key members, having discovered that they have no reason to fear repercussions, have basically admitted this. I say “basically” because they still need to maintain a certain amount of deliberate obscurity for the purposes of legal protection and basic decorum.

But to this day the Times — despite some mild chiding from its public editor — remains complicit in the maintenance of this obscurity. And that complicity severely undermines the paper’s pretensions to objectivity. By refusing to “take sides” on a simple empirical matter, the editors of the Times have burdened their coverage with a distinct pro-authority bias. Because the important argument isn’t over whether or not the Bush administration authorized torture. It’s over whether the the definition of torture is really so ambiguous that you can even make the case that something as obviously barbaric as waterboarding doesn’t count.

In that argument, the Times has clearly taken a side.

[1] If you haven’t yet read Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the subject, please do so.

[2] My favorite half-assed euphemism is “tough treatment,” which sounds like it belongs in a Sunday Styles profile of CIA interrogators who make their detainees practice the violin for at least one hour a day and do SAT prep for two.

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