DADT and Legislating from the White House
November 10, 2010


Gay flag

Confession: At first I was sort of conflicted about Adam Serwer’s suggestion that the president repeal DADT by executive order.Obviously I recognize that the military’s policy of discriminating against its LGBT members and forcing them to live in secret is a monumental moral outrage. And I also recognize the harm done to national security by a law that demands the senseless ostracizing of capable and patriotic Americans.

So what gave me pause? Well, just two days ago I wrote a whole column decrying the imperial presidency. Like Gene Healy, I think it’s high time that we put an end to the executive branch’s practice of legislating when they don’t want to go through the legislature. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the notion that sweeping executive orders can be necessary in times of great urgency, but I don’t know the math for calculating that urgency threshold.

Lucky for us, Serwer addresses those concerns:

During the Bush years, liberals complained about his “imperial presidency,” and so the idea that Obama should simply end the policy by fiat would seem hypocritical. But the use of an executive order to end a policy a majority of Americans, including conservatives, want to end, is no more undemocratic than Republicans’ use of procedural maneuvers to thwart an up or down vote. Republicans holding the legislative process, and the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian servicemembers, hostage to their own homophobic prejudices, would still be the greater act of tyranny.

Here’s the thing: legislation by executive order needs to end. But it’s not a problem that exists in isolation. I would argue that a large part of the reason why the modern president is so powerful is because Congress has ceded him ground, both consciously and inadvertantly. They’ve done it consciously by passing legislative abominations like the PATRIOT Act, yes, but they’ve also done it by abiding by parliamentary rules and decorum (mostly in the Senate) that have paralyzed them on most weighty matters. The president has broad latitude to legislate in large part because the people who should be doing it aren’t.

That’s the case here. At this point, Congress should be able to repeal DADT. Were there not a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, they would have already. So in this case, I think an executive order is morally permissible — even required. As queasy as I am about the unitary executive, these are the rules of the game right now. There exist certain moral imperatives which we’re required to act on using any means those rules afford us.

If Obama takes Serwer’s advice, then we’ll come back to the issue of executive orders after he does so. But any attempt to limit the president’s power to set policy must be accompanied by an expansion of Congress’ ability to fill the void.

Crossposted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Letters to a Young Contrarian
November 8, 2010

Cover of "Letters to a Young Contrarian (...
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As deeply objectionable as I find Christopher Hitchens’ politics — and hoo boy, do I ever — I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to his more apolitical works. Say what you will about him, but the man is a tremendous writer and formidable thinker. And in Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I finished reading a few nights ago, I found myself sympathizing a little more with his worldview than I had before

I guess part of the reason why is that I’m sort of a reflexive contrarian myself. Ever since elementary school I’ve felt this pseudo-masochist (and, I must admit, more than a little arrogant) impulse towards disagreement with the people around me; towards solitude, towards black-sheepitude. It’s probably made me pretty insufferable at times, and I have no doubt that I let myself have a more difficult social experience growing up than was entirely necessary.

But Letters to a Young Contarian describes how that impulse can be guided in a useful direction. And I believe Hitchens is correct when he says that it can be. Of course, one should never object to the convention wisdom solely because it’s conventional wisdom; and by the same token, even the most reflexive contrarian should never believe himself or herself to be wholly immune to the seductive draw of the crowd. But there’s always something to be said for the individual who firmly believes that the arguments of his or her allies should be treated with just as much skepticism — if not more skepticism — as those of his or her opponents. No one can live by that credo all the time, and lord knows I stumble with alarming regularity, but it still seems like a worthwhile rule to live by.

If you feel the same way, you might want to give this book a shot. Maybe you, like me, will have moments where it feels like Hitchens is addressing you directly.

The Midterms
November 3, 2010

The first thing I did at work today was accidentally spill some hot coffee on myself. That felt pretty much the whole way the previous evening did: briefly unpleasant, but not as bad as it could have been, all things considered. The biggest problem was having to live with the consequences for awhile afterwards.

You won’t hear me say this often, but I’m going to say it now: Look on the bright side. Sharron Angle, easily the most deranged Senate candidate in a good long time, did not make it. I have never been, and will never be again, this happy to see Harry Reid on my television. And while Prop 19 did not pass, surely the fact that its existence was more than a late night punch line suggests that time is on the side of the anti-prohibitionists.

And while the Tea Party had a pretty good night, there’s another silver lining there. The two sides of the Republican Party have been sniping at one another for at least the past week, and I predict more internecine strife to come. If the GOP leadership’s pact with the extreme right proves unsustainable, then that bodes well for the future of some sort of sanity.

Question for Comparative Politics Majors
October 21, 2010

M Street in Georgetown Washington DC
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Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how peculiar DC is compared to the capitals of a lot of other developed or developing countries. See if you can tell which one of these things is not like the other:

  • Washington, DC
  • Tokyo
  • London
  • Paris
  • Moscow
  • Berlin
  • Delhi
  • Beijing
  • Jerusalem
  • Riyadh
  • Prague
  • Buenos Aires
  • Copenhagen
  • Cairo
  • Tehran


All of these cities are not just political capitals, but also major cultural and economic centers in their respective countries. Not so with DC. Granted, there are plenty of countries like that, but the more I think about it, the more it just seems damned odd to me. Surely it must have some kind of impact on the political culture as well. The question is: like what?

New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

September 26, 2010

Washington dc
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Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.

The Art of the Religious Narrative
September 24, 2010

Via Alyssa, here’s a trailer for “the Christian Movie Event of the Year,” whose chief selling point seems to be how it effortlessly fuses self-righteous didacticism with the wooden, dull-eyed imitation of life we normally associate with the walking dead:

This is really the latest offering in a whole cottage industry of truly artless, half-assed religious propaganda. Of course these heavy-handed conversion narratives are nothing new—nor are they limited to Christianity, or even religion—but this specific subset of evangelical porn truly is a trend unto itself. A trend starting, I think, with the Left Behind series, and branching out into Twilight (which, to be fair, is a good deal more subtle about it) and less well-known works like Fireproof.

There’s a lot you can blame for the general suckitude of this subgenre—semi-comatose actors, cheap production values and so on—but I think the fatal flaw here is that the whole enterprise is misguided. You simply can’t craft a compelling narrative based around a central philosophical question—Should we let Jesus Christ into our hearts?—when you’re already so thoroughly persuaded of the answer that you can’t even come up with any reasonable objections.

Take the above trailer as an example. The protagonist seems to have no dilemma whatsoever: everyone around him confirms that God exists and is awesome, and the big guy Himself conspires to align everything so that conversion to Christianity is the best possible choice. No cost, all reward. That’s propaganda, not art.

It’s a bummer, because we know for a fact that deeply religious narrative art can be done well. Example A: Dostoevsky, arguably history’s greatest practitioner of the philosophical novel. Crime and Punishment ends with Raskolnikov finding spiritual salvation, but the road he takes to get there goes through some dark, unabashedly nihilistic territory. And Dostoevsky takes that nihilism seriously. Raskolnikov’s initial worldview is twisted, to be sure, but it’s also coherent and strangely compelling.

(Another good example, also courtesy of Alyssa: In Paradise Lost, Satan is pretty much the most interesting and sympathetic character in the whole damn poem. Milton’s no Satanist, but he cares enough to show us why the Lord of Darkness might feel like he has a legitimate beef with the Lord.)

For a more contemporary example of how to do this stuff correctly, look at the TV show Kings, a prematurely cancelled revisionist take on King David’s rise to power. In the show, God is inscrutable, demanding, and seemingly morally ambiguous. Though of course we know that He’s going to be revealed as right in the end—He’s God, after all—we also understand why King Silas, long His faithful servant, struggles with the urge to fight back against His divine will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silas ends up being a far more compelling character than David, the show’s ostensible protagonist. (Though that could also have a lot to do with the fact that Silas is played by Ian fucking McShane.)

The irony is that where Left Behind and its spawn fail—and Dostoevsky and Kings succeed—the Bible succeeds as well. Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross. Abraham is told to murder his own son, and later actually negotiates with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Jacob—the founder of the tribe of the Israelites—is named Yis’rael, or He Who Wrestles With God.

What makes these stories compelling isn’t that they involved square-jawed men doing the will of an infallible being. It’s that the heroes, before they carry out God’s will, must first struggle with epic spiritual questions that A) do not have easy answers and B) have unimaginably high stakes. As an admitted outsider, I have way more respect for the long, hard, seemingly endless road to spiritual peace than the quick and easy medicine with a spoonful of sugar. It’s more honest, it’s more nuanced and interesting, and, most of all, it makes for a way better story.

“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a news sati...
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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

Down the DC Rabbit Hole
September 13, 2010

Thanks to this latest contribution to the ongoing online discussion on what political journalism could learn from political science, I spent some of my train ride back from DC (where I spent the weekend looking at apartments) reading this fantastic essay on the 1988 campaign by Joan Didion. I’ve been meaning to dig into Didion’s work for a while now, and it turns out that this was a particularly good place to start.

Didion wrote this essay from the perspective of a political outsider immersing herself in the life of The Process. She renders politics as an insular, arcane observance with its own set of rituals, carefully observed conventions and hierarchies that are both chillingly alien and wholly irrelevant to those standing outside it. While much has changed in the 22 years since she penned “Insider Baseball,” I think the basic substance of that criticism has not.

In about two weeks, I will be living in that world. I’ve been preparing myself for that possibility since high school, and it’s true that in some ways I’m already a part of it—or, at the very least, a compulsive observer of it. But soon I will be living in America’s (indeed, the world’s) political capital, working full-time in political research and communications, socializing in my free time with political journalists, operatives, Hill staffers and other people who have devoted their careers to The Process.

I don’t know if the sensation of strangeness that comes with that knowledge will ever wear off, but I hope it doesn’t. It clearly does for a lot of people—and these are the ones who think The Process consists of unyielding physical law. Didion rightfully argues that the opposite is true: these laws and tribal codes are really deeply idiosyncratic ideological propositions. You can’t engage with them without having them warp your perspective to some degree. Of course, no one’s perspective is more ideologically warped than he who takes his position to be fundamentally non-ideological.

I don’t write this as an endorsement of the “Real America” fallacy—the idea that political outsiders alone are uniquely qualified to evaluate what occurs in the political process because they stand apart from it and are therefore objective. I’m not a fan, by any means, of newspaper columnists who think the best way to address complex policy problems is through interviewing random cab drivers named Joe. Rather, I think the lesson here is that human subjectivity is ubiquitous and overwhelming. This is hardest to see when you’re embedded in a world like DC, with its robust and convoluted internal logic and mythology; but losing sight of it means failing to meet some of the fundamental ethical obligations of the career I’ve chosen. My ability to grow as a political commentator and observer depends largely on how well I can engage and participate in this culture while recognizing both its subjectivity and its oddness.

September 3, 2010

Some quick news and updates:

1.) Later this month, I’ll be moving to Washington DC to become a researcher at Media Matters For America. Obviously everything at this blog will continue to solely reflect my own views, and not those of my employer.

Incidentally, this means I need to find an apartment in DC or Northern VA in the next couple of weeks or so. So if anyone has any advice/leads, that would be much appreciated.

2.) Nietzsche blogging is not dead! I know I’ve been slacking off on the blogging part, but in the meantime I’ve been plowing my way through Part 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and I’ll have some thoughts on what I’ve gotten out of it so far up pretty soon.

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